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Growing Up When Life is Strange

Brion

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(Warning: Spoilers for Life Is Strange and frank discussion of suicide and implied rape).

Growing up is necessary. It can be a hideous, confusing and disastrous mess of an experience, but it is something we must all go through. After a certain point we have to stop being children. After a certain point we have to grasp that our actions really do have consequences.

Life is Strange is one of the more famous choose your own adventures style games that gained renewed popularity this past decade. It features all the evolving genre’s standard tropes; butterflies as a visual theme, choices with impossible to predict later consequences and a suspiciously binary ending.

Its major gaming mechanic is that its protagonist can rewind time and try to make more informed choices. Does this sound like it would completely undermine a stories attempt to make a point about living with consequences? Of course it does, and for good reason.

In real life we cannot rewind time to fix our mistakes. In Life is Strange we can. Or rather, we can up until a certain point, when we will be faced with the most blatant visual representation of our choices ramifications. The game does not treat us fairly, but who ever said life was fair. Life is strange and we have to grow up.

 

Life is Complicated

Max Caulfield (even her surname has hipster cred) returns to the small Oregon town where she spent her childhood, Arcadia Bay, to attend a prestigious art high school. Eighteen years old and a budding photographer, she was drawn to Blackwell Academy due to one of its teachers being the world famous photographer Mark Jefferson (more on this irredeemable man later).

Shy, introverted and acutely low in self-esteem, Max tries to hide from her problems in a bathroom one day. Then a boy bursts in, starts talking to himself, is soon confronted by a blue-haired girl, pulls a gun and accidentally shoots the girl dead. This is fortuitously the moment that Max realises she can reverse time.

She saves the girl with her new-found powers and discovers she is her former best friend Chloe. The rest of the game is technically spent uncovering a mystery involving corruption, drugs and a missing girl, but ostensibly focuses on the re-building of Max and Chloe’s friendship.

And there’s also a tornado coming to destroy Arcadia Bay in four days’ time. Life is hard.

An Aside: Is an art high school really a thing? I was halfway through the game before I realised Blackwell wasn’t a college. Am I the only one who was confused? Do they really have places like this in America, or is this the result of French developers with Japanese publishers setting their game in Oregon?

Life is Choice

So there is a lot going on as this teen drama slowly spirals into the potential apocalypse, (and I have made it deliberately sound more convoluted than it actually is) but the most pertinent fact is that the game ends with a single important choice. This choice is more than a little divisive among fans, which is great news for me because I am about to tell slightly less than half of them that they made the wrong decision.

The more Max meddles with time, the more odd occurrences keep springing up. First there is snow on an eighty degree day, then an unscheduled eclipse. Before long whales are washing up on the beach and two moons are floating in the sky. As an enormous vortex threatens to destroy Arcadia Bay, Max realises it is her time travel that is causing the universe to unravel. The only way to put the world to rights is to go back in time to the moment when she discovered her powers and undo the first thing she changed.

Which means she has to let Chloe die, or else an entire town full of people will die. This is the final choice the game presents to you.

 

Life is Consequence

We will leave the divisive ending alone for a moment and take a quick tour through some of the horrible things that can happen in Life is Strange. Things can go wrong fast and sometimes time travel cannot fix them. Here is a list of bad things that can happen in this alternate reality that Max created when she began reversing time.

  • Frank and his dog are murdered by Chloe.
  • Chloe is murdered by Mark Jefferson.
  • As is Victoria.
  • As is Nathan.
  • Kate Marsh (I will address this in a moment).
  • David’s life is utterly ruined and he kills Jefferson in his grief (he can also be murdered by Jefferson).
  • Joyce loses her family again.

This is leaving aside the tornado that threatens to destroy the town, and only focusing on the fates of the main characters. While much of this is avoidable, some is set in stone, and regardless of the exact body count, Max will leave a trail of blood in her wake. Not that I blame her in the slightest; She is only eighteen after all, and tries her hardest to help people.

The pertinent point to take away from this is that the events of the game are not pleasant for anyone. Everyone suffers along the way. This reality exists because Max saved Chloe, and it is a realty of worry and woe. This is not a timeline worth preserving.

And I have not even gotten to the worst part of it yet.

