Retrospective: Umineko no Naku Koro ni

Behold the sweetfish river running through my beloved hometown.
You who seek the Golden Land, follow its path downstream in search of the key.

As you travel down it, you will see a village.
In that village, look for the shore the two will tell you of.
There sleeps the key to the Golden Land.

The one who obtains the key must then travel to the Golden Land in accordance with these rules.

On the first twilight, offer the six chosen by the key as sacrifices.
On the second twilight, those who remain shall tear apart the two who are close.
On the third twilight, those who remain shall praise my noble name.
On the fourth twilight, gouge the head and kill.
On the fifth twilight, gouge the chest and kill.
On the sixth twilight, gouge the stomach and kill.
On the seventh twilight, gouge the knee and kill.
On the eighth twilight, gouge the leg and kill.
On the ninth twilight, the witch shall revive, and none shall be left alive.
On the tenth twilight, the journey shall end, and you shall reach the capital where the gold dwells.

The witch shall praise the wise and bestow four treasures.
One shall be all the gold from the Golden Land.
One shall be the resurrection of all the dead souls.
One shall be the resurrection of the love that was lost.
One shall be to put the witch to sleep for all time.

Sleep peacefully, my most beloved witch, Beatrice.

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Umineko no Naku Koro ni (eng: When the Seagulls Cry) is the story of a family – a rich, fractured, miserable family full of intrigues and mistrust. It’s the story of an old man driven mad with a desire that he could never fulfill. It’s the story of a witch, a woman who may or may not really exist. Welcome to Rokkenjima.

All right, enough of the poetic bullshit. Umineko no Naku Koro ni is a “sound novel” produced by independent Japanese designer 07th Expansion and released in eight parts from 2007 to 2010 (is this old enough for a “retrospective?” Sure, why not.) This team is also responsible for the earlier series Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, with which Umineko shares some links. Umineko is essentially a book – you simply click through screens and read description and dialogue. If you’re familiar with the visual novel concept, it’s a bit like that, only it’s even less of a “game” than the typical visual novel, because Umineko presents the reader with no Choose Your Own Adventure-style options at all. You just read the thing. Just like a book!

The Ushiromiya family tree.  If you play-read Umineko, you'll learn this chart by heart before long.

The Ushiromiya family tree. If you play-read Umineko, you’ll learn this chart by heart before long.

Umineko takes place on Rokkenjima, a private island owned by Kinzo Ushiromiya, the fabulously rich head of the Ushiromiya family. Kinzo is an old man and is near death, yet he seems to have no interest in writing a will – to parcel out his assets to his children, those “vultures”, as he calls them. Even so, the traditional annual family meeting is still on. Kinzo’s four children, their spouses, and their children are all headed to Rokkenjima to talk family business, and that’s where our story opens.

There are a ton of characters in Umineko, but the central ones – at least in the first episode – are the four cousins, the children of Kinzo’s children: Jessica, George, Maria, and the strangely named sort-of protagonist Battler (the red-haired guy on the cover.) The cousins get along very well, which is more than could be said for their parents, who spend most of the conference fighting over their ailing father’s inheritance. The cousins are much more interested in the stranger aspects of their grandfather Kinzo’s massive estate, not least of which is the massive portrait of a young blonde woman in an elaborate gown. This is not a portrait of their late grandmother, but rather of Beatrice, the “Golden Witch”, a mysterious woman whom Kinzo claims lent him the enormous amount of wealth he needed to establish his business empire.

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Of course, a loan demands repayment, and Kinzo is prepared to pay back Beatrice’s loan in a way that will terrify his family. As a huge storm bears down on Rokkenjima, trapping the Ushiromiya family on the island for the weekend, rumors of Beatrice’s arrival start to circulate and the tension within the family grows. How will it end?

