Games 10/27/09: Borderlands, Afrika, Forza Motorsport 3, Axel & Pixel

Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Gearbox Software/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, mature humor, strong language)

If “Fallout 3” represented the courtship phase in the inevitable marriage of role-playing games and first-person shooters, then “Borderlands” marks the co-habitation period. There are some messy revelations that weren’t apparent before and will need addressing in the future, but for right now, the net effect is pretty nice.

The changing tide is apparent almost immediately: Following a brief storyline introduction that doubles as a tutorial, “Borderlands” drops you into a gameplay flow that’s more indicative of a massively multiplayer RPG than a first-person shooter. Different spots on the map post missions, and you’re free to simultaneously take on as many as are available. A few of them trigger storyline advancements, but most (even those central to the story) offer little more than some dialogue text inside the mission info screen.

“Borderlands” lets you experience the story alone, with up to three friends online or via LAN, with a friend via splitscreen, or any combination of the three at any point, and the storyline structure remains consistent regardless. The game isn’t lacking for personality: The frontier setting is home to some wonderfully seedy characters and a darkly funny sense of humor, and the cel-shaded graphical style looks terrific and lends a great sense of irony to all the dark inhumanity it paints in vivid color. But those searching for some engaging storytelling will find no such thing.

The real goal here — in true MMO or “Diablo” fashion — is to kill nearly everything that moves, rack up experience points and level up your character so he or she has access to the game’s ridiculous assortment of armaments and mods. “Borderlands” absolutely nails the leveling system: The character class upgrades are endlessly useful, the weaponry mods often wonderfully clever. And because weapon upgrades apply to entire classes of guns rather than specific weapons, you can apply them liberally without fear of wasting cash or having to stick with old weapons when better ones come along.

Better ones do come along, too — and often. In true “Diablo” fashion, “Borderlands” goes absolutely crazy with just about every first-person shooter weapon staple, mixing and matching fire modes and gifting rarer guns with powers that typically are the domain of superheroes. Precious few games can entice a player to ditch a rocket launcher in favor of a pistol that packs more punch, but “Borderlands” can and regularly does — until, of course, an even crazier rocket launcher comes along.

All of this and more lies in store … eventually. The sum total of “Borderlands'” main and side quests amount to a massively long adventure, and the first five or so hours of that experience have you fighting waves of scags (think giant rats) and dimwitted barbarians who lack any artificial intelligence whatsoever. It’s dull with friends, and it’s even worse alone. Just keep at it: The A.I. never reaches Mensa country, but it does improve exponentially, working in tandem with all those perks and weapons to make “Borderlands” a much more enthralling shooter than it first appears to be.


For: Playstation 3
From: Sony/Natsume
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild blood, mild violence)

There are two Africas in the video game world — the one, seen in “Far Cry 2,” in which every living being is a hostile target, and now this one, where the only thing you shoot is photographs.

If you can appreciate the unique skill set that comes with that activity — and, just as importantly, put up with a slow start and some presentational issues — this isn’t a bad place to be.

It’s best to start with what ills “Afrika,” because the game dishes it straight away. “Afrika’s” long development cycle is well-documented, and the game shares markings — a mandatory install procedure, an enormous save file that takes forever to access — indicative of games from the console’s early days. Even with the installation, though, “Afrika” succumbs to an enormously long load time every time it first boots up.

All signs point to inefficient coding: “Afrika” still looks great but no longer drops jaws like it did during its 2006 unveiling, and there’s nothing so flashy about the presentation (which lacks even voice acting) to justify these issues.

But these amount to the game’s most pressing problems. And once you begin the act of actually playing “Afrika,” they really don’t register.

Your virtual e-mail is your master in “Afrika,” and from it you’ll receive assignments to shoot animals from specific angles and during specific acts and poses. Completing each assignment consists of getting the shot your clients want, but your payout depends on how good the shot looks in terms of proximity and technique.

“Afrika’s” restrictive early going has you riding in the back of the Jeep rather than driving it yourself, and your guide dictates which areas you can shoot. It takes a few sessions before the game doles out more than one assignment at a time, which means you’ll ride out, complete one objective, ride back and repeat a few times.

This, presumably, is a good time to get to know “Afrika’s” control scheme, which is hampered only by the lack of an invert-Y option for those who want one.

The camera controls are straightforward — sticks control aim and zoom, R1 shoots — and responsive enough to handle quick bursts of shots. (In a nice touch, turning the controller sideways does the same for the camera lens, allowing you to shoot vertically.) Action outside the first-person viewfinder takes place in the third person: You can walk freely around the environment, and the D-pad allows for crouching and leaning as needed to sneak an ideal shot.

Once the game takes the kid gloves off and hands you the keys to the Jeep and the kingdom, the experience lives up to the promise. “Afrika’s” virtual world feels dynamic and alive thanks to the animals’ eerily authentic behavioral animations, and the lack of artistic restriction (especially once you upgrade your equipment) frees you to shoot at your leisure whether on assignment or not. “Afrika” lets you export your favorite shots as JPEG files from the main menu, so you can enjoy and share your virtual photograhic exploits just as you would your real ones.


Forza Motorsport 3
For: Xbox 360
From: Turn 10/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild lyrics)

The best thing one could hope for from “Forza Motorsport 3” is that it makes its predecessor look like a dress rehearsal by comparison. Pixel-perfect racing sims don’t have the freedom to reinvent themselves at will the way arcade racers can, and a huge chunk of “FM3” — the real-world cars (now more than 400 from 50 manufacturers), the real-world tracks (more than 100), and the things you can do with those cars on those tracks — offers about as much creative liberty to Turn 10 Studios as the game of football allows to any given iteration of “Madden.”

It doesn’t help matters that “Forza Motorsport 2,” released little more than two years ago, already was something of a stroke of brilliance in its own right.

With all that said, Turn 10 does a nice job — albeit a mostly risk-free one — of making “FM3” both a roundly better experience for those who ran its predecessor ragged and a considerably friendlier one for the those intrigued by the game’s content but intimidated by its learning curve.

At its highest difficulty settings, “FM3” is as much a beast as ever, and the new in-car view presents a whole new (and wholly rewarding) difficulty curve for “Forza” pros to climb.

But the other end of the difficulty pendulum is brimming with hand-holding enticements — an effective suite of turn lines and physics assists, but also a rewind button players can use as they please to literally rewind part of a race and correct a mistake on the fly and without limit nor consequence. The rewind button feels like a dirt-under-the-carpet solution to “Forza’s” imposing difficulty to newcomers, but those who want nothing to do with it can disable it and pretend it never existed. “FM3,” for its part, rewards players who race at higher difficulty settings with more experience points and monetary compensation whenever they complete a race in the season mode.

