Photosynthesis - title

Blue Orange is a company that has released a series of very successful board games that are geared towards children, and which feature educational themes. My girlfriend and I came across some of their games in a kids' hobby store while on a family road trip last year. The game that stood out the most on the shelf was a new release called Photosynthesis, a game about players competing to grow a small forest. The box art and pictures on the back made the game look very pretty, and its educational theme about the life cycle of plants intrigued us. So we bought a copy and held onto it until our kid's birthday in the fall.

The game is recommended for ages eight and older, and is easy to dismiss as just a "kids' game", especially given its status as "edutainment". However, this game is more complicated than your standard kids' fare. There actually is some strategy involved, and the game runs for about 90-minutes. It's not a random dial-flicker or dice-roller like Chutes and Ladders, Candyland, or other such Milton Bradley / Hasbro / Parker Bros. games that make up a kid's board game shelf. It also has deeper strategy than the children's version of Carcassone (which our kid also has). This game (along with most of Blue Orange's catalog) is definitely geared towards family night, in which people of all ages are playing.

The game board is very pretty once multiple trees of different colors are placed.

A vibrant forest

This game's components certainly are pretty. The trees (and everything else) are simple cardboard cutouts, but they are printed on some thick and sturdy cardstock. Production quality is pretty high for a kid's game, and that high quality is always important when you're playing a game with kids, as it means the game will last longer before falling apart. All the colors are vibrant and attractive, and they all mix together very well when the trees are all clumped together on the board. I'm not particularly keen on the blue evergreens, which look very unnatural and kind of out of place. Maybe Blue Orange could have gone with more of a blue-green color? Or maybe red, as in "redwood"? Ah well, it's not a big deal. Maybe the blue trees are an homage to the company's name. The game looks very pretty, in any case.

The gameplay is pretty simple and elegant. Each turn, sunlight comes from a particular direction on the board, and any trees that are not blocked by an adjacent tree (e.g. the tree is not "in the shadow" of another tree) collects sunlight points for the owning player. Each player then spends their sunlight points to plant new seeds on the board, or to grow existing seeds into small trees, to grow an existing tree from small to medium or medium to large, or to let a large tree die. When a large tree dies, it creates new soil, which is awarded to the owning player as victory points. Trees in spaces further from the edges of the board score more points.

The sun moves across the board each turn, providing sunlight and shade to different trees.

Each round the sun moves around the board, casting different trees in the shadows of other trees. Medium and large trees also collect more sunlight, cast longer shadows, and can collect sunlight if partially-obstructed by smaller trees. So where you put the trees, and how tall you let them grow, will determine whether they will get sunlight, or if they will block other players' trees. You also have trade offs between planting more trees or growing your existing trees. Your own trees can also block your other trees, so you have to keep that in mind when you are placing or growing your trees.

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Spectacular Spider-Man

Pretty much any time I talk about Spider-Man on this blog, I use one of two points of reference. The first is the original comics themselves (the Silver Age comics of the 60's and 70's). The second point of reference is a short-lived children's cartoon from 2008 to 2009 called The Spectacular Spider-Man. Its first season aired on The CW network (part of Warner Bros. network), and the second season aired on Disney XD. The series was developed primarily by Greg Weisman and Victor Cook, and was produced by Sony.

Despite referring back to this series repeatedly, I've never actually written a review of it. Recently, however, I re-watched the series (by introducing it to my 8-year-old daughter and her friends), and thought maybe I should actually write a review of. Put simply, Spectacular Spider-Man is probably the single best adaptation of Spider-Man that has ever been put on a screen. It's not only the best Spidey animated series, but it might even be better than any of the Spider-Man movies, including Sam Raimi's movies and Marvel's recent Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Spectacular Spider-Man is a better adaptation than any of the Spider-Man movies.

High school drama for all audiences

The show is a children's cartoon and its high school setting is definitely targeting younger kids. But it is surprisingly well-planned, well-written, and well-executed for a children's cartoon, and the teenage drama suits Spider-Man exceptionally well. Any Spidey fan, regardless of age, should be able to enjoy this show.

On the surface, the series seems to take a lot of inspiration from the Ultimate Spider-Man line of comics. This was a little bit off-putting for me at first because I don't particularly care for the Ultimate Spider-Man storylines or aesthetics. However, Spectacular won me over by remaining very faithful to the original comics as well. Spectacular manages to take the best elements from every incarnation of Spider-Man, combines them, and modernizes them into a 21st century setting while delightfully capturing the spirit of the original 60's and 70's comics. Plot elements and themes are pulled from the original comics, from the Ultimate comics, and also (being produced by Sony) from the Sam Raimi movies. It even makes a few successful homages to the 1990's Spider-Man: the Animated Series that ran on Fox and had been, up till this point, the gold standard for Spidey on TV (at least, up until the last couple seasons go completely off the rails).

Spectacular takes the best elements from every incarnation of Spider-Man,
while remaining spectacularly faithful to the original 60's and 70's comics.

Spectacular even replicates some scenes straight from the panels of the comics. The infamous "Face it Tiger, you just hit the jackpot." scene is transferred verbatim. Other scenes such as Spider-Man removing the Venom symbiote in the church tower, and channeling the thoughts of his friends and loved ones to help him lift himself out from under collapsing metal beams are also faithfully replicated.


Spectacular [BOTTOM ROW] replicates panels from the original comics [TOP ROW] almost verbatim.

