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Monday, June 18, 2012

Captain Power Skill Level Training VHS Series: More Entertaining than an Action Max!

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future was an American/Canadian live-action TV series that aired from 1987-1988 that was innovative in a number of ways: It helped introduce the idea of "straight-to-syndication" to television broadcasters, it was one of the first TV series to use computer-generated images, was arguably the first "American-made" tokusatsu show, was seemingly made for kids yet featured writing that was definitely more adult-oriented, and was actually interactive to an extent. Unfortunately, its "aimed at kids, but written for adults" execution resulted in some confusion over who the targeted viewership was (not to mention parents didn't like how dark it was for their children), putting it straight to syndication gave it some horrible time slots like 5-6 AM every Sunday, and even the interactive elements didn't quite work as planned...  

This ended with the show being canceled after it's initial 22-episode Season 1, though Season 2 was mostly written already. Still, the show had gained a cult fanbase and this past December it finally received a DVD boxset release, complete with a new "Making-of" documentary, commentary by the cast & crew, & even a detailed look at what Season 2 would have been like. But what does this all have to do with anime? Well, there is one bit of Captain Power that is not included with this DVD boxset: A trio of animated "Skill Level" training VHS tapes, done by Japanese anime studio ARTMIC (of Megazone 23, Gall Force, & Bubblegum Crisis fame), complete with three fairly well-known names hidden in the credits. Power On!

Before we start, let me state that I have never seen the actual Captain Power TV series. When I was growing up I only had the first Skill Level VHS tape, likely brought at a garage sale, and watching it repeatedly was the only time I had experience with this series; only recently did I find the other two tapes for uber-cheap, allowing me to see this in it's entirety. I state this only so that people can understand that I could be wrong or vague when it comes to certain details regarding the show. Anyway, remember how I mentioned that the TV series was interactive to an extent? Well that's because the show had scenes where there would be red flashing lights appearing on the screen; these lights could be "shot at" with certain Captain Power toys, made by Mattel. These toys likely worked the same way the NES Zapper worked with games like Duck Hunt: When the trigger is squeezed the gun activates, and if the gun is pointed at the light then it registers as a "hit". In Captain Power's case the toy would count up how many "hits" the viewer got, and at the end of each episode Power himself would tell the viewers how many "Power Points" corresponded to each rank; the toy could "receive" hits, though, & taking too many hits would result in the ship "blowing up". But since the show was only airing at certain times, kids would only be able to use the toys to their full extent on occasion... And that's where these VHS tapes come in. These tapes were essentially the same thing as the show, but were animated instead of live-action (though there are live-action segments at the beginning & end of each tape), and were only 14-17 minutes long rather than the 22 minutes each episode was. Naturally, HDTVs have made the interactivity useless now, but how are these tapes from a simple animation perspective? Are they even any better than what was available for the Action Max?

All three tapes put you in the first-person shoes of a new recruit of the Soldiers of the Future, later called "Pilot-1". The first tape, Future Force Training, is your first attempt at piloting the XT-7 jet, which was the most-common interactive toy, where you go through a virtual fight against the evil machine drones of Lord Dread before getting thrust into an actual battle. The second tape, Bio Dread Strike Mission, is your first actual mission, where you team with Power & Corporal "Pilot" Chase in order to take out a Bio-Dread military complex. The last tape, Raid on Volcania, has you teaming with Power & Major "Hawk" Masterson for an invasion of Volcania in an attempt to shut down the battle computers that control a large portion of Dread's forces.

Since the story on each tape is pretty basic (they're all essentially long battle sequences), I can only really talk about the animation and what the overall "experience" is like for each tape. Future Force Training is a great start, delivering the most variety due to the "virtual test" execution that makes up about half of the tape, but also features a great chase sequence half-way through as well as simple, but somewhat exciting, rescue mission at the end. The animation does a great job here, mainly because you're flying around giant rock formations and canyons, and the sense of speed you should get from flying a jet is really in effect here. Even though I couldn't fully play with the tape as a kid, because I didn't have the toy, I remember watching it often just because it looked so cool, and I still feel the same way today. Future Force Training is just a great start to this series of tapes.

Bio Dread Strike Mission, though, drops the ball a fair bit. There isn't as much variety here as in the first tape (it's just a surprise attack, the actual strike mission, & an assault on a giant air carrier), and, worst of all, the animation here is pretty substandard. Most of the tape looks pretty average, the sense of speed is just bad/slow, and even the environments aren't all that detailed. Granted, the assault on the air carrier does redeem the tape somewhat, but even then it's only about 5 minutes long, at most. Still, when you go inside the air carrier to take it out you do get a couple moments of good speed as well as a neat scene or two, but overall Bio Dread Strike Mission just disappoints.

Thankfully, Raid on Volcania really steps it up and becomes the best tape of them all. Though the variety is still limited with only two rescue missions and the actual assault on Volcania, the animation on this tape is just insane. The sense of speed you get here, especially when you assault Castle Volcania, is simply intense and the action is pretty much all over the place. You really do get the sense that ARTMIC purposefully held back on the budget for the second tape just so that the finale could look amazing, and it really works out in the end. If there's any problem with Raid on Volcania, it's that there's no real ending... Literally, you finish the assault, Power congratulates you, & the tape ends; there's not even a credit scroll! Admittedly, there really can't be a real ending to this series, since it's a supplement, but the sudden finish is just really awkward. As for the live-action segments, they work for what they are, which is to just give each tape a sense of time & place; they're nothing special, but they're far from horrible. The three tapes total up to about 45 minutes, and with two-thirds of it being great it ends up being a pretty enjoyable experience overall.