Umineko starts out as a murder mystery along the lines of an Agatha Christie novel (in fact, Ryukishi, the writer, drops some big references to Christie and other mystery novelists in the narrative.) It quickly turns into something else, however. In a really, really basic sense, Umineko is about the melding between the real world inhabited by the Ushiromiya family and Kinzo’s servants, on one side, and a fantasy world inhabited by strange magical beings on the other. In the center is the mystery of exactly what happened on Rokkenjima that weekend; a mystery that Battler, one of Kinzo’s grandchildren, is forced to uncover after the fact by entering a bizarre timeloop meta-world and playing a “game” attempting to reconstruct the event with a woman who claims to be an ancient and powerful witch. It makes more sense when you’re reading it, I promise.

There's lots of this kind of back-and-forth between characters regarding the action of the story.

There’s lots of this kind of back-and-forth between characters regarding the action of the story.

To be completely honest, Umineko isn’t without its faults. The writing seems to be unedited, and dialogue can go on and on without any seeming regard for pacing. Speaking of that, in fact, the first episode of the story (there are eight at around 10 hours each) is incredibly slow and occasionally dull before it reaches the climax near the very end; it’s pretty much setting things up and introducing the characters. And you might not have noticed from the above screenshot, but the art is pretty bad – Ryukishi, the writer, also draws the characters, and he can’t fucking draw.

However, the positives of Umineko outweigh its negatives. The story really picks up after the first episode, and its “supernatural murder mystery” angle is pretty unique. Just like a normal mystery novel, the mystery of the deaths on Rokkenjima is made to be solveable by the player, and technically it is, although it’s pretty much impossible to figure out in the English-translated version because it relies in part on some kind of kanji puzzle. Characters will even throw out statements in “red text” that are guaranteed to be true in order to help the player – and Battler – sort out the situation. The characters also turn out to be pretty compelling. And the music is really damn good; it’s well-written, diverse and sets the mood of the story perfectly.

Umineko was originally made for the PC with Ryukishi’s janky art and no voice-acting. This version is still available to buy on disc in various online stores and has a full and very well-done English patch. PS3 ports of the game also exist. These are way more polished than the originals, with actual good art and voice-acting. A different fan group has made a patch of the PS3 better art/voiced edition that you can apply to your PC copy of Umineko. This also has the same English patch adapted to it.

A screen from the PS3 version.

A screen from the PS3 version.

There’s also an anime series. Don’t watch it, because it’s crap. A case where the adaptation fell flat on its face because it simply isn’t possible to adapt Umineko to any other format. This isn’t some “purist” twaddle either, there are technical reasons why it can’t really be adapted to any other format without some serious changes. The sound novel original contains lines of text that are key to understanding the central mysteries of the game, and the show left some of them out completely and screwed other parts up. There was apparently not much care put into the adaptation. In fact, the show seems to have bombed, because the second half of the series (the part where the questions posed by the first are answered) was never adapted for the screen.

Anyway, that’s Umineko for you. Not quite a game; not quite a traditional novel. Think of it as a computer based novel without an editor but with a soundtrack. It is a really good soundtrack, though. And Umineko is a good story, despite its issues. It is a serious time commitment at this point, though (80+ hours!) so don’t plan on finishing it in one night. Hell, the only reason I ever finished it was because I started when Episode 3 was translated. Otherwise I probably would be dead by now.

Retrospective: SimCity 2000 (or why the world’s energy problems will be solved by 2050)

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When you are a child, the world is full of endless possibilities (it’s also full of asshole bullies and unfair rules, but never mind that.) And no game better embodied that world of possibilities than did SimCity 2000. Released in 1993, SimCity 2000 was the isometric 3D sequel to the original top-down SimCity and was the company’s biggest hit until The Sims came along in 1999. The idea was basic – you were the major of a blank patch of land (and water, if you so wished) and your job was to build a city, complete with power, water, services and entertainment for your new residents, who would flock to your city as soon as you zoned land for residential, commercial or industrial use.

SimCity 2000 seemed to predict a sunny future where we’d all eventually benefit from advances in technology, where political and police corruption were nonexistent and where a low student/teacher ratio meant a school automatically turned out A students who went on to fulfilling courses of study and careers.

Of course, there were still disasters.

For example

For example

Disasters that you could start yourself from the disaster menu, and also from the magical debug menu that allowed you to generate mega-disasters like volcanoes and nuclear meltdowns as well as enough free cheat code money to rebuild right away.

