What NBA 2K21 Could Learn From NBA Live 96: Or, How Dennis Rodman’s Hair Dye Made Me Love Basketball

When I first turned on this year’s NBA 2K21, I did the same thing I always do with a new NBA game; started up a match with the 1995 Chicago Bulls. This has been my tradition since the classic teams were added, to hit the court with Rodman, Jordan, and Pippen first. I use that order specifically, because while Jordan is clearly the star man, Rodman is the reason the Bulls are my team. I’m part of the Dream Team/Space Jam era of international NBA fans, but what actually got me into basketball was NBA Live 96.

Like most ’90s sport sim games, the player models were incredibly basic. They came in two varieties; Black or white. The only player who stood out was Dennis Rodman, who had his famous coloured hair. From then on, it was always the Bulls for me. Finding out later that they also had Michael Jordan – Mike was absent from NBA Live 96 because of licensing issues – was a bonus. They had Dennis Rodman, and that was all that mattered.

Obviously, NBA 2K21 is a better game than NBA Live 96. The mechanics are much smoother, play is faster, there’s more to do, and pretty much every player is photorealistic. And I know we never love things as much as we loved things when we were kids, this isn’t just pointless nostalgia complaining about the good old days; there are real lessons the restrictions of NBA Live 96 could teach the 2K series, and by extension, that all sports sims can learn from looking to the past.

When I reviewed NBA 2K21 for TechRadar, I compared it to The Flu Game, with Jordan the gameplay and VC the flu. The currency holds the game back, not only because it can lure fans into spending hundreds in a game they already paid a premium for, but the way the coins go both towards Junior in MyCareer and your MyTeam packs, forcing you to choose, the way it restricts the MyCareer difficulty, and generally seems like the main aim of the game. These days, MyTeam is what NBA 2K is all about. With FIFA and Madden, it’s the same story with Ultimate Team.

I understand that some people love MyTeam, and that there’s a real sense of excitement and anticipation in getting a great pull from a random pack. But the game’s absolute focus on MyTeam holds it back from building something creative, from really selling young fans on the sport. In NBA Live 96, all it took was ‘Dennis Rodman has coloured hair’, and I was on board. The fact he was a part of the greatest team of all time – that’s on god – and a brilliant rebounder to watch in real life certainly helped, but NBA Live 96 got me hooked. Players in MyTeam are inherently disposable. You might develop a bond with a player who unexpectedly delivers the goods a few times, but the fact you’re constantly changing lineups and managing contracts makes it hard to really connect with them. I don’t care about any of my MyTeam players.

It’s not just that I’m too old to care about basketball players in a video game either. I care about the story of the rookies I sign in MyGM, or about the random transfers I pick up my FIFA’s career mode. But MyTeam doesn’t feel like it’s built for any meaningful connection, it’s just a cheap thrill you have to keep putting money into over and over again to enjoy. An expensive cheap thrill at that.

NBA Live 96 was severely held back by technology, but one simple thing – Rodman’s hair – made it stand out. NBA 2K21 has no such technical restrictions, but it has no interest in taking advantage, because MyTeam makes money. As long as the sports sims continue to be wildly profitable, more and more attention will be funnelled away from the sport and the stories and the characters – for in a video game, that’s what they are – and will head towards the money. Even as MyCareer spins an good narrative, you can’t truly use the game mode as a storytelling device, because failure – a key cornerstone in any sports saga – is not permitted. You have to succeed all the time, otherwise you’re not generating coins for MyTeam, which as much as it’s dressed up with Idris Elba or Jesse Williams, is all MyCareer was ever designed for.

Maybe it’s me. Maybe everyone else does love MyTeam, Ultimate Team, Super Duper Spend All Your Money To Get Players You Can Use In Other Modes For Free Team. Maybe there are kids out there who got hooked on the sport because they pulled an amazing player in MyTeam and wanted to know more about him. I really hope there are, even if the games no longer feel designed to make you love basketball.

All I know for sure is, I’ll always be grateful to whoever it was at NBA Live 96 that said “why don’t we give Dennis Rodman coloured hair?”

Family Guy Struggles Under The Weight Of Wokeness

When you watch Family Guy, you have to take the bumps where they come. Unless you’re a straight white guy, you’re always on the show’s list of easy targets, and even then there’s a chance you’ll end up in the crosshairs. When Family Guy emerged, it was merciless, and swaggered across our screens with an untouchable attitude. Recently though, Family Guy has been less sure of itself, has pulled the trigger on those crosshairs far less often, and seems to actively resent the kind of show it is.

I’m a trans woman, and while the jokes about Ida occasionally feel forced or misinformed, it’s not a cartoon’s job to educate people. And I can’t in good conscience laugh at the jokes directed at other groups then cry foul when Family Guy turns their attention on me. Most of the Ida jokes are great, she’s a well written character and an important supporting cast member. There’s definitely an issue that – moreso a decade ago when Ida debuted – trans women only feature on television as the butt of a joke, but that’s not an issue to solely blame Family Guy for. There’s specific failings I’d like to zoom in on – being an edgy cartoon isn’t a blank cheque – but let’s save that for another time.

I’m not here to solely talk about Ida, but I think there’s an important context needed here. I’m transgender. Family Guy has laughed at me. I understand that’s how the game is played.

Unfortunately, Family Guy has changed the rules recently, and they seem to have changed them to their own disadvantage.

I first noticed this with Season 17’s Trump Guy, but I think there’s hints of it before that. Focussing on Trump Guy for now though, it sees the Griffins head to the White House to meet Donald Trump. There’s so much opportunity for Family Guy to swing for the fences here, but instead they bunt it and end up in an average chicken fight. It finishes in a bizarre monologue where Trump equates Family Guy ripping on Bob’s Burgers to Trump’s own failings, racism, discrimination, and caging migrants. Peter then argues back that it’s different, or something, because they’re just a cartoon and Trump is President. It’s a comparison nobody else was making, but Family Guy still feels the need to defend itself.