Speaking of, “FM3” undergoes a welcome single-player makeover by designing your seasonal race schedule around your vehicle preferences rather than obligating you to compete in races that force you to stock your garage with cars you may not want. The game’s personalization options are as vast as they were in “FM2,” which became more famous for its design tools than its on-track component, and it’s nice to be able to stick with a favorite car and continue tweaking and tuning it for the entirety of the mode’s lifespan. (For the amateurs, good news: “FM3” has a Quick Upgrade option if you want some say in your car’s performance but don’t wish to delve too deep into the particulars.)

“FM2’s” suite of online features — traditional races, non-traditional races, and especially the ability to “sell” designs for in-game cash — was its crown jewel, and “FM3” doesn’t mess with perfection. Designers now have a sales leaderboard of their own, which is a simple but ingenious nod to that movement, and a pretty extensive rules editor allows players to rather explicitly design races around criteria of their choosing.


Axel & Pixel
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Silver Wish/2K Play
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, crude humor)
Price: $10

We’re waist-deep in a 2D gaming renaissance that has seen character animation reach Disneyesque levels, so it’s an ironic kind of pleasant to experience “Axel & Pixel,” which magnificently bucks that trend by acting as if the 1970s never ended. “Pixel” operates primarily as a point-and-click adventure game, and it follows the rules of the genre — explore the scene and figure out what objects and cause-and-effect relationships will get Axel and his trusty dog Pixel to the next area — pretty faithfully. The control scheme and cursor design feel tuned to accommodate a gamepad, making the lack of a mouse a non-issue, and occasionally “Pixel” interrupts the storyline with a more action-heavy mini-game that uses the controller to full effect. (Three of the mini-games are playable as standalone modes with additional levels and leaderboards, and one of them — a physics-heavy dune buggy platformer — arguably is the best part of the entire package.) The sum of these parts would be nice in any clothing, but “Pixel” knocks it out of the charm park by taking two very likable leads and dressing their world in a visual and animation style that feels like a product of the same pen Terry Gilliam used for all those wonderful “Monty Python” animations. It’s weird, but it works, and it elevates “Pixel” from just another fun point-and-click adventure to a class all its own.

DVD 10/27/09: Battlestar Galactica: The Plan, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Medicine for Melancholy, Nothing Like the Holidays, Soldiers of Conscience, Life After People S1, Adult Swim in a Box, A&E/History Channel Series Sets

Battlestar Galactica: The Plan (NR, 2009, Universal)
With all due respect to the curious general public, this one is strictly for the fans. “Battlestar Galactica: The Plan” takes it from the top of the show’s first season, retelling the events and aftermath of the Cylon invasion from the viewpoint of the Cylons instead of those aboard Galactica. But while “The Plan” basically goes where it already has been, it does so under the assumption that those watching have taken the same trip. More than merely look at old footage from new angles, “The Plan” uses information revealed in later seasons to add extra color to events and exchanges that played out earlier on. That translates into some terrific pieces of fan service, including entire storyline threads devoted to characters whose origins and existences weren’t in question or even known during the show’s earlier seasons. If you know enough to follow along, that translates into a fun trip through “Galactica” history. But if this is your first “Galactica” experience, save it: “The Plan” occasionally charges into a major timeline event without setting it up or fully explaining why it happened, and if you didn’t already experience the long form version during the show’s run, you’re bound to be lost here. Best to experience the show first and return to this later.
Extras: Writer/Director commentary (Edward James Olmos, who plays William Adama on the show, directed), deleted scenes, four behind-the-scenes features.

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (PG, 2009, Fox)
Unless you have just now yourself woken up from the last ice age, you probably can sort of guess how this goes. And really, there’s nothing wrong with that. “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” continues the prehistoric adventures of Sid (sloth), Diego (saber-toothed tiger), Manny (woolly mammoth), Ellie (same) and Scrat (squirrel). This time, as the title implies, they have a new species with which to contend. But “Dinosaurs” also has its share of subplots: Manny and Ellie are starting a family, Diego is contemplating a return to his predatory ways, and Scrat is, as usual, trying desperately to hoard an acorn. The familiarity works to the film’s credit, because the first two “Ice Age” movies already did the hard work of turning what otherwise is a group of archetypes into a comfortably likable bunch of characters. “Dinosaurs” does its part with a few new faces of its own, including the aforementioned dinosaurs and a fantastically affable eye-patched weasel named Buck. Like the first two movies, “Dinosaurs” struggles to stretch its storylines around a feature-length runtime, occasionally opting for action scene overload and sometimes halting entirely for the sake of a gag the writers couldn’t fathom leaving behind. But all that aforementioned likability carries the script when it needs help, and per series tradition, “Dinosaurs” is pleasant to look at no matter what’s taking place.
Extras: New Scrat short, four Scrat features (including a drawing tutorial), four other behind-the-scenes features, Scrat pinball DVD game, music video (featuring, of course, an appearance from Scrat).

Medicine for Melancholy (NR, 2008, IFC/MPI)
As the sun rises on “Medicine for Melancholy,” we’re introduced to Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Angela (Tracey Heggins). And once they wipe the cobwebs from their eyes, get a glimpse of their surroundings and get over the initial surprise/regret/[insert gut reaction here] that greets two people facing the harsh light of day following a one-night stand, Micah and Angela have a chance to make their own introductions to each other. Or not. The next 24 hours — the key moments of which we’re privy to during “Melancholy’s” 88 minutes — will be crucial. The vast comic potential of the awkward morning after has been exploited many times over in film and television, but “Melancholy” opts instead for a low-key, low-concept approach that, in addition to striving for authenticity, presents all manner of opportunity to get to know both characters on a level few movies have time to do. It capitalizes on that opportunity and, working with a nearly monochromatic color palette, looks very good doing so. But with all that said, if you’re the type who despises movies that sometimes stand still or use tangential dialogue rather than full-speed-ahead plot development to tell its story, consider this your warning to turn back. The day after sometimes has copious amounts of both, and “Melancholy,” consequently, does as well.
Extra: Director interview.