If you wanted to take your game seriously, however, you were in for some planning. SimCity 2000 isn’t the most complicated game in the world, but it’s up there on the list, and to make your citizens happy you’ll have to track and alleviate high crime and heavy traffic, build enough fire departments and hospitals to keep people safe and walking around, provide schools, universities and libraries to educate your citizens and keep them from not getting stupid. Critical decisions such as whether to allow the construction of a military base mean balancing between the value of the military’s help in fighting disasters against higher crime and pollution where the base was built. City ordinances can also affect your city, with their own benefits and drawbacks.

Fortunately, you have a panel of advisers ready and willing to help you with your decisions. Unfortunately, they aren’t much help. Most of them just want full funding in their particular areas and will complain if you drop it.

Pretty sure this one isn't real

Pretty sure this one isn’t real

One of the most interesting aspects of SimCity 2000 was its predictions of future technology. You had the option of starting your game in 1900, 1950, 2000 and 2050, but 1900 was the default (and the “real way” to play, as far as I’m concerned) perhaps in part because you got to see and take advantage of new technologies as they developed historically. Upon the building of the first airplanes, you get to build an airport. Your first nuclear plant is available in the 50s. But, of course, SimCity 2000 was only developed in 1993, so there are some technologies that are mere predictions – the most exciting of which is the fusion power plant, made available in 2050. SimCity‘s fusion plant can power about half of the entire map, is completely safe and, despite being the most expensive plant in the game, is also the most cost-effective. We should all hope Will Wright’s prediction is correct.

If you've played SimCity 2000, you'll know just how much waste this screenshot depicts

If you’ve played SimCity 2000, you’ll know just how much waste this screenshot depicts

SimCity 2000 also saw the advent of the arcology, a bizarre self-contained city of the future. The idea for the arcology didn’t come from SimCity, in fact – early design ideas were proposed by Frank Lloyd Wright and other architects, and real-life arcology-esque projects are planned for construction in the United Arab Emirates and Japan. Arcologies in SimCity 2000 are expensive and massively boost crime and potentially pollution, depending on the type you build, but they also give a major boost to your population – and to your tax base.

Despite these predicted advances in technology, though, your city’s local newspaper will always be completely stupid and nonsensical. It uses article templates with randomly generated words in certain spots, kind of like Mad Libs. Even so, SimCity‘s newspaper is still less of a joke than the Washington Times.

Yes, every story in the paper looks like this.

Yes, every story in the paper looks like this.

So, yeah. SimCity 2000 is a real classic. All my love for this game might stem from the fact that I played the hell out of it as a kid, but even without the nostalgia goggles on, it’s a legitimately great game. Not that I really need to convince everyone of that, since it sold about ten billion copies anyway and everyone seems to love it or at least pay it respect.

Sadly, though, the SimCity story doesn’t have a happy ending. SimCity 2000 was followed by SimCity 3000 in 1999 (sort of a graphical update of 2000 with not much else going for it, though it’s still good) and SimCity 4 in 2003, which was also good and legitimately felt pretty different from its 1993 ancestor. The series’ latest entry, however, was a disgrace. 2013’s SimCity looked amazing, but it was released full of bugs. Many fans were shocked at the fact that they were required to be connected to the internet to play the game in singleplayer mode. To add insult to injury, the SimCity servers fucked themselves upon launch and for a while nobody was able to play the game they’d just bought for 50 or 60 dollars. To add even more insult to injury, Maxis and EA apologized for all this by announcing the coming release of The Sims 4, which they promised wouldn’t be all glitchy and force to you be online constantly. A shitty SimCity game for a good Sims game. What a trade, huh? Some people might like it, but really, this drives me crazy. Not like I have much time left to play open-ended sandbox games anyway.

Perhaps not coincidentally, EA won The Consumerist‘s Worst Company in America award that same year. EA basically responded by saying “We have enough money to buy and sell you ten times over, so fuck yourself.” Which I suppose is fair.

Otakon 2014, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Line

or, Did You Really Know I Was This Much of a Fucking Nerd? Now You Do.