 

Life is Precious

Kate Marsh.

I’m sorry Kate.

I once wrote a blog post apologising to Kate Marsh. I had to take a day off after I completed Episode 2 in order for me to come to terms with her fate. For the longest time Kate Marsh was with me as I went about my life. Despite her being a fictional character, and one I barely got to know at that, I wholeheartedly missed Kate.

Kate Marsh is a reserved girl who attracts the scorn of the popular kids when she begins an abstinence campaign. She is mercilessly bullied, her situation getting even worse after a viral video of her drugged at a party is spread around campus. At the end of Episode 2 Kate climbs to the roof of her dormitory. It is up to Max (and the player) to talk her down. It is possible to fail; In fact, it is much harder to succeed. Kate Marsh can jump to her death, and no amount of time travel can bring her back.

I did not convince Kate to step down off the ledge on my first play through. She jumped, and a kind soul was lost to the world. Yet this did not have to be her fate. She would never have been driven to the roof if more people had supported her, and more people would have supported her had those who drugged her been caught.

Which would have happened if Max had not saved Chloe. Stopping the vortex will not just save a town full of people; it will also bring Kate Marsh back.

 

Life is Growth

(A lot of what I have to say has already been said better here, so give that article a look.)

Chloe Price is not exactly the most selfless person in the world. While she has undoubtedly been through the horrors, that serves more as an explanation for her self-centred nature rather than an excuse. She blames everyone and everything for her problems (including her dead father for “choosing” to abandon her) without ever looking at herself.

That is, until the very end of the game when she gains some perspective and finally becomes an adult. It is her idea to go back and change things so she perishes at the game’s beginning. She urges Max to save the town, with her mother being at the forefront of her thinking.

“She deserves so much more than to be killed by a storm in a fucking diner.”

Chloe grows up at the very end of the game, but it is up to the player whether or not Max will grow up too. Will you let follow Chloe’s wishes and save the town, in full understanding of the harsh consequences of your actions? Or will you fly in the face of all reason and attempt to arrest Max’s development forever?

And not to make a false equivalence, but you know who else in Life is Strange is in a state of arrested development? Mark Jefferson.

Literally the worst person in history.

Life is Horror

Remember Mark Jefferson, world famous photographer turned trendy teacher? It transpires he became a teacher not to help mould the minds of the next generation, but rather to satiate his obsessions. Jefferson has been drugging, kidnapping, and photographing girls without their consent. By the game’s end he has also become a murderer.

Everything he does is in service to taking pictures of young girls while drugged and unconscious:

“Simply put, I’m obsessed with the idea of capturing that moment innocence evolves into corruption.

The main point of contention of the villain is the idea of girls growing up. The independence, intelligence and strength of a grown woman is a ‘corruption’ to him, a subversion of the natural order where he exercises complete control. Hmm, a villain obsessed with total control in a story about a hero with control over time itself; I wonder if the writers were hinting at something?

Even leaving aside his disgusting misogyny, everything about Jefferson screams arrested development. His appearance is a see-through attempt to look like the ‘trendy, cool, not like the rest’ teacher, a pitiful stab at holding on to youth by a man that must be pushing forty. He walked away from stardom to teach at a high school, not because he values education, but due to his need to lecture people over whom he holds sway.

Jefferson is a man that refuses to grow up. He is a terrible human being. The goal, then, should be to strive not to be like Jefferson, and the way to accomplish that is to let Chloe go.

 

Life is Memory

One of the most common complaints levelled at the good ending of Life is Strange is that it undoes all other choices made up until that point. History is entirely rewritten, they say, and everything that Max and Chloe did over those five days ceases to have happened. This is a complaint I have always found puzzling, because those five days did happen, even if they are erased from history.

I remember those five days. Any other player will remember those five days. More to the point, Max will always remember those five days. They are her eternal gift from the universe, five days she got to spend with the person she loves most in the world.

If not for those five days, Chloe dies without her and Max ever reconnecting. She dies without Max ever meeting her again, ever learning to miss her. Nothing can ever make those five days unreal for Max because she lived them. She will always remember Chloe now. She may have lost her, but she will never forget her.

Those five days happened for Max. And they were crucial to her growing up.