Nothing Like the Holidays (PG-13, 2008, Overture/Anchor Bay)
Pick a storyline, any storyline: Chances are, if you’ve seen it in an ensemble family comedy/drama before, you’ll see some variation of it in “Nothing Like the Holidays,” which brings the whole Rodriguez family home to Chicago for what, intentionally or otherwise, becomes a holiday to remember. There’s the struggling actress (Vanessa Ferlito). There’s the homecoming soldier (Freddy Rodríguez). There are the parents (Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Peña) with separate secrets that inevitably spill out. Lost loves, homewrecking workaholism, attempts to keep ugly pasts in the past — “Holidays” has it all. So it’s to the movie’s arguably amazing credit that it neither collapses under the weight of so many storylines nor lets an intrusion of heavy-handedness turn the whole thing into a humongous downer. “Holidays” doesn’t trivialize its situations, and at least one storyline feels unnecessarily wedged in for no useful reason. But at no point does it lose sight of the good humor that accompanies it from the start, and that spirit, working in tandem with a smart and consistently funny script, is infectious. The Rodriguezes have a lot of fixing to do, but it’s pretty apparent why it’s work worth doing, and “Holidays” makes it fun to root them on. John Leguizamo, Debra Messing, Jay Hernandez, Melonie Diaz and the perennially underrated Luis Guzmán also star.
Extras: Director/Producers commentary, cast reunion, bloopers.

Soldiers of Conscience (NR, 2007, Docurama)
There seems to be a conventional train of thought suggesting that because soldiers are trained to kill, it’s somehow easier for them to actually do so. But as “Soldiers of Conscience” argues, who is anybody to assume who hasn’t actually been in those shoes? The points made in “Conscience” — that soldiers aren’t capable of toggling their ingrained senses of normalcy and humanity on and off at will with any less difficulty than the rest of us — are by no means new ideas in year seven of what presumably is the most documented war of all time. Some soldiers fight in spite of their beliefs about the war, while others choose not to even let it come to that. Ho hum, right? But “Conscience,” as any good story about the conflict should at this point, steps aside and lets a handful of soldiers do just about all of the talking, and their personal accounts respective to their diverse backgrounds and beliefs put some powerful faces to the otherwise familiar talking points.
Extra: Half hour of bonus footage.

Worth a Mention
— “Life After People: The Series: The Complete Season One” (NR, 2009, History): The entertaining what-if special becomes a series of similarly entertaining what-if episodes exploring what would happen if Earth rid itself of every last human being. Each episode takes on a topic, ranging from a rat kingdom that erupts in Las Vegas to the inconvenient matter of what happens to all those bodies. They have to go somewhere. Includes 10 episodes, no extras.
— “Adult Swim in a Box” (NR, Cartoon Network): Both a sampler and a celebration, the 12-disc “Adult Swim in a Box” contains select seasons from six Adult Swim shows — “Robot Chicken,” “Metalocalypse,” “Sealab 2021,” “Space Ghost: Coast to Coast,” “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” and “Moral Orel” — and all the extras that shipped with each DVD set’s respective initial release. But Adult Swim completists should be most concerned about the 12th disc, which contains unreleased pilot episodes of five other shows: “Cheyenne Cinnamon and the Fantabulous Unicorn of Sugar Town Candy Fudge,” “The Best of Totally for Teens,” “Korgoth of Barbaria,” “Perfect Hair Forever” and “Welcome to Etingville.”
— A&E complete series sets for the spatially conscious: New, slimmer versions of the massive “Homicide: Life on the Street” (35 DVDs) and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” (42 DVDs) series sets are now available, while “The Prisoner” makes its Blu-ray debut in a very portable five-disc set. The complete series run of “Dogfights,” from A&E sibling History, also is available in a reasonably-sized 12-disc set.

Games 10/20/09: Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, Saw, Deca Sports 2

Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story
For: Nintendo DS
From: AlphaDream/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)

“Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story” is, in a few words, a whole lot more of the same stuff that comprised the first two “Mario & Luigi” games.

And that, frankly, is perfectly fine. AlphaDream’s “Mario & Luigi” games are practically a genre unto themselves with the way they infuse traditional role-playing game conventions with an extensively satisfying element of action, and it’s hard to object to another chapter of what has emerged as the funniest and smartest piece of storytelling ever to emerge from Nintendo’s extensive library.

The basic crux of “Story” should ring familiar to “Mario & Luigi” vets. You control Mario and Luigi at the same time, and most of the action outside of battle consists of helping the brothers get from story point to story point through a mix of puzzle solving and traditional “Super Mario”-style platforming.

The game’s battle system obeys the same rules as a traditional turn-based role-playing game, but most of the attacks, dodges and counterattacks play out in real time like a traditional action game. Every enemy has a tell, and every attack — be it the classic jump attack or a tag-team maneuver involving both brothers — has an extra measure of effectiveness if you time its execution perfectly. Figuring the ins and outs of all this stuff is, once again, a ton of fun.

“Story,” for its part, raises the series bar in both the gameplay and storytelling departments by giving the brothers’ arch nemesis a share of the starring role. Bowser exists in two forms — as a third playable character and, as the title implies and the blissfully absurd story explains, a living dungeon — and both roles inject the game with far more freshness than appearances would otherwise suggest.

For starters, Bowser has his own bull-in-china-shop style of getting around, which lends new dimensions to the action that plays out between battles. His brutish fighting style naturally gives way to a wholly unique set of combat tactics, including some brilliant touch screen tricks in which he can mobilize Goombas and other minions to do his bidding. The trajectory of the storyline has the brothers working in tandem with Bowser, and the game comes up with some pretty clever ways (no spoilers) to have them work together despite being at odds and in wholly different places and predicaments.

But Bowser’s most memorable contribution to “Story” may be to its story, which ranks among the sharpest and most infectiously funny sagas to grace a game all year. “Mario & Luigi” games have never been hurting for great characters and fantastic dialogue, but Bowser’s crabby, perennially confused but deliriously proud turn here is pure gold from start to finish. “Story” occasionally gets a little too wordy for its own good — especially when it comes to detailing the game’s basics to players who already know what to do — but when there’s so much good stuff to experience, a few dry bits are more than acceptable.


For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Zombie Studios/Konami
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, strong language)

Say this for “Saw’s” video game debut: Be it on purpose or by accident, it pretty bluntly captures (as best a video game can, anyway) what it must feel like to find yourself trapped inside one of the Jigsaw Killer’s traps.

Mostly, that’s to the game’s credit. From the very first moment “Saw” cedes control to the player, you’re trapped inside a puzzle, and the only assistance the game provides is a simple overview of the basic controls. The puzzle isn’t exactly a mindbender, but it is smarter than your typical “hit switch to open door,” and it’s awfully nice to see the game respect its audience’s intelligence and expect players to figure their way out without help.

That’s a trend that continues throughout the entirety of the game, culminating in some tough end-mission brainteasers that have you racing the clock while a person you need to save screams in your ear to hurry up. Those with fragile nerves will find them frayed not only by these moments, but also by a series of other timed challenges in which you need to escape a room before a trap goes off and kills you. In later levels, “Saw” has no issue stringing several of these challenges in exhaustive succession.

