A review of Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro (Vol. 1-4)

I’ve never written a plain old review of a manga series on the site until now, so this will be a first. Maybe not a last, either. And I figured that since I’ve already written about it as a jumping-off point for a more broadly themed post, I owe Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro1 an actual review. The series is currently up to 70 chapters as of this writing, but this review is only of the first four volumes that have been officially translated and published in English. Because I’m a fucking weirdo who still likes to own print media, and I actually own these four volumes in physical form, volumes that I think are worth a closer look.

Yeah I’m reusing old images, what’s it to you

I covered the basic premise of Nagatoro in that first post, but basically it’s about a nerdy artistic loner student who has a run-in with one Nagatoro2, a sporty, popular girl one year his junior. At first, Nagatoro mercilessly mocks this guy (known only as “Senpai”; aside from this generic title he’s never assigned any other name) for his loner ways and his hobby of drawing self-insert power fantasy comics. And it’s damn rough going the first several chapters. Even the sometimes irritating Uzaki has nothing on Nagatoro, who comes off as a sadistic bully in her first interactions with Senpai.

Senpai’s reactions to Nagatoro’s teasing only strength her resolve to mock him, because at first he just can’t take it, openly breaking out into tears the first two times and then cursing himself for it. And the third time they meet, Nagatoro makes him a very obviously fake offer of a date that he completely falls for, after which she mocks him again.

At this point, one might just encourage our poor Senpai to tell Nagatoro to fuck off. However, around the middle of the first volume, it starts to become clear that both Senpai and Nagatoro are enjoying this game they’re playing with each other in a strange way. Senpai soon notices to his surprise that Nagatoro doesn’t mess with any of the other guys at their school the way she does with him, which suggests that she’s giving him special attention, something even Nagatoro doesn’t seem to consciously realize. And that’s why despite initial appearances, Nagatoro is really a romantic comedy. Yeah, our two main characters like each other, but they’re both too awkward and unsure to express it or even to realize it quite yet.

Of course, this “two very different characters fall in love” sort of story is nothing new. Uzaki-chan has a similar premise, and so did the much older Toradora, and outside the realm of anime and manga it’s also a common setup. And I’ve said before that I’m not really that big on romantic comedies like this. So why the hell do I like Nagatoro?

In that post back in August, I talked about how the relatability of Senpai helped me to form a connection with and empathize with him, and also to better enjoy the work as a whole. I still think that’s true, but I also think the manga’s laser focus on its two main characters and their development is more important. Nagatoro tells a pretty simple story in that sense — it does have other characters who play their parts in Senpai and Nagatoro’s story, namely Nagatoro’s small group of female friends who join in on messing with him.

However, these and the few other characters who show up seem to be there just to contribute to the development of this central relationship between Nagatoro and her senior. At one point in Vol. 4 for example, Senpai spots the girls at a park bench getting approached by a couple of jocky male classmates, one of whom clearly has his sights set directly on Nagatoro. This steams the hell out of Senpai, and to his great credit, rather than passively watch Nagatoro get asked out on a date and NTR’d away from him by this guy, he marches up to the bench almost without thinking and says “let’s go home” to her, all the while nervously wondering what the hell he’s doing. But his plan works, because Nagatoro is only too happy to leave with him, and all her friends take the cue and go along with our nerdy protagonist as well, leaving the two jocks sitting on the park bench embarrassed and probably wondering what the hell just happened.

By this point, the pair have more or less become friends, and we already have plenty of hints piled up that they have mutual feelings for each other, so there doesn’t seem to be any danger of a love triangle popping up (though I could certainly be wrong about that.) But of course, Senpai doesn’t know that. And Nagatoro is equally jealous of her exclusive right to mock Senpai as much as she wants, getting into little fights with her own friends when they start to get too familiar with him.

But it’s not just a budding awkward romance — these two characters through their interactions start to change each other for the better. The effect on Senpai is dramatic; by the end of the last officially translated and published volume he’s already noticeably more confident and outgoing thanks to Nagatoro dragging him out of his comfort zone time and again. Though he’s still an introvert, he’s not using his time in the school’s art room just to escape from reality anymore.

One of the most telling (and entertaining to me) signs of this change appears in Senpai’s series of self-insert fantasy comics he draws during downtime at school. At first, we see that he draws himself as a sword-wielding hero who travels with a beautiful swordswoman, with whom he seems to have some sort of thing going. Even after Nagatoro discovers this comic and thoroughly mocks him for this in the manga’s very first chapter, he keeps drawing it. But it changes, with Nagatoro herself becoming a character in the comic and mocking and prodding him in exactly the same way she does in real life, wedging herself even into Senpai’s escapist fantasy world.

When your secret crush sees your fantasy catgirl fanart of her… but in this case it actually turns out fine, because Nagatoro is excited to have something else to make fun of Senpai for.

There’s also a pretty clear effect on Nagatoro. Throughout the manga, we’re mostly in Senpai’s head hearing his thoughts, so Nagatoro’s own thoughts and feelings sometimes have to be guessed at. But it does seem like initially she just wanted to make fun of Senpai in a mean-spirited way, only discovering later on that she actually likes him. But does she stop mocking him? Absolutely not — she now instead uses her mockery to whip him into shape, to push him into situations where he’ll develop self-confidence since he can’t just run away as he did before. So although she might not realize it herself, Nagatoro’s strange friendship with Senpai seems to have made her a better person as well, with their relationship making them into something like equals. This is especially evident when Senpai finally gets a hit in on Nagatoro every so often and we see her get flustered and somewhat humbled.

It’s for just this reason that the bullying aspect of Nagatoro doesn’t bother me so much. It does start out pretty damn rough, and as I said in my first post dealing with the manga I can’t blame some readers for dropping this one early on because of it. However, the bullying pretty quickly turns into something very different, and it’s pretty easy to see the path these two characters are taking towards both a solid friendship and a romance (way down the road, though, because naturally it’s going to take a long time — that’s just how these series go.) So I’d urge readers to try to stick with Nagatoro if they can. It pays off, at least up to the point I’ve read.

So yeah, I like this manga a lot so far. Senpai and even the sadistic Nagatoro ended up becoming pretty endearing, and I look forward to seeing where they go from here. Both the art and story are done by one person, named only Nanashi (nanashi as in anonymous?) and the art style is nice as well — Nagatoro is especially expressive, which adds a lot to her back-and-forths with Senpai.

As far as the physical volumes themselves go, they’re fine. Though I can’t speak to how good the official translation is since I still barely know Japanese. I assume it’s good, but I’ll leave that for others to judge until I can actually read this language at a competent level. I do have one complaint related to that, though: I wish there were at least a few translation notes, because I think they would have been helpful. For example, a few chapters in, Nagatoro finally bothers to tell Senpai her name (and also refuses to learn his because she says she doesn’t need to know — rough.) Before this, Senpai refers to her as “you” because he doesn’t know her name yet, and Nagatoro replies with “The way you say ‘you’ is creepy.”

This is a weird comment to make, since referring to just about anyone with “you” is completely normal and expected in English. It’s only when you look at the original Japanese and find that Senpai is using the pronoun kimi, which means “you” but seems to be a bit of an either rude or intimate way to refer to someone depending on the context, that Nagatoro’s comment makes sense. I don’t know if it’s possible to directly translate this sort of thing in the conversation itself, since it really doesn’t make sense in English, but I think that’s what translation notes are for.3 This goes especially for a manga like Nagatoro that deals with awkward social situations, where context is important.

There’s more effective tension in this one panel than in the whole of the last season of Game of Thrones, and I am serious about that

Finally, there is some somewhat suggestive material in the manga so far, but it serves to advance the relationship between our two main characters. A lot of it also comes about thanks to Senpai’s overactive imagination, though Nagatoro does encourage him in that with her bullying and teasing. I just don’t get the feeling that it’s gratuitous. There’s actually a very wholesome sort of budding romance under all that when you get into the story. Though there might still be enough such material for another dumb Uzaki-esque moral outrage to flare up when the Nagatoro anime starts airing, but I hope we can avoid that nonsense.

I’m going to keep following these characters — as I said, they’re currently a lot further along in their story than the couple dozen officially translated chapters out now, though you have to look up the original manga if you can read it for that, or else other alternatives that exist around that I probably don’t even have to tell you about. The anime adaptation has also just been announced for the spring season next year, so barring any virus-related delays we’ll be getting that in just a few months. I look forward to seeing how it measures up. 𒀭

 

1 Since I’m already nitpicking in this review, I may as well bring up the fact that some fans don’t seem to like this translation of the manga’s original title, which is Ijiranaide Nagatoro-san. I’ve heard some say “Don’t Bully Me” would be better, but then from what I can tell, the verb ijiru, 弄る, that’s used here does translate as “to toy with” or “to play with” with the implication of messing around with something, so the English title seems fine to me. But again, I’m no expert. Maybe the people complaining are all bullshitting and it’s just another meme or something, I have no idea.

2 She’s referred to by her family name Nagatoro throughout the manga (and by “Hayacchi” by her other friends, which is a clue to her given name.) Referring to people by their family instead of their given name is apparently still another big cultural difference between Japan and the US. I wouldn’t mind being called by my last name, though. I like that idea for some reason.

3 Or maybe I think this because I’m a bad writer who feels the need to shove way too much extraneous information into footnotes.

US copyright law needs to be reformed (feat. Liru)

Standard disclaimer: This post deals with both a hentai game and copyright law. If you’re under 18/don’t want to read about a hentai game, don’t read this, or at least don’t complain if you don’t like it. Also, absolutely nothing in this post constitutes legal advice. If you want legal advice, consult your own lawyer, because I’m sure as fuck not giving that out for free or letting anyone claim they relied on the stupid speculative shit I’m writing here. You probably already knew all this, but as usual I still have to write it. Now for the good stuff.

Here’s a game I’ve had sitting around for a while now. Starting this game up again raised a few unexpected questions in my mind. For example: what would happen to an American developer if he tried to sell a game featuring the protagonist boning a licensed character from an American property? If he didn’t have the license to use that character in his game, how quickly would the copyright holder’s attorneys jump on him? And should he even have to worry about that sort of thing?