I recently attended Otakon. If you’re well-adjusted and normal enough to not know what Otakon is, it’s an anime convention that takes place in Baltimore every year in early August. I believe Otakon is the largest such con in America; this year’s attendance cap stood at 30,000. 30,000 people, many of them in ridiculous costumes, milling around the Baltimore Convention Center like cattle to attend workshops and showings of anime series and fighting game tournaments.

There will be blood

There will be blood

I went to the con with a group of friends who all more or less share my severely nerdy interests. Mine tend heavily towards video games – I don’t really know a whole lot about most anime stuff, but I’m a massive fan of some game series and was looking for a few specific items at Otakon’s game dealer booths. My primary purpose in attending Otakon was to spend time with my other nerd friends, though, and that was definitely accomplished. We hit some of the bars at Baltimore’s harbor pretty hard last weekend and mostly hung out, and as a consequence, I didn’t spend much time at the actual con. I did spend some time there, though – much of it in line.

This, only mentally add twenty thousand more people wrapped around the building three times, and you've got it.

This, only mentally add twenty thousand more people wrapped around the building three times, and you’ve got it.

The true ordeal began late Thursday, after we arrived at the Baltimore Convention Center to get our passes from the pre-registration line. The convention center is massive, taking up the entirety of a large block near Baltimore’s harbor district on the corner of East Pratt and Charles Streets. By 7:00 PM, the line already looped several times, snake-like, outside of the front of the center, proceeding then around the whole of the building and wrapping back, where it finally entered through a side door into the center itself. Inside, we could see that the line continued, although to what extent we had no idea.

This is the part where I complain about the sheer incompetence of the con’s staff. Fan convention staffs aren’t generally known for their planning skills, but Otakon was bad even by those standards. We waited in line for nearly four hours, inching towards the doors, only to be told by around 10:30 that in ten minutes the doors would be closed for the night. Behind us, thousands more nerds and misfits were waiting. None of us would get in that night. As it happened, the staff had had severe internet connection problems early that evening and throughout the night that created delays in the processing of entrants – yet they still allowed the line to grow until the very last minute, knowing for hours, as they must have known, that everyone past a certain point wouldn’t be processed that night. We were finally sent home by a couple of staff members who didn’t seem all that apologetic about the screwup; in fact, they seemed to blame us for being stupid enough to think we’d get in that night. So we returned the next morning, spent another three hours in line and finally got our badges.

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So was it worth it? Yes, absolutely. Everyone loved Linecon 2014. We stood in the heat and humidity and played our 3DSes, talked to strangers, exchanged Streetpass info and complained about the line. One man (above) quickly made a costume that perfectly summed up the experience (complete with ice-cold DLC – a reference to the now-famous Ice Cold Water Man who sells bottled water to line-standers at Otakon and other Baltimore events.) We got to hear his song about selling ice-cold water and buy water from him. And, of course, there was the con itself once we all got in on Friday, which featured even more lines: lines to the dealers’ room, where I bought my video game nonsense; lines to the artists’ room, where I didn’t buy anything but saw a lot of art being sold; lines to the game room, where I had my ass handed to me in fighting games because I’m not good at them; lines to workshops and showings and other things that none of us attended because they all looked pretty dull. The main attraction of a con is seeing people in costume, and there were a few good ones, but all in all, it was a disappointment – not really very much obscure stuff, which is what I like to look out for. I might have missed them.

Also, you know, all the scantily-clad girls there. That’s another good reason to attend the con, or any con, for that matter.

To be completely honest, I can’t recommend that you attend a fan convention unless you’re spending the time with friends that share your interests or you plan on meeting people there. Otherwise, it would be a massive pain and entirely pointless in any case – most of the stuff in the dealers’ and artists’ rooms can also be found online. The whole point is to spend a weekend in a place where it’s socially acceptable for adults to play dressup and pretend to be their favorite fictional characters, where you can talk to people face-to-face who share your interests. It’s a true escape from the real world, and we all need that sometimes. So despite all the logistical screwups, I did enjoy Otakon, and I might go back – but only if my friends are also planning on it. And only while I’m still young enough not to feel like a creep going there and not having the excuse of having a kid who’s attending.