But that’s not all — and not necessarily because Zombie Studios intended to compound your character’s misery. As the storyline explains, there are a number of people who need you dead so they may live, and “Saw’s” awkward movement controls and downright clumsy combat controls most certainly give those poor souls a fighting chance.

“Saw” partially circumvents this issue by giving you some nice abilities with regard to barricading enemies off and even luring them, “Bioshock”-style, into some traps of your own. But those same traps — which kill instantly — also work on you, and some of them are easy to spot only if you tiptoe the whole way through. “Saw” occasionally has the gumption to place one of these pitfalls right near the next checkpoint. Passing through a meaty stretch of the game only to miss a single tripwire, die instantly and start over is about as cheaply unsatisfying as it sounds, and if you’re the impatient sort, it’ll drive you crazy the more it happens.

When all these aspects — time limits, easy-to-miss traps, voices in your ear, your two left feet — work in tandem, “Saw” feels like an exercise in sanity awareness more than a video game.

But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Playing “Saw” isn’t intended as a form of feel-good escapism: It’s supposed to frighten you, stress you out and propel you into a continuous state of unease. Be it though great ideas or occasionally though incompetent design, that’s a task at which this game absolutely succeeds.


Deca Sports 2
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Hudson
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Last year’s “Deca Sports” was one of the more fortuitous benefactors of the Great Wii Mini-game Compilation Gold Rush, so don’t look so surprised to see a sequel turned around so quickly and in time for the similarly fortuitous holiday gold rush.

“Deca Sports 2,” like its predecessor, tries to ape and outdo the “Wii Sports” model by cramming 10 different sports onto the same disc. Though some selections bear a close resemblance to the first game’s sports, the 10 picks — ice hockey, tennis, kendo, petanque, mogul skiing, speed skating, motorcycle racing, darts, synchronized swimming and dodgeball — are, at least technically speaking, all new.

Some of the game’s problems, however, are not. Like the first game, “DS2” doesn’t let you play as your Mii character. A simple team/character-editing function lets you design a facsimile, but part of what makes the “Wii Sports” games so personable is the chance that one of your friends’ or family’s Mii characters might make a surprise appearance on the opposing team.

More problematic is game’s inability to capitalize on the new Wii MotionPlus peripheral, which gave the sports in “Wii Sports Resort” a level of control precision the original “Wii Sports” couldn’t even imagine. Some of the sports in “DS2” — particularly petanque, which you might better recognize as bocce — demand a soft touch that just isn’t possible here. It’s still playable — unlike darts, which just feels broken — but it could have been “DS2’s” sleeper surprise if it afforded players the kind of control the MotionPlus makes possible.

Most of “DS2’s” other selections don’t suffer as much, but that’s primarily due to the fact that they don’t really benefit from motion controls in the first place. Ice hockey and dodgeball are fun (if sometimes factually suspect) interpretations of their respective sports, but there’s no reason the actions caused by generic flicks of the Wii remote wouldn’t have worked just fine (and perhaps better) as button presses.

That goes as well for some of “DS2’s” more oddball picks — synchronized swimming, speed skating, mogul skiing — which use rhythm game conventions to interesting effect but demand more speed and responsiveness than the Wii remote can realistically provide.

Only kendo and motorcycle racing — which has players hold the remote sideways and steer with it — seem to employ motion controls with tangible benefits. Tennis has obvious benefits too, but “DS2’s” take on the sport can’t even match what Nintendo did three years ago, to say nothing of what EA pulled off in “Grand Slam Tennis.”

In the end, “DS2” feels a whole lot like its predecessor — about $10 too expensive even at its budget $30 price, and detrimentally concerned with providing quantity over quality. As always, there’s fun to be had when others are part of the equation, and “DS2” does provide some kind of local multiplayer component for each sport. (Ice hockey, tennis and dodgeball also work online, but only time will tell if a community develops around the game’s serviceable online multiplayer component.)

Games 10/13/09: Brütal Legend, Tornado Outbreak, iBlast Moki

Brütal Legend
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Double Fine Productions/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language, suggestive themes)

Everything Tim Schafer fans expect from a Tim Schafer-produced project is all over the entirety of his latest offering, which almost certainly will emerge as the consensus choice for 2009’s best-written video game. “Brütal Legend” is a both a send-up of and a heart-on-sleeve tribute to the world from which heavy metal videos and fantasies are made, and every piece of its presentational puzzle — from casting to voice acting to character animation to the sharply funny script that ties it all together — could scarcely wish for a better treatment than this.

As a nice bonus, the actual game portion of “Legend,” while not quite as spotless, is pretty excellent as well.

“Legend’s” gameplay begins in earnest as a fairly simple third-person action game from the “Ninja Gaiden” school of combat. You have a few basic attacks, and your task is to mash away while enemies rush you and the game’s script explains exactly why you, a simple roadie only moments earlier, are suddenly fighting a demonic horde.

Gradually, though, “Legend” layers up. The straightforward action game quickly gives way to an open-world adventure, complete with side missions and miles of discoverable landscape. Completing optional missions and unearthing discoveries awards you currency, which you can use to expand your abilities and tinker your hot rod. You can summon your car from anywhere at any time via the game’s brilliant spell-casting mechanic, which doubles as a miniature rhythm game.

“Legend” appears to peak once it gives you some minions and a small handful of basic squad management commands with which to maneuver them, but it ups the ante even further when it tacks on a real-time strategy component that has you managing an army of different units while also protecting your base, cultivating supplies and fighting on the ground. (“Legend” repackages this component as a terrifically frantic four-on-four online multiplayer component as well.)

That “Legend” manages to map all of these things to a control pad is remarkable, but especially so when it becomes apparent how easy it is to fight, lead a squad, cast a spell and manage troops almost simultaneously and without any need to pause the game.

The same can’t always be said for the game’s difficulty balancing, which occasionally falls completely out of whack during the most intense of these strategy missions. Enemies spawn at an alarming rate, and a failure to take a commanding advantage early on either devolves into an endlessly long battle of attraction in which defeat seems inevitable. It isn’t fun when this happens once, and having to repeat a fight only amplifies the frustration.

But those moments are rare, and they provide the only real blight on what otherwise is an exceptional example of how to take on multiple genres, do them proud, and tell a terrific story in the process. Schafer fans have every reason to be delighted yet again, but you need not know word one about the man to savor what he’s done here.


Tornado Outbreak
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii
From: Loose Cannon Studios/Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)

The technology is there, and the desire has been there since “SimCity” let armchair mayors destroy their own cities with natural disasters. So it’s a bit surprising that we had to wait this long for a game that lets us be a tornado and tear all that lay before us to smithereens.