If you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, this is Ookami Shoujo to Issho, or Wolf Girl With You. It’s a doujin game that took h-game creator Seismic so long to make it turned into a joke, people online referring to the planned release for years as Wolf Girl Never Ever With You. But as you can see, it came out, because I played it. And it’s just what it looks like: a sort of slice-of-life thing where you return home every night and experience some domestic bliss with Liru, your happy and energetic werewolf girlfriend. Both Liru and the anime series she originally came from, Renkin 3-kyuu Magical? Pokaan, seem to be pretty much forgotten now, but I remember her being a big deal in the mid-2000s. That’s her normal outfit from the show in the title screen above, so you can probably see one reason why she was so popular, but she also had that animal-eared girl appeal. So it’s no surprise that I had this game lying around.

So Liru is your live-in girlfriend, and you get scenes with her, and they mostly either involve having dinner or sex. There are several scenes you can unlock depending on what you say to her when you have dialogue options available. It’s all very sweet and happy stuff, and you could even say it warms the heart a bit — sort of like Nekopara, only while Nekopara in its 18+ form was maybe 80% slice-of-life banter and 20% sex, this one flips that ratio around, featuring barely any story to speak of but a whole lot of fucking. Also, that model of Liru is animated and 3D, and there’s serious bounce there as you’d expect, and her lines are even voiced (though in Japanese only.) What more can you ask for, really.

I won’t put up any sex scenes here because I try not to just post porn on this site, but you can find them in five seconds with a Google search if you feel like it.

I guess Wolf Girl With You was so popular even among western fans that we got an official English version (note: link is NSFW for obvious reasons) which is otherwise not very common when it comes to doujin works like this. It’s honestly pretty easy to get the gist of what’s going on with minimal knowledge of Japanese, though. You might not really need any Japanese at all; it’s not a very complicated game.

Returning to the question of copyright I raised at the top, it’s pretty funny how a game like this can do so well for its creator in Japan — this is apparently the best-selling game ever released on the Japanese ero/h-game vendor DLSite. Here in the States, assuming the developer didn’t already have a license to use the character, I think there’s no way one or more threatening cease and desist letters wouldn’t have gone out from the corporate IP owner followed by a complaint in court if the C&D letter(s) were ignored. I’m not going to assume anything at all about what Seismic is doing, because for all I know his game is a licensed work. But there certainly are a whole lot of doujin artists who don’t have such licenses and are still able to sell their work.1

I much prefer this more relaxed attitude towards intellectual property and fanworks, and not just because I like hentai games about licensed wolf girl characters (as much as I like Liru, Holo is still best wolf.) Copyright law can and should protect the author’s right to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but there’s a limit to how far that protection should extend, and here in the States thanks largely to the efforts of certain massive media empires, that protection is extended much too far.

Original character do not steal

Codified at 17 U.S.C. §§ 101 – 810, US copyright law is designed to protect “writings”, a term that’s now broadly interpreted to include many forms of expression. As you might imagine, this extends to character creation. If you played Persona 5 (and chances are good if you’re reading my Megami Tensei-obsessed blog) you might remember a classroom question about Maurice Leblanc, the French author of stories featuring the protagonist’s Persona, gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, and also Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was understandably pissed off about Leblanc using Holmes and sued him over it. Leblanc lost, but in a response that puts modern-day trolls to shame, he simply moved one letter around, renaming the character “Herlock Sholmes”, and was able to continue selling his stories.

The saga of Sherlock Holmes-related copyright battles extended all the way to a US Supreme Court case in 2014, but the most relevant part of it comes out of that initial Doyle-Leblanc fight. Specific characters are protected by copyright, but broad character types are not. It’s pretty obvious why this is: if an author were able to copyright a certain style of character or story, everything would be protected by copyright and no one would be allowed to sell works without paying whoever holds that particular right, effectively stifling the creation of new fiction.

This brings us back to the case of Liru and the fangame she stars in. The Liru featured in Wolf Girl With You seems fundamentally the same character as the one in Magical Pokaan, right down to her personality quirks and the unusual outfit she wears. Yet it doesn’t seem like the maker has had any problem selling his work. The same is true of thousands of doujin artists who produce and sell fan comics twice a year at Tokyo’s massive Comiket conventions.

Under US law, these would very likely fall into the category of derivative works, which make use of copyrightable aspects of existing works (in this case, characters and sometimes elements of the world they live in) to create something otherwise new and original. The authors of such derivative works can claim copyright protection, but only for those original elements they add — the characters and other elements they borrow are not themselves copyrightable by the derivative work author according to 17 U.S.C. § 103(b).

However, although games like Wolf Girl With You and many of the other doujin games, comics, and fanworks in the market would almost certainly be considered derivative works, US law also requires that the author of the derivative work be licensed by the original copyright holder, not just to sell it, but even to produce it in the first place. To me, this is where the trouble starts, specifically with the length of time that copyright protection in the US extends. Because for works created and “fixed in a tangible expression of medium”2 on or after January 1, 1978, that protection extends for the author’s entire life plus 70 years, or in the case of multiple authors 70 years past the death of the last surviving author. And in the case of works made for hire, which would usually include works produced by a corporation, that protection lasts for either 95 years from the date of first publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter.

There’s a complicated mess of other rules applying to works made before 1978, to sound recordings, and to works created under certain uncommon circumstances, but this is probably enough to illustrate just how long copyright protection lasts in the United States: for stupidly long periods of time. These periods have also been extended by Congress, thanks largely to political pressure applied by major copyright holders (Disney is usually the one “credited” in their efforts to protect Mickey Mouse from falling into the public domain, but they’re not the only ones responsible.)

This photo result I came across under the search term “old mouse” is the closest thing to a public domain image of Mickey I could find. Also, though they’ve produced some great films, fuck Disney now for both this and various other reasons.

I certainly support the artist’s right to protect their work. Hell, I should — I hold the rights to everything I’ve written on this site, and I’d be pissed if someone copypasted one of my posts somewhere without asking me, providing a link, and giving proper credit. However, that protection should have a more realistic limit. Compare the time periods listed above to those in patent law, which protects the exclusive rights over new inventions and processes for either 14 or 20 years from the date of filing for an application with the US Patent and Trademark Office. In these cases, the benefits enjoyed by the patent holder are protected, but not for a ridiculously long period of time. There’s good reason to protect patent for a shorter period than copyright (for example, to allow pharmaceutical companies to start making generic versions of brand-name drugs, hopefully at lower prices) but the century-plus copyright protections we now have are still extremely excessive.

Moreover, these periods have been continually extended by Congress, most recently in 1998, and there’s no reason to believe these extensions won’t continue into the distant future. It’s worth asking whether the interests of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original artists in exclusively profiting off of their works outweigh the interests of the public in having works available to freely republish and enjoy without permission in the public domain.

Thankfully, copyright holders generally seem to tolerate unauthorized uses of their characters in the US and broadly online, at least when they’re not sold for profit, as with fanfiction. And sometimes even when they are — anyone who’s ever visited the artists’ alley in an anime, fantasy, or sci-fi con has seen hundreds of artistic depictions of popular copyrighted characters being sold without an army of lawyers descending upon the operation. Of course, it’s not like the copyright holders don’t realize what’s going on. Presumably most of them tolerate that much because cracking down would give them bad press, and perhaps they even see the use of their characters as a sign of their popularity and as an overall positive.

I spent four days of hell at the Baltimore Convention Center once, but I’d still do it again. I miss anime cons.

Even so, the copyright holders still hold the right to descend upon any artists who make unlicensed, unauthorized use of their characters. That right generally isn’t in question, even if an artist can successfully argue that fair use protects them in a particular case (which is a harder defense to sustain in these circumstances than many people realize.)3 The problem lies in the law itself, which has been repeatedly adjusted to ensure that most works made and published in the 20th century don’t fall into the public domain. As I see it, in this case as in many others, the individual right should be balanced against the social good — here, the rights of artists and their descendants to enjoy the fruits of those labors against the public interest in keeping old art alive and accessible. Which is certainly something I think government has a duty to regulate, instead of simply bending over for big copyright holders as they’ve always done. Not that I have any particular hope of that happening. It’s all about who has the deepest pockets, after all.

Which brings me back to Liru once again. As far as I know, she first showed up with the rest of the cast of Magical Pokaan when the original anime series aired in 2006, so the matter of public domain isn’t that relevant to her or to many other characters now used in fanmade works. However, the idea of the public domain and the benefits it provides to everyone does apply in this case, at least in a general sense. Even if there’s no question that the copyright holder has the right to prevent the creation of derivative works based on their character without permission, it can be to their benefit to have a permissive attitude towards the use of their characters by fans.

Of course, not every IP owner might be comfortable with letting people sell porn games starring their characters or even offer them to the public for free. That’s understandable, especially if they’re trying to maintain a family-friendly all-ages atmosphere (see Nintendo’s recent DMCA takedown of an NSFW Newgrounds game starring Princess Peach.) However, there’s something to be said for letting things go at a certain point. Speaking again of Persona 5, a few years ago Atlus received massive backlash for trying to strictly police streams of that game, even though they were arguably within their rights to do so. Perhaps as a result of this backlash, they seem to have eased up on such policies.

While that had to do with streaming and not the creation of fanart, I think a very similar principle is at work here.4 It’s really in everyone’s interests to allow plenty of leeway for fans to show their appreciation for the works they enjoy, which may involve the creation, display, and even to some extent the sale of fanworks whether licensed or unlicensed. There’s certainly a line to be crossed somewhere in this area — for example, if someone’s trying to pass off bootleg “official” merchandise — but I generally feel that if there’s no possibility of confusion over whether a work is official or fanmade, a more permissive attitude should prevail, and I hope that’s the new standard we’re approaching in the West.

Anyway, thanks for joining me for this serious legal analysis post. If you’re a staff member at Harvard Law looking for a new professor, send me a DM and we’ll talk.