 

Life Is

Choose to sacrifice Chloe and the story comes full circle. A long ending scene (one the developers clearly worked harder on than the other) takes us right back to the beginning. All the villains are brought to justice. Kate never goes up to the roof. The town is not destroyed, its populace are not killed and Max has matured into a remarkable woman.

Alternatively, Max can sacrifice Arcadia Bay, kill everyone in the town (including all of Max’s friends and Chloe’s mother), a gesture so powerful it will basically force Chloe to stay with Max forever (whether she wants to or not a few years down the line), and this is to say nothing of the fact that the universe still wants Chloe dead and is unlikely to stop trying. This is bad from every angle.

Is the lesson that the universe had to kill a young woman to put everything to right? No, not at all. The lesson here is that Max did have a chance to save Chloe, but only one, before she developed her powers. She could have intervened then and saved Chloe from death that very first time in the bathroom. She did not, and Chloe died.

It is the dream of a child that they can fix everything, but that is not how the world works. In real life we only get ever get a single shot and most of the time it is only clear afterwards when our shot was. No amount of wanting things to have gone differently will make it so. Being an adult means accepting the things you cannot change and fighting like crazy for the things you can.

Being prepared to do literally anything to protect the person you love most is not the sign of a good person. It is the opposite of that, a spit in the face of morality for the sake of maintaining what you want most. There are two endings to Life is Strange, but these endings are not equal. We have to be given the chance to make the wrong decision. Otherwise we would never fully appreciate it when we choose correctly.

Real because it will never be forgotten.


All Images Courtesy of Dontnod

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Styx Masters The Shadows In 2017

Michał

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The year of 2017 is coming to an end, so nerdy writers like us are inevitably going to talk about things they’ve seen, read and played during it. And I’m no exception – I’d like to tell you all about a game you  may not have heard about. It’s Styx: Shards of Darkness.

Now, this game is a third one in the series… in a manner of speaking. So I need to provide a bit of background, first. While I will avoid spoilers for Shards of Darkness (henceforth SoD), I will talk a bit about the other games’ plots.

A Little History

The main character, Styx, first appears in an unusual action-RPG hybrid Of Orcs and Men. Arkail, an orc warrior with a temper problem (if one can call uncontrollable berserker rage that) joins a mission to kill the human emperor. The orcs see it as their last chance to prevent human expansion into their territory and enslavement of their people. Each member of the elite Bloodjaw warband is to cross the great wall and infiltrate human lands with a hired guide. For Arkail, this turns out to be a wise-cracking goblin assassin, Styx.

Arkail is less than convinced… because Styx is the only goblin to ever speak or display more intelligence than a rabid dog. All the other goblins are marauding monsters that had appeared out of nowhere, a hundred years before the game’s start. If Styx knows anything about that, he refuses to tell anything, simply saying that he’s “different” and “a survivor”.

Grumbling aside, the two companions go on with the mission, their dynamic being central to the gameplay. Arkail is a large warrior who has to manage his burning rage, while Styx is a canny assassin who eliminates targets with a pair of daggers and a set of throwing knives.

Eventually, while the unlikely duo is going on a mental journey into a mage’s mind in order to save her, the truth comes out. Styx has to confront a deep part of himself that reveals he used to be an orc mage who experimented with a substance called “Amber” and turned himself into a grotesque version of an orc. Then he spawned the rest of goblinkind. Whether he embraces the truth or keeps repressing it is up to the player, but it doesn’t affect much.

Styx: Master of Shadows is a prequel that goes all the way back to Styx’s origins. Styx is trying to reach the heart of a World-Tree that excretes Amber… the very same thing that turned him into what he is. Although he can create clones now (and use abilities he certainly does not have in Of Orcs and Men), they disappear after a while and there are no goblins yet.

Master of Shadows ends with the World-Tree destroyed and a horde of goblins swarming out of the wreckage. Styx himself has forgotten most of what happened and moves on.

Shards of Darkness picks up some time after that. Styx has established himself as an elusive mercenary, while his sorry progeny has caused major devastation. I’m not sure how a horde of small, runty and dumb green people managed to destroy an entire town, but I’ll take their word for it.