Anime for people who hate anime: Humanity Has Declined

Being an ambassador to a newly discovered race of fairies is hard work. This is evident from the first episode of Humanity Has Declined (Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita), an anime series aired in the summer of 2012.

Pictured in the OP: nameless protagonist and a bunch of fairies.  Note her dead, despairing eyes.

Pictured in the OP: nameless protagonist and a bunch of fairies. Note her dead, despairing eyes.

“Anonymous blog writer”, I hear you saying. “What is this cutesy bright pastel-colored bullshit you’re showing me. I don’t want to watch that!”

Well nonexistent blog reader, don’t be misled. This series is anything but normal or typically cutesy. Known to fans as Jintai for short, the series tells the story of a young lady, the nameless protagonist, who is growing up at a time when humanity is in decline just like the title says. For some unspecified reason, human civilization has pretty much collapsed and returned to a sort of medieval way of life – the world protagonist lives in is full of bits of modern technology and has some modern-looking buildings around, but the technology is mostly unused and the buildings are overgrown with trees and weeds.

The mysterious fairies.  Yes, they always have this facial expression.   Always.

The mysterious fairies. Yes, they always have this facial expression. Always.

Our heroine is tasked with making contact with the fairies, the “new humanity” (so called because they recently appeared after humanity’s collapse and seem to be on the rise.) The fairies are a strange race: they seem to be able to use magic to create something out of nothing. They try to use this skill for the good of the old humans (i.e. us) because the old humans are the only ones that can make the candy they crave. Unfortunately for everyone, the fairies’ efforts just make things worse. It’s really hard to describe how this happens, but it does.

As a result of her assignment (from the United Nations, no less, albeit a way crappier and smaller UN because of the whole decline of humanity thing) Nameless Girl has to deal with the magical fairies and try to figure out what they want and how to develop a mutually beneficial relationship. And she’s a great protagonist: outwardly nice and polite about carrying out her duties but inwardly frustrated and sarcastic. This is understandable, because the fairies put her through all sorts of unintended trouble. I won’t give any of that trouble away because it would spoil a lot of the story, but it’s enough to say that you won’t find this kind of content most anywhere else. Time travel happens. Bizarre cases of mistaken identity happen. Etc.

I refuse to explain this screen to you, but I'm still not sure I even understand it.

I would refuse to explain this screen to you, but I’m still not sure I even understand it.

She’s joined by her strange and domineering grandfather, an important researcher; the mute young boy assistant he pushes onto her who turns out to be massively helpful to her; and a friend who’s overly obsessed with reading and writing erotic fiction comics. Together, they all have to manage to survive from day to day and deal with the fairies, who grow increasingly powerful and increasingly irresponsible.

Jintai might sound like an irritating SO RANDOM sort of series – that’s why I avoided it at first – but it really isn’t. Most of the weirdness has some sense behind it. Plus I just love sarcastic-quipping protagonists. Also, her grandfather is pretty much exactly the same character as Hououin Kyouma from Steins;Gate only fifty years older. At least that’s what my idiot brain told me. Am I crazy, or do you agree? Or you do know what the hell I’m even talking about?

Protagonist's very realistic response to being told she has to undertake a new job.

Protagonist’s very realistic response to being told she has to undertake a new job.

So should you watch it? I enjoyed this series partly because it wasn’t a goddamn high school setting series, and honestly, this was one of maybe three or four airing series I’d watched in a long time partly for the reason that really interesting stuff seemed so few and far between. But even so, I can say that Jintai is worth a watch. It’s just strange enough to be interesting but not so strange as to be annoying or nonsensical.

Then again, your mileage may vary.

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Places in Spain I wish I had visited

I didn’t want to close this way too long-drawn out Spain travel series without noting some cities and sites in Spain that, had I had the time and money, I would have visited. Next time, of course, but next time is a long time from now for me. Even so, I can travel to these places in my mind – it’s the best I can do for the moment.