As always, I’d like to know what you, the reader, think about this issue if you have an opinion. There’s clearly an ethical/moral element to this matter aside from the legal one, and I recognize that some creators might have reasons for wanting to maintain control over how their characters are used by fans. I’d also like to hear from fan artists if any are around, since a lot of my assumptions about how these laws are actually enforced here come from my secondhand perspective as a fan and buyer. And of course, I’m also interested in hearing from other fans like me. As usual, I don’t really have the answers — I only end up asking more questions. 𒀭

1 Here’s where I admit that I know nothing about Japanese law, so I can’t really comment on any potential issues that could arise in Japan over copyright matters. This is only going off of a possibly mistaken assumption that the fundamentals of copyright law in Japan aren’t that different from those in the United States. If they aren’t, then clearly at least the approach to enforcement there is very different.

2 This “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” requirement has its own whole complicated factors test that I won’t get into, since all the works we’re dealing with here are undoubtedly fixed in this way. However, in some cases, this requirement can place certain performances outside the scope of federal copyright law.

3 But note that if an IP owner sits on the right to enforce their copyright for a long time, they may end up effectively losing it — the doctrine of equitable estoppel lets the alleged infringer argue that since the IP owner knew and was clearly not bothered about the unlicensed use of their IP, they shouldn’t be allowed to suddenly change their minds about it. There’s a fundamental matter of fairness involved here; the idea is that other users may reasonably rely on the IP owner’s inaction as a sign that they’re taking a permissive attitude.

Like other forms of equitable defense, it’s absolutely not a sure thing, though. As always, every case has its own quirks and has to be taken on its own.

4 However, by contrast streaming is still in a gray area. I might get into the fair use doctrine and transformative art as they relate to streaming in a later post.

Deep reads #5.2: That was cheap

Here’s a fun Hardcore History-style disclaimer: This is part two in a multi-part feature on the Megami Tensei game series. If you haven’t read part one, here’s a link — I recommend reading that first before proceeding to get the proper context if you need it. But if you just want to dive in here, that’s totally up to you.

You can also read this disclaimer in Dan Carlin’s voice if you want. But if I had his voice, I’d probably be podcasting instead of writing a blog. Anyway, on with the show.

“Cheap” is a term that gets thrown around a lot when players die in games in ways they feel to be unfair. I don’t know if it’s possible to pin down exactly what a cheap death is, or where specifically a death goes from “okay, that was my fault” to “fuck this cheating piece of shit game” along with a possible thrown/broken controller.

Maybe the best way to define cheap in this case is to use that famous definition of pornography given by US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it.”1 The best example I can give of just such an “I know it when I see it” instance is this.

I like the detail on his sarcophagus, though. Kazuma Kaneko pays a lot of attention to detail in his designs.

That’s a compilation made by YouTube user Jim Reaper of parts of the boss battle against Mot, an Egyptian god of death, in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. This fight occurs at a point fairly late in the game when the part-human part-demon protagonist Demifiend is running through the Vortex World, a small sort of bubble universe containing the ruins of Tokyo. After fighting through the somehow perfectly preserved Diet Building, Demifiend is forced to face this sarcophogus-encased asshole to proceed.

Mot normally shouldn’t be a big problem at this point in the game if you’ve built up a team of demon allies with diverse strengths and abilities. However, he has a trump card that he’ll decide to pull if you’re unlucky: Beast Eye. This is the weaker of two special abilities that gives the user extra half-turns denoted by the flashing icon in the upper right.

Essentially, Beast Eye and the even stronger Dragon Eye let you get more turns for free, something like wishing for more wishes from a genie. Only bosses can use this move; for obvious reasons neither Demifiend nor any of his allies gets to use either of them (including boss demons that become recruitable or fuseable after they’re defeated.)2 This would be cheap enough, but Mot alone among all his boss colleagues can use Beast Eye multiple times in one turn. It doesn’t happen in every fight, but when Mot remembers he has that ability, he can effectively deny the player his turn, using a combination of Beast Eye, buffs, and powerful Almighty magic attacks that can’t be nullified to kill Demifiend and company even if they’re fully healed and buffed.

Granted it does lead to the game’s beautiful game over sequence that I never get tired of seeing, but still, annoying.

So maybe it’s not easy to pin down exactly what constitutes “cheap” in a boss battle, but that sure as hell is cheap. I’m not sure if it was even put in intentionally or was an accident; there’s no particular reason Mot alone among all the bosses should have this frustrating ability, which is why I think it might not have been intentional.

But this is not the only big “FUCK YOU” moment in a Megami Tensei game. I had a much more personally frustrating experience with the Beelzebub fight near the end of my Neutral route run of Shin Megami Tensei IV. This feared chief lieutenant to Lucifer is very strong, as he should be given his position as an endgame boss, and the battle is naturally difficult to clear. However, when the fight starts there’s a good chance, possibly 50/50, that on top of all that Beelzebub will get the first turn, which he will use to absolutely fucking destroy your party. If he hasn’t completely wiped you out and sent you off to Charon before you get a turn, your party will almost certainly be too injured and weak to effectively answer Beelzebub’s first strike, and you’ll probably end up dying on your second or third turn.

After beating slapped around by this giant fly for a dozen rounds, I just started automatically quitting and reloading when he got the first shot assuming I wasn’t totally dead at that point. Because to me, this fight jumped over “challenging” and landed in that cheap territory, at least when it gave Beelzebub the first turn. I wouldn’t call it a controller-throwing moment, since SMT IV was on the 3DS and like hell I was about to break that precious thing by flinging it into a wall. But the fight was frustrating and felt fundamentally unfair. A coin toss mechanic works fine if the two parties are relatively balanced in strength, but that wasn’t the case here.

More Kaneko, depicting the Lord of the Flies in his ultimate form. I said it seven years ago in my review of the game and I’ll say it again now: Beelzebub is an asshole.

There are a few other instances I can think of in the series that might count as cheap, like the Sleeping Table fight in Persona 3. However, almost none of the other difficulties I’ve faced in an SMT, Persona, or other game in the MegaTen series has really pissed me off to such an extent as this fight against Beelzebub. I have heard some of these games called difficult to the point of being entirely cheap, though, and that’s what I want to address here. I can’t blame anyone for feeling that way about any of the mainline games in particular — they do like to beat up on the player, Strange Journey probably being the worst in that regard.3

But I don’t mind that. That’s partly because these games usually give you all the tools you need to meet their challenges. When I talked about cheap SMT bosses above, the name “Matador” might have sprung to mind — this powerful fiend dressed up like a Spanish bullfighter shows up early in Nocturne and will usually wipe out new players because of how steep a jump in difficulty his fight represents. However, there’s a big difference between the way Matador fights and the ways Mot and Beelzebub fight in the examples I gave above. In the latter cases, the player can easily get battered to death no matter how prepared they are through the enemy’s use of unique advantages that are extremely difficult to survive, much less to counter.

Matador, however, can easily be countered as long as the player has the right party and skill setup. He seems to be the game’s way of telling the player “Hey, we’re not going to let you breeze through this just by staying properly leveled. You have to use your head.” You could argue that a boss battle designed to beat the player the first time around is a bit cheap in itself, but as long as you’re hitting save points promptly, you’ll lose very little progress, and it’s an easy matter to fall back and come up with a new strategy. And almost every other difficult battle in the series I’ve played so far fits this model: it presents an obstacle that seems insurmountable until you come up with the winning strategy (though having some luck still helps.)

And don’t forget the buffs. No joke, Megami Tensei really is the one JRPG series I’ve played in which buffs and debuffs are not only useful but essential to winning.

That’s not the only aspect of Megami Tensei that sometimes feels unfair, however. There’s another mechanic present in a lot of these games that might make you tear your hair out: demon negotiation.

Negotiating with fellow humans is hard enough. But when you’re a human (or a former human-turned-demi-human as in Nocturne) dealing with devils, angels, spirits, and even deities, it’s time to leave behind logic entirely. Players new to the series who picked up Persona 5 got a taste of that pure insanity in its own negotiation system, but the mechanic in that game is fair and easygoing compared to its counterparts in the mainline games.

In the other games, the demons you’re talking to aren’t typically knocked down or pleading for their lives, so maybe that’s the reason for their relative docility in P5. And in case you’re wondering, yeah, I did let her live.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a summary: in many Megami Tensei games (ex. the SMT series, the Devil Summoner series, and of course Persona 5) you have the option of fighting against your enemies or talking to them.4 Once you initiate the conversation, several things can happen depending upon the game you’re playing. Most often, the demon you choose to talk to will acknowledge that you’re asking them to join your party and will start to haggle with you, asking you to give them specific items or amounts of money or to let them drain some of your HP or mana. After a few requests that you can either take or leave, the demon may then ask you a multiple-choice question. This question is often a philosophical one, something like “Don’t you think the strong should protect the weak?” or “Is beauty only skin-deep?”, the sort of question depending upon the demon you’re talking to. And if the demon likes your answer, it will probably join your party.

But note all those qualifiers I wrote above: often, may, probably. None of these are sure outcomes. Again, it depends on which game you’re playing, but the demon you’re talking to may be able to reject your advances outright, or take the items and money you’ve given it and run, or decide it doesn’t like how you answered its question and leave or even get angry and attack you, or decline to join your party but give you an item instead (sometimes the very same item you gave it!) Sometimes the question it asks has a bizarre “correct” answer, or one that doesn’t seem to line up with the alignment of the demon asking it. Sometimes the “question” isn’t even a question but an exclamation or a command that you have to do your best to interpret. And depending upon the type of demon, you might not even be able to enter negotiations, either because it’s a mindless beast that can’t communicate with you or because it’s an evil god or demigod who’s too arrogant to even consider giving you the time of day.

And if you talk to a demon under certain circumstances, like a full moon phase in a mainline game, good luck getting anything meaningful out of it, because the full moon apparently gets demons high. Though that’s also a great time to trigger events that won’t normally happen at any other time, like having one of those haughty but extremely powerful Tyrant demons join your party (though I wonder if they end up regretting their decision when they come down after the full moon phase ends. Too bad, because it’s too late once you’ve got them!)

Okay Demifiend, I agreed to join your party but does that mean we have to take these weird group photos? Also please stop twisting my nose. (Source: still more Kaneko official art. This post is really doubling as a Kaneko art appreciation piece, isn’t it.)