At its core, and during its most satisfying moments, that’s precisely what “Tornado Outbreak” does. Each level starts you out as a tiny twister that’s no larger than a traffic cone. As you pick up smaller items, your funnel cloud grows, and the bigger you get, the larger the objects (or, in some cases, people) you can swoop up. Before long, you’re free to carve through entire buildings like they’re made of cotton.

“Outbreak’s” gameplay sensibilities borrow heavily from those of “Katamari Damacy,” and the satisfaction of engulfing a world that dwarfed you only moments earlier is similarly pronounced. The cartoony graphical style would seem to hamper the game’s ability to satisfactorily illustrate the full destructive might of a tornado, but it does so only slightly.

“Outbreak” justifies the act of wrecking cities, parks and carnivals with a storyline that attempts to spin the exercise off as beneficial to the planet. It’s absurd, but the game actually makes it work by designing some likable characters and supplying them with a startlingly good voice cast. That, in turn, allows it to rationalize boss fights and other challenges that add variety to the general wreckage levels.

“Outbreak” takes another page from “Damacy” by implementing conditions and time limits in those wreckage levels. Though it’d be fun if the game occasionally removed the clock and let you ravage a level at your leisure, the time limit does add the kind of challenge needed to keep the experience interesting past the novelty stage. “Outbreak” doesn’t employ constrictive conditions, so the freedom to run wild doesn’t go away.

Perhaps predictably, “Outbreak’s” chief hang-ups also come straight out of “Damacy’s” complaint box.

The camera is better here than in “Damacy,” but it still struggles to accommodate a gameplay scale that changes quickly and dramatically. It’s easy for your own tornadic magnificence to block your sightlines, which can create problems when precise movements are needed. It also makes it harder than necessary to spot each level’s goal marker, which you need to reach before time runs out. “Outbreak” wants you to find the goal yourself while traversing the level, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating when you complete the mission but still fail a level because you spent a minute searching fruitlessly for the exit.

Like “Damacy,” though, “Outbreak” is strangely enjoyable in spite of its aggravations, and it satisfies that destructive yearning in a family-friendly way. (That’s doubly true if you bring along a friend for some two-player splitscreen co-op.) The price is right, too: “Outbreak” lacks the pizzazz of your typical $60 game, but there’s more than enough content here to justify the $40 tag.


iBlast Moki
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Godzilab
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $1

Some games are a better fit than others for the iPhone’s particular capabilities and shortcomings, but few feel quite as tailor-made as “iBlast Moki.” The goal in “Moki” is to help a group of cute, gumdrop-like characters (the Mokis) reach the goal circle in each level. To do that, you need to place bombs around the level, time their charges, and ignite a chain reaction that propels the Mokis past whatever obstacles stand in their way. The degree of problem solving needed to finish each level (and, if you’re ambitious, nab a gold-medal time) makes “Moki” a great little puzzle game in its own right. But the method by which the game measures your score — the clock doesn’t start ticking until after you’ve set everything up and started the chain reaction — means you don’t have to frantically fight with the iPhone’s imperfect touch controls. Everything about “Moki” is pleasant, in fact: It’s easy on the eyes and ears, and if you’re not happy with your score on a level, you can tweak your arrangement instantly and repeatedly until you are. “Moki” arrives with more than 70 levels inside, features a shockingly robust level editor, and supports the Plus+ social network system. For a single dollar, it’s a ludicrous value.

DVD 10/13/09: Adoration, The Proposal, Drag Me to Hell, Aussie & Ted's Great Adventure, The Objective, The Killing Room, The Stepfather (1987), Jackass: The Lost Tapes, Marvel Animation: 6 Film Set

Adoration (R, 2008, Sony Pictures Classics)
To delve too much into an explanation of where “Adoration” is headed would be to ruin some of the fun that comes from actually watching it. So let’s not do that, shall we? “Adoration” kicks off with a high school boy (Devon Bostick as Simon) delivering an essay to his class about what it means to be the son of the man who nearly committed the greatest act of terrorism of his time. From there, it splits not only into two chronologies — one featuring Simon’s parents (Rachel Blanchard, Noam Jenkins) on the eve of the events detailed in the essay, and one following Simon’s present-day fallout as the essay morphs from classroom exercise to chat room and virtual town hall discussion fodder — but almost two films as well. There’s a persistent current of dialogue in which “Adoration’s” characters weigh the means, methods and justifications not only of the parents’ actions, but Simon’s ability to accept them and even embrace them. But none of that would be worth much without a story to tell, and it’s in this department where the film really shines. Unfortunately, specifying exactly why that is so would result in a spoilerific mess. So for purposes of this review, the tired “not everything is what it seems” tag will have to suffice. Arsinée Khanjian, Scott Speedman and Kenneth Welsh also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, writer/director interview.

The Proposal: Deluxe Edition (PG-13, 2009, Touchstone)
Say, have we been here before? Because it feels like we have. Margaret (Sandra Bullock) is a stone-hearted editor who strikes fear into her feeble employees. Andrew (Ryan Reynolds) is the underling in search of a promotion and perhaps a publishing deal if only Margaret would just take five minutes to look at his manuscript. Margaret is Canadian and in danger of losing her job after her work visa expires. Andrew is single. Margaret is single! So bring on yet another story about a sham wedding between two people who hate each other but, inevitably, will discover how much they have in common once they’re forced to be around each other. It’s a cliché sonic boom! So it’s really something special that despite all that and a boring title too, “The Proposal” isn’t simply tolerable, but actually pretty great. Margaret and Andrew are surprisingly well-sketched characters in spite of the completely trite situation in which they find themselves, and that treatment extends down the line to a great supporting cast (Craig T. Nelson, Mary Steenburgen and especially Betty White, who steals every scene she can). Furthermore, while “The Proposal” does generally operate like anyone with any kind of movie memory would expect it to, it also sometimes doesn’t, remaining funny (sometimes darkly so) when the script otherwise calls for the usual descent into melodrama and string-tightening. That, in trite romantic comedy circles, qualifies as an arguable miracle.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted scenes and alternate ending (with commentary), outtakes, digital copy.

