Saturday, April 19, 2014

The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island by Weta Workshop (2005)

Cover blurb

It was an uncharted island somewhere off the coast of Sumatra, it was a land whispered about by merchants and sailors. It was a place so unbelievable that no one dared believe in its existence. Except for one man, the extraordinary Carl Denham. Many will, of course, remember his show on Broadway and its tragic ending. But New York is not where the story ended, it is where it began.

In 1935 a joint expedition of several prominent universities and organizations called Project Legacy was launched. Its stated mission goal was to create the first of several field guides to Skull Island, a land filled with creatures existing outside their time, where dinosaurs roamed, evolved, and still lived. Only a year later it was discovered that the island was doomed; the geological forces that had formed the island were now tearing it apart. There were only seven more abbreviated expeditions to the island before its destruction and the start of World War II.

The journals, sketches, and detailed notes to the scientists who braved Skull Island would have continued to gather dust on shelves across the plant were it not for the work of the authors of this book. Here for the first time is there work, collected in a comprehensive editions of the natural history of this lost island. Here is The World of Kong.

My thoughts

You may or may not have fond memories of Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong. As for myself, I enjoyed the movie but wish Jackson had curbed some of his cinematic excesses. (He almost lost me when he had T. rexes swinging through vines like Tarzan.) Most of the movie was set on Skull Island, a prehistoric isle that was King Kong’s home. The World of Kong is a glimpse of that world, and it may please even those who didn’t like the film.

The book is essentially a field guide to the wildlife of the island, showcasing not only the many animals seen in the movie, but also a wide variety of creatures that never received any screen time. The central idea behind The World of Kong is that Skull Island’s dinosaurs didn’t stop evolving when the rest of their kin went extinct 65 million years ago. That’s why we get T. rexes – here dubbed “V. rexes” – with three fingers instead of two and velociraptors the size of horses. The team as Weta Workshop – the special effects house that worked on the movie – let their imaginations run wild, but at the same time kept most of their animals grounded in the science of paleontology. Anyone familiar with prehistoric wildlife will recognize the inspirations for many of the creatures showcased throughout the book’s pages.

The artwork itself is gorgeous, capturing the moody atmosphere of the island. As for the text, there is no overarching story, just descriptions of each of the animals. Sometimes the folks at Weta get a little carried away, such one entry about an implausibly large spider that eats dinosaurs. And the artists are too focused on depicting predators, leaving one to wonder how all those carnivores managed not to starve to death. Those are just minor complaints though: The World of Kong will please anyone who loves fantasy illustration or dinosaurs.

Trivia
  • While many of the animals in the book didn’t make it into the movie, some of them were featured in the tie-in video game.
     
  • Two of the animals featured in the book – the Triceratops-like Ferrucutus and the eel-like Piranhadon – were in scenes cut from the theatrical release of the movie. However, their scenes were restored in the extended edition of the film. (The extended edition is, in my opinion, the superior version.)
Reviews

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Tyrannosaurus Wrecks by Glen Frank (1985)

Summary

TYRANNOSAURUS WRECKS is a science fiction game for two to four players depicting a hunt for the biggest game imaginable - dinosaurs. Each player controls one Hunter, who has traveled into the past in a time machine to try to win fame and fortune by becoming the most successful dinosaur killer.

My thoughts

Ah, the ‘80s. I was a kid watching Dungeons & Dragons on Saturday morning TV and playing video games on my Atari 2600. But some of my fondest memories were those rare visits to a bookstore in a college town near where I grew up. It kept all the respectable stuff up front, but in the back of the store was a room – a glorious room – stocked with pen-and-paper roleplaying games and other nerd manna. That’s where you would have found Tyrannosaurus Wrecks.

Tyrannosaurus Wrecks calls itself a board game but really it is a microgame – a genre that seems to have died out with the rise the modern video game. Microgames were games published in paperback booklets. They often came with punch-out cardboard pieces that substituted for the plastic pieces found in regular board games. Many were wargames, but in truth they covered a wide variety of genres. Their rules were complex and chaotic, with the authors usually more concerned about creating a roleplaying experience than delivering balanced gameplay.

As advertised, Tyrannosaurus Wrecks puts players in the shoes of time-traveling, big-game hunters out to bag dinosaurs. Scientific accuracy is the first thing to be thrown out the window as the game mixes a dinosaurs from a variety of eras into the same setting. Dinosaurs are placed on the playing board in different locations depending on the scenario. Hunters start at locations randomly determined by a roll of the die. Players have 20 turns to kill as many dinosaurs as they can and return to their time machines or risk being stranded in the past.

