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November 11, 2016

An Episode In Gaming: Code Lyoko (Part 1)

"Code Lyoko" review: Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7

I have discussed multiple times the common video game trope of virtualization – that is, when a character transcends the material world to have their body transformed, atom per atom, into data and teleported into a video game or a virtual world. Scientifically, it’s impossible. But it always makes for interesting stories. And out of the many films and TV shows out there that use this as a plot element in a way or another, very few have done it so extensively and with as much deconstruction as Code Lyoko.

One of these is not like the others... Jérémie has glasses!
If you were born in the late 90s, chances are you know about this show, or at least heard about it. In my case, I was just a little bit past the age of watching the Saturday morning cartoons (this was a time when I didn’t have Télétoon, the French Canadian-based all-cartoon channel, basically our Cartoon Network, so my cartoons were on weekend mornings, on Radio-Canada, our CBC). Yet, I still watched this show, because dammit, there is not actually an age to outgrow cartoons when some are good enough to be enjoyed by children and adults alike.

If you’re in the United States, the show was also brought to Cartoon Network, and played all the way up to the fourth season, where the last seven or so episodes were mercilessly moved to some kind of new online video streaming site CN was trying to push to its viewers. Also there’s hearsay that at least one Cartoon Network exec hated the show and was really insistent to put it in one of those dead timeslots, like really early in the morning, at hours where no child should logically be up. AKA, the show-killers. And note that this was long before Cartoon Network had Johnny Test and, later, Teen Titans Go to obsessively push forward all so that they could make a quick buck out of merchandise.

And that’s sad because while this is far from perfect, if you’re willing to overlook some of the problems (and the large forehead designs, because yes, this can be a little too weird for some), you end up with a very enjoyable, 95-episode series. As I mentioned, the show was split in four seasons, and each season has its own smaller arc that ends on a cliffhanger for the season that follows. There is a much stricter continuity here than in the other show I’ve reviewed so far, Kirby: Right Back At Ya, so it would be very interesting to take a look through the series, season by season, and view both what it did wrong, and what it did right. Alright then, let’s start with Season 1!

Expect little to no "giant foreheads" jokes here.
Everybody has already done then. It's not funny anymore.
I'm not sure I can avoid them either, though...

And talking about a bad way to start… How about we start without any proper introduction? Code Lyoko’s very first episode actually begins in the middle of action. You discover the characters, sure, but you’re not explained anything. You’re never told how these kids know about Lyoko or why they’re on this heroic mission to save the world from an evil computer program. We don’t get a proper introduction, a proper backstory, before a special two-parter that aired in Season 3. Kind of stupid if you ask me. I suggest you start with this two-part episode if you ever want to watch the show. In fact, this is how we’ll start this review, because it makes more sense that way. Feel free to watch the special on the official US YouTube channel for the show!

The moment that changed the world.
Not necessarily for the better.
P.S. Sorry about the logo on the bottom right, I am picking
these images from the official US YouTube channel.
We’re introduced to Jérémie Belpois, resident brainiac of Kadic Academy. The kind of guy who can probably memorize and recite Pi to the ten thousandth place. The kind of guy that is made fun of in Weird Al’s White and Nerdy- Oh no, wait, worse than that. It opens on a personal video journal of Jérémie explaining how he discovered the Supercomputer, an impressive machine hidden in a room deep below the factory next to the school. He discovered it completely by luck. He turns it on, pulling up the lever, and when he goes back to the monitor hanging from the ceiling on the main room, one of the first windows to open reveals a pink-haired girl animated in CGI.

I should note that while it was far from the first show to use CGI so extensively, Code Lyoko was one of the first shows that made it a major selling point to include both traditional hand-drawn animation for the scenes in the real world, and CGI for the scenes that happen in the titular virtual world. This show is also notable for coming from France, and its English dub was made by the same studio – hence why some characters don’t change voice actors whether you watch the show in French or in English. Some characters change, like Odd Della Robbia’s very high-pitched, almost girly voice of the original French version being replaced by a deeper tone.

Jérémie first assumes that she’s a video game, but soon realizes that she’s an A.I. character within the computer. And yet, there’s something odd about her, like she’s more than just an A.I. Since she doesn’t know her own name, Jérémie settles on calling her Maya until more can be learned about her. Hm… Maya… I wonder where he got the idea for that name…

………………………………Maya the bee? I don't think so.