Drag Me to Hell: Unrated Director’s Cut (PG-13/NR, 2009, Universal/Ghost House)
Christine (Alison Lohman) has it all: A slowly-loosening grip on a promotion at the bank where she works, a relationship with a man (Justin Long) whose mother wants him to date someone else, and now a disenfranchised older woman (Lorna Raver) who plants a curse on her after being denied the funds needed to prevent eviction from her house. “Drag Me to Hell” also has it all, at least according to the checklist of formulaic stuff to put in a movie about curses. There’s the crazy old lady making the threat, the cluster of scenes in which Christine convinces herself nothing is wrong, the cluster of scenes where everyone thinks she’s a loon who needs help, and the inevitable séance and showdown with the source of the evil. But for every tired checkpoint “Hell” passes through, there’s something else going on that makes it worth sticking with — be it a perfectly-timed shock, an expertly-crafted confluence of real-world and Hell dimension evils, or a new wrinkle in what emerges as a surprisingly interesting main character. It’s just another curse movie, but it belongs in the class of the lot, especially when the payoff at the end arrives. Keep the remote handy when it does, because you’ll probably want to watch that part again. David Paymer and Dileep Rao also star.
Extras: Theatrical and unrated cuts, production video diaries.

Aussie & Ted’s Great Adventure (G, 2009, Screen Media Films)
Aussie is one very adorable dog, but he has some seriously ugly jealously issues. Those issues prompted him to hide his best friend’s (Alyssa Shafer as Laney) new teddy bear, which had partially nudged him out of the spotlight almost the instant Laney’s dad (Dean Cain) brought him home. Naturally, this being a family film and all, Aussie thinks better of his pettiness, only to discover that getting Ted (that’s the bear) back won’t be as simple as going back to the spot where he left him. The level of saccharine silliness in “Aussie & Ted’s Great Adventure” is enough to give cynics and realists a complex: Aussie narrates his own adventure in a potentially gratingly-amateurish Australian accent, his fellow dogs match his hokey dialogue with some choice words of their own, and even Ted gets in on the act with some mystical powers that allow him to communicate with certain dogs and children. Yep. Fortunately, this film wasn’t made with cynics in mind, but rather their untainted children and younger siblings. And between the film’s sense of humor about itself, the bounty of scenes featuring cute dogs being cute, and the lesson “Adventure” subtly slides in between the weirdness that erupts, it should please them just fine. Tuck the kids in, turn the movie on, and slowly back out of the room. No extras.

The Objective (NR, 2008, IFC Films)
It’s pretty gutsy, as “The Objective” does, to take complete creative liberty with a conflict (the war in Afghanistan) that not only is currently in progress, but also coincidentally happens to be back in the forefront of the news as the film arrives on DVD. Problem is, that’s as far as the risk-taking really goes. “The Objective” sets up a pretty interesting story about not-of-this-world activity taking place amid an already unconventional war, and it does a nice job of funneling that anticipation of the unknown through some interesting (if somewhat formulaic) characters. But once we arrive at that point, the film seems unable to push past neutral, constantly dangling the promise of a big thrill without ever really delivering on that promise. “The Objective” flirts with resolution, but only sort of achieves it, and even when the film reaches for an exclamation point, it does so under a frustrating cloud of ambiguity. You can formulate your own theories as to what happened and what happens next, and there’s some fun to be had in doing so, but for as little as “The Objective” provides in terms of inspiration, you might as well skip the movie and start with a blank page.
Extras: Interviews, behind-the-scenes feature.

The Killing Room (R, 2008, Genius Entertainment)
Welcome to the party, “The Killing Room.” You’re only six years late. “Room” finds four ordinary people (Timothy Hutton, Nick Cannon, Clea DuVall and Shea Whigham) convening in a room for what they think is a government study, only to find out they’re part of a whole other under-the-books study that necessitates killing them off one by one. If that sounds like a variant of the game “Saw” plays every year, it’s because, in spite of the new angle, it is. “Room” shows some early promise with a really sharp turn of events during the early going, but it fails to capitalize on it and appears helplessly unable to kick-start the story once it slows to a dead stop. Our trapped protagonists aren’t interesting characters with dark backgrounds, which even the blandest of “Saw” sequels provide. Meanwhile, the folks on the other side of the wall — a band of rogue government employees bent on resurrecting a buried study in spite of what their consciences might tell them to do, aren’t terribly fascinating villains, if you even use that word here. The blurred lines aren’t a testament to the complexity of their characters so much as an indictment of the film’s muted attempt at everything from provoking thought to scaring viewers. Genius doesn’t seem to have much faith in “Room” — it don’t even include subtitles, to say nothing of special features — and despite the renown of the cast, neither should you. Chloë Sevigny and Peter Stormare also star. No extras.

Worth a Mention
— “The Stepfather” (R, 1987, Shout Factory): Once upon a time, commercially ignored but critically acclaimed films had no choice but to toil in obscurity. Nowadays, they just get remade by a bigger studio with a bigger budget and sold all over again. Fortunately, in case that exercise proves disastrous, they also get a much-deserved second chance on DVD. Terry O’Quinn of “Lost” fame stars. Extras include director commentary and a new retrospective.
— “Jackass: The Lost Tapes” (NR, 2009, MTV): For those who simply cannot get enough, here’s more — roughly two hours’ worth, to be specific. Extras include a compilation of every show opener from the series, as well as outtakes and bonus stunts from the end segment of each show.
— “Marvel Animation: 6 Film Set” (PG-13, 2006-08, Lions Gate): Pretty much what the title says. Includes “Doctor Strange,” “Hulk Vs.,” “The Invincible Iron Man,” “Next Avengers,” and the two “Ultimate Avengers” movies. This is a repackaging of the six films that originally were sold separately, and the extras from each film’s original release are here as well.

Games 10/6/09: Wii Fit Plus, MySims Agents, The Warriors: Street Brawl

Wii Fit Plus
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

Nintendo lags behind convention when it comes to online content delivery, which is why “Wii Fit Plus” exists as a standalone disc only instead of a downloadable content pack for existing owners of the original “Fit.”

This doesn’t mean a whole lot of anything to those getting into “Fit” for the first time. “Plus” essentially replaces “Fit” on the marketplace: If you buy the $100 Wii Balance Board, this is what’s bundled inside now. Everything that was in “Fit” is in “Plus,” which is a standalone game despite some confusing language on the box that suggests you need both discs.

For those who already have “Fit,” the transition to “Plus” is about as smooth as it should be, particularly because “Plus” reads and converts your save data from “Fit” and doesn’t make you start all over with new data. In another nice touch, the game also specially recognizes returning players by quickly pointing out the new features and otherwise letting them get on with their workout.

The additions to the base program aren’t quite as extraordinary as one would hope from an additional 16-plus months of development time on Nintendo’s part, but they do fall roughly in line with what one might expect the asking price ($20 for game without the board) to deliver.

