Monday, April 30, 2018

The 1980s: The Greatest Movie Decade?

It's a question that I'm sure movie buffs have conjured up many times, in either private or public, even published conversation: What is the greatest movie decade of all time? 

And honestly, there are some serious arguments to make, depending on genres you like best, or eras you like the most, as to which decade that might be. Unless you're a major fan of silent films (which, I'll be honest, I do like several), most film fans tend to consider the 1930s to be when the Hollywood engines really started roaring, because that is when sound movies, or "talkies" came into prominence, replacing the silent scene that had existed from the late 1800s, through the 1920s (and with a few exceptions, even into the 30s). The 30s and 40s are considered the "Golden Age" of cinema, and rightly so, as that was when American film (and in many ways international film) really started finding its footing, along with its voice.

The great Universal Horror classics were from this period, excellent noir films starring the likes of Humphrey Bogart, or the dramas of Gary Cooper and musicals of Bing Crosby. Crime mysteries such as the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, the early westerns and war films of the likes of John Wayne, adventure epics starring the likes of Errol Flynn, the uplifting classics of Frank Capra or the early budding thriller career of one Alfred J. Hitchcock. And of course, I would be remiss without mentioning what many consider the height of comedy films, featuring the likes of Bob Hope, Charlie Chaplin, Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy, The Three Stooges, and The Marx Brothers.


One of my personal favorites, from one of my favorite eras.

One of my personal favorite eras, as good as the Golden Age was, is the following 50s and 60s era, which I suppose if you were following comic book naming conventions, we could call the Silver Age. Now, my reasons for loving this era are probably not quite the same as others who do. The more mainstream reason that many love this era, was, for example, the continuing career of icons like John Wayne and Cary Grant. It saw the continued rise, and some of the most essential works of Alfred Hitchcock, such as North by Northwest, Strangers on a Train, and Psycho. It featured poignant dramas, like The African Queen, Rebel Without a Cause, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? It was an era rife with westerns, and war epics, and the rise of what would come to be known as "action films". And when it came to comedy, there was no one from this era bigger than the duo of Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin in the 50s, or Jerry Lewis as a solo star (and even director) in the 60s.

But for me personally, what makes this era of film a strong candidate, are the types of movies that some, both back then and even today, would consider more "schlocky" fare. Personally though, I've never cared for the popular or critical opinions of others much, and so I embrace these movies as being some of the very best ever made, from any era, because they are. The 1950s, for one thing, saw the rise of one of my greatest heroes, Ray Harryhausen, as THE singular special effects powerhouse of what would go on to be three decades of film. His work in stop-motion animation, carried on from his great mentor Willis O'Brien, was untouchable, and it helped to revolutionize special effects films of the era. Films like Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, Jason and the Argonauts, and my personal favorite, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, would inspire multiple generations of future filmmakers.

Another personal favorite.

And it wasn't just Hollywood cranking out the classics (and not so classics) in this era. Movies from the international scene were rising to greater prominence as well, especially in the "genre" markets. The 1950s saw the rise of two specific studios, one that was a huge part of my own 80s/90s childhood, and one that I would come to know and appreciate in my adult years. The Japanese juggernaut, Toho, known for their Akira Kurosawa samurai epics, would also come to be known as the "King of Kaiju", or giant monster movies, with the seminal masterwork of a friend and colleague of Kurosawa's, Ishiro Honda, in the form of the 1954 classic Gojira. From this dark and brooding film, as much a scary monster movie as it was a highly poignant statement on the horrifying and evil effects (and legacy) of "The Bomb" being dropped on Japan in WWII, not only an entire movie franchise, but a long-lasting movie genre, was fully born, that of the "Giant Monster on the Loose" film.

1933's King Kong, or even the preceding 1925 silent gem The Lost World, could and should rightly be called the first "giant monster movie". But the genre didn't fully establish itself, and take off as a popular movie convention, until the 50s. And "Godzilla", as he would come to be known in the West, while inspired himself by Harryhausen's The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, would in turn inspire many other giant monster flicks, including some that were direct ripoffs or even direct competition (such as Daiei's Gamera). In my personal opinion, the 1960s was the height of both Godzilla films, and of the "Kaiju" genre in general. The 60s was certainly Godzilla's most prolific period, as in the ten years from 1960-1969, there were Godzilla films released each year except '60, '61, and '63. The original Showa Era of Godzilla films would stretch on to 1975, but the 60s, with personal favorites such as King Kong vs. Godzilla, Invasion of the Astro Monster, Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster, and Destroy All Monsters, was easily his greatest period of success.

Of course the other studio I previously mentioned, was the United Kingdom's Hammer Studios, who would in the 1950s begin to establish themselves as, in their own right, "The New Universal", at least for a decade or so, when it came to horror films. Their genre film fame started in the 50s with minor science fiction hits such as The Quatermass Xperiment, X the Unknown, and The Abominable Snowman. They even produced one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes films, The Hound of the Baskervilles, one of the first pairings of their two future top stars, Peter Cushing (as Holmes) and Christopher Lee. But it was 1957's Terrance Fisher adaptation, The Curse of Frankenstein, followed by '58's Horror of Dracula (also by Fisher), that would kick off a solid decade and a half or so of horror film dominance by Hammer. They would go on to make long franchises (for better and for worse) out of the Frankenstein and Dracula movies, almost all starring either Cushing or Lee (sometimes both). They would also have their own series of Mummy movies, and many other one-off gems such as The Man Who Could Cheat Death, The Gorgon, and The Devil Rides Out.

Much like Toho, in my opinion at least, Hammer followed a similar trajectory, rising in the 50s, having their absolute height in the 60s, and starting to taper off, ultimately falling somewhat flat in the 70s.

Yet ANOTHER personal favorite.

But the "Silver Age" wasn't just about Ray Harryhausen, or Godzilla, or even Hammer Horror. The period produced what I am not afraid to call some of the very best science fiction stories ever put to film. There were many that were genuinely "schlocky", often because of budget and time constraints, and I happen to love many of those too. But some of them were pure class, and had "something to say" beyond just lasers blasting and alien monsters roaring. A movie like 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still, a movie I saw on TNT's MonsterVision as a kid, and it profoundly affected me, even in the early 90s. That film was about an alien, yes, and he had a giant "killer robot", but the message was deep as hell, certainly for the period, speaking out against war and human cruelty. Another, lesser known film with a similar premise, was 1957's The 27th Day, a movie wherein aliens give people from various world "Superpowers" hi-tech bombs, that if used, would essentially wipe out the human race, leaving the planet free for alien occupation. But the catch was, the aliens wouldn't invade, unless these humans used these bombs against their "enemies". And in very touching fashion, uncharacteristic for this "Cold War" era, even the people from the "evil" countries of China and Russia, refuse to use their bombs or divulge their secrets. In a rare turn, in that story, the human race was saved by nobility, and compassion.

So many other greats came from just the 1950s alone, such as one of my all-time favorites, 1956's Forbidden Planet, starring the at-the-time serious dramatic lead (and of my favorite actors of all time), Leslie Nielsen. That film alone is a unique classic, both from a special effects point of view, where it would influence future Sci-Fi the likes of Star Trek, Doctor Who and Star Wars, in different ways, but as a story, it too had something deep to say to the audience, warning of the "Monsters From the Id", and the hidden darkness that lurks in all people's minds. Then there's The Incredible Shrinking Man, more of a sombre and introspective story, as a man deals with the existential crisis of his place in the world, as he continues to shrink to the size of a mouse, and smaller. Or the psychological thriller Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which drums up paranoia and fear about "whom among us can you trust?".