Did someone somewhere say Family Guy was as bad as Trump? Like, maybe? But who cares. The Family Guy of the late early ‘00s wouldn’t care about something so trivial, but the modern version of the show constructed a whole two episode arc around it, wasted a huge opportunity, and spent most of the time defending its own existence. I don’t think Family Guy crosses ‘the line’ as much as Trump, and even if they did, aren’t they trying to? Why do they feel guilty?

‘I can be insulting sometimes, I admit it. But so what?’ Peter asks Trump.

Oh, if only Family Guy believed it. And don’t even get me started on the way Family Guy self selects mocking Bob’s Burgers as an example of the worst thing they’ve done.

I could continue on all the ways Trump Guy stumbles, but this is less about this specific episode than it is the general issues modern Family Guy has. It routinely goes on the back foot, defending itself from criticism nobody has even made yet, dulling their sharp wit and eating up chunks of episodes which have always struggled with pacing problems.

Let’s go back to Ida and their transgender representation. In the last two seasons – 17 & 18 – there have been two transgender episodes, and both are fairly terrible. I’m not saying that because they’re transphobic; in fact, and this is never a criticism I thought I would ever have, they’re not transphobic enough.

Let me be clear; being a Family Guy fan is a strange business. You can’t laugh at the jokes about other minorities then balk at the ones about you. Watching Family Guy as a minority is a deal you make to take the punches when they come. I’m happy to discuss the transphobia any episode might have, but only within the context of what watching Family Guy means. There are certainly times when they’ve crossed the line, but recently they’ve been afraid to even be in the same room as the line.

In the first of these two episodes (Trans Fat), Peter is accidentally assumed to be transgender after using the gender neutral bathroom, and is then given a sex change on the company healthcare policy. There as are so many jokes on the table here, but instead Family Guy goes for very tame ‘Peter is a woman’ jokes, none of which land, and never address the context of being a trans woman as opposed to a cis woman.

Never, that is, until the episode’s conclusion, where Ida lectures Peter about trans peoples’ struggles in life, and how Peter has not earned the supposed ‘advantages’ being trans brings because he has not suffered for them.

Let’s unpack.

First off, Family Guy’s recent trend of ending with morality hardly ever works, but this is one of their biggest misses. It positions the pros and cons of existence as a trans person as being equal, and even seems to posit that once you reach a certain point in your transition, any disadvantages cease to exist. There’s also the dangerous idea that trans people must ‘earn’ the right to be happy and safe, while the whole thing feels the show trying to absolve themselves of their former sins, using Ida as the priest to their confession.

It’s life as a trans person looked at through a specifically cis lens, where the struggles are broad and vague, the successes specific and selfish.

It’s an attempt to walk back their earlier transphobia, but much like Peter’s argument with Trump, it’s horrendously self indulgent. The episode cares much more about trying to prove they’re not transphobic than it does about actually addressing anything. It’s the ‘I have lots of trans friends’ argument with Ida as the friend.

Secondly, there’s Bri-Da. This has Brian – who once famously non stop vomited after discovering Ida was trans – dating Ida. It again centres around the show forgiving itself. Ida is prepared to give Brian another chance, and so the sins of the past no longer exist, right? Had they committed to this arc and tried to add a bit of depth to Ida, I could see this angle working, maybe. Unfortunately, while Brian now defends Ida, she still comes in for several body blows from other gags, is used as a prop to demonstrate changes in Brian (and, by proxy, Family Guy) since Ida’s debut, and is very much the target of the episode rather than the star. They eventually break up for a flimsy reason and Ida, no longer needed, disappears again.

There are yet more examples. Season 18’s The Movement sees Peter accidentally take the knee a la Colin Kaepernick at the hall game; Peter actually had to go to the bathroom and was desperately trying to hold it in. This is an idea with legs, and initially sees Peter take advantage of the respect being ‘woke’ gets him, but ends by introducing a weird Black Panther parody where Peter discovers racism is wrong, and sees him apologise for pretending to have taken the knee. It is never addressed why he doesn’t simply actually take the knee from now on.

This empty statement about how racism needs to be taken seriously (followed with zero action) is exactly the problem with modern Family Guy. It’s not my place to speak for Black people, but when it comes to trans jokes, I’d rather they just commit to the bit than tell the jokes, apologise, pretend they’re the good guys, and keep telling slightly neutered versions while feeling guilty about laughing.

I understand some people will not see the value in this critique. As a member of a minority Family Guy frequently takes swings at, I get that some people would rather it just went away. Myself, I won’t shed a tear when they pull the plug. But the biggest issue right now is that they’re desperate to absolve themselves while not really changing. Ideally, they’d turn their attention to punching up at the people who actually deserve it, but if they’re going to keep punching down, I’d rather stopped apologising in between the punches.

Jorji, The Cop From Coffee Talk, Is ‘A Cop’

I started writing this piece shortly after the death of George Floyd, and the resulting (and, despite the news having moved on, continuing) protests over police brutality and systemic racism. I worried then that it was too tongue in cheek; jokes like ‘people who have pineapple on their pizza are cops’ feel off these days, when we’re in the midst of certainly the biggest conversation on racism within the police force in my lifetime.

I even pitched this article around a few places, more interested in the response than the commission, which I felt unlikely for a niche take on an indie game. Usually a response is a yes or a no, and if it’s a no, we shake hands and move on. This time, however, I wanted to dissect the reasons behind the no. I fear, in my haste to prove this had something real to say, rather than a joke at the current conversation’s expense, that I rambled too much and the rejections were boilerplate. Probably the places I sent this wondered what in the hell I was talking about.

Does any of this matter? Well, I suppose that’s for you to decide. Feel free to travel back in time and skip over these opening paragraphs. The point is that Jorji, the cop from Coffee Talk, is a cop.

Coffee Talk is a pretty great indie game by Toge Productions, released earlier this year. Essentially a visual novel where you make various coffees, teas and hot chocolates, it’s set in a fantasy world with pixies and orcs and elves. It does go a little bit Bright in that the orc character, Myrtle, is coded to be Black, but at the same time it clears Bright’s low bar by having her be a computer programmer and giving her a more rounded personality, unlike the stereotypical depictions of Black culture in Bright.

