Collecting Dust-Up

Buying video games isn’t much fun these days. It’s not the games themselves; despite the modern industry’s gaudiness and the near-extinction of the middleweight publisher, it’s easier than ever to find something you like and ignore all the rest. No, I’m talking about the act of walking into a store, walking out with a game, and presumably paying for it somewhere in between, lest everyone call you "Thief" instead of "Link" for the rest of your adventure.

Driven by cost-cutting and digital distribution, today’s publishers do their best to emaciate physical copies of games. Most major releases are little more than a disc, a case, and an outer insert, with not even an anemic instruction manual to fill out the package and keep said disc from coming loose and getting scratched when Amazon ships it in a paper sleeve.

Publishers compensate for stripped-down retail games with overstuffed collector’s editions. Any major release now comes in a puny regular version as well as a deluxe collector’s set with a soundtrack, an artbook, a replica chainsaw, a spaceship model, a toy mech, a Master Chief helmet, a Kung Lao bobblehead, a Duke Nukem bust, a dismembered woman's torso in an American-flag bikini (really), or a small figure of Metallia, Nathan Drake, or some other character. That’d be Metallia from The Witch and the Hundred Knight, not Metalia from Thousand Arms. The sheer obscurity would impress me if anyone made a toy of the latter Metalia.

It’s all too much for the folks who just want a little more than half-empty cases with their video games. Sony’s upcoming The Last Guardian presents a good example. It’s a prestigious release, and Sony centered its $120 special edition around a small statue of the game’s boy protagonist and his giant griffin-puppy Trico. You’ll also get an artbook, a soundtrack, and an imitation wooden box to hold it all.

Oddly, that lineup is less impressive than an earlier collector’s edition that Sony briefly exhibited. The promo shot included a metal griffon-feather ring, some extra artwork, a different statue, and the game’s regular packaging for those who hate pulling discs out of those pinching steelbook things. It’s not a case of another region getting more material, either; some European news sites used this initial package, but all outlets and retailers have since shifted to the leaner bundle with the sleepier Trico.

I wouldn’t mind an artbook or soundtrack with my inevitable purchase of The Last Guardian. Fumito Uedo’s games always have wonderful, subdued design work and excellent music. But a statue? A collector’s crate? They’d just take up space, and I already have too many toys and novelty statues sitting in boxes because I lack the room or geek fortitude to display them. Besides, collector’s-edition figures can turn out to be low-quality. Eleven years later, and MOK-KOS is not forgotten.

Now I will be a glaring hypocrite and complain that the one upcoming game for which I WOULD buy a garishly supplied collector’s edition doesn’t have one. Gravity Rush 2: The Legend of Being Doomed Because It Comes Out Three Days After Final Fantasy XV is my most-wanted game this year, and I hoped that Sony would back it heartily. Well, that’s not apparent in the promotional goods. Reserving it gets you a digital soundtrack and extra costume, and there’s no lavish special edition with an artbook or perhaps the Figma-made Kat that came with Gravity Rush Remastered in Japan and still costs way too much.

Even so, I’m not going digital. I still like to have something in my hands on the rare occasions I put down money for a full-price game, even if that something is just a nice illustration and some box copy to mull over during the ride home.

I also like the implicit option of throwing a game on eBay and recouping my losses if it turns out that, for example, Gravity Rush 2 is just a reskinned version of Bratz: Girlz Really Rock for the Nintendo Wii. But I’d probably keep it even then.

Lost Order Finds Lost Director

CyGames announced several titles at their recent showing, and Lost Order is the most intriguing. That’s Lost Order, not to be confused with Last Order as in the Final Fantasy VII OVA that’s now forgotten or the Battle Angel Alita sequel that squandered itself on a directionless tournament story arc. Lost Order is a smartphone strategy-RPG directed by the long-absent Yasumi Matsuno.

It’s rare for game creators to do well at both writing and directing, but I’ll always praise Matsuno as a success on those counts. His Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Tactics Ogre are superb in both design and story, and I will defend Final Fantasy XII, which he helmed about halfway through, no matter the slights and barbs you might toss its way. Go ahead. Toss 'em.