Most essentially, “Plus” adds the capacity to create custom exercise routines rather than simply play one exercise at a time and continually bounce between menus while doing so. It’s a pretty elegant system, too: The game’s preset routines are organized by goals and needs rather than exercise types, and you can combine these routines to build your own without much work. The freeform routine creator is similarly easy to use, though it’s not without limitations: You only can add strength and yoga exercises to this routine, and you can’t save and switch between multiple routines. A favorites list, which provides single-menu access to your favorite (and, cleverly, least favorite) routines, makes a very welcome debut in this area as well.

The other interface enhancements run the gamut. A pass-the-Balance Board multiplayer mode (only one controller and one board necessary) adds a fun competitive element to the aerobic and balance mini-games. The calorie counter is a no-brainer: There’s no way “Plus” can precisely gauge your caloric loss given the technology on hand, but a slightly imprecise measure of progress is a metric all the same. A feature that allows you to register and weigh babies and pets is a bit out of left field, but it works, and therefore has value to those who might wish or need to keep tabs on such things.

Predictably, “Plus” tops off the package with some exercises — only a few new strength and yoga exercises, but 15 new mini-games that include a Segway race, rhythmic Kung Fu, a snowball fight and a game that has you flying like a chicken. “Fit’s” sense of humor was an essential ingredient of its accessibility, and “Plus” does a great job of carrying the torch in that regard.


MySims Agents
Reviewed for: Nintendo Wii
Other version available for: Nintendo DS
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

Here’s a question: Whatever happened to the great educational computer games of yesteryear — “The Oregon Trail,” “Odell Lake,” but especially the sparkling likes of the Carmen Sandiego series? When did kids’ gaming become nothing more than fetch quest-a-thons licensed by animated movies of similarly uninspired ambition?

“MySims Agents,” the latest surprisingly good entrant in what has become a startling case of brand milking done completely right, doesn’t necessarily have the answer. But whether EA intended it as such or not, it is an overdue nod in that genre’s direction — a game that very explicitly encourages younger players and their siblings or parents to put their heads together and have some actual fun doing so.

Though “Agents” looks, controls and generally operates like most of the previous “MySims” games — you still design a Sims avatar and move him or her directly in a 3D game environment — the real crux of the game lies in solving cases as a local detective (and, eventually, a debonair special agent).

The system for doing so is, depending on your perspective, either elegant or simplistic.

A good (and, somewhat surprisingly, sharply funny) story glues the whole thing together, but the general gist is elementary: Your boss or clients give you a case and a few starting clues, and you need to interview people around town and use your detective tools (at first a rudimentary magnifying glass and crowbar, but eventually some gadgetry that would make 007 proud). There’s some light platforming action, and some of the gadgets give way to brief (and generally fun) mini-games, but the bulk of the game’s demands are cerebral in nature.

Perhaps knowing this and perhaps acting preemptively to keep players from getting stuck or excessively frustrated, EA compensated a little too much in the hint-giving department, and it’s possible to have your detective’s virtual notepad do too much of the thinking for you if you choose to lean on it. “Agents” tries to find a balance between posing a challenge and keeping players moving along, and there are times when it swings both ways — practically handing out the answers in some places, occasionally (but rarely) making it difficult to figure out where to even go in others when you’re between cases.

With all that said, though, the total package still emerges as a pleasantly surprising one-of-a-kind console game. “Agents” is a family game that really feels designed to be played by a family (younger players in the driver’s seat, parents/siblings at the ready to assist) instead of any old group of people. The base ingredients are implemented with polish, and the story keeps them interesting by mixing in new locales, gadgets and even the ability to recruit and mangage additional A.I.-controlled agents.

Per usual, “Agents” also offers more in the way of visual customization — in this case, decorative control over a five-story detective agency — than a game not brandished with the “MySims” tag would provide. The process is mostly ornamental in nature, but a game never hurt itself by giving players the freedom to personalize it.


The Warriors: Street Brawl
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Paramount Digital Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, mild language, violence)

If being both isn’t an option, then it’s probably, as “The Warriors: Street Brawl” demonstrates, better to be fun than good. “Brawl” emulates the mindless fun of sidescrolling brawlers from the 1990s, using 3D graphics and animation but playing out on a mostly 2D plane. It also incorporates a number of warts (sloppy collision detection, wild inconsistency with regard to environmental destruction) that probably should have been completely overcome since those days. More distressing is how easy it is for players (and, on harder levels, the enemies) to completely rig the fighting system: Blocking works as a cure-all defense against everything up to and including weapon beatdowns, and the AI is dictated by rigid attack patterns rather than actual intelligence. Some unfortunate boss fights merely amplify these blotches to various degrees. But guess what? The game’s fun anyway. For everything it gets wrong, there’s a crucial ingredient (satisfactory attack arsenal, nice sense of oomph to the fighting, good use of the movie that inspired it, lots of content to explore) it gets right. That’s especially true with friends on board: Any brawler worth its salt needs co-op support, and “Brawl” (four players online or offline, as well as a two-player versus mode) easily delivers in that respect.

DVD 10/6/09: Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Not Quite Hollywood, The Children, The Gate SE, Year One, Audition CE, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs DE, New wave of Ghost House Underground DVDs, Mister Ed S1, My Fair Lady

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (NR, 2009, VH1 Films)
Anvil shared a stage in 1984 with Bon Jovi, Scorpions and Whitesnake, and the band is credited by the likes of Metallica, Slayer and Slash as a musical influence. So why do founding and remaining members Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner continue to toil in obscurity while those acts each went on to sell millions of records? It’s a multifaceted mystery, though give “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” credit for diligently trying to figure it out. Even if it doesn’t quite crack the riddle, “Anvil!” most definitely spins an amazing yarn — giving us an unflinching look not only at two genuinely loveable musicians who maddeningly refuse to let the dream die, but also the realities of trying to operate as a fallen star in an industry known for chewing artists up and spitting them out the moment their shine begins to fade. On a happier note, it’s also an indirect (and possibly accidental, but possibly not) testament to the new order of doing business in the music business. “Anvil!” is hilariously funny in some spots, inspiring in others, and sympathetically wince-worthy in several others, and for all those reasons and more, it probably does more for the band’s profile than the last two decades of running in place ever did. If you have a pulse and cherish the power of music, Lips are Reiner are nearly impossible not to love.
Extras: Director/Anvil commentary, deleted scenes, extended Ulrich interview, bonus performance footage.