Other adaptations have also replicated (or paid homage to) specific comic book panels. For instance, The Animated Series of the 90's also had the "Face it Tiger, you just hit the jackpot!" scene, and the symbiote bell tower scene, and so forth, and many of its episodes are loosely based on issues of the comics. Homecoming had the "trapped under rubble" scene. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movie had the Green Goblin being impaled by his glider. And so forth.

What separates Spectacular from these other adaptations is that Spectacular manages to maintain more of the nuance and texture of those original comic panels.

And it isn't just the faithfullness to the source material that I like. The show is also generally well-written, with some clever (and not-so-clever) uses of things like symbolism and foreshadowing. The characters are all well-written and well-performed. The animation may have exaggerated body proportions, but it's very fluid, expressive, and is full of nuances in facial expressions and body language. There are some parts of the show that have some cheesy dialogue that reminds me that it's a children's show, but overall, the show is immensely watchable by adults and children alike.

There's some quality writing, including foreshadowing, symbolism, and misdirection.

If I haven't made it clear already, this show is fantastic, and I absolutely adore it! The next section will contain minor spoilers, and the sections after that will contain major spoilers! So if you haven't seen the show yet, then I highly recommend that you buy the DVDs and watch it, then come back to finish reading the review. You can maybe get through the next section ("Friends and Lovers") without too much spoilers, but sections after that will be spoiling major story threads, including what I consider to be the single biggest spoiler in the entire series. Suffice it to say: I love what the show does with Gwen Stacy, I love what it does with Mary Jane, I love what it does with Harry Osborne, and I love the depictions of most of the villains! If you haven't watched the show yet, then read on at your own risk!

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What Remains of Edith Finch - title

The Finch family is, as we are told, cursed. It's not a spoiler to say that every member of the family dies a tragic, premature death. The family tree in the sketchbook tells you as much at the start of the game.

We play, ostensibly, as 17-year-old Edith Finch, the last surviving member of the Finch family, but also an expecting mother. Her son will carry on the name and legacy of the family. She returns to her childhood home to learn the stories of all her cursed relatives, as she debates internally with whether to share these stories with her son, or to let the past (and its myriad tragedies) fade away and die.

The Finch family is cursed by tragedy.

The house itself, is a whimsical generational home in which each member of the family is given his or her own unique room. As more members of the family are born, new rooms are added onto the house, including a towering structure on the top that makes the house look almost like a castle. After losing both of her sons, Edith's mother began sealing off everyone's rooms so that Edith (and any future children) would not become aware of how the others died. But, each room has alternate ways in and out, including some secret doorways and tunnels.

Despite the whimsical, fantastical nature of the house, everything feels surprisingly real and lived-in. The house is cluttered with the paraphernalia of the family (since they were apparently also hoarders), and each room has a very distinct personality. Even the shared spaces that do not belong to any one individual still exhibit a sense of personality to them. This is a family that takes great pride in their history and the connectedness that they have towards one another.

The Finch home is a whimsical, generational house.

As she learns about these stories, Edith questions whether the family members should know about the stories of their relatives and the supposed curse? Or does that knowledge make tragedy a self-fulfilling prophecy? Should she share these stories with her unborn son, at the risk that the knowledge may cause him to also fall victim to the curse? Or is he cursed either way, and has a right to know it?...

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A Quiet Place

I missed yet another theatrical sci-fi movie. The trailers for Annihilation made the movie look like kind of a dumb monster flick, so I didn't rush out to go see it. I only started to hear several weeks later that it might actually be a pretty good sci-fi film. Unfortunately, life happened, my weekends were busy, and I never made it out to the cinema to see it.

So instead, I was invited to see a new horror movie with some friends. A Quiet Place is also a monster flick, but its novel gimmick really helps to set it apart from other monster movies. The gimmick itself isn't even particularly original. Other movies have featured monsters that are especially sensitive to sound. It's the execution of A Quiet Place that sets it apart.

Much like last year's exceptional War for the Planet of the Apes, A Quiet Place's dialogue comes mostly in the form of subtitled sign language, which the family of protagonists already knows because the oldest child (Millicent Simmonds) is deaf. This leads to the movie being palpably quiet for most of its runtime. I say "most" because there's a few moments of punctuated loudness that work effectively. There's also quite a few moments in which artificially-loud noises, sound effects, and musical ques are used to create cheap jump scares.

That last bit was disappointing because when A Quiet Place is cleverly using its sound design to ratchet up tension, it works phenomenally. This comes through most clearly with the deaf daughter. The movie goes almost completely silent whenever it switches to her point of view, with a faint, high-pitched static being the only sound you'll hear. When this is combined with some depth of field effects that make it hard to see clearly what's going on, it really helps to sell the sense of powerlessness and lack of awareness of the character, which ratchets up the tension for the audience.

The daughter is deaf, so the family already knows sign language, and use it throughout the movie.

The diagetic loud noises, such as the toy space shuttle or knocking over the lamp at the beginning of the movie work really well to punctuate the silence and create momentary panic. It's when lazy, cliche horror movie sounds start to come into play that things start to feel cheap. I'm not sure whether to blame this on actor/director John Krasinski, or on producer Michael Bay. I lean towards the latter. It doesn't ruin the movie, but it does weaken it a little...

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This year's holiday season saw a fundamental shift in the way (and reasons) that I buy games. I bought a gaming console as a gift for a child. This Christmas, my girlfriend and I bought our 7-year old a Nintendo Switch (and also managed to get our hands on an SNES Classic). For the first time, I'm not buying games and consoles for myself anymore; I'm buying them for my proxy-child.

My game and console purchases aren't just for me anymore...

I guess I'm old now...

This also means that I now possess my first Nintendo console since 10-year-old me replaced my old NES with a Sega Genesis...

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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