Yet Matsuno went missing for a good while. He dropped out of sight after leaving Final Fantasy XII mid-production, and he only emerged for brief supportive stints. He scripted Platinum's MadWorld, though you wouldn't guess it from a plot with irony as its sole defense, and he served as an advisor for the PSP remake of Tactics Ogre.

Matsuno then joined Level-5 just long enough to make Crimson Shroud, a small-scale tabletop RPG simulation for the 3DS, and he left the company before they could put him on an Inazuma Eleven game. His most recent work came with Playdek and a Kickstarter-fed strategy game called Unsung Story, but he wasn’t involved far beyond the basic world-building. The whole project is now troubled and lurching through funding issues, but I’m sure it’ll emerge by the end of the decade.

Lost Order is the biggest project granted Matsuno since his Square Enix days, and it shows promise. Platinum Games is aboard as developer, illustrator Akihiko Yoshida (himself a frequent Matsuno collaborator) provides art director and character designs, and the story takes place in the demolished Gold Heaven capital, an ornate, smog-encrusted city that narrowly evaded obliteration.

That stage suits a Matsuno game well enough, but Lost Order’s earliest screenshots fall in line with the usual smartphone strategy diversion. Characters walk around a loosely mapped battlefield with a network of colored rings, and nothing looks that different from the usual pastel anime-echoing RPG unleashed on smartphones and handhelds these days.

The same goes for what little we see of the world in the first screens; it’s altogether too bright for a city of shadowy backgrounds and apocalyptic grime. Matsuno's older games have brilliantly rendered and subtly detailed environments, and the first glimpses of Lost Order gameplay leave me wondering if someone mixed up the screenshots in the press releases.

And the characters? From left to right, we have Shon, Chelsea, Rorz (Ross?), and Blaze, all young heroes drawn in a style similar to Yoshida’s Bravely Default artwork (and all translated by my quick-and-dirty glance, so don't be surprised if the actual English names are different). They seem entirely too hopeful and childlike for a dour Matsuno game. Shouldn’t there be at least one suave or brooding older character? And where are their surnames? They can't be just Chelsea and Rorz. They should be Chelsea Phaxaerion and Rorz Von Dolgastein!

I’m quick to judge, of course. Some of Matsuno’s best games have teenage heroes. What's important is that they aren’t stuck in teenage worlds. Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre put their youthful protagonists through a potato masher of betrayals, scheming, dark secrets, and ugly victories, and even Final Fantasy XII had the grace to stick its youngest characters in fittingly passive roles.

Lost Order could find the right path after all. I only hope I’ll have an easy way of playing it. CyGames may deal in smartphone material, but they’re an ambitious company. Granblue Fantasy is successful enough to get a Platinum-made sequel (and an English patch for the original), and CyGames even aims for consoles with the still-very-early Project Awakening.

So I’m not deluded to think that Lost Order might be translated. Yes, I can nab the Japanese version when it arrives, but I’ve played Valkyrie Anatomia that way and understood only a third of the storyline. I’m sure I’d comprehend even less in an unlocalized Matsuno game.

Cute Kills

My mother often complained about the video games I played as a kid. Sometimes she engaged in the usual parental griping about my dodging homework or wasting an afternoon on Power Blade instead of going outdoors, but most of her objections took on a rarer subject. When my mother usually spied me wrapped up in some NES or Super NES diversion, she’d accuse me of murdering cute little creatures.

I understood why. Old video games use simplified and cartoonish foes, and some look wide-eyed and precious even when they're deadly. I could see how my mother might sympathize with the little Boos in Super Mario World or the capering viruses in Dr. Mario.

Yet her mercies went far beyond conventional cuteness. She felt sorry for the giant-octopus boss in StarTropics, the ferocious lizards in Final Fantasy, and even some Castlevania horrors. One evening I showed her how easily I could defeat Mega Man 3's Hard Man, a robot master who repeatedly rams his head into the ground.

"The poor thing," she said after Hard Man exploded into light particles. "It didn't look very smart."