Not Quite Hollywood (R, 2008, Magnolia)
The first and most lasting lesson learned while watching “Not Quite Hollywood?” History lessons are a whole lot more fun to learn when the presenters are having this much fun. “Hollywood” delves deep into the auspicious and slightly mad beginnings of the Ozploitation movement, which propelled Australian cinema to push the filmmaking envelope and arguably humiliate Hollywood at its own game. But while “Hollywood” makes a point of being thorough and studious, it does so with considerable glee, opting to unabashedly celebrate its subject matter rather than simply observe and discuss. There’s a comprehensive history here — not only of the movement’s roots, but the direction the phenomenon took and where the genre went once Hollywood’s influence arrived at the party. But it’s a history submerged beneath absurd levels of sex, violence and wanton indecency, and “Hollywood” teaches it the only way it should: with copious visual aids. Throw in some extravagantly passionate but entirely articulate interviews with those who were there and those who followed, and the sum total feels like a beautifully unwieldy celebration that’s as good as the films it honors at taking viewers down any given avenue at any given minute.
Extras: Director/Ozploitation Auteurs commentary, deleted/extended scenes, interviews, funding pitches with Quentin Tarantino and John D. Lamond, photo gallery.

The Children (R, 2009, Ghost House Underground/Lions Gate)
There’s an unwritten but highly recognized rule about killing children in horror movies, and it goes a little something like this: Unless the kid in question is a doll named Chucky, don’t do it. But what happens, in the case of “The Children,” when a group of sweet-faced kids catch a virus that turns them against their parents during (what else?) a familial Christmas retreat in the middle of nowhere? Something has to give, right? If you’re a connoisseur of horror that actually strives to horrify, it’s probably best you see for yourself. “The Children” observes as many genre rules as it bends and breaks. The cast of adults receives a surprising level of care in their construction, coming off at no point as all the way likable, unlikable or (most importantly) disposable. At the same time, it’s clear before anything’s even wrong that some degree of human disposal is inbound from somewhere. “The Children” kicks in a modest but undeniable layer of dread almost the minute the secluded setting is unveiled, and it capitalizes on that dread by mixing classic twists with bent rules and other X factors to maintain a consistent level of shock and surprise most horror films no longer know how to even attain. This one isn’t for the squeamish — and not because it’s just another soulless bucket of blood and guts. Hannah Tointon, Eva Birthistle, Stephen Campbell Moore, Jeremy Sheffield and Rachel Shelley, among others, star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, six behind-the-scenes features.

The Gate: Monstrous Special Edition (PG-13, 1987, Lions Gate)
With this DVD release and with a 2010 big-screen remake following close behind, whatever age of innocence still remained for “The Gate” — a cult horror classic that until now had received a puzzlingly low-profile DVD treatment — is nearing its end. It’ll be interesting to see where that remake goes, too, because it’s been a pretty long time since anyone made a high-profile PG-13 movie starring children (Christa Denton, Louis Tripp and Stephen Dorff as Glen) that looked quite like this. “The Gate’s” plot is pretty threadbare — the chopped-down remnants of an old tree give way to a hell dimension, which conveniently opens and unleashes tiny demons everywhere right as Glen’s parents leave town for the weekend — and it only grows more incomprehensible once the demons are out and about. But it doesn’t greatly matter, because the story’s never the thing anyway. Rather, it’s the film’s surprisingly unflinching willingness to expose a young cast to the kind of visual horrors filmmakers typically reserve for teens and adults. “The Gate’s” special effects are powered primarily by stop-motion animation, which is dated to the point of charming now, but the goriness of certain scenes — no spoilers — remains as convincing and eye-opening as ever due to how rare this combination is in today’s landscape. Will the remake inspire the same reaction and take the same chances? Here’s hoping, but at least the original gets its day in the DVD sun in case things don’t work out.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, new cast/crew interviews.

Year One: Theatrical & Unrated Edition (NR, 2009, Sony Pictures)
Do we now have enough material from which to construct a hypothesis about the limited comedic possibilities of primitive cavemen and cavewomen talking like people talk today? Here’s hoping. Like those cute Geico commercials with the cavemen, “Year One” gets off to surprisingly funny beginnings: Zed (Jack Black) and Oh (Michael Cera) are sharp in wit and delivery in spite of their primitive ways, and the novelty of watching a tribe of Neanderthals wittily crack on each other really is good for some actual laughs. But once “One” moves past novelty and onto the laborious task or telling a story, things play out more like that unfunny Geico cavemen sitcom that should probably have never been made. “One” bounces from one tired prehistoric set piece to another, lazily palming whatever narrative clichés it can along the way to slap together an entirely trite story we’ve all seen before in different clothing. There are more laughs here and there — mostly thanks to David Cross’ supporting role — but they grow rarer by the minute, and by the time the credits roll, that early novelty has been stomped to death several times over. Given the talent on hand, that’s a bummer. Oliver Platt, Hank Azaria, Juno Temple, June Diane Raphael and Matthew Willig also star.
Extras: Director/Cera/Black commentary on both cuts, alternate ending (with commentary), deleted/extended scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, line-o-rama, bloopers.

Worth a Mention
— “Audition: 2-Disc Collector’s Edition” (NR, 1999, Shout Factory): Takashi Miike’s disturbingly brilliant horror classic showed up at least a decade ahead of its time, so this 10th anniversary treatment, which remasters the film for high-definition consumption, arrives right on time. Extras include director/writer commentary, a large helping of new cast interviews and liner notes courtesy of author Tom Mes.
— “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Diamond Edition” (G, 1937, Disney): Snow White makes her Blu-ray debut. But Disney’s fantastic all-inclusive strategy — packing the Blu-ray, DVD and digital copy editions inside one efficient package — means everyone’s invited to enjoy this definitive edition, which (per usual) benefits from a fresh coat of digital restoration. Extras (some Blu-ray only) include commentary with animator John Canemaker, set-top games, four behind-the-scenes features, a new music video and a peek at Disney’s upcoming “The Princess and the Frog.”
— New wave of Ghost House Underground DVDs (R, 2009, Lions Gate): “The Children” (reviewed above) is the best of the lot, but completists also can pick up “Seventh Moon,” “The Thaw” and “Offspring” for their collections. “Moon” and “Offspring” both feature commentary tracks, while all three have one or more behind-the-scenes features.
— “Mister Ed: The Complete First Season” (NR, 1961, Shout Factory): Yes, it took this long for someone to put together a complete season of “Mr. Ed.” Includes 26 episodes, plus cast commentary on the pilot and interviews with stars Alan Young and Connie Hines.
— “My Fair Lady” (G, 1964, Paramount): Warner Bros. released a flashier edition of “My Fair Lady” back in 2004, but it’s discontinued, and if you want the film on DVD but haven’t indulged yourself until now, this should do. Extras include commentary, vintage behind-the-scenes features, alternate vocal tracks and promotional materials.