At this point, you might be wondering whether it’s worth negotiating with these jerks at all if there’s always a good chance that it will go wrong. To be sure, it’s extremely annoying to have a demon run off with your items without you being able to stop them or to constantly get turned down by one specific demon you’re trying to pick up because you keep failing its stupid tests. But negotiation is still a must. It’s necessary to getting through these games’ challenges efficiently, since it provides useful fodder for fusion to get new demons with more than their typically meager default set of skills.

More importantly, negotiation in these games is fun, largely because of how insane it can get. Negotiation is a gamble that provides the player with a lot of possible outcomes, some of which may only turn up after dozens or hundreds of rounds of talks with various enemies. This makes the mechanic a lot more interesting to use for me, even if the results can be occasionally frustrating — especially when you’re trying to recruit one particular demon you need for a fusion (or just because they look cool or are a hot lady demon or guy demon depending upon your preference; those are legitimate reasons too.) If the gambling aspect of negotiation weren’t there, I could imagine it becoming a bit repetitive and boring, but I’ve never had that feeling about it in one of these games.

Moreover, the crazy, unpredictable nature of negotiation in SMT and the other spinoffs that feature it fits in nicely with the chaotic environments that most of these games take place in. Imagine trying to talk to a powerful mythical beast or spirit, much less trying to convince them to join your team and follow your orders. You’d be lucky if they merely ignored you and didn’t decide to eat or possess you or something similar. Since your protagonist in these games typically has either the natural ability or the pure strength to bring these beings over to his side, it’s reasonable that he at least has to deal with this human-demon cultural divide, and in a few cases with a sort of language gap.

Uh, shit. Okay, maybe “human” is the right answer because it’s the odd one out, but maybe this demon will agree and eat me if I say that. What to do.

To me, this is why these crazy, often unpredictable negotiations fit in so well with the general feel of the Megami Tensei games, and especially with the mainline apocalyptic SMT ones. When you’re thrown into the deep end like that, it makes sense that you’d have to deal with this kind of madness. The games usually do give you a bit of help with a free demon, typically a Pixie who takes some pity on your squishy human self, joins your party for free, and explains the basics of negotiation to you. But beyond that, generally speaking you’re on your own, which is just the way it should be.

And I think that’s true for the entire Megami Tensei experience as a whole. These games vary in tone a lot, from pretty hopeful and even light and fluffy with a few of the spinoff of spinoff games (really the Persona ones) to grim and “why even go on living” with stuff like Strange Journey. Those are both aspects of the series that I plan to cover in later parts of this run of posts, but I think the mercilessness of the combat and dungeon-crawling and the chaotic nature of the negotiation throughout a lot of the series suits it well in both cases. I couldn’t imagine MegaTen in general without it, anyway. It just wouldn’t be the same. Even the fights that feel cheap still fit that kind of setting in my opinion, though I could still do without Beelzebub starting first and destroying my party while I watch helplessly.

I could go on with even more such banging my head against the wall but also fun instances from these games, but I hope I’ve made my point well enough by now. Next time, I plan to move from gameplay mechanics over to story elements, diving right into the characters, story, and lore, so prepare yourself for that. Once again, I hope you’ll join me on that journey. 𒀭

 

1 Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964), in case you thought I wouldn’t bother to cite the case properly. You can find the quote on page 197 if you don’t believe me. There are also very obvious questions raised here about how much experience Justice Stewart had seeing pornography considering his comment, but these questions lie outside the scope of this post series.

2 And possibly some very strong normal enemies as well, but I don’t remember if that’s the case. In general if I write something incorrect in these posts, which is very very likely, please feel free to leave a comment correcting me.

3 Just to be clear, I’m not talking about ultra-frustrating final bosses like Mem Aleph in Strange Journey, or optional extra bosses like Demifiend in Digital Devil Saga. Some people might see those as kind of cheap, especially Demifiend who can summon a wide variety of demon allies just like he can when the player’s controlling him in Nocturne. However, these are the kinds of bosses you fight either specifically for a challenge or at a point in the game where you’re expected to throw everything you have left at it, so if there is any cheapness there, it feels more appropriate to me.

4 If “talking to enemies instead of fighting” makes you think of Undertale, that’s no coincidence: from what I understand, Megami Tensei is where its creator got the idea from, though he took his own conversation mechanic in a very different direction. There’s no pacifist run possible in any MegaTen game that I’ve ever played, anyway.

A review of Youjo Senki: The Saga of Tanya the Evil

In the hierarchy of many anime and anime-styled game series, the young girl somehow outranks almost every other sort of being in terms of power. A ton of magical girl shows have been created on that basis, and game series like Touhou Project almost exclusively feature girls firing lasers and magical bullets at each other. So maybe it’s no big surprise that we have Youjo Senki: The Saga of Tanya the Evil, a 12-episode run from 2017 based on a long-running light novel series. Youjo Senki, which roughly translates as “Young Girl’s War Chronicle”, is the story of Tanya Degurechaff, an orphan brought up in a powerful country preparing to go to war against its neighbors.

Except she’s not just some kid. Tanya’s body houses the soul of a nameless modern-day Tokyo salaryman whose cold business sense and ruthless firing of underlings gets him pushed in front of a speeding train. Just before his death, however, time freezes, and God himself descends from Heaven to talk to him a bit. Mr. Salaryman doesn’t believe in God and refuses even to acknowledge him despite the fact that there’s an apparent miracle going on, referring to this entity as “Being X” and even criticizing it for doing a lousy job as a deity. God/Being X then decides to give this guy one last chance at reincarnation before sending him to Hell, and so Tanya is born.

History fans will recognize the situation Tanya finds herself in right away: the Empire she’s a citizen of is the old imperial Germany of 1871-1918, and the tensions it’s experiencing with its neighbors the Republic (France) and the Allied Kingdom (Britain) are leading it straight into World War I. Since this is an alternate Earth, the rules are a bit different, however. In this world, magic is real, and magic-users called mages are employed by militaries as mobile airborne units to for scouting and rescue missions and precision strikes. Tanya turns out to be one of the lucky few with magical ability, so she’s educated and trained for an eventual military career to aid the Empire in its fight against the Republic and her allies.

youjo-senki-2

Sure, you look about ready for military service.

This young girl still has all the memories of her former salaryman life, and with that experience she plans to enter the military early, get on an officer track, and maneuver into a cushy job in the capital, far away from the front lines. God isn’t having it, however. His aim seems to be to get Tanya to acknowledge and bow down to him. To that end, he somehow sets events in motion that get Tanya sent back to the front lines following her attendance at a military academy, but with the benefit of some divine intervention whenever she needs it: when she prays to God, Tanya gets superpowered and can fly far higher and faster and shoot more powerful lasers than other mages, making her into a legend on the front lines and even among the high command.

While Tanya desperately wants to get out of harm’s way and live the easy life, though, she’s not a coward by any means. Using the extra abilities granted to her by this supernatural power, she leads her company and later her battalion of mages into battle when ordered. At first, some of the enlisted soldiers under her command during training laugh at her for her age and tiny stature, but she quickly beats that smugness out of them, literally in a few cases. Tanya is completely ruthless: she demands that everyone under her carry their weight, and if they can’t, she’s only too happy to kick them out of her unit or recommend them for a posting elsewhere.

And if their incompetence happens to get them killed, then too bad — they weren’t fit for this kind of work anyway. In the very first episode, Tanya shows how few fucks she gives by shipping off two of her recklessly insubordinate men to a posting in the rear lines, one that’s seemingly safe but that she knows is going to get shelled by enemy artillery at some point. When she gets word of their deaths in an enemy shelling a while later, she simply remarks that it was a fitting place for men who wanted to die.

Tanya is a bit crazy.

It’s not a big surprise that Tanya is so damn cold. The series is subtitled The Saga of Tanya the Evil after all, so you’d expect her to be at least this cold. However, after seeing the 12 episodes in this series, I’d find it hard to call her completely evil. She’s certainly coldhearted and commits a few acts that you could argue are morally objectionable, even in the context of a war. But her ruthlessness seems to come not from cruelty but rather from a pure sense of pragmatism. When Tanya is sent to an Imperial border city filled with citizens who declare allegiance to the Republic and fight as partisans, she justifies killing them and later having retreating civilians shelled because not doing so would weaken the Empire and allow chaos to continue. Some of her soldiers object, but they fall into line anyway, not able to really argue with her. Partly because she’ll have them court-martialed if they disobey, but her logic does make sense in that extremely cold way even if her actions feel wrong. I wouldn’t agree with her myself, but she can’t be accused of hypocrisy, at least, since she seems to expect the same treatment from the enemy if their positions were reversed.

Tanya also constantly does her best to cover her ass, both in combat and in legal terms. One of the most interesting aspects of Tanya’s character for the lawyer side of me is how closely she sticks to the letter of both military and treaty law while on missions, but how she bends them at the same time. Tanya is insistent on following the law when necessary — she can even rattle off code sections and provisions without consulting a book. She also insists that everyone does the same, even her enemies. At one point during a battle, she’s genuinely shocked to see an enemy using a banned form of ammunition.

However, if the law prevents Tanya from doing something she wants to do, she will do her best to find a way around it while still technically complying with it. My favorite instance of this occurs when Tanya, now promoted to Major Degurechaff, heads a strike into Dakia (Romania) and is about to hit a munitions factory in the capital with magic attacks. She knows that according to treaty law, she can’t make a sneak attack on this occasion — she has send a warning first. When she picks up the radio to transmit this warning into the factory’s speakers, though, Tanya puts on her best “little girl” voice and gives that announcement sounding much more like a typical anime character her age. The enemy personnel on the ground laugh it out as a joke played by some kid and keep their guard down, but Tanya doesn’t care — she’s followed the letter of the law, so now it’s time to attack, and her unit gains a huge advantage as a result.

Despite all this, Tanya does seem to have some of the nicer human feelings in her, at least sometimes. Though she can be harsh with her soldiers, she does care for them, making sure that they’re up to the tasks they’re given as long as they’re putting the work in. One of the most prominent secondary characters in the show, Tanya’s lieutenant Viktoriya Serebryakov, is initially shocked by her harshness, particularly when an avalanche during a brutal crosscountry training session buries a few of her men under snow. Tanya complains about their incompetence, pulls the men out of the snow and starts beating one who stopped breathing to the shock of her troops, only to have him cough up snow and regain consciousness. She also pretty clearly cares about her subordinates during battle, doing her best to use them without putting them in unnecessary danger.