Cordoba

The Cathedral-Mosque of Cordoba (Source: Timor Espallargas, Creative Commons)

The Cathedral-Mosque of Cordoba (Source: Timor Espallargas, Creative Commons)

Cordoba was, for a few centuries following the Arab conquest of Spain, the center of the Emirate (later Caliphate) of Cordoba. The city became known throughout the Muslim world as a center of learning and art, and was home to great thinkers such as the Muslim scholar and mathematician Ibn Rushid, the Jewish historian Moses Maimonides, and the Berber inventor Abbas ibn Firnas, who is believed to have attempted flight (and survived the attempt!)

Cordoba has long passed that period, but it still features several interesting sites, the most famous of which is the 10th century Mosque-Cathedral. As its name suggests, this structure was initially built as the caliphate’s central mosque in the Muslim Andalusian style, but was converted to a cathedral after the Christian conquest of the city. This has created some interesting issues recently, with some Spanish Muslims unsuccessfully lobbying their government to allow them to conduct prayer services in the Mosque-Cathedral.

Seville

The Alcazar of Seville (Source: Magnus Manske, Creative Commons)

The Alcazar of Seville (Source: Magnus Manske, Creative Commons)

As one of southern Spain’s largest and oldest cities, Seville seems like an interesting place to visit. The city was under Muslim rule until 1248, and it features examples of both Muslims and Christian Spanish architecture. It also houses the above-pictured Alcazar, a palace built by the Almohad dynasty and expanded by later Christian kings. Adjacent is the Giralda, a great minaret-turned-bell tower that speaks of the city’s conflicted past.

In the United States, Seville is best known for flamenco, a traditional form of Spanish music and dance that has roots in Romani art. Flamenco seems to feature one or more ladies, often wearing red dresses, dancing to a dude playing a classical guitar and backing percussion. It looks pretty cool to me, and it might be an interesting thing to check out if you’re in the area.

Barcelona

The Sagrada Familia, Europe's strangest cathedral (Source: Bernard Gagnon, Creative Commons)

The Sagrada Familia, Europe’s strangest cathedral (Source: Bernard Gagnon, Creative Commons)

Barcelona was well out of the way during my trip, but I’d like to check it out someday. Spain’s second city, Barcelona is a large, bustling seaport and the center of Catalan culture. It’s also well known for its vibrant art scene.

One of the most interesting projects in Europe is taking place in Barcelona right now. The Sagrada Familia, the large cathedral pictured above, is the product of the great architect Antoni Gaudi, who seemed to picture a modern take on the old Gothic style that so many of Spain’s cathedrals are built in. The Sagrada Familia also has the distinction of being one of the slowest construction projects in modern history – it was begun in 1882 and continues to this day, halted at various points by civil war and funding problems. Hopefully it will be finished some time before we all die.

Valencia/Balearic Islands

Spain’s most eastern provinces, including the coastal region of Valencia and the Balearic Islands, are great places to visit if you like the beach. I don’t like the beach, so I didn’t bother visiting. They also have plenty of history, and Valencia is an important city it its own right, but both were too far out of my way. But hey, if you like the beach, you should probably consider visiting them.

So that’s it. There are certainly many more interesting places to see and things to do in Spain, but my series of posts on Spain is complete. It’s a country with a fascinating history and a variety of cultures and artistic forms, and it’s also a great place to just have a good time for a while. I hope to have the chance to travel there again and start a second Spain travelogue.

Retrospective: Knuckles Chaotix

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As a former child growing up in the 90s, I remember when Mario and Sonic were the go-to guys for video game-related fun and time-wasting. They still are, I suppose – but in the early 90s, they were a whole lot more prominent, complete with massive ad campaigns and a running war over the world’s game console market.

As it turned out, neither Nintendo nor SEGA won that war, because Sony pretty much screwed both of them with the Playstation. But while Nintendo managed to hang on with the Nintendo 64 and carve out a niche for themselves as a purveyor of excellent first-party titles, SEGA spun completely out of control and crashed into the NASCAR bleachers, killing and maiming hundreds of spectators. The Saturn debacle could be taught at business schools as a case study in marketing ineptitude, but SEGA’s earlier hardware add-ons to the popular Genesis console were almost as misguided.