There were minor classics that launched careers, such as 1958's The Blob, which was mega-star Steve McQueen's first starring role. Or films catching old stars at the end of theirs, such as the brief clip of Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 From Outer Space, or the legitimately wheel-chair ridden Boris Karloff in Die Monster Die! Another rising star of the 50s and 60s, was the incredible Vincent Price, who with the help of movies like William Castle's The House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler, or Roger Corman's 1960s series of Edgar Allen Poe films, became America's new leading man of horror for the better part of three decades. And this era also featured some really excellent adaptations of classic literature, such as The War of the Worlds, The Three Worlds of Gulliver, First Men in the Moon, Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mysterious Island, and The Time Machine, among others.

But for all that greatness, while I feel confident I could make a strong argument for this era being THE quintessential era for Sci-Fi and "Monster" type movies (in fact I think I just did), I would not say that, all around, the 50s and 60s were THE best movie era, or certainly standalone decades.

Such an incredible film.

Moving on to the 1970s, before I finally get to the crux of this article's point, I have to say, while the decade produced many REALLY great films, some well known and some lesser so, I personally feel that compared to the decades that preceded it, as well as followed it, that the 70s as a decade for film falls kinda short. In fact, when trying to piece together my own Top Movies lists on the website Letterboxd, while I had no problem coming up with a personal Top 100 movies for the 80s or 90s, I actually failed to come up with 100 movies I really liked from the 1970s.

That is not to say, by any means, that I think the decade SUCKED for movies, it surely didn't. For example, the two movies that I site as basically being my 1A and 1B candidates for "Favorite Movie of All Time", are Mel Brooks' amazing 1974 classic Young Frankenstein (starring another of my fav. all time actors, Gene Wilder), and the 1977 Rankin-Bass masterful TV animated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. The 70s also provided the world with two more incredible Ray Harryhausen Sinbad fantasy epics, in the forms of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and Sinbad and Eye of the Tiger. The decade had great comedies like Monty Python and The Holy Grail, Murder By Death, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Silver Streak. It saw science fiction greats like Logan's Run, Soylent Green, Silent Running, Westworld, Alien, and a personal favorite, Disney's The Black Hole. It saw cult classics like Rocky, The Warriors, and Enter the Dragon. And even though they were in a low period, Disney still put out some great films, such as Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Robin Hood, and The Rescuers.  

And it would be neglectful not to mention that some of the biggest directors in the history of cinema saw their rise in the 70s, such as Francis Ford Coppola with hits like Patton, The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now. Richard Donner with The Omen and Superman. Mel Brooks with the aforementioned Young Frankenstein, along with comedy masterpieces like Blazing Saddles, High Anxiety, and The Silent Movie. John Carpenter with his (at the time) most successful "indie" film of all time, Halloween. George Lucas with American Graffiti and one of the biggest movies in history, Star Wars. And of course, arguably the most financially successful director in Hollywood history, Steven Spielberg, who started the decade small with the great TV thriller Duel, and then went on to make cinema history with the likes of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

But even with all of that, I think the 70s "falls short" for me, and certainly when compared to the decade that we're ACTUALLY here to talk about: The 1980s.


I know that I took, in typical Jesse fashion, a LONG time to wind up at this point, but what this article is REALLY about, and why I'm here, is to make a case for the 1980s being, all around, THE best decade in film history. That is a very bold statement, I know. But I feel rather confident that the sheer body of incredible films, from ANY genre you could care to mention, that this decade presents, speaks for itself. Mind you, as I've already said, I think strong arguments for OTHER decades can definitely be made, when it comes to specific genres, for instance the 1950s and Science Fiction, or perhaps the 1990s and Animated films. But I think that, across the board, the 80s presents such an overwhelming cross-section of greatness in every single genre, that it would be really hard to argue, objectively, any other single decade has produced anything close.

For instance, let's start with a genre that one of my lesser personal favorites: Drama. And don't get that twisted, I really LOVE a great many drama films, and depending on my mood, I really enjoy sitting down and watching a good drama. But the fact is, for me personally, when I make an attempt at listing what I feel are my approximate Top 100 Favorite Films, there are very few drama films on it. I just happen to like Science Fiction, and Monster Movies, and Animation, and Comedies, etc., a lot more. Having said that, the 80s was an incredible decade for drama, giving us some of the strongest films the genre has ever seen, such as Raging Bull, Scarface, Full Metal Jacket, The Color Purple, The Outsiders, Good Morning, Vietnam and Wall Street. And those aren't even (mostly) films that I'm personally very big on. Some of my own 80s drama favorites include The Boy Who Could Fly, On Golden Pond, Rain Man, Stand By Me, and Dead Poets Society.

THE Don Bluth Masterpiece.

While the 90s I think you could argue was a "bigger" decade for animated theatrical films, certainly for Disney, the 80s was still home to some of the best animated movies ever made. In no small part to one man, Don Bluth, who rose from being an animator at Disney, to breaking out on his own and not only finding success, but in the mid-to-late 80s, actually finding MORE success than Disney itself. For a few years there, Bluth movies were doing bigger box office than Disney, even though Disney's 80s output was still excellent. The 80s was absolutely Bluth's high period, as he would sadly slip in the 90s (as several other prominent 80s directors also did), but his string of hits like The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, and All Dogs Go to Heaven, was legendary. Disney meanwhile, was hardly slacking, as their 80s output included The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver and Company, and the first hit that "put them back on top", The Little Mermaid.

Another at-the-time unknown name, Japan's Hayao Miyazaki and what would become Studio Ghibli, were also on the rise in the 80s, with incredible films such as Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind, my personal favorite Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies and Kiki's Delivery Service. Tragically, theses movies and more would go largely unknown and unseen in the United States until the 2000s, thanks to Disney, but they are still amazing works of the 80s. While they were known as a television company, Rankin-Bass also had several great 80s films, both traditionally animated as well as stop-motion, such as The Return of the King, The Last Unicorn, The Flight of Dragons, and The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. And of course, the 80s was THE decade of cartoon series' based on toys (or vice versa), and many of these produced films as well, including Masters of the Universe, the Care Bears, the Transformers, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, Rainbow Brite, and The Chipmunks. Most of those films, by the way, are surprisingly anywhere from ok to rather good.

Harryhausen's last film.

The 80s was also a very strong decade for fantasy films, arguably THE strongest. Including some of the animated fantasy films mentioned above, there were also many live action fantasy epics, some great, some not so much. But among those greats, is included Clash of the Titans, sadly the last film that Ray Harryhausen would ever work on. Ray did most of the stop-motion work by himself, and because his concepts were very ambitious, and quality of work very high, working on each successive film, especially into the 70s, took him years. The work was not only grueling, but Titans also tragically fell short at the box office, not making as much as it deserved to. Ray had concepts for future projects, but I think he felt dejected, and that perhaps the movie industry was moving beyond him, and stop-motion. He would eventually prove to be right, and I think that sucks. But if he had to leave us one final film, I think Clash was one hell of a way to go out.

Other live-action fantasy films of the 80s include the likes of Excalibur, Dragonslayer, The Neverending Story, Krull, The Beastmaster, Return to Oz, Ladyhawke, Legend, Willow, and The Princess Bride. And with the 80s rise of actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, also came one of the hits that first helped establish him as a star, 1982's Conan the Barbarian. I like that film, but happen to be an even bigger fan of the two follow-ups, Conan the Destroyer, and Red Sonya. Naturally, Conan being such a big success, gave rise to a variety of (mostly shitty) ripoff films, trying to cash in on that resurgent "Sword n Sorcery" success. And last but hardly least, there were also the two Jim Henson fantasy films, the popular Labyrinth, and The Dark Crystal, which I consider his finest piece of work.