The Essence of the Game

After a routine job, Styx encounters Helledryn, the head of the CARNAGE squad… which hunts goblins. The woman has a job for him, and plenty of Amber (which Styx is addicted to and which is the source of his powers) to give him in exchange. To the surprise of no one, he ends up getting in way over his head, just like he would do again 50 years later or so.

Much like Master of Shadows, Shards of Darkness is a stealth game. The core of the gameplay remains the same. Styx has to sneak through large maps in pursuit of primary and secondary objectives. The levels, much like in the previous game, are as much vertical as they are horizontal. Styx will jump and climb frequently. He’s got some jumping power in those stumpy legs. There’s always more than one path to your objective, and good spatial awareness will benefit you.

Map design remains pretty stellar, although once again, maps are also reused. You return to areas you’ve already explored eventually. Then again, you do so for good in-story reasons, so perhaps it makes more sense than always finding yourself somewhere new.

The Styx franchise is somewhat different from many other stealth games in that directly engaging enemies isn’t much of an option. When an enemy catches up to you, you’ll have to parry their attacks until you can go in for the kill. When two enemies attack you, or someone has a ranged weapon, they’re free to turn you into a goblin shish-kebab.

Thus it’s easy to dispatch a single enemy if things go wrong, but the game still encourages you to sneak around. If they spot you, there’s always the option to run and hide. Particularly as some enemies you can’t fight at all. Heavily-armored enemies such as knights, dark elf elite guards and dwarves will simply kill you. They’re also entirely immune to Styx’s dagger and crossbow bolts (it’s a tiny, wrist-mounted crossbow), so if you want to get rid of them, you’ll have to be clever. Poison their food, drop something heavy on them or use an acid mine. The last part also gets rid of the body, as Styx can’t carry someone so heavy.

Although it’s possible to run and hide from enemies, in both games I gave myself a challenge of never being spotted at all. Which isn’t easy, but possible and rewarding. You get extra experience for it, as well, which you spend on Styx’s skills. You also get it for being quick (something I could never get more than a bronze medal in), finding all small tokens in a given level (I never bothered to do it) or not killing any enemies.

In Master of Shadows, playing mercifully was difficult. You couldn’t kill anyone at all to get that medal for a particular level, and it could be very hard to avoid detection otherwise. So it you wanted to do it, you would have to forgo the medal for non-detection… or at least, I can’t imagine doing both.

On the other hand, in Shards of Darkness, I found it much easier to go through levels without killing. Perhaps it’s by design, or perhaps I was better at the game? It wouldn’t surprise me if it was a design decision to make such a playstyle a more attainable challenge. In addition, all medals are gradual. Killing no one gets you gold, but killing five or less gets you silver.

One Crafty Goblin

Shards of Darkness also introduces crafting. This is normally something that fills me with dread, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. In the original game, you pick up potions, throwing knives and other items and you have a limit of how many you can carry. The second one adds an extra decision point – you find raw materials and you must decide what to make from them. Will you use the iron ore on crossbow bolts, lockpicks or acid mines?

Of course, because crafting will always be crafting, some materials are scarce and some you’ll carry around in abundance. This depends on what items you learn to craft, but still. You’ll always be short on iron ore and raw Amber, because you use them to craft items you use all the time. Others only go into more situational and later-game items… for which you’ll also need iron or Amber, in many cases.

Although the games play the same, I couldn’t help but feel like the second one is… easier? Perhaps it was the increased ease of a non-violent approach. And the game did grow more challenging later, particularly as we encounter dwarves. Who are entirely typical fantasy dwarves… except for their keen noses. They can pick up a greenskin’s smell easily, which means Styx can’t rely on the shadows to hide him.

They’re easily the most difficult enemy to get past, and the real purpose of acid mines. Those are normally impractical, as by the time you maneuver an enemy into it, you can just bypass or kill them. But they’re a way to kill a dwarf without being spotted.

In other ways, Shards of Darkness expands on the first game’s options. There are more skills and Styx can actually change his equipment. Each dagger or outfit comes with benefits and drawbacks… although a dagger that muffles any kill but makes parrying impossible is a straight-up benefit for a no-detection run. A dagger that instantly dissolves a killed enemy but can’t make quiet kills (which take longer but make less sound) is tricky… unless you take skills that let you muffle the sounds of assassination. An outfit you can unlock through skills lets you craft anywhere, but makes running and jumping noisier. And so on.