At its heart, the game is all about tables. Shoot a dinosaur, roll a die and compare the result to a table to see what happens. Move into a new space, roll a die and look up what happens on an event table. Start a turn, roll a die to see if the volcano erupts. As you can see, there is a lot of dice rolling in Tyrannosaurus Wrecks. In fact, at the start of every turn, you must roll a die for each and every dinosaur to determine what direction it moves. This is not a game for people with short attention spans or who do not like repetitive action.

I enjoy Tyrannosaurus Wrecks for what it is while recognizing that, from a gameplay perspective, it probably isn’t very good. This is a game you play just to see what crazy things will happen rather play to try to win. Maybe it's just the nostalgia speaking, but if you are in the mood for hunting dinosaurs, you can’t go wrong with Tyrannosaurus Wrecks.

Trivia
  • While the game is advertised for 2-4 players, it plays perfectly fine as a solitaire game. In fact, it may play best solo as there isn’t a lot of downtime between turns.
     
  • More information about the game can be found on its BoardGameGeek entry page.
     
  • As of this writing, the game is available as a print-and-play PDF file from RPGnow.com. It is also available on the publisher’s website.
Reviews
  • None

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Half-Past Danger by Stephen Mooney (2013)

Summary

Summer, 1943. Sargent Tommy “Irish” Flynn is leading a squad of U.S. soldiers through the jungles of a remote South Pacific isle when he stumbles upon a secret Nazi base. Before he gets a chance to report what he saw, his squad is attacked and decimated by a pair of T. rexes, with Flynn the only survivor. Fast forward two months: Flynn, now deeply haunted by his experience, is recruited by the U.S. Army and MI6 Agent Miss Huntington-Moss to return to the island, find out what the Nazis want with the dinosaurs, and stop them at any cost.

My thoughts

Half-Past Danger was a six-issue comic miniseries that was apparently a labor of love for its creator, Stephen Mooney, who provided the art and story. It’s an obvious homage to the pulps of yesteryear and to early comics such as The War That Time Forgot. Mooney’s passion for the subject shines through, particularly in the illustrations, which are excellent.

I wish I could say the same for Mooney’s storytelling abilities. The first issue provides a nice setup, but by the second issue Mooney is in too much of a hurry to get to the action. He spills the big secret of the island and devotes the remaining issues to a series of chases, each more implausible than the next. There also are a couple of plot twists that frankly don’t make a lot of sense. And, to be honest, he overuses T. rexes – I would have liked to have seen a wider variety of dinosaurs.

That said, I don’t want to come across as too negative because I enjoyed the comic despite its flaws. It’s fun, brainless entertainment, and the artwork alone is worth the price of admission. Half-Past Danger is worth picking up if you come across it.

Trivia
Reviews

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Guns of the Dragon by Tim Truman (1998-99)

Summary

Shanghai, 1927. China is divided by civil war. In an effort to unify the country, Chinese nationalists along with the U.S. Army recruit three obscure DC Comics heroes – Bat Lash, Enemy Ace, and Biff Bradley – to recover a pair of mythological swords. The catch? The swords are located on the long lost “Dragon Isle,” and the heroes must also bring back a dragon to convince the Chinese the legend is true. And if that wasn’t enough, it turns out the communists, Japanese and supervillain Vandal Savage also want the swords - and they’re willing to kill for them.

My thoughts

Guns of the Dragon was a four-part miniseries published in 1998 and 1999 by DC Comics. The idea came from writer and illustrator Tim Truman, who wanted to pen a pulp adventure in the spirit of Indiana Jones but using DC characters appropriate for the time period. He also decided to set most of the action on Dinosaur Island, a location that was featured prominently in the War that Time Forgot, a 1960s comic about World War II soldiers fighting dinosaurs on an isolated Pacific island.

As for miniseries itself, all the pieces are there for a good story, and the plot gets off to a decent start in the first issue. But once the characters reach the island things fall apart. The main problem is there are simply too many villains, and their competing storylines break up the action. The art is inconsistent – sometimes it is really good, other times it is simply serviceable. And for a comic that came out several years after Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs are a disappointment. They are drawn as lumbering, tail-dragging behemoths. I would have rather seen them portrayed as the active, agile creatures we know they were.

That said, Guns of the Dragon is an interesting piece of DC lore that fans of the comic universe may appreciate more than I did. Unfortunately, the miniseries has never been collected in a single volume. You will need to find the individual issues online or in a comic book store.

Trivia
  • Dinosaur Island would pop up sporadically in the DC universe in later comics, and the island itself became a villain in the miniseries DC: The New Frontier.
Reviews