A highly underrated movie.

 Science Fiction is another genre that I feel you could definitely argue saw one of it's strongest periods in the 1980s. Steven Spielberg's 1982 mega-hit E.T: The Extra Terrestrial alone, was one of the single biggest smash hits of the decade, not to mention of all time. There was also the James Cameron trio of Sci-Fi hits, The Terminator, the 1986 Alien sequel Aliens, and his 1989 oddball success, The Abyss. Another major fixture of the 80s, were theatrical Star Trek movies. Having returned in movie form in 1979, the 80s saw Star Trek movies becoming a continuing franchise, with four of them in the decade (my favorite being Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home). Of course, George Lucas followed up his creation, Star Wars, with two epic sequels to complete a now legendary trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi.

But it wasn't just well-known players getting in on the action. Pictured above, you can see the poster for 1984's The Last Starfighter, a childhood favorite of mine, which was directed by Nick Castle, the prime player of the original Mike Meyers, from Halloween. Another childhood favorite, was the Disney produced Flight of the Navigator, which featured a sentient UFO that was voiced by non-other than Paul Reubens, of PeeWee fame. Other 80s Sci-Fi films included (but were hardly limited to), remakes to 50s films such as The Fly, The Blob, and Invaders From Mars, as well as varied works like Flash Gordon, DuneTron, The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Cocoon, Alien Nation, Batteries Not Included, Short Circuit and Short Circuit 2.

A Schwarzenegger classic.

One genre that really made a resurgence in the 80s, even though it had certainly been around in the 70s, was the "Action" genre. Arnold's rising star was a huge part of that, with hits like Commando, Predator, Red Heat, and The Running Man. Another actor whose star had begun to rise in the 70s, was Sylvester Stallone, who absolutely blew up in the 80s as well, with many action hits like First Blood and its Rambo sequels, as well as movies like Cobra and Tango & Cash. Mel Gibson was another star to get established in the 80s, with his first major blip on the radar being the dystopian 1979 film Mad Max. The 80s would see two sequels to that, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome. Gibson would also rise to further fame through the Richard Donner film Lethal Weapon (also starring Danny Glover), which would go on to have three sequels. Bruce Willis was another up-and-comer, who gained major notice for the action hit Die Hard, which would have several sequels. 

Other 80s action movies would include everything from Sci-Fi tinged films like Robocop, to Action-Comedies like Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hours (both starring Eddie Murphy), and Burglar and Fatal Beauty (both starring Whoopie Goldberg). There was also the Charles Bronson-led sequels of the Death Wish franchise, and the Chuck Norris-led Missing in Action films. Martial arts films became more popular outside of Hong Kong, and new stars in the genre like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal led the way with hits such as Bloodsport, Kickboxer, and Above the Law. There were others in addition, such as the Eric Roberts-led Best of the Best, and the early attempt at an American Jackie Chan film, The Big Brawl.

And one would be remiss not to mention the continuing James Bond franchise, though in my personal opinion, the 80s represented a dip for a fatiguing franchise, though there were still successful hits like A View to Kill, For Your Eyes Only, and The Living Daylights. A big part of Lucas and Spielberg's individual ascents to fame also included their collaboration project, Indiana Jones, which formed a trilogy of 80s films, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, and The Last Crusade.

One of the best.

Another genre to see a massive resurgence, arguably the biggest of the decade, was that of horror films. One of the absolute best ever made, and certainly the best the decade had to offer, seen above, is the Spielberg produced, Tobe Hooper directed Poltergeist. Helping to establish what I informally refer to as "Family Horror", this movie absolutely has its share of dark and spooky moments, but it also has a heart that is centered around a family, as they are the focus of the story, not the scary shit happening to them. While officially directed by Hooper, of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame, I hesitate to call this the best movie HE ever directed, because the fact is, even though he was busy at work on E.T. at the time, Spielberg also spent a lot of time on this film's set. It was his other pet project, and Hollywood studio rules stated he could not director more than one movie at a time, so he hired Hooper to direct this one. But it carries all of Spielberg's own trademarks, and it just plays out and FEELS like a Spielberg film. So it is hard to call it 100% a Hooper movie. Regardless, it is a classic, and one of the best supernatural "haunting" films that has ever been made.

The 80s really gave rise to the phenomenon of the "Horror Franchise". That isn't to say series of horror films didn't exist before, as they did. Universal in the 30s and 40s had their Dracula and Frankenstein and Mummy and Wolfman movies. And Hammer had their own Dracula and Frankenstein and Mummy series in the 50s and 60s. But often, those series were not direct sequels, or only loosely related, sometimes totally unrelated. In the 80s, driven in large part by the success of John Carpenter's Halloween, the "slasher" sub-genre became very popular, and it included not only sequels to Halloween, but also many sequels to the films A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th as well. Many other movies, such as Critters, Goulies, Hellraiser and Child's Play, which really didn't need sequels at all, still saw attempts at franchises too. They even tried making franchises out of older films that 100% didn't need sequels, such as 1960s Hitchcock classic Psycho.

The decade saw an almost ridiculous number of horror films, in fact I would suggest that there may well have been more horror films theatrically released in the 80s than any other decade. Just some of these films include: C.H.U.D., The Shining, The Evil Dead, The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, Fright Night, The Gate, Return of the Living Dead, The Changeling, Creepshow, Lifeforce, and Killer Klowns From Outer Space.  

John Candy, the Master.

On the lighter side of things, the 80s ALSO happened to be a huge decade for comedy. Again, there were some good comedy films from the 70s, as Mel Brooks attests to. But the 80s did once again see something of a resurgence, or even a comedy "renaissance" if you will. Much like the action genre, the rise in 80s comedy films was directly tied to the rising careers of many fairly new comedians, names such as: Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Eddie Murphy, Martin Short, and Rick Moranis. There were also stars who had risen in the 70s such as Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, who still had a big string of hits in the 80s. And while not as much as comedian as just a comedic actor, Tom Hanks became a huge star in the 80s, with films like Splash, Big, The Money Pit, and Turner & Hooch

Steve Martin's 80s hits include Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Man With Two Brains, Roxanne, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Eddie Murphy, of course, was all over the place, with movies like The Golden Child, Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hours, and Coming to America. Chevy Chase, the master of pratfalls and goofy sarcasm, had hits like Vacation, European Vacation, and my favorite Christmas Vacation, as well as Fletch, Modern Problems, Funny Farm, Three Amigos (also starring Martin and Short), and Caddyshack. And John Candy, who I personally consider the "biggest" comedy star of the 80s, also had many hits, like Going Berserk, Summer Rental, Spaceballs, The Great Outdoors (also starring Dan Aykroyd), and Planes Trains and Automobiles (which also starred Steve Martin).

The 1980s saw the rise of "buddy cop" movies, "screwball" comedies, and just plain weird comedies. Some of these included Stakeout, Jumping Jack Flash, Airplane!, The Naked Gun, A Christmas Story, Revenge of the Nerds, Police Academy, Scrooged, Look Who's Talking, Throw Mama From the Train, Haunted Honeymoon, and many more.

Everyone should see this at least once.