This was nothing new for my mother, who often took the time to make my sister and I feel bad for villains across movies, books, and television. She’d point out that the bully humiliated at the end of an Arthur story was clearly friendless and poor, or perhaps she’d wonder aloud what the mothers of all the German soldiers in a World War II movie would say when they learned that Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood had killed their sons. Video games were just another sharpening block for her cilice spikes of pure Catholic guilt.

When so criticized, I would remind her that these little critters were enemies desiring my destruction and failure. If I was particularly annoyed, I would sacrifice a life or a power-up to show my mother that the flying bugs in Little Nemo would, in fact, kill me if given the chance. She might be placated for a time, but she’d be back to condemn the next game I played.

Before long my sister converted to this new faith, and, when my mother was unavailable, she’d be on hand to remark “But it’s CUTE!” if she spied me encountering a monster in an RPG or trouncing some pastel-colored boss in a platformer. At least she played many of the same games and learned how deadly Koopas and Needlehogs can be.

Their compassion even held firm for the last boss of Final Fantasy IV. I should’ve expected it, but I thought no one would sympathize with Zeromus, the huge eldritch aberration that awaits the heroes in his lunar confines. So I called everyone in the house to come watch as I finished the game.

And my mother and sister felt sorry for warty, abominable Zeromus as he crumbled from sight. Yes, my mom congratulated me with the same supportive, uncomprehending humor you show a child who’s found a new pet earthworm after the rain, but her sympathies lay with the screen-filling nightmare I’d just slain. To make things worse, I could see her point. If you interpret the topmost blue orb as an eye, then Zeromus, this avatar of ancient corruption and monstrous evil, looks pained, weary, and more than a little pathetic.

By the time Secret of Mana came about, I knew that I shouldn’t attack the game’s adorable rabites if my mother or sister might be watching. Yet even in their absence, I often spared the sharp-toothed yellow blobs. Most of Secret of Mana’s monsters are of typical 16-bit anime appeal, but the rabites, much like actual rabbits, appear to have evolved their penetrating cuteness as a survival mechanism.

So I became a video-game pacifist in spirit but seldom in action. When games like Tactics Ogre and Drakengard 3 openly try to make me feel bad about slaying enemy soldiers, I know where they're going. I've been there since Mega Man 3.

It's all part of a plan the game industry calibrated when Pac-Man first ran from ghosts both abstractly precious and clearly threatening. If the player’s going to face dozens of enemies over the course of the game, why not make them cute and marketable? Such strategy works with the Waddle Dees of Kirby games, the Mets of Mega Man titles, and just about every Super Mario Bros. enemy. And if the grinning slimes of Dragon Quest seem childish next to allegedly more serious RPGs of that era, remember that no one made keychains, plush toys, or novelty controllers out of the hobgoblins and spiders from The Bard’s Tale.

Adorable enemies also tie into a recently classified phenomenon: cute aggression. It’s a force that perhaps inexplicably motivates us to hug and pinch precious animals and other charming things to the point of imitating the worst character from Tiny Toons. Some theories have it that cute aggression stems from a mix-up in dopamine, the chemical released by relaxed pleasures as well as bursts of aggression. Others cast it as a defensive mechanism, as something extremely cute overwhelms our brain, confusedly sparking hostility toward a puppy, a kitten, or, indeed a little trudging pixel-beetle just too darling not to pester. So when you blast that googly-eyed robot frog or stalk a Final Fantasy mandragora, its little arms flapping like it wants to fly, feel free to blame your neurons.

Square Enix recently brought I Am Setsuna to the PlayStation 4. It’s a deliberate throwback among RPGs, seeking the hallowed grounds of Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, and other 16-bit games that now command ridiculous sums on eBay. So it includes throngs of enemies a little too cute for their station. I Am Setsuna’s heroes encounter capering penguins, pom-pom rabbits, and a breed of big-eyed walrus that looks like it should be cheering for a hockey team or shilling canned tuna. Yet the game has us believe that these creatures are threatening humanity to the sacrifice-demanding brink of decimation.

I am Setsuna also imitates Chrono Trigger’s method of staging battles. Enemies are carefully placed and usually visible well in advance. If you’re cautious, you can avoid any creatures you don’t want to fight.

Thank goodness.