All of it doesn’t kick in until later, when you get all sorts of gear and skills to combine into clever strategies. I was able to, for instance, attack an enemy from several meters, then kill them quickly, noiselessly and almost invisibly. And with the dagger I mentioned above, I left no body behind. This tempts me to play the game on NG+, something I’m normally not fond of doing.

Going Too Far

Where I did notice a problem with the game was the writing. Specifically, the main protagonist. Styx captured the hearts of the audience by packing enough snark, experience and swearwords to equip a biker gang into a four-feet-tall body. He retains that personality in the other games… but by Shards of Darkness, it feels like it goes too far.

It’s not an uncommon thing, I think. Many characters find their traits exaggerated over time. And I think that’s what happened with Styx. The writers had a protagonist who was notably snarky, cynical, disrespectful and had a dark sense of humor. So Shards of Darkness has him constantly joke, swear, insult people… it grates sometimes. It’s hard to empathize with a protagonist who never seems to take anything seriously, until he gets angry.

The absolute worst case is Styx insulting the player through the fourth wall when he dies. I really don’t know who thought it was a good idea and I turned it off more or less immediately. This is a good example of that, I think. “Hey, Styx is a rude jackass, why don’t we have him be one to the player?” He also breaks, or just leans on, the fourth wall in other places. It’s not as direct, but does sound forced. Which is generally how it goes; sometimes it feels like the writers try too hard to make sure we know he’s a crude, irreverent and selfish little guy.

This is particularly uncomfortable when it comes to Helledryn, whom I mentioned early on. She’s a goblin-hunter who works with Styx out of necessity. She’s a large woman… though, frankly, not nearly as much as you’d think when hearing people mention it. Styx, who isn’t happy about working with her, never passes up an opportunity to rib her about it. He delights in calling her a “cow”, particularly. Again, he’s a bastard who insults everyone. But when the most frequent and consistent target is a woman, and most of it concerns her size… it’s not a very good impression.

The rest of the writing is serviceable. The world-building is very clearly ad hoc, the writers making it up as they go. The world and story already don’t mesh well with Of Orcs and Men, particularly as Styx has no powers in that game. The game ends with a clear sequel hook, though, so I expect Styx to lose them and his Amber addiction. It’s not really a bad thing – the world, threadbare as it is, is still more appealing than the generic setting in Of Orcs and Men.

Worth Recommending

Despite my misgivings about a protagonist I had initially loved (I very much like goblins in fantasy), Styx: Shards of Darkness is a refinement of the first game’s already solid formula, that delivers the same experience with extra features. Of Orcs and Men is an entirely different game, and very rough around the edges. But it’s still worth investigating if you want something you may not have otherwise seen. And both Styx games are ideal if you want tough, channeling stealth games where you have to think on your feet and consider every angle.

 

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Game Awards 2017 News Roundup

Dan

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The Game Awards are, or are at least an attempt to be, an “Oscars” for video games. The successor to Spike TV’s VGA’s, this is their fourth year awarding excellence in all parts of gaming. But the awards are only half the fun. The Game Awards also serve as a place for devs to drop trailers and news about their upcoming properties. Here’s a roundup of the biggest news coming out of the Game Awards!

The Game Awards 2017

Nintendo Dominates

With the release of the Switch, Nintendo has brought their A game when it comes to releases this year. That shows how successful they were at this year’s show. Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild got the big accolades with wins for Game of the Year, Best Game Direction, and Best Action/Adventure Game. Super Mario Odyssey landed Best Family Game while Mario+Rabbids: Kingdom Battle won, of all awards, Best Strategy Game. Finally, Metroid: Samus Returns took home Best Handheld Game.