Just as the 1970s gave rise to names like Coppola, Lucas and Spielberg, the 1980s also saw the rise of several names that would go on to become big time, such as James Cameron, Tim Burton, Ron Howard, John Landis, and Chris Columbus, among others. But three such names that make it onto my "favorite directors ever" list, are Robert Zemecikis, Joe Dante, and John Carpenter. While Zemeckis is less-so one of my ALL time favorites, his 80s output especially was really stellar, with Romancing the Stone, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and the fantastic Back to the Future films. Joe Dante, who now runs the excellent Trailers From Hell site (among other things), started out his directing career with the horror films Piranha and The Howling. But he really took off, when he was chosen to direct the Spielberg produced, Chris Columbus written classic, 1984's Gremlins. That movie alone is timeless, and immortalizes Dante as a director, but he rode that wave to make several other 80s films, such as Explorers, InnerSpace, and one of my top favorites of all time, The 'Burbs.

As for John Carpenter, well, as previously stated, his career started in the 70s. Even before his breakthrough hit Halloween debuted in 1978, he had done the small-time films Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13. But it was the 80s when he really came into his own, with films like The Fog, Christine, Starman, Prince of Darkness, and They Live. However, the films he is perhaps best known and loved for, were also tied directly to the rise of yet another 80s star: Kurt Russel. Carpenter and Russel are real life friends, and he wound up casting him in a total of five films over his career, the biggest of which were the 80s hits Escape From New York, The Thing, and one of my Top 5 favorite movies ever, Big Trouble in Little China. I like most (but not all) of Carpenter's work in general, but those Kurt Russel films are my favorites of his, and Big Trouble is a movie I wish more people would see, because it is all at once SO weird and SO awesome, and was criminally overlooked for it's time.  

100% 80s.

Last but hardly least, even though this article has run long (big surprise right?), I'd like to take the time to talk about what I call "80s Films". Granted, ALL of the films I've been talking about from the 80s, are 80s films. And one trait that I would say a lot of the BEST ones share, is that they are very much so a product of their time. But while I could easily have stuffed most of these in other genre sections, I think at least some of these best embody the 80s as a decade. Not only are these films a product of their time, but that is a big part of what MAKES them great, and also a huge part of why they should NEVER be remade, because they ARE "80s Films".

One of the most "80s Films" I can think of, is also one of my personal favorites, and that is Richard Donner's The Goonies. In the midst of making comedies like The Toy and Scrooged, and dark, violent action movies like Lethal Weapon 1 & 2, Donner decided to make this weird, wonderful family adventure film. The Goonies is, I'd even go so far as to say, a little hard to describe, BECAUSE it's "So 80s". It's a movie about a bunch of kids, who go off on their own (happens in a ton of 80s movies) to look for treasure to save their family homes from foreclosure, and they run into criminals and a Sloth and forgotten caves and dead pirates, you name it! As 80s as it is, it's also timeless, and such an amazing classic, it really makes me sorry I didn't see it as a kid, for whatever stupid reasons.

In fact, many of these I didn't see as a kid, such as PeeWee's Big Adventure, where a grown man who acts like a goofy child, goes on a road-trip looking for his stolen bike. Or Monster Squad, where another pack of mostly unsupervised kids set out to save their town, and the world, from Dracula and a gang of classic Hollywood monsters. Or the Karate Kid films, directed by John G. Avildsen, who also directed the first (and fifth) Rocky movies, where a goofy kid from New Jersey moves to California, gets bullied, gets trained by his Japanese apartment handyman, and winds up accidentally winning an entire karate tournament. Or Adventures in Babysitting, where a teen girl babysitting a bunch of suburban kids, winds up in all kinds of danger and crazy situations in Chicago. Or Beetlejuice, where a young married couple tragically dies, and then try mistakenly hire a ghoul named Beetlejuice, to "excorcize" their house of its new living residents. Or hell, pretty much all of the John Hughes films, which all basically scream 80s, from Sixteen Candles, to Weird Science, to Ferris Bueller's Day Off, to The Breakfast Club, to Planes Trains and Automobiles, to Uncle Buck (another John Candy great). And of course, you simply cannot bring up 80s movies, without talking about Ghostbusters. That movie (and its sequel) IS the 80s, as much as it is anything else.


The truth is, there are a TON of other movies I haven't even mentioned that could be talked about, but I've already said way more than enough. The SHORT version, of course, is that the 80s were, I put forth, the overall BEST decade for films, beyond nostalgia, beyond personal preferences, because it just had a ton of great films in pretty much every genre you could think of. No matter what "kind" of movie fan you are, the 80s had something for you. And even for people who aren't "movie people", there are STILL landmark 80s classics that most of those people know of, and MOST of them likely like, if not love. A major film fan and amateur student of film history myself, while hardly an "expert", I'd say I know enough and have seen enough, to say with some kind of authority, that I don't think there is a single other decade someone can point to, and say that it has AS many amazing classic films, in AS many genres. And I say that as an 80s kid who grew up in the 90s, and trust me, there were/are a LOT of 90s films that I love.

Before I finally shut up, I'll leave you all with a list of what I'd say are some of THE top and "MOST 80s" films that really represent the decade, and my argument that it's the best decade in film. Some of these movies I personally love, some aren't, but all are considered major classics, so they deserve inclusion:

The Terminator
Escape From New York
E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial
Die Hard
Lethal Weapon
Full Metal Jacket
Adventures in Babysitting
Stand By Me
The Breakfast Club
Big Trouble in Little China
Trading Places
Beverly Hills Cop
PeeWee's Big Adventure
The Karate Kid
Rocky III /IV (take your pick)
National Lampoon's Vacation
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Return of the Jedi (or Empire)
Wall Street
Top Gun
The 'Burbs
First Blood
Short Circuit
Back to the Future
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Friday the 13th
The Great Outdoors
Honey I Shrunk the Kids
Land Before Time
Superman II

Thank you for reading, and make sure to go watch some great 80s movies!

Friday, March 30, 2018

Childhood Memories: Dino-Riders

Dinosaurs, extinct for 70 million years, are back!

I've spoken in the past about my childhood love of dinosaurs, and of one of the main 80s shows that really helped fuel that along, in the form of 1987's Dinosaucers. That show, which played during my First Grade school year, was in an hour block along with a goofier cartoon called Denver, The Last Dinosaur, and at 6 or 7 years old, I absolutely ate them up. Now, Dinosaucers was supposed to have an accompanying toy-line, and prototypes were even created, but because the show was cancelled after one syndicated (65 episode) season, they also cancelled the toy line, which I think was foolish.

 But in 1988, there was another dinosaur-based animated series that came along, which was designed specifically to SELL toys, and thus while it too had only one short (14 episode) season, to some kids of that era, it is still kinda legendary.

This is the one set I KNOW I had.

The cartoon was called Dino-Riders, and it was co-developed by the Tyco toy company, and Marvel Entertainment, the animation wing of Marvel Comics. They developed the cartoon series, a full and robust toyline, and various other merchandise. It didn't last very long, sadly, but it was a blitzkrieg while it was happening.

I don't fully remember anymore, which toys I had, even though I know I didn't have many. I know for a FACT that I had the set shown above, which is a Pteranodon, and his Rulon rider, Rasp. I also know that I had one of the good guys, the Valorians, the youngest named Llahd, who came with a little hang-glider like aparatus, which also hung off of a flying dinosaur. I don't remember whether or not I had two separate dinosaur toys, or if Llahd came by himself (which doesn't make sense with his gear), or they BOTH came with the one dino and you could switch them out?

The cool and most memorable thing about this particular dino toy, is that it has a button on its back, which when pressed, cause its wings to flap as if it's flying. To a little kid, in the late 80s, that was pretty damn hi-tech!