This, however, is one of the key ways Jorji shows himself not just to be a cop, but ‘A Cop’. Racism, as we know it, does not exist in Coffee Talk. Freya, a pixie and author, even mentions writing a novel about a world of only humans, where people are treated differently because of their skin colour; the other characters are incredulous. At the time, Freya is taking inspiration from an elf and succubus whose families are keeping them apart, but this feels less like real world racism than it does classism, perhaps inspired by religious prejudice, mixed with traditional fantasy tropes. A closer look at Coffee Talk’s world building, however, reveals that racism is very much alive.

Every day begins with a newspaper. This is the only part of Coffee Talk’s world we ever see, aside from the coffee shop’s interior. While a decent chunk of the headlines discuss events linked specifically to the characters – Rachel’s music festival, for example – the rest discuss the orcs. Headlines include ‘Stop Workplace Racial Profiling’: Orcish Union Demands and Protests Arise Over Government Treatment Of Atlantic Immigrants, with the orcs clearly being analogous to a combination of the Black community and immigrants. Given the classic idea of an orc is a powerful creature of low intelligence, the comparison to Black people definitely feels uncomfortable. You could argue that’s offset by Myrtle, but it still feels like a lazy comparison, one ignorant to the decades of racist narratives around Black people.

Nevertheless, one thing we can take from it is that racism definitely exists in Coffee Talk. While Myrtle and Jorji have no significant interaction, the fact we know both systemic racism and police brutality exist in Coffee Talk positions Jorji’s role as a cop in a new light. At the very least, he’s complicit in this system.

Then let’s look at how Jorji actually acts. For one thing, he’s usually still on his shift when he visits the coffee shop. So he might be positioned by the game as one of the Good Cops (TM), but he’s certainly not a damn good cop, Jim Gordon.

Then, of course, there’s the way he’s a good cop. When Rachel is nervous about traveling home at night, he takes her in the car. I have no complaints with this; it’s exactly what the police should be doing. Helping those in the community in need, with no threats of violence, no abuse of power, and nothing asked in return. If that was the only cop-like thing he’d done, I don’t think these thoughts would ever have formed in my head.

Jorji ends up talking to Rachel’s father, who is concerned about the record producer Rachel is associating with. Jorji, abusing his position as a police officer, runs background checks, investigates the producer’s history and begins a small scale investigation. Of course, the producer is a dirtbag, Jorji rises as the hero and Rachel enjoys a happy ending with her father. I say of course because, well, of course. When was the last time a fictional cop’s hunch turned out to be wrong?

On TV, cops detain suspects without cause all the time, get strung out for it, then later on evidence turns up and they’re lauded for proving the doubters wrong. Criminals don’t change on TV, and cops know it. They know you’re up to something, and they’ll find out what, just you wait. Jorji has what you might call Big Brooklyn 99 Energy.

Again, Jorji was right. The producer was a dirtbag. But he’s right in the fictional world Coffee Talk has constructed, a world which tells us racism doesn’t exist while showing us that it still does. He’s right in the way fictional cops are, in the way which gives actual cops God complexes that tells them their hunches, their guts, their racial biases, are correct, because they are cops and cops are heroes.

Coffee Talk is an enjoyable game with an interesting storyline, albeit one which relies on the tired ‘what if Black… but orc?’ trope. However, the presence of Jorji, the only character with no significant personal arc, only reinforces the problematic ways police are ‘saintwashed’ in fiction, and the fact he’s a nice, relatable character only makes his abuse of power all the more haunting. We are all aware that the phrase is ‘one bad apple spoils the bunch’, right?

Recasting Characters Of Colour Is Still Much Apu About Something

The ripple effects of the Black Lives Matter movement have hit cartoons over the past week, with several prominent white actors stepping down from POC roles. Jenny Slate in Big Mouth came first, followed swiftly by Kristen Bell in Central Park; though Bell is going to remain in the show as a new character while Molly is recast. This was followed by Mike Henry stepping away from Family Guy’s Cleveland (no word on Consuela), and The Simpsons announcing they would be recasting all Black roles, such as Carl, Dr Hibbert and Lou.

It’s not defund the police, but it’s a start.

I’m going to sidestep the conversations around this, as I don’t feel it’s my place to lead them, but I will say for the record that a) I think this is the right call and b) I agree with Julie Muncy’s assertion that the timing deflates the intention, as it feels more like they could no longer get away with it more than making an active decision.

Rather than focus on these new developments, I’d like to go back a few years to when the first serious questions were asked of Apu. He’s not Black, but he is a person of colour and the way The Simpsons handled the fallout highlighted this idea that they’re only changing now because they can’t get away with it.

While The Simpsons is often thought of as the more family friendly cousin of Family Guy, you’ll still have to navigate (more slapstick than edgy-cruel) elements of homophobia, transphobia, racism and a slurry of suicide jokes, especially in the Zombie Simpsons/early HD era. Even when I’m the butt of such jokes, I can hand wave them away as being relics of a pre-enlightened time. As for whether or not you can, your mileage may vary.

That changes with No Good Read Goes Unpunished. Released in 2018, it centres around Marge reading Lisa one of her favourite stories from childhood, only to realise it’s covered in problematic storylines and racial stereotypes. Rather than address Marge’s privilege that she never realised, or have any teachable moment in there, they go the other way, defending a story they themselves have just invented.

It used to be okay to be racist, and so it’s still okay to retell racist stories, because I still like them: that’s the message delivered.

Worse, in a rare fourth wall break, they tie this defence to Apu, as if to say ‘we know you think it’s racist, but we don’t care. Thank you, come again!’

They talk about how “something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect”; the show skips over the fact it was applauded almost entirely by white people, and were so infuriated by Indian American comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary, The Problem With Apu, that they made a whole episode about why it’s okay to defend racist books.

The big ‘The Simpsons parodies everyone!’ excuse used to wash for me, I admit. But then, sea captains haven’t been exposed to decades of prejudice and violence which stem from these sorts of racist jokes.