Cuphead Gets Well Deserved Love

Cuphead has been an indie monster this year. The game combines old school, hard-as-nails gameplay, with almost-slavish devotion to the beautiful animation of yesteryear. That pairing earned them a Best Art Direction Award, as well as Best Independent Game and Best Debut Indie Game. You can view Cuphead’s launch trailer below:

 

Female Video Game Pioneer Recognized

One of the first female game developers ever, Carol Shaw, was recognized for her contributions to gaming. Working in the 70’s, when there were barely any game developers period, let alone women, Shaw helped design games like Super Breakout(1978) for Atari. Her biggest success was the creation of River Raid (1982) for Activision. After leaving Activision in 1984, she worked for Tandem Computers until an early retirement in 1990. She now mostly does volunteer work. You can see her award speech below:

News From The Show

Bayonetta 3 Teased

Everyone’s favorite overly sexualized witch is (barely) suiting up for another game on Nintendo’s new console. It’s been three years since the digital embodiment of the Male Gaze has had her own game, but she did make a strong showing in 2015’s edition of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. While we have no word on release date, Bayonetta 3 is being developed purely for the Switch. Nintendo also announced that Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2 would be coming to the Switch in February. Watch the trailer below:

Nintendo Lets Breath of the Wild Get Silly

Even though the Legend of Zelda series is ostensibly one of Nintendo’s more serious franchises, it’s still made by Nintendo. As such, there’s always a bit of lighthearted fun, and humor sprinkled around each game. But in Breath of the Wild’s new DLC, The Champions’ Ballad, Nintendo seems to be ramping up the fun. In addition to giving Link access to cosplays of Zelda characters like Rovio (Link Between World), Zant (Twilight Princess), and Ganon, Nintendo also saw fit to give the Hero of Time a MOTORCYCLE! See all this, and a peek at the new dungeon below:

People Still Have No Idea What Hideo Kojima Is Doing

Norman Reedus is pregnant? And vomiting oil? But the oil grabs people? And maybe it made him pregnant? How does Mads Mikkelsen play into this?

Veteran Fighting Series Gets New Entry

It’s been five years since Namco last released a new entry in their popular Soul Caliber series.  The series is well known for both its weapon-based combat system as its unique taste in women’s wear. The new trailer doesn’t reveal much, except for the return of classic characters Sophitia Alexandra and Mitsurugi. Soul Caliber VI is set to drop for PS4, Xbox One, and PC in 2018. Watch the trailer below:

 

World War Z Shows Up Late To Zombie Game Craze With Starbucks

Even though it’s been four years since the world gave the film adaptation of World War Z a collective “meh,” it appears someone still thinks there’s gas in the franchise. Taking the sort of “same world, different characters” approach as The Walking Dead, the video game adaptation will be a four-player co-op shooter taking place in various infested locales around the world. The game will be developed by Saber Interactive (Halo Online, R.I.P.D The Game). Catch the trailer below.


Image courtesy of The Game Awards

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Nintendo Is Making A Live Action Detective Pikachu Film…Starring Ryan Reynolds

Dan

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After all of the calls, tweets, and letters…after over 50,000 people signed a petition…after the actor himself stated he doesn’t even know what Pokemon is…Danny Devito will not be playing the title roll in Nintendo’s upcoming live action Detective Pikachu film. Instead, the Electric Mouse Pokemon will have a decidedly smoother voice. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Deadpool actor Ryan Reynolds.

Detective Pikachu has only been around for a little over a year, making his debut in 2016 in Great Detective Pikachu. The “cinematic adventure game”  stood out immediately thanks to its star: a deep voiced, flirty, coffee chugging Pikachu in a deer stalker hat. While not as powerful as others of his species, Detective Pikachu makes up for it with his intelligence and knack for crime solving. With his ambiguously young friend/driver Tim Goodman, the Detective solves Pokemon related crime around the city.

Alongside Reynolds, Justice Smith (The Get Down) and Kathryn Newton (Lady Bird, Big Little Lies) will star in the main human roles. Rob Letterman (Goosebumps) will be taking the director’s chair. Writing chores are being handled by Alex Hirsch (Gravity Falls) and Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel). The film will be produced by Legendary Pictures (Jurassic World, Straight Outta Compton), and distributed by Toho and Universal. Detective Pikachu will be the first live action adaptation of a Nintendo Property since 1993’s Super Mario Bros. Not doubt Nintendo is hoping that this film turns out a little better.


Image Courtesy of Nintendo

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