The ORIGINAL cool-toed Dino.

I'd like to take the time to point out that back as a kid, several years BEFORE everyone and their pet dog became enamored with the Velociraptor, thanks to the 1993 mega-hit film Jurassic Park, I was a big fan of the guy shown above. He is a bigger cousin to the regular raptor (the ones shown in the JP film were actually "Utahraptors", V-Raps are small), known as Deinonychus. And I thought he was bad ass. Sadly, I never owned THIS toy of him, but I DID have A Deinonychus toy of some fashion, I'm sure. There is some scrap of my memory that almost thinks maybe I DID own this guy, but I can't back that up.

But that was one genuinely cool thing about the series, beyond the fact that it was basically G.I. Joe with dinosaurs. Dino-mania was alive and well in the late 80s, in no small part thanks to the amazing Don Bluth masterpiece, the 1988 animated theatrical film Land Before Time. I know I loved it, hell I had a goddamn Pizza Hut birthday party themed after it (they were promoting it at the time). But while it's a classic and bad ass movie, one small negative it did bring to the culture back then, though somewhat harmless, was the film's in-world names that the types of dinosaurs had for each other. For instance, Triceratops were known as "Three Horns", and Brontosaurus were known as "Long Necks", and T-Rex was called a "Sharptooth".

With Dino-Riders, as you can plainly see, they called the dinosaurs by their paleontological names, even when they were big words for kids, like Saurolophus, or Pteranodon, or Monoclonius, or Deinonychus. Each toy, of course, was paired with a rider, either evil Rulons, or the benevolent (and eponymous) Dino-Riders.

The ongoing war.

Taking a step back, the plot of the toy-line and cartoon/comics/etc., is set in the far future, where a peaceful race of humans has been living on the planet Valoria, minding their own business, when along comes the conquering alien conglomerate known as the Rulons, and their leader, Emperor Krulos (shown above). The Rulons are made up of a bunch of different alien races, like snake people, sharkish people, insect people, etc. Krulos himself, while never made explicitly clear, seems to be some kind of frog-type thing.

As a group of Valorians are on the run from Krulos, who desires their "Space Time Energy Projector" crystal (STEP Crystal for short), they are forced to use the STEP to try and escape. But the Rulons are sucked through the portal after them, and they both wind up crash-landing, stranded, far back in time, on prehistoric Earth.

The basic dichotomy of the show, is that BOTH groups make use of various dinosaurs (who appear mish-mashed from various prehistoric periods), but their tactics differ. For the Dino-Riders, they utilize these necklace pendants they all wear, "Amplified Mental Projectors" (AMPs), to communicate with the beasts via ESP. In other words, they convince the dinos to work with them, by basically asking them to, nicely. For the evil Rulons, of course, they are not nearly so nice, so instead of asking nicely, they use what are called "Brain Boxes", harnesses that bend the dinos to their will, basically making slaves of them.

Rasp and Hammerhead.

The cartoon series essentially depicts the ongoing conflict of these two groups, as they try to survive in this hostile prehistoric environment. Every single episode, just about, features Krulos and his army trying to attack the Valorian camp, because he wants that damn STEP crystal, so he can use it to get back to the future, and back to taking over the universe. In true 80s fashion, every episode also shows the bad guys messing up somehow, and losing the battle, turning tail and vowing to return. One reason this show is most definitely a G.I. Joe type of affair, is because in these battles, folks are shooting lasers all OVER the place at each other, all the time, but they rarely ever hit each other.

Always so angry.

Krulos himself was voiced by the great Frank Welker, doing basically the exact Dr. Claw voice from Inspector Gadget. Several of his primary minions are pretty memorable too. He has groups of Vipers and Sharks and whatever, but each has a general, and some of these, as shown above, are Rasp and Hammerhead, who are of course always vying for Krulos' favor, and to become the #2 guy. There is also the calmer Krok, a crocodile guy, who also quietly guns to be top dog, though more through hard work than grandstanding like the other two. There are others as well, such as Antor, the kinda-sorta-ant-guy, Lokus, another bug guy, and Skate who is a...starfish man? I never quite figured that out.

Da Good Guys.

The heroes also have some memorable characters, though of course by virtue of not being crazy-looking alien animal dudes, not AS memorable. There's the leader, Questar, the young and brash Yungstar (get it?), the kid Llahd, the psychic healer lady Serena, the grizzled military veteran Gunner, and the oldest of the bunch, the blind but powerful psychic (and bad ass martial artist), Serena's grandfather Mind Zei (GET IT!?). There were a lot of other characters, mainly to sell more toys, but seeing as I only had Rasp and Llahd (I think), as a kid, there isn't much point going over the rest.

Dino-Riders, the Coloring Book!

One thing I DID have, was this exact coloring book, which at the time I treasured. The truth is, for whatever reasons, I didn't actually get to see much of the show itself. I may have seen an episode or two here or there, but in general I kinda missed out on most of it. But this handy-dandy coloring book not only helped me sharpen my artistic skills (such as they are), but it also actually did a pretty nifty job of telling the story of the show, so I got to know what was going on, and who was who, anyway! That's Questar up there, riding with his trusty Styracosaurus, though in the cartoon, he was often riding atop the mighty battle-station they built on a huge Brontosaurus (or Apatosaurus if you're so inclined).

Fun fact, but there was a period in my early teens, where I very seriously wanted to be a comic book artist, or more specifically, a colorist (because I've never had the patience to be as good at drawing as I would prefer to be). And part of that probably started because of THIS specific coloring book. I had other coloring books, yes, but this one held my attention the most, and I tried super hard to color in those pictures well. I actually had a nice set of like 30 something crayons, including some fancy colors, and that later graduated to having a really cool (though not NEARLY big enough for my tastes) colored pencil set, with even MORE colors. I'm pretty big on colors. I would 100% be down with having a massive colored pencil set (like the biggest you can get), and just doing elaborate coloring books. But I digress.

The short-lived Marvel comic.

All in all, the series was fairly short-lived. They had 14 episodes, one season, that lasted from October 1st to December 31st 1988. But out of that, they managed not one, but FOUR series of toys. I'm not sure how long the toys kept coming up, but still, they squeezed this franchise for all it was worth. I'm honestly surprised it didn't at least get a second season.

To me, as a kid, the Dinosaucers were a much bigger deal to me. Of course, that was largely because I actually got to WATCH a lot of that cartoon, whereas I barely saw this one. But I think it was also because it had such memorable characters, and while the concept of living and working with dinosaurs like the Dino-Riders do is cool, there was something MORE cool to me about having anthropomorphic dino-people, who I was secret friends with, and helped them fight evil (and hilarious) dino-people.

Having said that though, the Dino-Riders concept is still a really cool one, and I did really treasure the few toys of them I DID have. Looking at pictures of that Deinonychus toy, as stated, part of me ALMOST feels like maybe I did actually own it. But regardless, the one I REALLY wanted, was also the one too expensive to ever get, and that was the huge Tyronosaurus Rex that Krulos rode around. I would have just about shit if I had been able to own that as a kid, but alas, we were fairly poor.

Until next time, celebrate all things old and awesome!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Femme Fatales: A History of Female Heroes in Gaming Pt. 2 - The 90s

Picking up where we left off last time, let's continue taking a look at some of the many games starring female heroes, in the pre-Lara Croft era!

It's Ax the Barbarian!