Sure, parts of Apu are positive; he’s a successful businessman, popular both in and out of the show, and is one of the smartest people in town. But he also has an accent which goes way over the top, plays into the stereotype of foreigners having too many children and the show frequently makes jokes about India which seem to stem from Indiana Jones more than they do the country itself.

Perhaps the worst part though is how they use Lisa as a mouthpiece for this. While she’s often relegated to antagonist post Season 27 or so, she’s still the most credible voice in the household, arguably in the whole show. Tagging her onto this defence not only goes against Lisa’s character arc, but is a transparent attempt to legitimise their view that they should be above such criticism.

Since then, Apu has been quietly retired, with voice actor Hank Azaria more decisive than the show itself, opting to step down himself. Apu has gone unvoiced since Azaria’s last lines as him in Season 29’s premiere.

Again, Apu is not Black, and the issues at play in the world right now are bigger than who voices which cartoon characters. But the dominance of white people in the vocal booth, especially on characters like Cleveland and who trade on stereotype, is emblematic of the deep rooted white supremacy of our system.

The racism Indians and Black people face differs, but nevertheless the way The Simpsons handled the criticism of Apu suggests they’re only changing now because their hand has been forced. Alison Brie also apologised this week for playing Vietnamese American Diane Nguyen on BoJack Horseman, despite the fact the show has now wrapped and she never addressed these complaints when the show was still airing.

Changing who voices cartoon characters is not what these protests have ever been about, but it still reflects important changes in our media landscape, and in the sorts of characters, experiences, and voices animation will elevate from now on. If we want this to be a lasting, meaningful change, we need to keep insisting on it. Apu proves that if we don’t, shows will continue to do whatever they can get away with.

2% Of The Way To The Year 3000, How Does Futurama Hold Up?

When people talk about humour being dated, they’re usually talking about social sensibilities. Dated humour normally refers to jokes which revolve around racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia or some other discrimination; if you think humour is dated, it probably means you now feel guilty about jokes which punch down on minorities. They’re no more or less funny than they used to be… it’s you who has changed. If you find humour dated, that just means you’ve grown.

In Futurama’s case however, it means something very different. It rarely went in for shock jock jokes which played on stereotypes, but it’s most unique selling point – being set in the year 3000 – can sometimes prove to be its downfall on a rewatch. Futurama’s humour sometimes feels dated because the year 3000 we could imagine in 2000 is very different from the one we could imagine in 2020.

There are a handful of obvious ones which come to mind, but the straight forward jokes that time rendered untrue make you feel like Comic Book Guy, sat in The Android’s Dungeon, pointing out flaws to an empty room. For example, in the pilot, we learn that Suicide Booths have been operational in New York since 2008, when in the real world, they haven’t. Haha! Take that, foolish cartoon show! You call yourself Futurama, yet you have failed to predict the future!

There’s a smattering of other gags like this, but nothing that’s ever going to spoil your viewing. Heck, nothing here is going to spoil your viewing, but there are a few more thematically interesting examples which prove how much the world has changed these past 20 years, and how much these changes have impacted our view of the future. To that end though, they’ve also proven to have a stunning insight into our future in other areas, as well as having a massive influence on animation in general.

We’ll start with some negatives though, and like so many negatives these days, that means starting with the President.

While Nixon isn’t the most evil President the US ever had (slavers, KKK members and those who propagated the genocide of Native Americans are easily ahead of him before you even get into policy debates), he is the most cartoonish one. At least, he was, until Cadet Bonespurs headed to the Oval Office. I’m not suggesting Futurama could have predicited Trump – even if The Simpsons did – or that it would be funnier or better than Nixon if they did. Futurama’s fiction Nixon is a great character, a brilliant villain who slots in the world perfectly, and an essential part of their world building. Replacing him with Trump clearly would not have improved the show.

But undoubtedly the gag is that the worst, most over the top supervillain President is back in the White House. It’s a joke that’s just less impactful these days. A little over a decade after Futurama joked that a resurrected Nixon would be the worst possible choice for President, real life went and served up someone even more terrible.

There’s also some contemporary issues Futurama addressed, and rewatching them with modern eyes feels jarring. Again, this doesn’t mean the show is bad, or in the wrong, or that watching it is less enjoyable now. Indeed, looking back at Futurama’s take on things can act as a time capsule of how we see saw things in circa 2000. Other shows from the same time period occasionally touch on similar issues, but the fact that Futurama’s whole deal is that it’s in the future puts a much closer spotlight on them.

One example is climate change. In the episode A Big Piece Of Garbage (aired 1999), we see the biggest environmental issue is… littering. Sure, they future it up by having it be a litter asteroid they once launched into space, but still… litter. Very quaint by today’s standards. Later, the stakes get raised by Crimes Of The Hot (2002), when the big issue is greenhouse gases, the ozone layer and the planet’s temperature rising. This is closer to our current view of the climate crisis, but again it’s a bit quaint. Here, the climate issue is because robots give off too much pollution, and it’s a great insight into our developing attitudes.

Global warming is still the broad issue we’re concerned with now, but rather than just the pollution boogey man, we understand the issue is capitalism’s ceaseless hunger for resources, failure to develop adequate sustainable energy sources and mass produced single use materials. Futurama’s limited depiction of global warming fits with how little we as a society understood the problems of the climate crisis. We knew the basic issue and problem, and the way Futurama scratches the surface highlights the very rudimentary understanding we had of the issue twenty years ago. While relatively little has changed in terms of our trajectory since then, we’re all at least a lot more educated on the issue.

While these examples are negatives in the binary sense that they’re jokes or episodes which are less relevant or effective in 2020, they don’t really speak to flaws in Futurama’s storytelling. Once you get to the Comedy Central revival seasons though, more tangible cracks appear. The biggest issue is that while the earlier seasons riffed on modern life, their version of the year 3000 was still its own coherent thing. Too often, the Comedy Central episodes were less ‘year 3000’ than they were ‘year 2000 but future’.