Sorry for the rough quality... I blame the flashing red & yellow lights!

ARTMIC definitely didn't take this production lightly, & three of the names behind this really make it all the more obvious. The animation director was Yasuo Hasegawa, whose most-well known works were the Bastard!! OVA, Megazone 23 Parts I & III, & the Riding Bean OVA (which he also was the overall director of), so there's no surprise that the sense of speed and overall animation looks great; even though Bio Dread Strike Mission's animation is sub-par, it's still far from bad, which just shows the directing ability of Hasegawa. The catchy music in these tapes, though there are only about 3-4 songs, were all done by the legendary Kenji Kawai, the man behind the music of titles like Fate/stay night, When They Cry - Higurashi, Gundam 00, & the Ghost in the Shell movies. It's kind of annoying that there's likely no way to get the songs from the tapes on their own, outside of recording the short credits sequences from the first two tapes. Finally, the mech designs & half of the background designs were done by Shinji Aramaki, the legendary designer of titles like Bubblegum Crisis, Madox-01 (which he also wrote & directed), and Gundam MS igLoo, not to mention being the director of the two all-CG Appleseed movies; to be fair, the other background designer (& art director) was Kazuhiro Arai, of Megazone, Mazinkaiser, Dangaioh, & Bubblegum Crisis fame. All of Lord Dread's machine forces look really sleek and well-designed, especially the Soaron flying forces, so a job well done, Mr. Aramaki. In fact, some of the production work done for these tapes can be found in the pages of the ARTMIC Design Works B-Club Special artbook, which also has a scan of the English letter sent to the studio by Landmark Entertainment Group, the company behind the TV series, thanking them for their work. Finally, as if to just add to the Bubblegum Crisis connection, supposedly some of the sound effects used were literally taken from the Bubblegum Crisis OVA series.

To be fair, though, let's take a quick look at some of the live-action cast, mainly because of where some of these people have gone on to be known for. Captain Jonathan Power is played by Tim Dunigan, in which this was his biggest role, as Dunigan then went on to have many guest-spots in shows like Cheers, Beverly Hills 90210, & JAG before retiring from acting in 2002. Lord Dread is played by David Hamblen, who is most well-known as the voice of Magneto in the 90s X-Men animated series. Story goes that Hamblen was apparently the first choice for Magneto in the first X-Men movie, but had to decline due to schedule conflicts. "Pilot" Chase is played by Jessica Steen, who you might remember as the female space shuttle pilot Watts from the film Armageddon. Supposedly, Steen was recommended for the role of Watts by Jerry Bruckheimer due to her role in Captain Power. The most well-known names behind this series, though, are likely Gary Goddard & J. Michael Straczynski. Goddard was one of the creators of the series (as well as series like Mega Babies & Skeleton Warriors), and was the director of the cheesy-but-enjoyable Masters of the Universe movie. J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote about a third of the series' scripts, went on the create Babylon 5 and was the writer of The Amazing Spider-Man comics from 2001 to 2007. Yes, I just connected JMS to anime... Even though I never watched Babylon 5 or read his run of Spider-Man, I still think that's cool.

Anyway, why were these animated productions not included in the Captain Power DVD boxset release, pictured above? My only guess would be that everything reverted back to ARTMIC after the series was canceled, and it would have been too much of an expense to license them back. Either that, or Gary Goddard simply forgot about them when he was helping make the DVD release happen. Whatever the reason, this series of animated productions are a really neat look at how anime started to really come to North America in an uncut, unedited form. I can honestly say that the Future Force Training tape I had as a kid was probably the first time I realized that what I was watching was not the usual type of animation that North America made... It was something different. I could very well blame Captain Power for making me into the fan of anime that I am now, and I think that's kind of awesome. These tapes easily blow anything that was made for the Action Max, which I did have as a kid, out of the water (take that, The Rescue of Pops Ghostly!), and even though you'd need to watch them on an old-school CRT television in order to actually use the toys with them on their own they make a really cool piece of 80s anime to watch. They're even on YouTube if you want to watch them. If you're a fan of Captain Power and never saw them then I say go ahead and watch them, but even if you're just a fan of anime they're worth watching at least once. Now I feel like returning the favor & buying that Captain Power DVD boxset... I hear it's a really good show.


  1. If only all anime could be like this...

    1. Well, it is still a linear adventure, with nothing changing, so take that into account. But, yeah, it is kind of sad that this idea was never attempted by the Japanese for the Japanese. Also, I can't believe I forgot to mention one big thing about these tapes: They are a seizure-inducing nightmare! All of the flashing red lights, along with flashing yellow lights at times (hell, even the explosions have flashing lights to them!), really make this is "Don't play this at night with the lights off" kind of thing.

  2. I think Bandai did do something along these lines, and now I think, Takara did as well. The one I remember most of all was a Kamen Rider RX toy that would HENSHIN POSE when the detector on it caught flashes off the TV from the show. I seem to recall a 'role play toy' Henshin belt that did something similar.

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