Game: Golden Axe
Year: 1989
Publisher: Sega
Character: Tyris Flare

This next entry, as far as I know at least, has the distinction of being the first "beat em up" style game, to feature a female playable character. Golden Axe, originally an arcade hit by Sega, that was later ported to the Sega Master System and Genesis, is very obviously inspired by the hit "Conan the Barbarian" movies of the 1980s. It features the same kind of "before history", barbarian type fantasy setting, and one of the heroes is literally a barbarian named Ax Battler. The other two heroes of the original game, are dwarf Gilius Thunderhead, and amazon warrior Tyris Flare. If nothing else, the creators of this game had naming on point. So much so that the villain's name is Death Adder, with 100% lack of irony.

To Battle!

Now while the "beat em up" genre is generally regarded to have begun with 1987's Double Dragon, and later refined by 1989's Capcom hit Final Fight, it's still fair to give the original Golden Axe some credit in shaping its future as well. For one thing, it was probably the first to have a fantasy setting, and also the first to really feature upgradable special powers, in the form of magic. Each character even has a different magical power, typically revolving around a specific element like lightning, fire, rock, etc.

The game was popular enough to spawn three major sequels, the first of which, Golden Axe II, was actually my first exposure to the series. Tyris Flare stars in the first two games, and while the third on Genesis (which NA nonsensically didn't get a retail release of), features a character that is basically her, with the pointlessly different name of "Sarah Burn". A somewhat rare arcade-only sequel called Revenge of the Death Adder doesn't feature her at all, but it DOES have a pretty awesome female centaur named Dora. But Tyris has a place in gaming history, both as a great character, and for setting a precedent that other beat em ups would follow, of including female fighters.

He's totally not Cody from Final Fight. At all.

Game: Streets of Rage (aka Bare Knuckle)
Year: 1991
Publisher: Sega
Character: Blaze Fielding

Speaking of beat em ups by Sega, this series was introduced as exclusive to their popular Genesis console in the 90s. The first game is pretty solid, though it is also in many ways a blatant knock off of Capcom's Final Fight. Most especially the "main character" Axel Stone, who in every meaningful way looks exactly like Cody from FF, right down to the blond hair, blue eyes, and blue-jeans with a white shirt look. He's even a street "mixed martial artist" like Cody. But alas, what matters, is that Blaze, for many fans of the series, was actually the most popular character.

Blaze in SoR 3.

 The game received two Genesis sequels, making something of a complete trilogy. Part of the playable cast changed with each game, but Axel and Blaze remained the stars throughout. The game sees a crime boss called "Mr. X" trying to take over the city, so in the original, three police officers essentially leave the force to go underground and take out these gangs "outside the law". Mr. X remains the main antagonist for all three games, though of course each time he has a new evil scheme. As for Blaze herself, well, she's a judo expert, an ex-cop, in the second game a dance instructor, and by the third, she's a private detective. Now if only someone would be nice enough to give us an old school, sprite-based, GOOD Streets of Rage 4 after all these years...

One of my personal favorites.

Game: Arkista's Ring
Year: 1990
Publisher: American Sammy
Character: Christine

A game that is much more personal to me, because it was one of the very first games I owned on the NES. Arkista's Ring, as I have discussed before, is a top-down arcade styled action game, not unlike The Legend of Zelda, but having more in common with Gauntlet. I remember as a kid, really being mesmerized by the box art, both because I thought Christine was beautiful (I may or may not have had a childhood crush on her for a minute), but also because I thought she was really cool. She's this green-haired, green-eyed, fearless elf warrior, who is setting out to save her land of Arkista, both because no one else will stand up to face the evil Shogun, and because she's a bad ass.

You have to accessorize.

The game has around 30-odd levels, and as you progress through each relatively small stage, you use Christine's projectile attacks (default bow and arrow, later on she can get an item to throw huge fireballs, even through walls) to destroy all of the monsters, which will then give you the key to advance to the next stage. You also get treasure bags from some enemies, which will often give you items. But every so often, you'll also get another hit point in the form of a heart, and eventually, pieces of armor. Which you WILL need all those hits late in the game, because ninjas are no fucking joke. Once you beat the game once, in true 80s arcade fashion, the game essentially starts you over, but it just gets harder. This happens twice, as you don't get the "ending" until you beat it THREE times in a row, which of course is brutal. The good news is, you get to KEEP all those extra hits, AND you get the eponymous "Arkista's Ring", which is a magic ring that basically heals you as you walk around, easing the pain of just how hard the game gets on concurrent playthroughs.

I really wish more people knew about this game, and Christine. It would be swell if someone would make a new game starring her, set in Arkista, but knowing the way modern gaming often goes, maybe I should be careful what I wish for.

In Space, no one cal tell you're not the same actress!

Game: Aliens
Year: 1990
Publisher: Konami
Character: Ellen Ripley

Released exclusively to arcades some four years after the film, Aliens is a two-player Shoot 'Em Up game, that is styled more like a Golden Axe flavor Beat 'Em Up instead. Starring Ellen Ripley and Corporal Dwayne Hicks from the movie, you the player(s) must make your way through the hellish hallways of the LV-426 colony Hadley's Hope, trying to destroy the Xenomorph menace, and save the life of the colony's only survivor, the little girl Newt.

It's a little known fact that Xenomorphs are allergic to bleach.

While the game does take some creative liberties, such as Ripley suddenly being blonde, and some decidedly unusual (even for Xenomorphs) Alien types you have to fight, the game overall retains the spirit and style of the film it's based upon. The game features a couple of "bonus round" levels where you  must shoot aliens from the top of film's tank, and in the final battle with the Queen Alien, you even get in the iconic loader exosuit to fight her. Not the greatest game on earth, but decent fun when playing with a friend.

Hot Spy Action!

Game: Rolling Thunder 2
Year: 1991
Publisher: Namco
Character: Leila

Another game I've talked about before,  the original 1986 arcade hit Rolling Thunder, starred the agent Albatross, and saw him trying to save the world from the terrorist organization Geldra, while also trying to save his partner, fellow agent Leila. Well, in a rare turnabout in the video game industry, in the 1991 arcade sequel, you could now play AS agent Leila, the damsel you rescued the first time around. Imagine that, you save somebody, and then you actually get to PLAY them!

World Crime Police Organization Agent, Leila.

Not only can you play Leila in the sequel, but the game also features 2-player co-op, which in this type of game, probably makes the brutal difficulty a bit less. Unfortunately, Namco didn't have the foresight to keep 2-player OR Leila around for Rolling Thunder 3. To be fair, in the Genesis-only sequel, you don't get to play Albatross either. As the plot goes, Albatross and Leila are assigned elsewhere, so you the player, get to play a NEW agent named...Jay. While in all fairness, this game has a reputation for being rather good, and did add some solid new elements to the gameplay, I would argue that it was really unnecessary to do away with 2-player, and to NOT keep the same characters that fans already knew. Still, Rolling Thunder 2 is one of the first games to feature a woman who shoots guns and blows things up, IE the "typical action star" archetype.

She just wants to be part of your world.

Game: The Little Mermaid
Year: 1991
Publisher: Capcom
Character: Princess Ariel

Based on the 1989 hit Disney animated feature film of the same name, The Little Mermaid counts doubly as not only a prime example of a game starring a female hero, but also as a sterling example of a licensed property game that DOESN'T suck! Released in 1991 for both the home NES console and portable Game Boy, the game of course features Ariel, as her regular Mermaid self, swimming around six ocean stages, collecting items and defeating enemies mainly by throwing shells she finds, or by trapping enemies in bubbles to use as projectiles, ala Bubble Bobble. The NES and GB games have minor differences, but for the most part are the same.