Social media is an every day part of our lives now, but Futurama only has it featured in any meaningful way once: in the 2011 episode Attack Of The Killer App. This features eyePhones (iPhones in your eye) clearly styled around Apple, and just feels like a lazy parody of iPhones and Twitter. There’s no originality, nothing that makes use of Futurama’s unique premise, and felt a little dated even as it came out.

The robosexual marriage episode Proposition Infinity which immediately followed did the same thing for gay marriage, but at least tried to tell its own story by using robots. Killer App though scrambles for a very in the moment relevance, doesn’t really land that, and sells out Futurama’s key ideas in the process. The Comedy Central episodes don’t live up to the original Fox seasons, and this switch in attitude is a huge part of that.

Into the equation, there’s also a fair few things Futurama got right. The smelloscope and the Oculus Rift were both correctly predicted by the show, and NASA really did use a rocket to knock an asteroid off course; albeit one made of asteroid and not of garbage. Perhaps the most timeless part of Futurama though is the way it influenced cartoons which came afterwards.

Futurama was one of the first cartoons to have a meta continuity; each episode existed as a stand-alone story, but they could be woven together into more meaningful arcs. Leela & Fry’s long running love story, Kif & Amy’s marriage, the Nibblonians… these stories don’t seem too risky in isolation, but to attempt them all together while creating one of the best episodic cartoon series of all time is a huge feat.

It’s much mocked that Fox turned down Rick & Morty over fears it was too similar to Futurama, but at the same time, Futurama proved the sci fi genre worked as a mainstream cartoon. They didn’t always need to be centred around a family just trying to get by.

In short, time as eaten some of Futurama’s jokes, and while some stand up as fascinating time capsules, others have already began to rust. The humour might be dated, but strangely, that’s often a positive, and it’s difficult to understate how much Futurama’s influence has impacted both modern cartoons and modern sci fi. As time goes on, it’s likely our vision of the year 3000 will continue to divert from the one Futurama first gave us in 1999. But hey, we’ll always have Paris. Uh, New New York.

Lara Croft And The Shaky Foundation Of Video Game Heroines

Lara Croft is one of the iconic characters in video games, with the same level of pop culture penetration as the likes of Mario, Pikachu and Sonic. She’s a legend of the medium, and a trailblazer for her gender. However, her success might have come at the cost of those around her, and her 2013 reboot shines a light on the way heroines have always stood on rockier ground.

First, let’s go back to the start. Tomb Raider released in 1996, and by putting a woman front and centre of an action game, marked a big step forward for gender presentation in video games. She was not the first – Samus already existed, alongside a handful of others – but because Lara also brought with her the action adventure genre which would go on to define single player video games for more than a decade, it’s difficult not to see her as the most important.

Initially conceived as a cold, militaristic, every woman, aspects of her personality were tweaked during development, drawing inspiration from Indiana Jones and James Bond to give her a more fleshed out persona. This made her feel like she was a real person, not just a collection of polygons there for you to shoot and climb with.

Things were not plain sailing, however. While Lara clearly had agency and existed with a forthright purpose – not only to be leered at or seduced – an apparent coding error gave her breasts increased by 150% rather than 50%. Had her head, hands, or feet been increased so disproportionately, it’s difficult to imagine the team just leaving things as they were.

Another problem arose from Lara Croft: she was too successful. Any attempt to introduce another female starring character through the ‘90s and early ‘00s was viewed as direct competition with Lara, and few elected to take on such a titan. Why would you, when creating a male character was less controversial, and despite the plethora of male characters, was viewed as having less direct competition?

Whenever players discussed the idea of having more female characters in games, the response was always for their opposition to point to Lara. You have one of the biggest stars on the planet… why do you need another one?

In a way, these detractors had a point. Though ‘90s gamers had less of a hair trigger when it came to the ‘politics’ of women in games, the marketing of games was still highly male centric; Nintendo even marketed the GameBoy as an alternative to masturbation. It was a man’s space, and the fact that a woman got to rule it was progress in itself.

Things were not perfect. The space in which she existed was, if not outright misogynistic, then at least enough of a boys club for the rise of sites like Nude Raider and for Lara to evolve into gaming’s number one sex symbol by virtue of being the only woman in the office. In fairness though, the Tomb Raider games never referenced this environment and always sought to present a well rounded character whose priorities were the success of her mission rather than the titillation of her viewers.

In short, it’s complicated. Though her presentation was imperfect, she was ahead of her time. Her runaway success proved to everyone that female characters could carry a successful franchise, but the fear of competing with her meant she couldn’t fully live up to her ‘trailblazer’ tag.

The success of Tomb Raider as a genre probably had more immediate impact than Lara Croft as a character, though her going first took some of the pressure off Faith Connors, Aloy, Senua and the rest.

In many ways, Lara Croft is the foundation video game heroines who came after are built upon. To explore that most effectively, we need to look at her 2013 reboot.

After taking the world by storm in her first few entries, Lara Croft seemed to stumble a little, through titles like the vastly under appreciated Legend and the wayward Angel Of Darkness. By 2013, the character remained a legend, but was mainly trading on her name rather than any recent success. The new trilogy, which launched in 2013, galvanised and modernised the character, offering a fresh start, a grittier reboot and an almost completely different version of Lara Croft.

Any links to her suave and cocky Indiana Jones/James Bond personality were shorn away to make her a generic ‘Last Girl In The Horror Movie’, reinventing her from the ground up. No, Lara Croft wasn’t born with a shaken, not stirred dry martini in her hand, but this casual wiping of her legacy to rebuild essentially a new character in her place has never sat particularly comfortably. We’ve seen plenty of male characters go through soft reboots recently – Kratos, Thor, very shortly we’ll see Batman – but these characters retain the core principles of their characters. Tomb Raider (2013) was a very good game with a fairly interesting character and some intuitive gameplay. But Lara Croft? Not really.