What Jérémie doesn’t know is that by turning back on the Supercomputer, he has also awakened a malevolent A.I. known as XANA, which resides into the supercomputer and can use its control over quantum physics to achieve all kinds of bizarre or downright impossible things in the real world. I used to joke that you can pretty much see it as an evil virtual version of an Unown.

See? I KNEW I wasn’t the only one to think that!

These two are like protagonists of a buddy cop show.
So different, yet they end up becoming best pals.
We cut to Kadic Academy. Jérémie enters science class and we get to meet two other protagonists of this series: Ulrick Stern and Odd Della Robbia. The former is deadpan, serious and aloof. The latter is a jokey womanizer and a rule-breaking idiot with a crazy haircut. They’re about as mismatched as a black three-piece suit coat, shirt and tie worn with flashy orange-and-purple jogging pants. With brown socks in white sandals. The best part? They share a room in the Kadic dormitory. This scene also sets up another major character: Sissi Delmas, daughter of the school’s principal, who has a crush on Ulrich and flirts frequently with him, though her attempts are in vain. There are some other students, like Nicholas and Hervé, but they later become Sissy’s lackeys and aside from being laughingstock, they don’t do much nor will they do much.

(Quick note: Kadic Academy was named in the show after science-fiction author Philip K. Dick. Nice literary reference there!)

One's first encounter with the local "wildlife".
I feel like a Pokémon Trainer on Route 1.
Minus Pokéballs and any way to save myself.
On Jérémie’s next visits, Maya comes out of the tower she was in and gets to see more of the virtual world, but she’s soon attacked by creatures with a weird eye on them. She hurries back into the tower. Soon afterwards, at Kadic, Jérémie gets electrocuted by a vending machine. He’s brought to the infirmary by Ulrich, who then heads to the gymnasium for a martial arts class. Meet two more important characters: First is Jim Morales, the more-or-less competent gym teacher with a larger collection of possible backstories than the Joker, but he’d rather not talk about it. In the first season, he’s more of an obstacle, but the following seasons emphasized his comical side and made him far more enjoyable. Plus, he mentions spending some time in Quebec, so that’s a plus in my book. Next is Yumi Ishiyama, a Japanese student who lives with her parents outside of the Kadic Acamedy grounds. In the practice time that follows, we see that both Ulrich and Yumi are fairly good martial artists… but she’s better than him.

Ah, I see Jim has already started being treated like
the running joke that he is.

"What's that?"
"A computer program,"
"A humanlike AI."
"So what? It's still just a program..."
Going back to his dormitory room, Ulrich finds out that Odd has brought along his dog, Kiwi, hiding him in the bedroom, which is against the rules of the campus. Gee, I can’t see any way in which this could backfire. Planning to tell the principal about this, Ulrich passes by Jérémie’s room and saves him again, this time from his robot creations going rogue. Ulrich decides he wants to know what’s going on, so Jérémie brings him to the lab inside the factory and shows him Maya. Jérémie explains the situation, but his new unlikely friend comes to the most logical conclusion: If this thing is too dangerous, why not just turn it off?

That’s actually a very good question, one that’s been asked by a lot of fans; this moment is the writers addressing the question that has hanged over the show since its first episode. Frankly, I can see why it would be the best idea. Supercomputer turned off? We lose Maya, but XANA cannot attack. Seems logical, yes, but remember that the characters in this show are high school kids – no matter how smart they are, they can’t weigh the full potential consequences of each choice – and besides, Jérémie will fight tooth and nail to keep the computer on as long as needed. Jérémie then explains that his friend from Lyoko could actually be teleported into their world thanks to scanners located under the monitor room – and that while he hasn’t found the program to bring Maya, he has actually found a way to send others into Lyoko. He needs a guinea pig… so Ulrich goes to get Odd’s dog Kiwi. Gee, I can’t see any way in which this could backfire. Odd chases Ulrich, and Sissi ends up following along.

Odd in the scanner. His dog Kiwi is going
"Hell no, fuck that shit, I'm outta here."
Wise decision.