"That's a huge b****!"

The game sees Ariel having already been turned human by the witch Ursula, and having met and fallen in love with Prince Eric. In the meantime, that bitch Ursula is up to no good, putting the fish of the sea under her control, and it's now up to Ariel, who has to return to her Mermaid form, to go stop her from taking over the whole ocean. This is a major turn from the film's story, where Ariel is not really much of a hero, as her father Triton and Prince Eric have to basically clean up her mess. But in this game version, Ariel is the one saving the day, and the game happens to be pretty fun to boot!

It's Ariel the Dolphin!

There was also a 1992 game called Ariel the Little Mermaid, on Sega Genesis and Game Gear, made by Blue Sky Software instead of Capcom, and it shows. In this game, you can choose to play as either Ariel or her father King Triton, and the game design and play style is far more reminiscent of Sega's own Ecco the Dolphin games. You still have to adventure around the ocean and ultimately defeat Ursula, but the game is generally regarded as not being nearly as good as the NES classic.

Better than Ninja Gaiden?

Game: Shadow of the Ninja (aka Blue Shadow)
Year: 1990
Character: Lady Kaede

Released in 1990 as something of an answer to the popular Ninja Gaiden games, the Natsume developed and published Shadow of the Ninja, is a fun yet highly difficult affair. With gameplay mechanics that are arguably better than NG, and featuring ninja action equally bad-ass, Shadow is a lesser known game, but well worth mentioning. The game's story takes place in the far future of 2029, where the United States has been taken over by the evil Emperor Garuda. For some reason, defeating him and freeing the U.S. is entirely up to two ninja masters from the Iga Clan, Lord Hayate and Lady Kaede.

"Get Over Here!"

The game features both single player and two player co-op play modes, and in either mode you have the option to choose to play either Hayate or Kaede. Both characters are functionally identical to the other, but it's still a neat feature to be able to choose. The default weapon of choice is a katana sword, though you can also get a power-up that swaps this out for the longer-range kusarigama weapon shown above. You can also get projectile sub-weapons like shurikens and grenades, as well as being able to summon lightning to strike enemies if your health bar is full enough.

In an ironic twist, Natsume actually started developing a Game Boy version of Shadow, only for Tecmo to buy the rights to it. They then effectively had it turned into a "Ninja Gaiden" game, called Ninja Gaiden Shadow, even though the game features Shadow's gameplay and same basic storyline, including Emperor Garuda.

Ms. Mega Man

Game: The Krion Conquest (aka Magical Doropie)
Year: 1991
Publisher: Vic Tokai
Character: Francesca (aka Doropie aka Dorothy)

Taking a step even further into the obscure, I'd like to introduce you to an oddball game that, when I first encountered it online years ago, I honestly thought it was a Mega Man hack. But no, what it is, is "Magical Doropie". What is that, you ask? It's a game by Vic Tokai, very loosely based on The Wizard of Oz, hence a heroine named Dorothy, or rather the very bad "Engrish" Doropie. But for the American version, they decided to change the name of the game to The Krion Conquest. Confused yet?

She's one righteous Mega-Babe!

The basic setup, is that the Earth has basically been conquered by the Krion Empire, with an army of robots who are seemingly invincible to all weaponry, except magic. Because of this, magic users have been sealed away. A mercenary named Kagemaru hires a girl named Francesca (Magical Doropie), the only witch not to be sealed, to use her magic to fight back against the empire. And there you have it. The game features very Mega Man esque gameplay and aesthetic, though it apparently featured extra abilities like ducking and vertical shooting, as well as a charge-shot before that was introduced in Mega Man 4. Not only were most of the game's cutscenes cut out for the North American version, but it was also made more difficult by nonsensically removing the ability to continue after getting a Game Over. Both a curiosity and a rare NES gem, Krion is definitely at least worth a look.

A Holy Grail for collectors.

Game: Magical Chase
Year: 1991
Publisher: Palsoft
Character: Ripple

Speaking of games starring magical witch-girls, another fairly rare gem, and in fact one of the most expensive games to collect these days, is the PC Engine/TurboGrafx hit Magical Chase. Developed by Quest, also known for the Ogre Battle series, Magical Chase is a horizontally scrolling "Shoot 'Em Up" game. For those unaware, old school "shooters" like these, feature automatically scrolling levels, where you control a ship or some other person or craft, in this case a young witch, and you have to  shoot an oncoming torrent of enemies, all while avoid the "bullet hell" they often unleash.

How adorable!

The TurboGrafx is a console already well known for its wealth of shooter games, and it really says something that outside of the Star Soldier, Air Zonk, and perhaps Lords of Thunder games, this "hidden gem" is widely regarded as not only one of the best shooters of the console, but of the entire 90s era. The story stars the young witch in training Ripple, who has broken her promise to her master not to look inside of an ancient book. By opening the book, she has released six demons upon the world, and unless she is able to get the demons back in the book, her master witch will turn her into a frog! Gameplay-wise, the game features attributes to other similar shooters, such as currency which you collect to use in shops, to upgrade your weapons, as well as large, colorful boss fights.

*Record Scratch*

On a final note, some folks would be forgiven, if they got this game confused with ANOTHER witch-starring, side-scrolling TurboGrafx shooter, which released the SAME year! Released for the Turbo CD (or Turbo Duo if you were cool enough to have one), Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams, ALSO featured a young, broom-riding witch flying through levels and wrecking shit with her magic. This game featured a young witch named Cotton, and her sexy, bikini-clad fairy sidekick. It's actually kind of hilarious that both games came out the same year on the same system, but it is my understanding that both are quite good, either way.

Jazz Hands!

Game: El Viento
Year: 1991
Publisher: Wolf Team (Renovation Products in NA)
Character: Annet Myer

 Speaking of obscure, there exists a little-known series of games on the Sega Genesis, which are in part not well known, because they don't have related game titles. Originally released in 1991 for the Mega CD (Sega CD), and ported to the Sega Genesis (Megadrive) in North America, the first game in the trilogy was called Earnest Evans. Featuring the titular hero, a whip-wielding adventurer in the mold of Indiana Jones, Evans is trying to finish his grandfather's goal of attaining three ancient idols with enough power to destroy the world, so they can be kept out of the hands of evil. With only one idol left to find, he races against time, and a rival treasure hunter. During his quest, while in Peru, he meets a  young woman named Annet Myer, who has green hair, and a bloodline with some kind of connection to the ancient god Hastur.

Earnest Evans meets Annet Myer.

Well, the NEXT game in the series would star Annet herself. Entitled El Viento, but featuring similar side-scrolling gameplay to its predecessor, the sequel follows Annet as she tries to stop the evil cult of Hastur, to which she has ancient connections, from trying to destroy the world. Annet uses boomerangs (even though she's from Peru), and ancient Hasturian magic, to stop cultists, as well as Al Capone-like mobsters. Sounds appropriately weird, right?

El Viento gameplay.

Annett Futabi gameplay.

Don't worry, it gets even weirder! The Mega CD got a third Japan-only sequel, called Annett Futabi, this time changing the gameplay to more of a Final Fight style scrolling Beat 'Em Up. The third game concluded the Earnest Evans storyline, as he must assist Annet in stopping yet another world-threatening plot, by a cult who wants to steal her special magic amulet. All in all, I'd wager most people, even many "serious gamers", have never heard of this series. But I'd be willing to bet all three games are rather fun, and it would be nice if good ol' Earnest and Annet could get resurrected for a new, modern (preferably non-shitty) adventure!