The SEGA CD system was the first of these disasters, a 1993 CD attachment that sold poorly and should have tipped SEGA off to the fact that nobody was interested in new consoles that attached to consoles they already owned. But SEGA hadn’t learned their lesson, because Christmas 1994 brought the SEGA 32X, yet another add-on to the Genesis that could run 32-bit games. As far as I can remember, none of us at school really knew it existed – and we were exactly the same little shits that SEGA was directly targeting with their ad campaigns.

Bad marketing decision, or worst marketing decision?

Bad marketing decision, or worst marketing decision?

Okay, enough of the video game console wars history stuff. The 32X, despite the general shittiness of its concept, did have at least a couple of interesting games on it, as I learned when visiting the house of a friend from school (who was also the only person I knew in the world who owned a 32X. Seriously, next to nobody bought it.) One of these was Knuckles Chaotix, a game spun off of the wildly popular Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. Knuckles was supposedly an echidna, which as far as I can tell is a sort of Australian anteater thing, and he was Sonic’s rival in Sonic & Knuckles, which was and still is an amazing platformer. In Chaotix, Knuckles joins up with a new team of animal-people to do whatever the hell it is you’re trying to do in this game (I don’t quite remember, but “stop Dr. Robotnik” probably covers it.)

Yes, it says "WELCOME TO THE NEXT LEVEL IN 32X WORLD."  Too bad nobody cared to take the invitation.

Yes, it says “WELCOME TO THE NEXT LEVEL IN 32X WORLD.” Too bad nobody cared to take the invitation.

It really is too bad that nobody played it, because Knuckles Chaotix is an interesting game. It might not be a good game, exactly – but it’s certainly not a bad one, and if you have a friend to play it with, it can be pretty fun.

Having a friend around is vital, actually, because Chaotix is really a two-player game. In some ways, it resembles other Sonic Genesis titles: it’s a platformer with lots of curves and loops and straight areas that let you build up speed, and Dr. Robotnik is the bad guy you’re fighting. However, Chaotix distinguishes itself from every other game in the series by featuring 1) a mandatory policy of two characters on screen at all times 2) who are tethered together by a magical sparkly rope that never breaks. This bond allows each character to “slingshot” each other across a level, quickly building up insane amounts of speed and allowing wild leaps that would never be possible to make with a single character. Characters could also pick up and throw each other up onto higher ledges (or pick each other up for no reason and run around – not especially productive, but a great way to piss off your friend.)

This golden tether keeps you and your partner tied together and allows you to build up massive speed by slingshotting each other up curves.

This golden tether keeps you and your partner tied together and allows you to build up massive speed by slingshotting each other up curves.

Knuckles Chaotix is interesting for the way it forces teamwork and cooperation between its players. It’s also interesting for how it takes control away from the player when choosing a new level to play (picked randomly by the computer) and a new partner to play with. Each player has seven characters to choose from, including Knuckles himself, his friends (who each have special abilities) and two really shitty, slow characters called Bomb and Heavy that seem to have been inserted into the game solely to piss players off. Unfortunately, you might have to play as these guys, because in order to switch up your team mid-stride one character has to play a game akin to that ripoff carnival grabber game that features a seemingly random collection of possible new partners. You’ll need decent reflexes to grab the character you want.

The strange character select screen

The strange character select screen

So this is definitely an interesting game (how many times have I said that this review? Way too many times.) But Knuckles Chaotix does have some issues that put its overall quality into question. Firstly, the layout of the game’s stages can be confusing – it’s often not clear which direction you have to travel to reach the end of the stage. Sonic CD also had this problem, but Chaotix takes it to the extreme. This can obviously produce a lot of frustration.

Secondly, Chaotix pretty much sucks if it’s played alone. It can be played alone, but, as I learned when playing it a bit recently on an emulator, it’s quite aggravating and unintuitive to control two characters at the same time, even though it is possible through the carrying and slingshot methods. Besides, from what little I can remember about playing this game with a friend almost 20 years ago, most of the fun of Chaotix comes from screwing over your partner and laughing at the general weirdness of the game’s features and mechanics.