"Why am I the weirdo with a tail?"
Ulrich puts Kiwi in the scanner, but at the last second Odd goes inside it while his dog jumps out, and so Odd is the one to be sent to Lyoko. Still, the virtualization goes without a hitch, and Odd finds himself on Lyoko, dressed in a weird purple outfit with big paws and a tail. Hmmm… nope, it’s still missing too many pieces, he’s not ready for the next furry convention. It seems cool at first, until Odd is attacked by little creatures. Ulrich decides to step in to help Odd on Lyoko, while Sissi cowers out. Ulrich appears in the virtual world, dressed like some kind of samurai with a sword.

Now, you will probably say, “But Nic! The virtual world of Lyoko is NOT actually a video game!” To which I reply, maybe not, but it sure behaves like one! The enemies have weak points, the Lyoko-Warriors have Life Points and weapons, they each have special abilities to help in battle, there are multiple worlds to visit, and every mission has them escorting an important character towards a tower – hey, if you hate escort missions in games, just imagine: That’s all these guys ever do! Ulrick has a sword, but Odd shoots arrows from his wrists. Seems balanced enough to take on XANA’s monsters! Unfortunately, they don’t yet know everything they can do, so they lose against the group of enemies they encounter. Thankfully, they’re brought back to the real world when they lose – not that they’re out of trouble yet, as they then save Jérémie and Sissi from XANA’s manipulation of the wires in the monitor room.

Part 2 of this special starts with Odd revealing that he changed his hairstyle to the one he had on Lyoko. How does he get such a gravity-defying haircut? Probably a store and a half’s worth of hair gel every day. He probably imports that from Japan, it seems to be a trend to have insane hairstyles over there. Ask any anime hero.

Those brief moments where Sissi was part of the group...

Just some friendly sparring.
Between friends. Yeah, just friends.
I just realized Yumi has very off-model legs here.
Meanwhile, Jérémie realizes another thing about Lyoko – namely, that the towers serve as portals between the virtual world and the real one. He explains to Odd and Ulrich his plan: Materialize Maya in the real world, then shut down the supercomputer and prevent any more troubles. Later, Ulrich and Yumi practice martial arts again while Jérémie explains to Odd that he found a program on the supercomputer called Return to the Past. I suppose calling it Reset Button would have been too obvious.

That’s when XANA decides to attack – its heartbeat becomes audible on Lyoko, and Maya tries to warn Jérémie. Sissi gets electrocuted in her room by a ball of somewhat sentient electricity after her cheerleading test. After which, the creature goes to look for Ulrich and finds him in the gymnasium. He escapes with Yumi, but she finds it suspicious that he knows more than he wants to tell, so she forces him to bring her along. A third warrior on Lyoko can only be a good thing, right? Jérémie overlooks the virtualization procedure while the other three step into the scanners.

Code Lyoko: Adventure! Romance! Giant electric monsters!

I guess these Krabes were too big a threat?
It is their first actual mission, after all.
Upon arriving on Lyoko, Odd is annoyed that he’s still the only one looking ridiculous, since Yumi has gained a pretty cool traditional Japanese outfit. They have to hurry though, because Maya’s in danger! They reach her and fight against the monsters that popped up. Yumi gets to try her main weapon – Japanese fans that turn into flying spinning blades when tossed! Dammit, that sounds like the kind of weapon I’d like to see in other games. All of the monsters can prove dangerous, but they all have a weak point: The XANA symbol on them. Odd makes it his duty to appoint a name to every monster – Kankrelats, Hornets, Bloks, Krabes, Megatanks. Oh, and he also calls Jérémie Einstein and Aelita Princess. If this keeps up, he’s gonna start giving human names to the Lyoko monsters he kills.

Meanwhile, Sissi has been brought to the infirmary, and when she wakes up she tells everything about Lyoko to her father, Jim, and the school nurse. Tssk, so much for promising to keep the secret! And then she wonders why the group doesn’t trust her.

There's a reason it's called a secret.
It's supposed to stay secret, Sissi.

Oh hey, she's a reality warper on Lyoko!
That's awesome.
Back at the factory, the Lyoko-warriors have yet to figure out how to beat the Krabes (even though the XANA symbol is right on top of them). The electricity monster appears in the monitor room and attacks Jérémie. Aelita finds out that she has some powers of her own, in particular the gift of creation; she can create barriers and change the field to protect herself, but it’s a very limited ability. After using it, Yumi serves as a distraction while the pink-haired A.I. runs to the tower. Hm, I find it funny how most discoveries were really made by sheer dumb luck in this intro to the series. It can seem cheap, but then again, many of these are justifiable.