So Tanya’s characterization is done pretty well in this short series. It would be easy to write a pure sadist for a story like this, and from the title Tanya the Evil that’s who I was expecting to get going in. Tanya is brutal and ruthless, but she’s not about unnecessary cruelty; she’s really just all business. At least, that’s how she would see it.

She looks mean, and she is, but Tanya is really all about getting things done efficiently. Even so, people will still end up getting killed.

My only real complaint with Youjo Senki, aside from the OP and ED themes that I didn’t care for, is the isekai aspect of it, with Tanya’s soul being transported into an alternate universe/timeline. Not that I’m totally against isekai or anything, even if it is a pretty played out genre by now — any kind of story can be good if it’s interesting and told well. I just feel the isekai aspect didn’t pay off. Maybe it pays off in the movie or in the light novels, but all that really happens in this 12-episode series with regard to that is Tanya getting pissed off at and cursing God/Being X a lot, even when she’s invoking his name to gain power.

The fact that she was a ruthless businessman in her past life does kind of explain why she’s so ruthless as Tanya and why she rises through the ranks of the military at an unbelievably young age, but then I don’t think you really need the isekai part for that. I think the story would have had just as much or even more impact if Tanya had simply been an orphan girl with amazing magic ability and strategic genius who decides to use that to make a name for herself. We could have gotten a few more scenes early on of her hard life, establishing the basis for her cold, ruthless view of society and the world. I think that’s really all we’d need to get why she’s who she is, and more than that, to believe it.

By contrast, none of the Being X stuff does anything for me. Part of this might be the show’s different understanding of what God or a god-like being would be. During the time-freeze scene in front of the train, for example, God responds to the salaryman/soon-to-be Tanya that he can’t be expected to keep watch over seven billion people all the time, flying in the face of the whole “omniscient” and “omnipotent” parts of what God’s supposed to be. Or maybe this is a different sort of God than the one from Abrahamic tradition I grew up with. Since Youjo Senki is a Japanese series, though, there might just be some cultural differences here that I don’t know enough about to comment on. I haven’t checked out the film yet that follows this 12-episode run, but judging from the final episode, it looks like the whole God/Being X thing might pay off in it.

That said, I don’t have a problem with God talking through a nutcracker. I liked that part.

Even with these minor negatives, I think Youjo Senki is very worth watching. If you’re looking for an alternate timeline World War I story where the main character is a girl who shoots divinely-powered lasers, this is the only series I know of that offers that. And it does quite a good job telling that story.

Listening/reading log #13 (October 2020)

I’m writing this a few days before possible absolute freakout time here in the States. We’ll probably be okay though. And if we aren’t, then we aren’t. Let’s just ignore that shit for right now and talk about some good music and good writing from fellow bloggers, because there’s not much else to do at this point aside from your civic duty if you’re an eligible citizen. And if you’re a non-American reader, please forgive all our social media meltdowns that will happen either way on Wednesday morning.

Okay, fine, that’s all I’ll say about it now. On to the music. This time the emphasis is on smooth relaxing stuff for maybe obvious reasons.

Aja (Steely Dan, 1977)

Highlights: Black Cow, Aja, Deacon Blues

Yeah, I like this album. And I like Steely Dan in general. I know people have shit on these guys for their music being too smooth or slick or whatever but I don’t give a fuck, because they sound good to me. If you don’t know them or only know their name from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Steely Dan started as a full band doing sort of jazz-influenced rock stuff in the early 70s (their first album Can’t Buy A Thrill is great too, and “Do It Again” is another one of those “you’ve definitely heard it even if you don’t know the title” songs.) However, they soon morphed into basically two guys, Donald Fagan and Walter Becker, and a bunch of session musicians playing much more jazz-influenced stuff that has very little or nothing to do with rock music anymore and shouldn’t be judged on that basis anyway.

But that’s fine with me, because these guys knew how to write good songs that stick in your head. The opener “Black Cow” is an interesting one about the narrator chewing out his cheating lover along with a reference to the Black Cow cocktail, a drink I’ve never had and never will (Kahlua, half-and-half, and Coca-Cola — the first two sound okay, but cola mixed with alcohol has always tasted horrible to me.) And then there’s the big hit “Deacon Blues”, a melancholy one about a musician who never quite makes it but keeps playing seedy clubs even after his dreams are dead. The title track is nice and calm too, and also less depressing unless I’m missing something.

Aja is a great album to play late at night when you’re in a weird mood or coming down off of a buzz. It sets that kind of mood that for me is unsuitable for any other time. Very relaxing and smooth, but a downer if you pay too close attention to the lyrics. Which seems to be the case for a lot of Steely Dan. Messrs. Fagan and Becker weren’t the happiest guys, at least when it came to how they expressed themselves in their music. Not that I need any help being a depressive myself, so the effect on me is minimal. Anyway, I like it.

Piano Collections NieR:Automata (Various, 2018)

Highlights: Really the whole thing

Speaking of depression, here’s an officially released piano arrangement album based on the soundtrack of NieR:Automata. As acclaimed as this game was, I have seen people say they didn’t like it, but I haven’t seen a single person not at least praise its soundtrack. Both the compositions and performances are as amazing as they were for the much less praised earlier PS3 titles.

Piano Collections totally does justice to twelve of the songs from the game with just a piano. And that’s all there is on this album: one piano, at least as far as I can tell. So if you’re not into solo piano stuff this is one to skip, but even then I’d suggest giving it a little listen to see how well pieces like “Copied City” and “Vague Hope” adapt to this format. It’s mostly pretty relaxing too, at least if you can get past the sad feelings brought up by a few of these if you’ve played the game (“Voice of No Return” and “Vague Hope”, those are the ones for me.)

Cafe de Touhou 3 (DDBY, 2011)

Highlights: Locked Girl, Scarlet Tea Party

Another game-based album, but this one is a fan work. Maybe it’s weird to throw in a doujin album based on a series about magical girls shooting lasers and bullet hell patterns at each other. I don’t know. But I know that I like DDBY. I covered Tokyo Active NEETs a while back, and like their work, this is basically jazz takes on BGM from the Touhou Project series. However, DDBY gets a more chilled out feel to their music in parts, and the effect is more relaxing than the NEETs’ aggressive approach. Not that I like one more than the other; it just depends on my mood which I prefer at any time.

If you can’t tell from the characters on the album cover, this is based on music from Touhou 6: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, which like all the other Touhou games has an excellent soundtrack already. I couldn’t find much about this album around so you’ll have to take my word this time, but I did post a link above that contains a sample from the group’s own site (“Vintage Girl”, based on Flandre’s theme, the blonde girl on the left with the Christmas light wings who will kill the shit out of you hundreds of times if you even manage to reach her.) My favorite on the album might be “Locked Girl” — best girl Patchouli for some reason isn’t featured on the cover, but her theme gets a really nice sort of bossanova-sounding treatment.

Honestly I could fill these sections up with Touhou doujin albums, there are so many of them out there. I only own a few myself, but I love the ones I have. ZUN is a great composer anyway, but these arrange albums really add to his work outside of the context of his games.

Now for the featured posts:

The Writing on the Wall: Why The Last of Us Part II Was a Predictable Disaster (Extra Life) — Here Red Metal follows up on some of the issues he raised in his review of The Last of Us Part II, connecting these with the extremely questionable approaches certain game producers, developers, and journalists have taken towards the audience of gamers. If you have any interest in these or even if you’re just part of that audience (and if you’re reading my site, it’s likely) then you should check this article out.

Mommy’s not here, gotta fight! The Persona 3 Retrospective, Part 6(b) – Characters: Yukari and Junpei (Lost to the Aether) — As long as Aether keeps writing analyses of Persona 3, I’ll keep posting them here. This part breaks down two of the most interesting and maybe most realistic characters in any Persona game.

Medium Matters: School-Live! II (Confessions of an Overage Otaku) — Anyone who’s enjoyed a manga or visual novel and then was disappointed by how the anime handled the source material can relate to this post. Overage Otaku uses the example of School-Live, a manga-turned-anime about high school students trying to live normally during a zombie apocalypse, to show how exactly that kind of mangling can happen.

Book Review: Howl’s Moving Castle (Lex’s Blog) — Sometimes adaptations go really well, though, like the subject of this post from Lexine: a thorough review of the original novel that the Ghibli classic Howl’s Moving Castle was based on.

Film Review: Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm (2020) (Mid-Life Gamer Geek) — Mid-Life Gamer Geek reviews the new Borat movie, which is something I wasn’t expecting at all this year, but it seems like Sacha Baron Cohen’s style to come out of nowhere and surprise us with a sequel after a decade or however long it’s been since the first one. At least this time maybe we won’t have to hear people saying “VERY NICE” over and over like we did back then. I hope not anyway.

The Song of Saya – A Continued Look at Gen Urobuchi’s Earlier Work (Jon Spencer Reviews) — I’m always up to read another take on Saya no Uta, and Jon Spencer has an interesting one, raising a few issues that I hadn’t thought of. But I won’t spoil them — do yourself a favor and read his post.

The Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov (Professional Moron) — And here’s a review of just a plain novel. Mikhail Bulgakov wrote some crazy fiction that was often a criticism of the Soviet system he lived under, which as you can imagine got him into trouble with the authorities during the repressive reign of Stalin. I haven’t read The Heart of a Dog, but I want to after reading Mr. Wapojif’s post on it.

Indie Variety Hour – Steam Autumn Festival (Frostilyte Writes) — I missed out on it, but Frostilyte has covered the Steam Autumn Festival lineup of featured indie game demos, playing and writing about a select few that look interesting.

Genshin Impact has me addicted (Nepiki Gaming) — Nepiki is addicted to Genshin Impact. I hope he can get some help with that! But it does look like a nice game, an interesting mix of gacha and MMO. For my part, I’m done with the hellish world of gacha. I already fell into a different entertainment-related hell recently; I can’t take two.