It trades on Lara’s name to tell an entirely different story. She is the archetypal female lead in gaming, and to see her backstory and established personality be wiped away is careless enough… to then replace it with a generic and vague trauma storyline just feels rather pointless. Even by Rise Of and Shadow Of, while Lara had at least crawled out of just trying to survive a horror movie, she still hadn’t really recaptured that charm. Yes, the writers may just have been trying to do something different, but a) I fundamentally feel like they stripped away too much for this to be an acceptable excuse, and b) what exactly was that ‘something different’?

Seriously, other than being good at raiding tombs, what precisely is Lara’s character in Rise Of and Shadow Of? That she’s a fairly nice lady? Hardly the stuff of legend.

The only tangible thing from pre-2013 which the reboot keeps is Lara’s loss of her father and fixation on living up to his name, a plot point which doesn’t even originate from the games, but from the Angelina Jolie led movies.

By slicing off everything recognisable about Lara Croft’s legacy, the Tomb Raider reboot highlights the lack of care given to the history of female characters in gaming, and the lack of originality when it comes to writing their stories. With the trilogy now concluded, we may get some stronger, more fitting directions in the future. Hopefully the next game will be Tomb Raider, and not just some lady who raids tombs.

Trying To Teach In Fire Emblem: Three Houses

You might have seen the videos like ‘We Showed A Bank Robber GTA V’, ‘We Showed A Lawyer The Bird Law Scene From IASIP’ and, my personal favourite ‘We Showed A Priest ‘God Is A Woman’ By Ariana Grande’. Playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses was a similar experience for me.

I used to be a teacher; it feels like it was a lifetime ago, even if reality suggests it was only a handful of years ago. I knew relatively little of the game when I first dove in, not even that it took place in a school or that you took charge of your own class of pupils. I’d never played a game where teaching was so central to the story, and so while the tactical combat was compelling and the characters were engaging from the start, it was the teaching which immediately dragged me in.

Fire Emblem is not a teaching sim, and the physical act of teaching is little more than deciding which stats you want each character to max out. Viewing it as a teaching sim, however, it became clear that only certain students actually needed a teacher.

Even in the monastery down time, there’s more to that side of the game than teaching. It’s on you to explore the area, speak to your students, fellow teachers, and friendly gatekeepers, as well as completing activities like cookery, greenery and fishing to both increase your stats and add depth to your experience.

The romance angle I found a little icky, even though it only really develops post timeskip. And yes, while your age is never stated you’re implied to be around the same age as your students, but there was still a clear authority imbalance in play, especially with students who weren’t Edelgard, Claude or Dimitri.

The discomfort over romance can be chalked up to my personal interpretation, however, with nothing of note happening until post time skip. On closer inspection though, what the romances revealed was the biggest flaw at the centre of playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses as a teaching sim. Some of the students are adults, and some of the students are children.

I don’t mean by their ages, or anything to do with the time skip. What I mean is that some of the characters are written perpetually as teenagers, and others as fully grown adults.

I’ve been in enough classes to know that a range of maturity levels are normal; I’ve mediated discussions about how Mr Birling represents the folly of capitalism while telling other students to stop drawing willies in their books. But when I told the willy drawers off, the Mr Birling discussers would giggle. If I caught Caspar or Hilda doodling obscenities, I don’t think Edelgard or Dedue would chuckle, and that’s a problem.

The likes of Edelgard and Dedue (there are more, I’d say it’s 40/60 in favour of the immature ones by eyeballing it) don’t really feel like they need a teacher, aside from someone to tell them to clean out the stables or focus on their axe work to gain skill points. There’s enough to the cutscenes – especially with the two major characters in the example – for us to get to know them, but it feels much more like you’re meeting them as peers.

There are a handful who straddle both camps. Sylvain, with his confidence around adults yet clear immaturity and Big Fuqboi Energy, feels more like a college student than a high school senior, and Lorenz goes from awkwardly trying to act like a grown up pre timeskip to becoming a more reflective and perceptive adult post, but mostly it’s one or the other.

It’s in meeting the more immature students where the game really shines as a teaching sim, and wish there was more of it.

For example, coaxing Bernadetta out of her shell, even helping her expand her confidence by inches, drove to the core of what being a teacher is. The more vulnerable, less assured students like Bernie, Marianne and Ashe need your hand to guide them. If Hubert or Felix fell in battle, well, more fool them. If Bernie was struck down by an arrow though, it was a personal failure on my part.

This vulnerability wasn’t exclusively expressed through shyness or lack of confidence as it is with Bernie, Marianne and Ashe, however. Caspar and Leonie seemed irritating at first, but my respect and affection for them grew when it became clear they desperately needed a mentor. Petra and Mercedes too had the inner maturity of a Head Girl, while lacking the same assuredness outside of their immediate vicinities.

It’s the fact that the game is peppered with such wonderfully real bouts of teaching which make the absence of it elsewhere so disappointing. Cyril is like that kid you never taught but always see around school. You get to watch him grow from the guidance of others, and that can be just as rewarding. Ignatz has an infectious but cluttered enthusiasm, and needs you to point which way to go.

Dealing with Edelgard, Dedue, Dorothea, Claude etc barely felt different from dealing with Manuela, Hanneman or Shamir. As characters, most of the students are fascinating in one way or another. But as students, there’s a palpable imbalance. Maybe it’s nostalgia for my days as a chalk jockey, but I can’t help thinking I would have enjoyed it just a little bit more if my students actually needed me there.

The NUFC Takeover: According To My Animal Crossing Villagers

I’ve been a Newcastle United fan for over twenty years. My first game was a 4-0 UEFA Cup win over Olympiacos, and since then I’ve seen us reach European quarter finals, get related then promoted twice and beat Sunderland 5-1. Being born just a few Metro stops from the ground, supporting Newcastle wasn’t born out of glory hunting, but at the same time, I was raised on the football of Bobby Robson, Alan Shearer, Shay Given and Nobby Solano.

Since Mike Ashley took over though, while there has been bright spots – the 5-1, for example – it’s been 13 years of seeing Newcastle’s potential slowly crushed out of them. Lack of investment, broken promises and dreadful transfer policies have seen anyone with even the slightest shred of talent or ambition pack up sticks. Now, finally, it seems like Ashley is disappearing for good.