Little Things: Adventures of Dino-Riki

I’d say that Adventures of Dino-Riki hates us all, but that's a harsh accusation to level at a goofy NES shooter where a smiling caveman belts prehistoric creatures with fireballs. It’s a side-project from Hudson Soft, so much so that Riki's axes look straight out of Adventure Island, and it’s from an age when NES games had to be fierce and uncomplicated.

That’s where Dino-Riki’s unabiding cruelty comes into frame. Monsters and projectiles and instantly lethal hazards swarm Riki at every turn, and his limited methods of counterattack involve jumping, tossing things, and yelping comically when he’s struck. The game has only three actual stage themes, but they repeat several times before reaching a final, buglike boss. Then it all starts over again from the first stage.

Adventures of Dino-Riki has no ending. It doesn’t even grant the player, who’s surely spent hours upon hours memorizing the behavior of caroming pterodactyls and sinking lily pads, some concluding graphic of Dino-Riki triumphant. The North America version of Karnov and its “Congratulations” screen often go down as the biggest disgrace in NES endings, but at least Karnov cared enough to acknowledge you.

Hudson crafted Adventures of Dino-Riki in 1987, when the NES had plenty of arcade-like offerings that didn’t need endings. Yet Dino-Riki has just enough cartoonish aplomb to invite denouement, even if it were just some seven-second finale with Riki and the cover illustration's apparently nameless red-haired cavewoman (or the Japanese wrestler who occasionally takes Riki's place). This was an oversight in 1987, but it became out-and-out fraud when Dino-Riki came to North America in 1989. By then, even simple shooters like Thundercade and Captain Skyhawk rewarded you.

Glancing over the Japanese version of Adventures of Dino-Riki reveals no storyline there; it wasn’t a case of The Krion Conquest, where the North American publisher clipped out the ending and nearly all cutscenes. Riki is plotless wherever he goes. We’re simply told that he’s a cave-kid fighting dinosaurs and Precambrian monstrosities in a bid to prove himself their evolutionary superior.

This brings me to the most interesting thing about Adventures of Dino-Riki. The first stage sends him across swamps and plains, but the second one shows us a panorama of ruins: broken stone columns, weathered earthenware pots, and a primitive temple entrance (that leads to a cave with a dinosaur inside). It’s the sort of backdrop you’ll see in shooters and action games across the NES library.

But questions emerge here. Riki is a caveboy, and the game is presumably set in some Pleistocene-Mesozoic mishmash without even a Flintstones level of technology. So what’s with the ruins? Is Riki treading through the remnants of Atlantis, Mu, or some lost dino-human civilization like the Reptite Empire of Chrono Trigger? Is Adventures of Dino-Riki borrowing that old science-fiction standby of a cave-tribe vista that actually takes place thousands of years after the fall of human civilization? Is Riki the last human alive, braving a gamut of fire-breathing lizards and sharp-winged bats until at last he falls, and his race with him?

These subtle hints failed to fascinate NES owners, and Hudson realized that Adventure Island was a much more popular take on a primitively clad hero bashing monsters—and it had an ending, besides. Riki never went beyond his grueling little NES debut, and even by 1989 he was stuck in the past. Or the future.

Pin-zer Dragoon

A short time ago I said to myself, “I don’t have enough Panzer Dragoon junk,” and that bugged me more than it should have. Panzer Dragoon, Sega’s line of mostly excellent 3-D dragonback rail shooters, is on the short list of game series over which I will make a complete fool of myself, so felt the need to do just that.

Of course, there’s a limit to my fool-making, and I hit it rapidly when checking out the various Panzer Dragoon merchandise on eBay. A limited-edition Panzer Dragoon Orta Xbox? Too expensive, too big, and I’d never use it. An even more limited resin statue of heroine Orta? Not bad, but even more expensive. A VHS copy of the dreadful Panzer Dragoon anime OVA? Even that unendurable panorama of garbage is overpriced.

Yet I spied something cheap, small, and novel: a Panzer Dragoon Orta pin for about three bucks.

I assume these were given away at conventions, perhaps E3, before the game’s early 2003 debut on the Xbox. They’re neat for what they are. The design is true to Panze Dragoon's ornate future-byzantine motif, and they’re hard rubber instead of cheap promo-pin plastic.

