- The Washington Times - Friday, September 17, 2004

Superheroes and cartoon characters have become integral parts of the electronic entertainment industry. Around the world, youngsters and guys who can’t get dates spend countless hours in front of their computers and video-game systems.

With this in mind, I salute the melding of pop-culture characters and Silicon Valley with a look at some …

Comics plugged in

Pioneer of Japanese animation Osamu Tezuka’s 1950s boy wonder soars onto the PlayStation 2 in Astro Boy ($39.99). Sega uses the talents of Space Channel 5 and Sonic Heroes creators to give one player the chance to virtually become the robotic superhero with a human soul as he protects Metro City.

What’s the story? When his son died in a car accident, Dr. Tenma, a brilliant robotics engineer, created a superhuman robot named Astro in his son’s image. Dr. Tenma believed robots some day would rule the world and created Astro with abilities unlike any his brethren had.

Another brilliant scientist, Dr. O’Shay, envisioned a different kind of world, where robots and humans would coexist. He opposed Dr. Tenma’s motivation for creating Astro and later took custody of him. Dr. O’Shay decided to raise him as a symbol of peace in Metro City.

Unfortunately, the city is suffering from a series of raids at the hands of evil robots, who consider Astro their enemy. To stop this injustice, Astro and Dr. O’Shay must fight to bring peace back to their beloved metropolis.

Characters’ character: Ten-year-olds seeking a quick respite from homework (or concentrating on a television program) will find this third-person adventure a colorful proposition. Our mechanical child eventually displays all the powers that have endeared him to multiple generations — including jet-powered feet, a cannonlike arm, 100,000 horsepower and searchlight eyes with X-ray vision.

He spends the majority of his screen time maneuvering through rings to reach specific areas of Metro City, battling archenemies such as Atlas, Acheron and the Blue Knight, while also collecting trading cards for his younger sister, Zoran.

His three-dimensional version looks great, as do his peers, and all are embellished by the vocals from the cast of Sony’s 2003 cartoon based on Astro’s exploits.

Children will most appreciate controlling the hero — flying above Metro City is especially exhilarating. However, the constant clicking to talk to characters, slow load times and deadly tedious tutorial by NORA (nanny organizer robot android) severely distract from the game’s potential.

Parental blood-pressure meter: 120/90, slightly elevated. Mom and Dad will get pretty aggravated if junior persuades them to spend the money on the title, other than for rental. The violence is cartoonlike and resides in plenty of pretty-looking explosions and lighting effects.

What if I feel like reading a book? Dark Horse Comics reissued an avalanche of Mr. Tezuka’s Astro Boy comic books. The series is translated into English in a 23-volume black-and-white 200-plus-page pocket-book (4.5 by 7 inches) format ($9.95 each).

What’s it worth? The game looks beautiful but offers very little replay value because of its brevity and overall lack of action. Experienced gamers will much prefer Sega’s Game Boy Advance ode to the robot in Astro Boy Omega Factor. Slightly less expensive ($29.99), it manages to offer everything and more where this game falls short.

Pop bytes

A brief review of game titles that didn’t have time to get fully plugged in:

m The Punisher from Lions Gate Home Entertainment (for DVD-enabled computers and home entertainment centers, rated R, $27.99) Marvel Comics’ second attempt to bring its legendary vigilante to theater screens bombed at the box office. Still, fans of the character will unload a stash of cash on this great-looking DVD release.

Actor Thomas Jane perfectly captured the likeness and emotions of Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, as he takes psychological and physical revenge against a money launderer who wiped out his entire clan. John Travolta starred as the villain — and despite his lethargic performance, the film still sizzles in multiple spots. (Castle taking on the Russian is its pinnacle.)

The DVD extras bow to the character’s sequential-art beginnings. Highlights include the 12-minute “Army of One” featurette outlining the Punisher’s place within the Marvel universe (using interviews with Gerry Conway, Garth Ennis and John Romita Sr.) and an interview with famed cover artist Tim Bradstreet. Most important for comic-book fans, the package also features a 24-page minicomic written by Mr. Ennis, which sets up the movie’s story.

m Scooby-Doo 2: Monster Unleashed from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment (for DVD-enabled computers and home entertainment centers, rated PG, $27.95). The sequel to the legendary petrified pooch’s live-action exploits arrives on DVD with plenty of action and Scooby Snacks for the die-hard fan.

I tried to hate this movie, but the goofy actors portraying those meddling kids from Hanna Barbera’s surprisingly sustaining cartoon just wore me down.

The ability of Freddie Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, Matthew Lillard and Linda Cardellini to perfectly execute the shenanigans of their animated counterparts made me laugh more than I will ever admit in public, and the introduction of Mystery Inc.’s most legendary monsters really brought a shot of nostalgia to my weary popular-culture bones.

The film’s Scooby may be the worst effect ever developed in the age of digital production. Just use him in a flatulence gag, however, and watch the youngsters giggle.

The DVD also unloads with plenty of bonuses. Among them: an amusing faux-expose on the criminals behind Redbeard’s Ghost, the Ozark Witch and the Cotton Candy Glob; two set-top games, with the Mystery of the Missing Pants being the most intriguing; and a software plug-in that allows users to watch Scooby dance on their computer screens.

Zadzooks! wants to know you exist. Call 202/636-3016; fax 202/269-1853; e-mail jszad kowski @washingtontimes.com; or write to Joseph Szadkowski at The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002.

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