Truth About Anime Blogging: Expectation Vs Reality (Anime Everything Online) — Even though I’ve written about anime, I wouldn’t call myself an anime blogger. Silvercrowv1 can, though. This post breaks down some of the myths associated with blogging in general and with anime blogging in particular that writers should consider before diving into a project. I like to use the word “fuck” in my writing too much for most advertisers to probably be comfortable with, but if you want those ad dollars you should absolutely read this to gain an understanding of what it might take.

Funimtion VA and script writer Jamie Marchi responds criticism on edited English Dubs (Matt-in-the-Hat) — The quality of anime dubbing is something people get into heated debates about all the time. Which is already kind of pointless when the subs option exists, but it certainly shouldn’t extend to the sort of threats that Funimation VA Jamie Marchi has reported she’s received. On the other hand, I don’t think her response to the critics helps — it looks to me like yet another “paint every person giving negative feedback with the crazy brush” tactic that we’ve seen so often, along with a typical sex-based insult that I think is both low and beside the point (and partly related to the issues Red Metal raised in the first link above about disdain for the audience.) I guess I’d be pissed if I received such threats too, but is that an excuse? No matter how you feel about that, Matthew is a great writer to follow, so be sure to check his blog out.

Uzaki-Chan wants to Hang Out!: Nothing unseen about it. (Shallow Dives in Anime) — Another interesting take on the Uzaki-chan anime that riled so many people up. It’s also nice to see the Unseen Japan site account get poked in the eye a bit. To be fair, they do raise important social issues, but then they proceed to trash their credibility by getting mad over anime girls, which I see as both a waste of time and effort and a ridiculous stand to take in the first place. But then I’m obviously biased about that. In fact, maybe this is a subject for a separate post.

Blogtober 2020 – Doki Doki Literature Club (Gaming Omnivore) — And finally, Gaming Omnivore joins the Literature Club.

That’s all for this month. As for the coming month — maybe it’s too early to make solid plans at this point if I end up living in SMT4-version Tokyo here in a few days. If I don’t, though, you can expect more stuff on anime and hopefully a couple of games (though I’ve had too much work lately to get through what I’m playing right now.) And maybe a post full of complaints. You like those, right? I hope so. Until next time.

Retrospective: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

I think it’s time for another look into the past, the distant past. The past of 2002, when violence in video games was still something some people actually cared about rather than a scapegoat for politicians who wanted to avoid talking about real societal problems. Well, it was that then too, but the scapegoat tactic seems to have worked a lot better back when the Grand Theft Auto series made the transition from 2D to 3D.

Years ago, I wrote a post about my time with the older GTA games from the 90s. I’ll still stand by GTA and GTA2 as being pretty fun at the time, but the series benefited massively from this leap into 3D. The 2001 title Grand Theft Auto III was an impressive game, giving the player an entire city with depth to run around and cause chaos in, but it’s still the followup Vice City that I’ll always remember best.

Oh yeah, also spoilers, but I don’t know if anyone cares in this case.

Yeah, this really brought back some memories. Still absolutely no idea what was going on here though

I recently got a separate digital copy of Vice City on Steam because my old CD copy may as well be on the Moon for all I know, I lost track of it so long ago. And playing it again was a really nostalgic experience. This was at least partly because of the time and place I first played Vice City, taking some stress out on the poor residents of the city while studying for exams and writing those damn IB papers. If you were or are an IB student too, you’ll understand why playing this game was almost necessary for me at the time.

But enough of my complaining yet again. What’s Vice City about? If you haven’t played it, there’s not much to know about the plot and characters: it’s a basic gangster story. The protagonist Tommy Vercetti, a mob guy from Liberty City (aka New York, and also the setting of GTA III) took the fall for his boss, Sonny Forelli, and after serving several years in prison he’s back out. But Forelli doesn’t want him around Liberty City, so he sends him down to Vice City (aka Miami) to start some business for the family there. Vercetti goes to Vice City but loses the money he was given to pay for a drug deal after it’s ambushed by armed men, and Forelli is unfortunately not the forgiving type. So it’s on Vercetti to find out who fucked up the deal and get Forelli’s money back.

Forelli being pissed off about his missing money. I’ve never even seen one of these giant blocky 80s cell phones in real life

Of course, that’s not quite how things go: instead of getting the money back for Forelli, Vercetti ends up getting it back and keeping it for himself, because by the time he’s gotten to that point he’s built up his own criminal empire in Vice City, and honestly fuck that guy anyway. In the course of building that empire up, Vercetti makes friends with a bunch of colorful characters, including the neurotic, coked-up lawyer Ken Rosenberg, best friend forever Lance Vance, and the hotheaded local mob boss Ricardo Diaz.

Some of these and other characters you meet will give you missions to complete in exchange for money and plot progression. Said missions might involve intimidating people, following people, transporting people, transporting illicit items, chasing people down in a stolen car, or just plain killing people with any number of weapons you can buy or find lying around town. Your friends will also occasionally join up to help you cause trouble (though how useful they really are in a gunfight is questionable, because more often than not you’ll end up having to babysit their dumb asses and make sure they’re not shot full of holes.) Naturally, you always have to stay vigilant, both for rival gang members and for the police, who don’t like it very much when they see you committing theft and murder right in front of them.

There’s also this weird mission. I still don’t know what the French government has to do with this game

I could get more into the storyline, but that’s the gist of it: run missions, build up your reputation with your contacts and make more contacts who give you more missions, use your money to buy properties and eventually businesses that make you more money, run missions for those businesses to improve your status, and kill that asshole Sonny Forelli when he eventually comes hunting for you. Before that, however, you kill Ricardo Diaz when you discover that he’s turned on you and Lance. And in a great example of “possession is 9/10ths of the law” when you do that you somehow take ownership of his massive mansion and arsenal. You probably don’t need a lawyer to tell you that doesn’t work in real life. Maybe Ken Rosenberg pulled some trickery at the Vice City probate court offscreen. It doesn’t really matter, though: the important thing is that you’re on top of Vice City’s criminal underworld at the end.

Don’t forget to take time out of that busy schedule to find the best ramps in the city to do motorcycle jumps from

One obvious question about Vice City, since it’s now 18 years old, is how well it holds up. Vice City is obviously not as big or nice-looking as GTA V, but there’s enough to do both with the story and side missions that you can still spend hours on it. The game starts off with only half of the city accessible, the rest closed off due to an incoming hurricane until you pass an early mission (Phnom Penh ’86, the one where you ride the helicopter and shoot guys while hanging out of the side.) But even in the early stage of Vice City there’s plenty to mess around with: the usual taxi, police vigilante, and medical transport missions, an irritating pizza delivery mission you have to do while driving a shitty moped, and hits to carry out on people who probably don’t deserve what you end up giving them.

This guy wasn’t a contract, he just tried to steal my car. Well, my car that I stole from someone else. But still.

The story missions themselves are mostly fun as well, though of course the developers had to include a few bullshit gimmicky ones that might make you tear your hair out while trying to complete them. Like the one where you have to dodge the Haitian car dropping coffins with bombs in them. Or the street race with a bastard that I swear is using cheats, or maybe I’m just bad at the races.

But that’s where my favorite aspect of Grand Theft Auto comes in. Like other games in the series, Vice City is fine with you setting the story missions aside for a while to take side missions to make more money, or to try sticking up a few stores to see how much money you can get away with without being arrested. If you’re feeling especially pissy when you load Vice City, you can naturally also just go on a rampage in the streets, beating people up for the money they drop and getting an increasing wanted rating represented by the six stars in the top right of the screen. One of the most fun parts of any GTA is testing your skill at evading a progressively more intense police chase, one that becomes especially hard when the SWAT trucks start showing up at four stars. The cheat codes are also great fun to create even more chaos: if you’re playing the PC version, I recommend combining FIGHTFIGHTFIGHT and OURGODGIVENRIGHTTOBEARARMS. And maybe NOBODYLIKESME as well if you feel like trying to fight off all those armed pedestrians yourself.

Cheat codes won’t help this guy much; he dies in every playthrough of the game

There is clearly a lot of work and attention to detail in Vice City. A lot of that attention goes into making the city feel like a real lived-in place instead of a bunch of streets and building-looking objects that you can run into with your car. You have to deal with other drivers and pedestrians, who will always get in your way when you’re trying to run your missions. You’ll probably find yourself driving on the sidewalk and running over a few people more than you’d like. Well, it’s their fault for being obstacles to avoid when I’m driving my taxi missions or fleeing from police, isn’t it? One funny effect of having so many people wandering and driving around is that you’ll hear a lot of the same voice clips coming from nameless pedestrian #3845, but for me that adds to the charm of it. Like in Skyrim and all those guards who got shot in the knee or however that went.

The voice acting for the game’s central characters is also excellent, provided by serious and big-name actors including Ray Liotta, Luis Guzman, Burt Reynolds, and Dennis Hopper. The voices really fit, especially well considering that a lot of these guys acted in mob/crime dramas before this, most notably Liotta in Goodfellas. Speaking of mob dramas, there are also plenty of references to Scarface, along with a big reference to the lesser-known Al Pacino gangster movie Carlito’s Way: the entire character of Ken Rosenberg is pulled directly out of that movie based on Sean Penn’s performance as Pacino’s mob attorney. And Guzman was in Carlito’s Way too. Hell, if you like mob movies at all, you need to play Vice City if you haven’t already.

Sean Penn doesn’t do the voice, it’s William Fichtner, but it is that character

Even the radio is entertaining to listen to — every station features fake ads and satirical talk shows of the kind that were introduced in GTA III. I remember the big new 80s soundtrack featured in the radio stations getting a lot of praise as well. I’m not such a big fan of it, even though there are some really good songs there (for example, “Billie Jean” is the first song you hear on the radio when you get into the first available car in the game.) The 80s isn’t my favorite decade ever for music, though maybe it was a great nostalgic trip for people who grew up then. Maybe it’s a Stranger Things sort of thing where I don’t give a shit about the 80s references and themes so much. I wasn’t even in nursery school when that decade ended, so what do I care? Then again, I don’t care about 90s throwbacks that much either, and I did grow up in that decade, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

I don’t think you could steal a police car and get paid for running petty criminals over in the 80s either. This game is lying to me

So I’d say based on my time with Vice City recently that it totally holds up. San Andreas, IV, and V built the series up quite a lot, but Vice City still stands as an excellent game on its own. It’s pretty cheap, too, so if you don’t mind how old it looks I think it’s worth checking out. I don’t think I would have gotten passing scores on my IB exams without being able to vent here in alternate universe Miami so much, so I’ll be grateful to the game forever for that at least.