One thing strikes me: instead of Sega’s logo on the front, we see that of Smilebit, the developer. Smilebit was part of Sega’s expansion in 2000, when the company, hubristic as ever, established nine different subsidiaries. All of them still answered to Sega, naturally, and Sega reformed the various groups into six larger entities in 2003 before folding them back into Sega proper in 2004. Sega is strange like that.

So why does Smilebit get billing on the front of the promotional pin when Sega’s copyright is on the back—and on the cover of the game, for that matter? Perhaps Sega wanted to push Smilebit as a new brand. By 2002, Sega was out of the console market that they had nearly dominated in the early 1990s, and their name no longer stood for anti-Nintendo coolness or screaming television commercials. Sega was shameful and tired, but Smilebit? Hey, that sounds fun!

Well, that’s my backward theory, at any rate, and it’s the most notable thing about the pin. That said, I’m glad I picked it up. Even the crappiest Panzer Dragoon errata is rapidly turning collectible, so perhaps even this little rubber square will pay for a trip to New Zealand in a few years.

Valkyrie Anatomia: In Profile

Valkyrie Anatomia: The Origin makes me doubt myself. I enjoy it, but I wonder if that’s because I’m hardwired to enjoy any Valkyrie Profile creation on some level. Am I having fun with Valkyrie Anatomia just as I did Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which lost me in the second half but still made me feel like a little kid watching Return of Jedi? Is it like a mediocre Lupin III movie that I watch only because it has Lupin slinking around while Jigen makes caustic remarks and never takes off his hat? Or is it more like ABC’s recently canceled The Muppets, a standard-issue mockumentary sitcom that I stuck with just to see Gonzo and Fozzie and Uncle Deadly going about Muppet routines?

Should you trust my opinion of Valkyrie Anatomia? Can I even trust it? Probably not.

Well, here’s what I think anyway: Valkyrie Anatomia, as a mobile-game prequel to the rest of Valkyrie Profile, doesn’t form as well as its predecessors. Yet it has enough of Valkyrie Profile’s finest elements to draw me into whatever it’s trying to do to my spare time and money. For all of its failings, It knows what sets Valkyrie Profile games apart. I have irksomely sectionalized proof.

The three Valkyrie Profile games tell of struggles between Norse gods and mere mortals: the first is about a valkyrie slowly reclaiming her humanity, the second about a rebellious valkyrie locked in mortal form, and the third about a bitter warrior seeking revenge on the valkyrie who spirited away his father. Yet their best moments are often found in the smaller tales about the warriors the valkyries gather, the valiant and doomed souls who earn a place in Odin’s army one way or another. The original game excelled at this while Valkyrie Profile 2 had weak side stories, but the third, Covenant of the Plume, remembered the importance of a strong supporting cast. And I will defend it everywhere I can.

Valkyrie Anatomia remembers as well. It's just not as adept. The overarching story finds a younger (and possibly alternate-reality) version of Lenneth Valkyrie sealed in darkness, summoned out of it only by an equally younger version of Odin. He desperately needs warriors for the Aesir ranks, so Lenneth travels to the mortal realm with two raven familiars at her side. She recruits humans for Einherjar he same way the original Valkyrie Profile presented things: watching them in the days before their untimely demises, and inviting them to accompany her to the afterworld.

My limited knowledge of Japanese leaves me unable to comment on the nuances of Valkyrie Anatomia’s storyline, but I can grasp the tenor of it. It’s fragmented in quality, switching from a generic story about an all-too-perfect warrior to an intriguing chronicle of a homunculus mage’s final days. Most of the time, though, Anatomia strikes the right tone: morose, fatalistic, and yet hopeful for a life beyond. It’s easy enough to sympathize with Chloe, a dragon-hunter forced to save her sister’s life at the cost of her own, or Sena, an aspiring swordfighter who dies in a tavern brawl.