In the tower, Maya gets to a floating screen, presses her hand to it, and it flashes a name: Aelita. After which, she inputs the code that returns the tower to normal (No points for guessing what the code word is). It works, and XANA’s attack ceases in the real world: The electricity monster vanishes.

Oh hey, a holographic computer screen!
Too bad we're far from having anything resembling that.

Pictured: A Return to the Past. Not pictured: Your
headaches trying to make sense of it.
By that point, the other three have been devirtualized, so they climb to the monitor room only to see Sissi there with Jim and her father the principal. Ulrich calls out Sissi on betraying them, and her father, Jean-Pierre Delmas, orders Jérémie to turn off the computer. However, Jérémie instead launches his first Return to the Past, through which a blast of light emits from the center of the room and spreads outside of the factory, across Kadic campus, and probably into the rest of the world. (That’s the only way this could make sense; or else what, this small part of the world is out of sync with the days in the rest of the world? That wouldn’t make much sense, would it? Oh, you mean it doesn't make sense that a mere computer can make time itself roll over and play ball? They kind of explain it by saying the computer can play with quantum physics. Those are an odd thing; they’re the closest to magic that science will ever get. Through quantum physics, almost anything could happen. It’s also pretty much impossible to experiment with those in our world. And I doubt we’ll ever get there with our current scientific knowledge. Okay, enough rambling.)

Odd, Ulrich and Yumi find themselves back near the vending machine, two days earlier. Jérémie gets himself a drink but doesn’t seem to remember what happened after this point in time. Sometime later, the group finds out that the Supercomputer also stores upon virtualization the Lyoko-Warriors’ memories inside itself, which allows them to remember what happened before the Return to the Past. And since Jérémie still hasn’t gone to Lyoko, he doesn’t have that protection. And thus, his new friends decide to tell him what he forgot. Oh goodie, a program that protects some people’s memories from the use of a reset button. Hm, wonder if I would like this… Probably not.

As a bonus, we know Aelita’s real name now, so yay. You can’t believe how hard it was to write this with the fake name Maya. Every single time, I realized I was writing Aelita instead. Thank God it’s only for this intro to the series! As a final piece of info, Jérémie explains that he now knows that the enemy that caused the electricity monster and created these mooks on Lyoko is called XANA, and that since they now know how to stop it, they can just keep up the fight until Jérémie succeeds in materializing Aelita into the real world. Thankfully, Ulrich, Odd and Yumi all agree to give Jérémie the time he needs to achieve this, even if that means having to save the world – or at least, Kadic Academy and its students – a few times first!

As an intro, it’s okay. It explains the whole setting, how these five became unlikely friends, how things work in this setting and universe, and why they start the series already fighting XANA. As a bonus, we kind of see some of the recurring elements of the show – Jérémie always programming something, Odd being an idiot, the romantic tension between Ulrich and Yumi, the team’s rivalry with Sissi… These same elements which, unfortunately, would repeat multiple times over the course of the series to the point where you might get annoyed at them.

I will admit that some things still don’t entirely make sense, such as all of the discoveries made entirely by luck. Plus, there’s always that thing that bugged me about Lyoko: When the Lyoko-Warriors are rematerialized when defeated, why can’t they just go back to keep on fighting? Turns out, the process gives them a bit of sickness. Still doesn’t explain much considering they appear on-screen just fine a minute afterwards… And of course, about those discoveries made completely by luck… well, a lot of heroes make a lot of discoveries completely by accident. Few stories could work without that sort of plot convenience anyway.

Alright, so next Monday, I will be discussing Seasons 1 of the show, viewing the first 26 or so episodes, discussing the overarching plot threads, and once again, what the series does right and what it doesn’t. I’m definitely not calling Code Lyoko a must-see perfect show; I do think it’s a fairly interesting show, but I don’t enjoy it blindly. In fact, you should never blindly enjoy something to the point that you willingly ignore all of its faults. Therefore, get ready for the next six parts - I'll gush, but I'll stay fair.

Hm... something's not right with those eyes of mine on that titlecard... I can't quite put my finger on it, though...