A review of Nekomonogatari Black

Finally we come to the end of this “first season” of Monogatari. This series is certainly broken up in a weird way, and it progresses in a weird way too, because Nekomonogatari Black is another prequel. This one tells the story of what happened during the short holiday of Golden Week: the “Black Hanekawa” incident that kept getting brought up through the first and second series of the show. It’s only four episodes long, but there’s plenty here to examine as usual.

Before I move on, here’s the usual spoiler warning: there are spoilers in this review. Again, they probably won’t make a lot of sense if you haven’t seen any of the series, but even so, fair warning and all. This one is especially violent in parts too, though not on the same level as Kizumonogatari. I guess that’s true of the other sets of episodes I’ve reviewed, actually. Lots of blood and limbs being removed and that sort of thing, but those parts are all concentrated in a few very intense action scenes.

Don’t let the screenshot fool you: this catgirl will fuck you up.

The broad outlines of what happened during the Golden Week break from school are already known by the time the series starts, shortly after the events of Kizumonogatari: we know star student and high achiever Tsubasa Hanekawa was possessed by a violent supernatural cat spirit, causing her to go on a rampage until she was stopped and turned more or less back to normal by her new friend/series protagonist Koyomi Araragi, mainly thanks to Shinobu’s intervention. Nekomonogatari Black gives us the whole story, albeit only from Koyomi’s perspective. There’s still a lot going on in Tsubasa’s life that only she can tell us.

At the start of the series, our semi-vampire slacker protagonist Koyomi is trying to work out his feelings. He can’t get his mind off of Tsubasa and is wondering whether he’s in love with her. So he asks his younger sister Tsukihi for her advice, because by his own admission, he’s never been in love before. After a lot of the usual dialogue and wordplay joke stuff, Tsukihi tells Koyomi he’s not in love but just sexually frustrated, so he decides to head off to the local bookstore to get a dirty magazine (just like in Kizumonogatari; maybe he doesn’t have his own computer, or maybe he’s old-fashioned and prefers print media.) And of course, leaving the bookstore at the same time is Tsubasa herself.

We don’t get much of the lighthearted banter from now on, though. Koyomi notices that Tsubasa has gauze taped to her cheek. After dragging a promise out of him that he won’t tell anyone, Tsubasa tells him that her stepfather hit her that morning.

This naturally pisses Koyomi off, but Tsubasa reminds him of his promise. She also tells him that it was only natural this happened. If you had a daughter who talked back to you early in the morning, and wasn’t even related to you by blood, and you were under stress at work, wouldn’t you feel like slapping her too?

Of course, the answer is “no, that’s completely fucked,” and so Koyomi says. But he agrees to keep silent about it.

At this point, Tsubasa finds the body of a cat lying in the middle of the road. She’s not the type to just ignore that and asks Koyomi to help her bury it, which they do together. Of course, we already know this isn’t an ordinary cat. As we learned all the way back in the last arc of Bakemonogatari, Tsubasa Cat, this was a “meddlecat” (translated from sawarineko, which looks like it has some relation or connection to the supernatural cat spirit bakeneko, or maybe to the nekomata.) This spirit has the ability to possess humans and causes them to act out violently, requiring an exorcism.

We’ve also seen the effect this possession has on Tsubasa. Later that day Koyomi visits his benefactor the spirit/demon expert Oshino, who senses that something’s off and asks what’s going on with “Miss Class President” as he calls her. From the hints Koyomi is able to drop without breaking his promise to her, Oshino figures the situation out, warning him that Tsubasa is in danger of possession by a violent spirit and that he should go to her house to check up on her.

But it’s too late. On his way to Tsubasa’s house, Koyomi spots a white-haired girl stalking around the streets in her underwear, with a pair of cat ears sticking out the top of her head, and he realizes that Oshino’s worst fears were realized. This catgirl has the form of Tsubasa but seems completely different in personality, almost like a wild animal. Speaking with a different voice and referring to Tsubasa as her “master”, the girl dumps two unconscious bodies in front of Koyomi — the bodies of Tsubasa’s parents. And when Koyomi tries to stop her from leaving, this possessed Tsubasa attacks Koyomi, ripping his arm off.

His regenerative ability lets him reattach the arm and heal with Shinobu’s help, but after retreating back to the cram school, Koyomi is faced with a dilemma. Oshino tells him based on his own research and experience that this meddlecat has not only possessed Tsubasa but is merging with her somehow, allowing it to combine its own physical skills with Tsubasa’s considerable intelligence to essentially create a broken, unfairly powerful character that Oshino refers to as “Black Hanekawa.” So broken that even Oshino, the guy who seasoned vampire hunters run away from, hasn’t yet been able to defeat her in the many fights he’s had with her during Koyomi’s recuperation.

I like this traditional-looking art over Oshino’s explanation.

Thankfully, Oshino confirms that Tsubasa’s parents aren’t dead; they’ve only been made victims of Black Hanekawa’s energy drain ability, which she’s since been using to attack and drain people all over town. But he warns Koyomi that if they don’t manage to exorcise the meddlecat, it will merge with Tsubasa completely, making it impossible to save her.

That’s the setup of Nekomonogatari Black, though it takes us through the first two episodes out of four. The last two deal with how Koyomi actually goes about both rescuing Tsubasa and defeating the cat possessing her. To do this, however, he also has to defeat Tsubasa herself — because by the last episode, Koyomi discovers that Tsubasa is actually conscious and is in control of her actions at least to some extent. As usual in this series, nothing is how it seems at first.

It’s easy to see why Tsubasa would fall under the influence of this kind of wild spirit. Being the top student in her class, famous for her high achiever status among the other students, would normally be stressful enough with the support of a caring family, but she doesn’t even have that. Neither of her parents are related to her by blood; a series of deaths, divorces, and remarriages placed her with two relative strangers at a young age.

You’d hope that her stepparents would care for her as though she were their own, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Tsubasa says to Koyomi that blood relation is important in a family, but the fact that there are plenty of loving non-blood-related families around suggest there’s more going on. No, she gives the impression that her parents, who we never see except as unconscious figures in episode 2, act as though they were stuck with her, like the secondary consequence of getting remarried. “Oh, you have a kid too; I guess that’s fine” — that sort of thing. Considering that, it makes sense that Tsubasa felt free to go out and wander the streets on nights and holidays as we see her doing when she runs into Koyomi in Kizumonogatari and Bakemonogatari. She lives at the same address as her adoptive parents, but those parents don’t seem to care about what she does.

Tsubasa’s situation can be contrasted with Koyomi’s. He doesn’t have an ideal home life; he’s emotionally broken off from his parents, as far as we know because of his failures as a student. He’s still part of his own family, though, and he does have close relationships with his younger sisters Karen and Tsukihi, relationships we saw develop in Nisemonogatari. When they face a threat, we see the siblings close ranks and support each other no matter what other disagreements they have.

This might be a little too close actually.

Then again, Koyomi himself might also be a source of stress for Tsubasa. We already know that she has feelings for him that she hasn’t expressed, feelings that started back during the events of Kizumonogatari when Koyomi went through his vampiric ordeal. That’s not actually revealed until later on, well after Koyomi gets together with Hitagi during the events of Bakemonogatari, but even at this point there’s plenty left unsaid between the two. Throughout this first season of Monogatari, including the prequel movies when they first meet, the nature of their relationship is sort of unclear — they’re certainly friends, but beyond that they’re both carrying around more intense feelings that may or may not count as love.

Again, there’s a strong contrast to be made here with the relationship between Koyomi and Hitagi. Hitagi even says she hates “unclear relationships” or something similar when they officially become a couple, asking Koyomi to express his feelings for her unambiguously. Maybe some of Tsubasa’s stress comes from an inability to act in such a straightforward way. That’s certainly the case later on, in the last part of Bakemonogatari.

All that makes it all the more depressing that Tsubasa is never actually freed from her demon. Before they have their final fight, Koyomi and “Black Hanekawa” have a perfectly civil talk during which she tells him that she plans to relieve Tsubasa’s stress by attacking and energy-draining as many people as possible. Koyomi argues that even if that were justified, it wouldn’t relieve Tsubasa’s stress but simply put it off for a while, but the cat refuses to listen. When Koyomi finally draws her out to the cram school for their final fight, it takes Shinobu’s help to resolve the matter by using her own energy drain technique on Tsubasa, leaving her exhausted and powerless but physically unharmed. It also seems like getting possessed with a cat demon causes memory loss. In the end, at least, it’s for the better that Tsubasa ended up not remembering any of the ordeal she went through here, considering the burden of guilt that would cause her.

However, although Shinobu’s energy drain subdued that cat spirit, it’s still in there. Tsubasa’s stress still isn’t relieved, and when it builds back up near the end of Bakemonogatari, the wild cat reemerges to possess her again. I don’t know if Nisio Isin meant that to be a comment on the difficulty of truly relieving stress, but it read that way to me. Much of Monogatari throughout this “first season” deals with demonic and spiritual possession, but those possessions are always caused by or related to the affected character’s internal struggles, the kinds of anxieties and insecurities that a lot of us deal with. And those issues aren’t so easily dealt with. As Oshino says so often, though the victim can be helped, in the end they have to save themselves. Despite how perfect she might seem on the outside, Tsubasa can’t manage that. Not yet, anyway.

Things are going to keep being tense for a while, aren’t they?

So I guess this isn’t quite a satisfying end to the first season of Monogatari, at least not for our characters. But all these series have left problems and ambiguities lying around, seemingly all on purpose. This ending feels pretty fitting for that reason. The next series up, in fact, is Nekomonogatari White, which starts off the “second season” of Monogatari. As the title suggests, this story also centers on Tsubasa, but this time it’s told from her perspective. I like Koyomi a lot as a protagonist, but it will be nice to get out of his head for a while. Especially to get into Tsubasa’s, because she’s my favorite character in the series at this point. I was never the top student in my class (I was really more of a Koyomi in high school if I had to compare myself to one of them) but a lot of Tsubasa’s anxieties make her pretty sympathetic to me, even if I can’t say I relate to them.