That’s where Valkyrie Anatomia lays down the same rhythm that made Valkyrie Profile so compelling. Each little vignette isn’t just about a pathetic mortal; it’s an introduction to a new archer or magician or broadsword-wielder for you to recruit and develop. Anatomia even goes beyond the introductions. Once drafted, an Einherjar unlocks extra dungeons that explore the characters’ lives after they’re turned into foot soldiers for Ragnarok. It’s an excellent flourish on the original’s formula, which tended to forget about most human allies after they enlisted.

I never tire of Valkyrie Profile’s battle system remains, and I refuse to think it's mere nostalgia. No, it's the mix of action-game reflexes and a typical RPG battle array. Each party member is mapped to one of four buttons, and pressing those buttons makes them attack in all sorts of variable pileups of spells and slashes and arrows. And with a reliable influx of dying mortals, there’s always a new character to fit into the flurry.

Valkyrie Anatomia simplifies that idea. Confined to a touch-screen, it lacks the visceral heights of actually pressing a button, yet the four controllable characters still respond when their portraits are tapped. Then the chaos kicks in, as everyone gangs up on an enemy as fast as you can command. Some strategy remains, of course: get too reckless, and a character’s spell might miss a cave-spider that’s bounced into the air, or Chloe’s vicious aerial multi-hit could whiff over a revenant already downed by Lenneth’s slide.

Characters now share a life meter, and if there’s an option to use healing items in-battle, I haven’t found it. Instead, you’re given the choice of using crystals to bring your entire party back from the ether. This being a mobile game, you have the choice of getting those crystals in small portions with each day played and dungeon cleared…or you can buy them outright.

I'm not sure if I've entirely accepted the game industry's future of smartphone diversions primed to snatch money at your most desperate moments, but without that future, we wouldn't have a new Valkyrie Profile.

Both Valkyrie Profile and its sequel relied on the same narrow complexity. Their stages were side-scrolling challenges, with jumps and ladders and visible enemies, and within that space the designers got exceptionally creative. The original Valkyrie Profile relied on Lenneth’s ice crystals, while Valkyrie Profile 2 used heroine Silmeria’s position-swapping magic for some excellent puzzles. Covenant of the Plume, being a strategy-RPG, had no such gimmicks. But that was fine.

Valkyrie Anatomia has nothing of the sort. Each stage spans a bunch of linked islands, and Lenneth runs from one to the other. Some hold enemies, some hold treasure chests, and some reveal secret paths or items if Lenneth searches them. It’s basic and tiresome, but that’s likely due to the platform. A mobile game really couldn’t work as a simplified side-scroller, and it’s better off as a tap-and-go dungeon hike.

To its credit, Valkyrie Anatomia isn’t as openly avaricious as some mobile games. Lenneth’s story and her Einherjar anthology are all free to play; the weapons and equipable gems are the randomly distributed trinkets, and thus they’re easier to get if you’re willing to pay for them.

The Valkyrie Profile series regularly showed beautiful illustrations from Kou Yoshinari and Yoh Yoshinari, both animators and directors. They drew all of the characters in the first game, provided some promotional art for Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria, and returned to design the cast for Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume. Even the regular characters designs for Silmeria weren’t too shabby. Shunya Yamashita draws every female character like a cockily postured pin-up, but his illustrations are professional.

Valkyrie Anatomia is roughest here. Hideo Minaba did at least two nice illustrations for the central artwork, but the in-game illustrations, apparently provided by a different artist, are weak. Lenneth wears ridiculous belted half-boob armor, and most of her recruited characters look mundane. Their outfits aren’t so bad, even if Chloe carries on the Valkyrie Profile tradition of women warriors who outfit themselves sensibly except for the upper thighs.

Anatomia also cheaps out by reusing the same artwork for nameless supporting characters. The same vikings from Lucia’s story reappear as bar thugs in Sena’s arc, while Chloe and pirate-turned-princess Riu apparently have twin sisters for mothers. Yeah, RPGs reuse sprite art and even portraits, but Anatomia clearly didn’t have a solid art budget. It’d look better if the identical children and soldiers and old women had no accompanying illustrations at all.

And what about the soundtrack? It leans a lot on older Valkyrie Profile tunes, but Motoi Sakuraba put together some solid new compositions. It’s a lot more consistent than the artwork.