More lightning than you could shake a cloud at!

Game: Alisia Dragoon
Year: 1992
Publisher: Sega (or Game Arts)
Character: Alisia

Throwing one last Sega Genesis entry on the list, Alisia Dragoon was developed by Game Arts, and released in 1992. Another side-scrolling action game, this one features a more (obviously) fantasy setting, starring the protagonist Alisia, who must use her magic powers to blast everything in sight. In the Western releases of the game, it is simply stated that Alisia is some kind of "Gladiator", who is trying to destroy evil and save the world from a "Silver Star", with the help of her animal companions. The gameplay allows you to blast in basically all directions, and you do indeed make use of awesome familiars, like a Fire Dragon and a Thunder Raven.

Blastin' shit is a full time job.

In the Japanese version of the game, at least in the manual, they have a more elaborate back story, where Alisia is the daughter of a powerful sorceror, who has sealed away the demonic Baldour, and sent him into space. Her father is tortured to death by Baldaour's followers, and when the villain himself crashes back to Earth and begins to revive, Alisia must take up her father's mission to defeat the evil and save the planet. Pretty grim stuff, but also kinda epic!

Watch out for that tree!

Game: Jill of the Jungle
Year: 1992
Publisher: Epic MegaGames
Character: Jill

Released at the height of the "Shareware" era of PC DOS games, and a contemporary of such home computer titles as Commander Keen, Duke Nukem, Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure, and Monster Bash. While the brunt of these episodic games were made by companies id Software and Apogee Software, another new player in the field emerged in the early 90s, trying to make themselves "sound bigger" than they were, hence they called themselves "Epic MegaGames". And in point of fact, one of their earliest games, was a side-scrolling affair entitled Jill of the Jungle.

Jill in action.

The game stars Jill, an Amazon warrior who you guide through jungle landscapes, defeating various monsters, collecting keys and solving puzzles to advance. At times Jill must transform herself into other creatures, and as with most games, the difficulty ramps up the farther you get into the adventure. For those not familiar with what "Shareware" was, it was an early 90s PC business model, in which gamers could get the "first episode" of a game for free or very cheap (in my case I got these discs at the "99 Cent Store"), and then if you LIKED the game, you could mail order the second and third episodes for the full regular price. The three episodes of Jill were called: "Jill of the Jungle", "Jill Goes Underground" and "Jill Saves the Prince". The three episodes feature a combined 50 levels of gameplay.

Not a massive hit, but enough of one to help put Epic on the map, they would go on to higher fame with another side-scroller called Jazz Jackrabbit in 1994. And of course, these days, they are most known for the 3D shooter franchises Unreal and Gears of War, as well as being fairly infamous for practically everybody and their pet dog licensing the use of their "Unreal Engine" development tools.

Don't go in that house...

Game: Alone in the Dark
Year: 1993
Publisher: Infogrames (I*Motion in NA)
Character: Emily Hartwood

Sticking to PC for a moment, another early 90s PC hit, a substantially bigger one than Jill in fact, was an entry in the "point and click" style, as well as one of the earliest "Survival Horror" style games, called Alone in the Dark. As advertised on the cover art, the game was heavily inspired by HP Lovecraft stories and mythos, dealing with supernatural terror from "beyond". More puzzle than action oriented like later horror hits such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill would become, Alone was a game that challenged you to think...all while being scared out of your wits, naturally.

One of the scariest things about the game was the graphics, obviously.

The story sees you choosing to take on the role of two protagonists, either Edward Carnby or Emily Hartwood. Whichever you choose, you wind up stuck inside of the massive and seemingly empty Derceto mansion. Starting by figuring out how in the HELL to get out of the initial attic scene, the player must guide the character through a horror-filled house, trying to avoid (or very clumsily fight) enemies, and discover the secrets of the place so you can hopefully escape alive! While Carnby is a private investigator, hired by an antiques dealer to track down a piano in the house, as Emily, you are the niece of the mansion's previous occupant, Jeremy Hartwood, who has mysteriously committed suicide. As you advance through the game, you find evidence that the house was originally built by an evil occultist named Ezechiel Pregzt, and that Uncle Jeremy killed himself to keep from becoming the host for Pregzt to possess. Now YOU, the player, must avoid the same fate!

A fairly major hit of its time, Alone in the Dark would spawn an entire franchise, some later entries of which were not so great at all.

THE game that kicked off an entire genre.

Game: Street Fighter II
Year: 1991
Publisher: Capcom
Character: Chun Li

While there have been some heavy hitters on even just this 90s list, in the world of video games, and certainly in the 90s, perhaps no female character was a bigger deal, pre-Lara Croft, than that of Chun Li. A franchise that started as the fairly obscure original 1988 Street Fighter arcade game, and then gained steam with the popular Beam 'Em Up spinoff Final Fight (originally titled "Street Fighter '89"), the game that truly started a craze, Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, was released in arcades in 1991. And it is not over-exaggeration to state that SFII was THE arcade mega-hit of the entire decade, hands down.

Hey that cost money!

While the "star" of SFII was the star of the original game, Ryu (or alternately his friend and rival, Ken Masters), the sole female character of the game very quickly took the arcade world by storm, and became one of the most popular video game characters of all time. That character was Chun Li, an Interpol agent who was looking to avenge the death of her father, against the tyrant of Shadaloo, M. Bison (in Japan called Vega). The self-proclaimed "Strongest Woman in the World", Chun Li was a master of Wushu, and her trademark move, the "Lightning Kick", would make her famous. That and her thighs of steel.

How does one fight with such ridiculous bracelets?

Capcom obviously knew that Chun Li was a hit in the making, as she featured prominently on much of the early artwork for the game, including the North American SNES box art. After multiple "upgrade" versions of SFII, including "Champion Edition" and "Hyper Fighting", in SUPER Street Fighter II, released in 1993, Chun Li would be joined by a second female fighter, the British special forces agent Cammy (also known for her legs). And while there were early games of the 1-on-1 style BEFORE SFII, it is widely regarded as being THE game that really kickstarted the entire "fighting game" genre.

The 90s was an explosion of other developers trying to cash in on Capcom's massive success, as well as Capcom themselves making other fighting hits. Titles like Mortal Kombat, World Heroes, Samurai Showdown, King of Fighters, etc., would become very well known to gamers worldwide, and it all started, in great part, due to the success that characters like Chun Li brought in 1991. To close out this list, I'll include a cavalcade of OTHER female fighting game stars that followed in Ms. Li's ample footsteps, and if I miss anybody, trust me, there are tons just from 1992-1996 alone.

Sonya Blade, from Mortal Kombat.

Janne, from World Heroes.

Mai Shiranui, from Fatal Fury / King of Fighters

Princess Kitana, from Mortal Kombat II.

Nakaruru, from Samurai Shodown.

Sarah Bryant, from Virtua Fighter.

Morrigan and Felicia, from Darkstalkers.

Storm and Psylocke, from X-Men: Children of the Atom.

Black Orchid, from Killer Instinct.

Michelle Chang, from Tekken.

Taki, from Soul Edge.

So there you have it! There are even more characters that I didn't mention from 90s games, but I feel like, between these two articles, I have now made a fairly comprehensive list of "Who's Who" in the history of female game heroines. As I stated at the beginning, Lara Croft absolutely deserves her status in gaming history as an IMPORTANT female character. But is she the virtual "First Lady of Gaming"? I'd hardly think so.

Until next time, check out of these games!