There are some doors that will only open through teamwork.  Also note the negative ring count.

There are some doors that will only open through teamwork. Also note the negative ring count.

So is Knuckles Chaotix worth playing? The question is pretty much moot because, as far as I can tell, the game was never re-released after the almost immediate failure of the 32X. One might have expected SEGA to slap Chaotix onto a compilation to give it a new lease on life, as they did with the equally forgotten Sonic CD, but for whatever reason they never have. If you want to play this thing, you’ll either have to go the emulator route and find a way to set up a two-player thing around your computer or buy a 32X (and a Genesis, if you don’t own one already) and a copy of the game on eBay. Knuckles Chaotix is a strange and fascinating title, but I can’t honestly say it’s worth tracking down a 20 year-old Genesis add-on for. If, however, you are a Sonic fan with lots of disposable income and you know someone else who actually gives a shit about playing this, I say go for it.

Anyway, that was entirely too many words I just wrote about this game. I blame it on the half-pot of coffee I drank. I’m going to lie down now.

A review of Atelier Rorona Plus

Since the following year at school is going to be rough going, I decided to cram one more game into my summer schedule, one that was recommended to me specially. Atelier Rorona Plus is the latest in the long-running Atelier JRPG series by developer Gust. This title is a Vita download-only game, meaning you won’t find it on the shelves. As the “Plus” suggests, it’s also an extended remake (and judging from a video I’ve seen of the original, a vastly improved remake) of the original on the PS3. A better title for this game, though, might have been Cute Girls Doing Science, or maybe Deadline Simulator, because those together describe everything about Rorona.

When you own a game with a cover like this, you know you've entered the true depths

When you own a game with a cover like this, you know you’ve entered the true depths

The plot of Atelier Rorona is tied into a much larger web of stories and characters that I don’t understand because I haven’t played any of the other 15+ Atelier games out. The basic gist, though, is that you are Rorona, a girl who is forced to study alchemy under her master to pay off debt or something. Luckily, Rorona seems to enjoy alchemy, although her master, who owns the local alchemy workshop, is a real pain to work for. She’s such a pain to everyone she meets, in fact, that her laziness and bitchiness has caused the government to declare that they will shut down her workshop unless she can fulfill twelve government orders over a period of three years in three-month increments. Naturally, the very same day your boss hands over ownership of the workshop to you and palms the whole task off on you. Despite all this, she’s still your boss somehow and still hangs around the workshop.

Atelier Rorona Plus is a fantasy game, but even in this world your boss is an asshole.

Atelier Rorona Plus is a fantasy game, but even in this world your boss is an asshole.

So despite the flowers and cuteness and everything, this game is not exactly for little girls (I imagine a kid would get bored of this game within one minute, in fact.) It is all about gathering ingredients and cooking them up into new things that you can learn how to make by reading alchemy books, and a lot of those things can be combined to make even more things. To keep the workshop from closing, you’ll have to fulfill government orders before each deadline by gathering and crafting certain required items and bringing them to the government office for evaluation and collection. Are you excited yet?

You'll be looking at screens like this one a lot.

You’ll be looking at screens like this one a lot.

No, actually, this is a pretty fun game. It incorporates a lot of typical RPG elements – you have friends in town that you’ll be able to bring with you to look for elements and ingredients in the various field areas. There’s also a pretty basic turn-based RPG combat system that activates when you meet enemies while on your ingredient hunts. The nice thing about combat in this game is that you can use items you create in your workshop to kill enemies in the field.

Rorona, dressed properly for the battlefield

Rorona, dressed properly for the battlefield

Atelier Rorona Plus has enough optional content to hold your interest, and there are plenty of jobs to take alongside your required tasks. There are apparently also lots of different endings that depend upon how well you do in filling your orders and increasing the popularity of your shop around town.

So my verdict is this: it’s a good game. You have to have a high tolerance for cute ditzy anime girls and stuff like that, and it helps if you’re an obsessive-compulsive of the sort who has to collect everything and unlock every secret in every game you ever play, but Atelier Rorona Plus stands well on its own merits.