In some inescapably biased way, I like Valkyrie Anatomia. I like it enough to keep playing it, enough to describe it in a bullet-point format that I usually dislike, and enough to hope that Square Enix puts it on the Vita, perhaps with better artwork. That rarely happens, but Chaos Rings eventually saw a Vita release, so hey. Let's hope.

That’s what bothers me the most about Valkyrie Anatomia: it’s ephemeral. A year or two from now it could disappear in a puff of server deletions and app delistings. If Valkyrie Anatomia survives in some physical form, I can add it to my top-shelf game library.

And I’d like that.

NFL Huddles: Rushers' Revenge

A while back I wrote about the NFL Huddles, a line of little figures representing various football teams. I openly wondered why the NFL didn’t revive the idea and market the Rams and Cardinals and Jets as cute characters for children. As it turns out, the NFL brought back the Huddles in concept, if not in name or spirit. And I learned about it through McNuggets.

I went to at a McDonald’s and realized that it’d been about twelve years since I’d bought a Happy Meal. So I asked what kind of toys they had. This particular McDonald’s didn’t have the Hot Wheels sets as advertised; as a substitute they offered NFL Rush Zone Rushers, a promotion apparently from 2012. This piqued my interest, and I bought one. Then I bought another.

The Rushers have the same underlying principle as the Huddles, embodying some NFL mascot in squat form. Design-wise, they’re different. Each of them is a huge helmeted head with arms and legs attached, plus whatever decorations evoke a team. It’s a physique that works well for creatures like Boglins or robots like Gurren Lagann (or the gun-headed things from Keith Courage/Wataru), but it’s a little strange when applied to human characters and humanoid animals.

Much to my disappointment, I couldn’t pick out teams. The Rushers were blind-bagged, and I declined to ask some McDonald’s employee to check the serial numbers. So I rolled the dice and ended up with the Rushers for the Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts. They were  I my top choices, but I was relieved that I didn’t draw the Cowboys. I never liked the Cowboys.

All of the Rushers have a football-throwing mechanism: press the clenched hand, and the other hand propels a plastic ball through the air. They’re made of lightweight plastic, which pretty much ensures that children will destroy them after a week or so of standard toy abuse.

The designs themselves are largely uninventive. The Chiefs Rusher has no adornments whatsoever, possibly to avoid stereotypical Native American garb—though  that skin tone is an odd choice. The Colts Rusher tries harder, but there’s a problem. He’s not an actual Colt. He’s just an ambulatory Madball in a Colts helmet.


See? This is a disgrace to the Huddles legacy and the good name of Cody Colt.

Some Rushers show greater fidelity, and you can see them all in this video. Most of the bird mascots get beaked visages, the Bengals and Panthers are actual cats, and the Jets mascot wears a combination helmet and pilot mask. Still, most of the choices are either lazy human gnomes or strange chimeras. The Broncos Rusher, which I wanted most, looks more like a bored dinosaur than any sort of horse.

There’s more to the Rushers. All of these characters spawned from a 2012 cartoon called NFL Rush Zone: Guardians Unleashed, in which a focus-grouped assortment of kids transforms into football-outfitted Power Ranger superheroes and battles monsters over energy Mega Cores that look like team footballs. Really. There are three seasons of this.

These cheaply animated CG escapades often pause to introduce NFL players (all clearly voicing themselves) and awkwardly interject trivial about, for example, how many times the Cardinals made the playoffs. The squat NFL mascots appear at times, but the focus is on preteen heroes donning neon football armor and crashing into robotic villains. It’s the perfect cartoon for a sports league dogged by scandals about brain damage.

That aside, the Rushers seem like a decent novelty for devoted NFL collectors or anyone looking to annoy fellow diners by lobbing plastic footballs across the table. I still prefer the Huddles, though, and I don’t think it’s due to nostalgia entirely. The Huddles are cuter, more compact, and sturdier in their rubbery forms. Plus the Broncos and Colts Huddles look like broncos and colts.

So the Rushers won’t become part of my modest toy stockpile. I already gave away the Chiefs one to a coworker, and now I need to find someone who likes the Colts enough to want a little plastic catapult shaped like a angry gridiron gnome. If only I still lived in Ohio.