Megalobox is available to stream on Netflix and Crunchyroll
Everybody loves the good ol' days, huh?
Reboots and revisits are nothing new; how many times have we told and retold the story of The Magnificent Seven Samurai? Doesn't Peter Cullen get tired of being tapped for a new Transformers continuity every other year? Didn't Fullmetal Alchemist get remade less than five years after its first adaptation concluded?
(At least a dozen times; woudn't you?; and yes, to new viewers' confusion.)
But there seems to be something of an uptick lately. It's something of a trend of IP holders to “do-over” previous adaptations to create a more source-accurate series, from the ongoing Fruits Basket to the now-franchised Fate/Stay Night and the recently-announced Shaman King reboot.
Then look at two of the headline game releases from the first half of 2020: high-budget, from-the-ground-up revisits of titles from the late '90s. These audiences run long and strong, and are plenty willing to go back to the well for the eighth time for some the same water in a different cup.
But a lot of revisits play out less directly.
Case in point: spiritual successors. I am Setsuna and Cosmic Star Heroine, two very divergent games, both stake parts of their identity in being an awful lot like Chrono Trigger. Cosmic Star Heroine even runs on pulpy, '90s sci-fi adventure tropes, in case they needed to evoke the era further. It's technically unrelated to its source, sure, but it's built to hit the same nerve.
Then you get even further out.
I can't even begin to dig down into the scene around the PICO-8, a completely imaginary gaming handheld. Despite being technically obsolete the day it debuts, it still has a healthy development scene, with its artificial constraints often cited as a strength rather than a drawback.
And deliberately-retro music like Satellite Young constitutes a whole genre. Bands formed half a decade ago are producing synth-pop that sounds distinctively like the contents of an 8-track or the titles of a bootleg VHS copy of Kimagure Orange Road. That's before you even get into the dogged popularity of the vinyl-record format for reasons that I'm sure fans could form lectures around.
And to bring it back to anime, one of its seminal series – Cowboy Bebop – evokes character design sensibility circa 1978 rather than its native 1998. It certainly doesn't hurt that its famous soundtrack is founded on genres of music that you might argue have gone past their prime, leaving the show's image anywhere between old-fashioned and anachronistic.
And, of course, sequels can feel honor-bound to overtly evoke their earlier iterations. Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn is a recent prestige series with film-quality production values… that still includes silly hair coifs and cheesy cheek-marks straight out of the original 1979 playbook.
And then, at the logical conclusion of this road, you get a laser-targeted spiritual successor:
It's all of these things at once.
It's a spiritual successor to Ashita no Joe, often lionized as the greatest sports anime ever created. It's a play off of that series' 50th anniversary, deliberately placed to bring in both old fans and curious new viewers. It plays with its design sense, using visual tics that deliberately harken back to more senior source material.
And, most famously, it kneecaps its own visual quality.
One of the biggest and most obvious quirks around Megalobox was how production studio TMS approached the show's compositing. The common story around the show is that it was created at a modern, high-definition digital resolution, but in the final production stages was intentionally downscaled to a low resolution and then upscaled right back. So, in a sense, it's not just aping an older style – the show technically is SD material, just like its ancestors.
And you could argue whether or not that level of dedication is admirable or detrimental. But you don't get to pull off that look by creating any old show and then exporting it to a DVD-quality file. That's how you lose detail – and visual acuity can be taken for granted in modern series, which are often set against highly-detailed background paintings or play with intricate, accessory-laden character designs.
Rather, the directive for Megalobox was to make the linework thicker and rougher than a usual production; something robust that could stand up to some roughing about. The setting itself, for its lived-in alleyways and busy arenas, thrives off this hazy, gritty feeling that arguably benefits rather than suffers from the loss of clarity.
And the show's entire theme – a rough-and-tumble slum dog getting into fistfights against dudes wearing industrial machinery – plays right into that. You want to see something heavy-set with some dirt on its nose and frayed edges? That's right in the “underdog boxer” wheelhouse.
Which isn't to say that the show is totally beholden to a style that looks like it's been banged-up and thrown out the door. The other half of Megalobox's story is in the whole system that Joe is both figuratively and literally punching his way into – and the modern-day creation process that the show can't help relishing in at times.
Just look at this exchange in episode 10. Clearly digital sparks and buffets of wind flying about. A camera that moves with the characters and forcibly stops with an impact-mimicking quake at every blow. Follow-through from one move into the next rather than selling an action through a dramatically-held pose.
It changes episode by episode, of course – some directors push for grounded, straight-on choreography with a more traditional look, and some are more fanciful like the match above. Almost all of them love the cheesier elements of the script, like the omnipresent come-from-behind knockout punch or dramatic close-ups on the Fierce, Determined Gaze™.
But all of them exist on a sliding scale between the show feeling like a modern update to Ashita no Joe and something genuinely out of ages past. It's making careful jabs at how older shows look and move, picking at what works, and then sticking with the modern approach where it still has the upper hand.
Megalobox isn't nailing the exact elements of an aged show; it's more trying to evoke the feel of one.
And honestly, that's often what we really want.
When we say that we want something “old-school”, we're almost necessarily forgetting the baggage attached to “old”. I have a deep place in my heart for video games circa 1998, but actually playing them involves giving up twenty years of user-friendly design advancements. We all love the shows of our childhood, but we'd absolutely balk at going back to a TV channel's rigid schedule, and forget how hard a lot of them had to stretch to fill the network-mandated 22 minutes with what they could do at the time.
So, in its way, I have to admire the deliberate choices that Megalobox is making as a legacy show. Yes, the final product deliberately lacks the sharpness that it was produced with – but no, that ultimately doesn't hinder the experience. It plans around every shortcoming it creates in itself – leaning into subued color palettes tho match its dirty post-processing techniques, creating imagery that reads just as well with some smudging on it, and not forsaking modern tools or the visual panache that modern shows have developed a sense for.
Sure, a real-deal vintage product is great, and many hold their place in memory for good reason.
But sometimes, just the idea of the thing is what we really crave.