The only issue is the person taking his place is Mohammed bin Salman; Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, ruler of a homophobic, misogynistic, fundamentalist empire and murderer of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He’s rich enough to make us the wealthiest club in the world, but he’s also a bit of a bastard.

Whether it’s Man UTD fans saying their nan’s death is worth it if Liverpool don’t win the league or Newcastle fans mocking Khashoggi’s widow, it seems impossible to have a nuanced conversation around football these days, so I decided to work my thoughts out in the only way I knew how: by projecting onto my Animal Crossing villagers.

The NUFC Fans

Savannah

Savannah is a die hard fan; she even has the crest tattooed on her. She’s travelled to every away game for the past decade. She was there when we won the league at Plymouth. But this deal gives her pause, as Newcastle means the world to her. While Ashley was a terrible owner, he wasn’t a terrible person the way the Crown Prince is.

She’s heard the hot takes that the Saudis own bits of The Independent, Disney and Twitter, but she still thinks owning a tiny slice of stock is very different to owning something outright and making her club the symbol of their empire. She’ll still be at every match, but the club won’t quite feel the same any more.

Lopez

Lopez is an absolute plastic. He’s at least wearing the shirt at home as well as strutting about in it, but it’s the exact same energy as when Kendall Jenner wore her PSG top. He reckons Newcastle’s upcoming success will make the classic kit a fashion item, and any controversy over the ownership just makes it more juicy. Definitely never heard of the man, the myth, the legend that is Shola Ameobi.

Puck

Puck is a right daftie but he’s still a proper fan. He’s basically the lads from Purely Belter. He doesn’t follow politics, and he believes all the memes that we’ll have M’Bappe, Neymar and Bale upfront next season. He’d still be going to the games if we were in League Two though, so there’s no doubting his loyalty.

Hugh

Hugh is Puck’s mate, and equally as daft. He’s not really into the football… he knows who Shearer is but that’s about it. Puck’s told him Neymar is signing for the toon though, so that’s exciting.

Annalisa

Annalisa follows football, watches every match she can and could name most of the current XI, but she doesn’t live and breathe the game. She thinks it’s better the devil you know; Ashley’s not very good but at least he’s not a murderer, right? Ultimately, she thinks it’s typical Newcastle our knight in shining armour is a Saudi Prince dripping blood.

Vladimir

Why can’t we just keep politics out of football?

That’s what Vladimir wants to know. He’s been following Newcastle for donkey’s, and nobody ever listened to the fans when we wanted Ashley out, so why are the fans expected to take a stand now? Everyone who’s complaining will change their tune when we’re top of the league. And why isn’t there this much fuss about Sheffield United’s owners? Double standards.

The Rival Fans

Pompom

Pompom is just Lopez with a bit more loyalty. She started supporting Man City when they got their riches, and she wants to pull the ladder up from Newcastle. No concerns over the ethics, just doesn’t want anybody else in the Premier League rich list.

Moose

Moose is one of those Arsenal fans with Aubameyang as his avatar because “he’s the second best striker in PL history, after Henry”. All his patter is about other clubs. Constantly comments “null and void” under any Sky Sports post, still says “Fraudiola” and doesn’t think any Chelsea players would get in Arsenal’s XI.

When it comes to Newcastle, his banter consists mainly of explaining why the Saudis should buy Arsenal instead, while simultaneously crying that the deal is unethical and the Premier League should stop it.

Flo

Flo isn’t really a football fan, but she knows an awful lot about politics and she thinks Newcastle have no idea what they’re in for. Much like WrestleMania, NUFC is about to become another tool in Saudis Arabia’s ever growing PR portfolio. They’ve got endless money, and they might buy success for the team, but they’ll steal the club’s soul in the process.

No one wants to listen to her because she knows nowt about football, but she’s probably got a point.

Katt

Katt’s a Mackem, and her face here tells you all you need to know about her reaction to the deal. While Annalisa thinks it’s typical Newcastle that it’s not as perfect as it seems, Katt reckons it’s typical that we’re getting saved at all, while her club sinks further into obscurity.

They’ll always have Paolo Di Canio’s knee slide, but that’s literally it.

Freya

Freya is a Chelsea fan, and one who’s actually from Chelsea, which can sometimes be worse.

She understands that there are no ethical billionaires, and doesn’t expect the Newcastle fans to decry the takeover, but she also just doesn’t see the appeal. At least when Abramovich bought Chelsea, they were right on the edge of success. Newcastle are a little club from the North East, who flop around mid table, with no trophies for over fifty years and fans who punch horses. She won’t believe it until she sees Mohammed bin Salman himself outside St. James’ Park holding up a Newcastle shirt.

Canberra

Canberra is an Everton fan who for some reason thinks Newcastle fans care what she has to say.

We don’t.

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla Might Finally Be The Sequel Black Flag Deserves

The Assassin’s Creed continuity is… spotty at best. Early entries into the series still took an alternate view of history and featured some magical elements, but were firmly grounded in their era. Origins and Odyssey, the two most recent instalments, have swung for the fences with suspension of disbelief, and have opened the world up so much more, refreshing the series.

These have been welcome changes, and seemed to have reinvented Assassin’s Creed’s identity. Black Flag, the pirate focussed, swashbuckling title, looked destined to a life of relative obscurity as the black sheep. Now though, while Valhalla is certain to take some cues from Origins and Odyssey, it seems to be throwing Black Flag a lifeboat.

The obvious link between Black Flag and Valhalla is the focus on naval conquest, with Viking boats featuring heavily in what we’ve seen of Valhalla so far. In Black Flag, the game gave you your own ship and placed massive emphasis on using it, for transportation, exploration and combat. Though the famous – or, infamous – Ubisoft towers were still present, large parts of Black Flag were Assassin’s Creed in name only. So much so that while the naval features were well received, they were completely cut out of every subsequent game. It’s even speculated that a lot of features will be recycled in the upcoming new Ubisoft IP Skull & Bones.

Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag was not really an Assassin’s Creed game, and it doesn’t seem like Valhalla will be either; neither of the Ezio variety nor the Kassandra. Fans have already reacted with mild surprise and disappointment that the hidden blade, a staple of the franchise, is set to feature. It doesn’t seem like it belongs in Valhalla, even if Evior wears their blade proudly rather than hiding it away.

Valhalla feels like a more action packed game than perhaps any AC previously; a title it will snatch from long time holder Black Flag.

Valhalla’s narrative director Darby McDevitt has already said we’re in for a much smaller map this time around, made up of little pockets of action rather than one big, sprawling world. This means not only scaling back the scope of Origins and Odyssey, but also returning to the sea faring nature of Black Flag. It also gives an opportunity for some form of return to the naval sieges, tweaked to include landings and an assault on foot.

While it’s been confirmed that naval warfare won’t be present in the game the way it was in Black Flag, boats will still have a huge significance to the gameplay and won’t just be for set dressing in cutscenes. This though is part of why Valhalla feels like the perfect sequel to Black Flag: it’s not about recreating every element of Black Flag as it is about capturing the spirit.

We don’t need to have big naval battles in Valhalla, because that’s very clearly a pirate thing. As long as Valhalla commits to the essence of being a Viking, it will emerge as Black Flag’s true sequel.

While the Assassin’s Creed series breathed new life into the action adventure sandbox, the series has come in various different shades over the years; especially if you include the spin offs. Black Flag tends to hover around the top or the bottom of fans’ personal rankings, rarely in the middle, because the swashbuckling, blood splattered gameplay is so different to series usual modus operandi. Love it or loathe it, Valhalla looks set to follow suit.

Harley Quinn’s Show Highlights The Importance Of Taking Risks

Harley Quinn’s new animated show arrived with all the chaotic energy of Harleen Quinzel herself, full of stunts, hyper stylised violence and more curse words per square inch than a sailor who just caught himself in his zipper. It’s managed to capture Harley’s frenetic personality and channel that into its momentum, with Season 2 premiering just seven weeks after Season 1 concluded. Perhaps the most Harley thing it has done so far though has been the way it’s taken big, outlandish risks and had pretty much all of them pay off.

The series begins with a face off between Batman and Joker, with Harley seen by both DC icons as a distraction to the main event, just as she has been for her entire existence. Batman: The Animated Series gave her significant focus but almost always as the Joker’s forlorn lover, the Arkham games offer decent spotlight but, again, as an accessory to Joker, and even the Suicide Squad movie – despite being built around Margot Robbie’s Harley – framed her as a part of Joker’s mythology first, her own person second.

She’s had her own solo stories in the comics, sure, but these days, it’s what you do outside of the comics which really makes you a somebody. This show – beating Birds Of Prey to the punch by a couple of months – was the first to truly explore Harley Quinn as a person. Batman and the Joker both feature in the series, but have inconsistent supporting roles (the very kind Harley herself is used to) in the first season and are absent for large chunks of the second. To avoid spoilers, we’ll say no more details on how or why.

Building a show around Harley herself is a risk. An educated one, maybe, given her rapid surge in popularity, but a risk nonetheless. She’s a villain, one without a track record as a solo star and as a female character, her place as the leading light in a comic book story is immediately put under scrutiny, however unfair that may be.

As is typical of Harley though, the show pulls no punches. Not only does it give Harley her starring role, it gives her a crew made up of Psycho, Clayface and King Shark, with the level headed Poison Ivy the only stellar name alongside Harley herself. The presence of Joker, Batman, but also Bane, Two-Face, Mr Freeze, Riddler, Aquaman, Wonder Woman (this list could go on and on) suggests that the producers weren’t limited when it came to selecting characters, but deliberately opted to go for lesser names. Part of that might be to avoid overshadowing Harley, but with Kaley Cucoco dialling it up to eleven and hyper intense action sequences in every episode, there was little chance of any of that anyway.

No, it’s much more likely that the producers knew, despite the risk, that b-listers offered a greater scope for creativity, more room for them to reinvent characters and played into the themes of the show that go hand in hand with elevating a perennial supporting star like Harley. We’ve seen the big names done to death: nobody picks up Mario Kart to play as Mario.

These characters are nobody’s favourites, but the show has been able to build them up into something much more interesting than a pedestrian appearance from a marquee name. The show has built each character superbly, essentially creating new personas from the pre-existing, flimsy background cast members they once were.

Clayface is especially genius, taking his transformation power to new heights with a overdramatic thespian Clayface emerging. Shark King is one of the more malleable DC characters, with various different versions of him create over the years, but Harley Quinn’s, a slightly dull witted, pencil pusher who is prone to bouts of rage, is one of the most unique.

It’s not just selecting the characters which shows a wildcard kind of bravery either. It’s the way they use them, especially the bigger guns. Bane is now a doofus, the butt of every joke in the Legion Of Doom, whose motivations for his every evil deed are both petty and ridiculous. It’s a million miles away from Bane’s characterisation, yet it also feels exactly like him.

By focussing on DC’s lesser lights and giving a fresh new flavour to already established ones, Harley Quinn shows the DCEU the light. Through the likes of Guardians Of The Galaxy, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok, the MCU has been reinventing and taking risks for years. The DCEU conversely seems more bogged down, only really letting their lower budget features – Shazam! and Birds Of Prey – try something less formulaic.

At times the formula has worked (Wonder Woman) and at times it’s failed (Justice League), but it’s hard to get truly invested in the DCEU while it’s constantly playing safe.

Harley Quinn though grabs you by the shoulders and smashes its forehead into yours from the off. There’s a ballet of violence and a commitment to Harley’s foul mouth and penchant for destruction that’s difficult not be taken in by, but it’s also in the ways they’ve constructed this world as the perfect playground for the Maiden of Mischief.

The show is vintage Harley, but it’s a vintage that’s been accessorised with gloriously mismatched jewellery and all been combined into an outfit both modern and daring. Established characters, patterns, settings and themes of Gotham are all filtered through Harley’s chaotic lens into something new, something bright, brave and bold.

Everything about this show is a risk. And pretty much everything pays off.