But that’s it for this first season of Monogatari. This closing mini-series maintains all the technical and style standards set by the earlier series, with excellent art, voice acting, and backing music (and another nice set of themes in Perfect Slumbers and Kieru Daydream. I always appreciate those great OP and ED themes.) I’ve liked the series as a whole a lot so far, enough that I feel bad for mostly writing reviews of these series full of spoilers. For that reason, I was thinking of writing a general first season review without spoilers, if I can even manage that. If so, after that’s done I’ll probably be moving over to other anime series for a while. But I know for a fact I’ll be back for more Monogatari at some point.

Deep reads #5.1: Why I like Megami Tensei

This was bound to happen at some point. I’ve written a lot about the long-running Megami Tensei JRPG series on this site, certainly more than I have about any other game series — maybe even more than every other series put together. I don’t care to go back and measure that out, but it seems likely.

But why? What’s so special to me about Megami Tensei that I can’t shut up about it? I’ve written reviews of a few games in the series and about various aspects of it here and there, including these two commentary posts from last year. With this new set of posts, I want to dive into that question and examine what makes this series unique and what I think it may have to offer new fans just getting into Persona through the Persona 4 Golden PC port, for example, or wondering about news of the Nocturne HD remaster and the upcoming Shin Megami Tensei V.

As with the Disgaea series I wrote way back in January through April, this one will run as long as it needs to, and like that one, it’s partly meant to win over converts. But don’t worry! It’s fun in the world of MegaTen. At the very least, it might put you into the right mindset to deal with the coming demon apocalypse that will begin in 2033 when a portal opens over your city and Loki and Set fly out.

Speaking of Loki and Set, first things first:

A very brief history of the series and an explanation of just what the hell Megami Tensei is exactly

Megami Tensei (女神転生, literally “Goddess Reincarnation” though it’s never gotten an officially Anglicized title like that as far as I know) started out as a trilogy of novels by author Aya Nishitani. These have to do with a bullied high school student named Akemi Nakajima who summons the Norse trickster god Loki through a computer program he wrote to beat those bullies up, but the kid goes a bit power-mad, and Loki ends up using him to escape the computer and enter the real world somehow. Then Nakajima becomes an actual hero, trying to stop Loki with the help of his classmate Yumiko Shirasagi, who also happens to be the reincarnation of the Japanese creation goddess Izanami (which is where the title Megami Tensei comes from.)1

Following the success of the first novel in the series, two games were made titled Megami Tensei and released in 1987. The first to come out was a Gauntlet-looking top-down action game made by developer Telenet that has absolutely no connection with what came afterward. The second was a turn-based JRPG developed by Atlus for the Famicom and was the starting point for the now three decade-long series we’re talking about here. Though this game was based on Nishitani’s first novel, as soon as the sequel Megami Tensei II the series moved away from the source material and started doing its own thing.

But where does that Shin come from? And how do Persona, Devil Summoner, and all the other spinoffs relate to it?

And what makes this cover kind of misleading?

In 1992, Shin Megami Tensei was released for the Super Famicom. Like a lot of other game series that jumped over from the Famicom, this Shin was added as a prefix to set it part from older titles — the character 真 has a few meanings but here it’s used as something like “true”, like “hey, this is the real thing.” Like its predecessors, Shin Megami Tensei was a turn-based JRPG about fighting a demon invasion while recruiting demons into your party through a unique negotiation system. It also spawned a sequel, establishing what we now call the “mainline” SMT series, running through those first two Super Famicom games, SMT III: NocturneSMT IVSMT IV Apocalypse, and the upcoming SMT V.1

However, in the mid-90s Atlus started producing a load of new games in the Megami Tensei universe, using a lot of the same mythological figures and creatures that were featured as demons in the older Megami Tensei/Shin Megami Tensei games. Series like Devil Summoner, Megami Ibunroku Persona (the first Persona game, yes) and later on Digital Devil Saga and the strategy RPG Devil Survivor. These games either had sequels or started entirely new spinoff series, the most successful of which was Persona, which has gotten far more press than even the original series that spawned it.

It’s also important to untangle some of the title-related weirdness that’s gone on when these games have received NA/EU releases. Fans of Final Fantasy will be very familiar with these problems, getting a “Final Fantasy III” that’s actually Final Fantasy VI and so on. The issues with some of the 90s/00s titles in Megami Tensei are weird in a different way. In their attempts to sell this series to the West, Atlus messed around with its titles a bit, releasing Persona 3 and 4Devil Survivor 1 and 2, and the Digital Devil Saga and Raidou Kuzunoha games with the Shin Megami Tensei prefix when none of them were actually SMT games. Megami Tensei, yes, but throw out the Shin because it doesn’t belong there.

It doesn’t have a , but Persona games aren’t a bad place to learn a few other kanji. Thanks for the help, Ryuji! From Persona 5 (2016).

Thankfully, they seem to have quit doing this, but it’s still a bit of a mess for westerners who want to look up information on the Japanese versions of some of the 90s and 00s games. Basically, if the original title doesn’t contain that 真, it’s not SMT. That naturally has nothing to do with its quality or anything; it’s just a problem with classification. But hell, classification is important. How are we supposed to find anything without it?

I’ll stop boring you with classification talk now, though, and answer the question I posed in the beginning: what do I find so great about this series? Let’s get on to it:

1) Use of mythological, historical, and religious figures from around the world

Many game series that rely on myth and legend for their characters and worldbuilding use beings from one culture or part of the world. Or they go the route of Elder Scrolls and D&D-based worlds and use Tolkien’s old lore. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, and I’ve really enjoyed games that stick to those standards.

But one of the reasons I find Megami Tensei so interesting is that it doesn’t limit itself to any one set of traditions. Certain games will have specific focuses, but as a whole the series branches out into the tradition of just about every culture it can find. Many of the demons in the series (and note: “demon” is a neutral term here referring to any supernatural or mythological being regardless of their alignment) are taken from pretty well-known and common sources, including the active Abrahamic, Hindu, and Buddhist religious traditions and the ancient Greco-Roman, Norse, and Egyptian ones, and sometimes with a special emphasis on Japanese myth. But there are also beings taken from traditions like the Buryat (best bird Moh Shuvuu), Ainu (Koropokkur), and Hawaiian (Pele). The addition of a few other “fallen” gods who were toppled by now-dominant religions like Christianity and Islam make for some interesting character relationships that play out in some of these games.

Alilat, an ancient Arabian goddess whose idol was smashed in Mecca, is back to take it out on your party. Well, not exactly, but I like to think she’s carrying around that grudge. From Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (2009).

The demon designs add a lot to this variety. Most of them were done by artist and series co-creator Kazuma Kaneko, who has an extremely distinctive style. Some of Kaneko’s designs are straightforward, while others get extremely creative, taking some liberties with the demons in question. But even when that’s the case, the designs still usually make sense. The two alternate designs for the common series Angel are good examples of both his approaches: the one that’s used in SMT I and II looks like the typical depiction of an angel from western tradition, while the design used in Nocturne and the Persona games is… well, not typical at all. Yet even that provocative “bondage angel” design has some connection to what an angel is supposed to be in our set of traditions here. It’s not just provocative for its own sake.2

And of course there’s the classic case of Mara, the villainous god of desire/temptation in Buddhist tradition, but also known among MegaTen fans as “dick chariot” for reasons that will be obvious if you look it up. I’ll do you a favor by not posting it here, but you’ll have seen it in some form or another if you’ve played a MegaTen game, and maybe even if you haven’t. That damn dick chariot just won’t stop showing up — he’s a fan favorite, after all.

2) The relationship between the supernatural and human

This connects to the first reason above. It’s also a theme that I plan to write about in a more in-depth way later on. But here, I can at least say that the Megami Tensei series does a lot more with its various gods, angels, demons, spirits, monsters, and mythical heroes than dumping them into a game and making the player fight them. Most of the games involve the human characters having to deal with the supernatural leaking over into the world of humans. This was the basis of the very first Megami Tensei novel and its game adaptations, and though the series has branched out greatly since then, that basic premise is still there.

The relationship between humans and gods and/or godlike supernatural beings isn’t a new theme for the JRPG genre. It’s been present in the genre pretty much since the beginning. The original Megami Tensei has its roots in that beginning, but other major JRPG series like Final Fantasy, Fire Emblem, and Ys also established it as a common theme. Megami Tensei carries that theme even further by having its human and demon characters not only fight but also bond and work together towards common goals. The demon negotiation system is part of that, one of its most unique elements and still one of my favorite mechanics in any game series. Cooperation between humans and demons also plays heavily into the plots of these games, however: particular demons join up with or try to influence human leaders to take actions depending upon their alignments, and the most powerful of them pull the strings from behind the scenes.

Or, you know, they become your demon waifu like Pixie here. From Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (2003).

In the SMT games and some of their spinoffs, this places the player character in an awkward position where fellow human party members will fall into one of the ideologies that make up these alignments. By the end, the player is usually forced into one of these alignments depending upon his dialogue and action choices at fixed points throughout the game. And it’s very much to the credit of the series that it never presents one of these paths as “the right one.” Megami Tensei doesn’t set values of “good” or “evil” on your decisions, going instead with a law-neutral-chaos scale and leaving the players to make up their own minds about the morality of their choices.3

By doing this, the series avoids falling into the trap of trying to force a morality-based karma system that may come off as overly simplistic. Such a system might work for some games, but it wouldn’t really work for MegaTen. While some gods, spirits, and demons certainly identify with being on the good or evil side of things, many of the others have little or no regard for these paltry human concepts of morality. Even the MegaTen version of big bad Lucifer, the Devil himself, doesn’t seem to consider himself evil but rather more a force of chaos, pushing a world of might-makes-right-based total freedom. Whether his goal is good or evil is up to you to decide.

3) A variety of gameplay styles

Megami Tensei is best known for being a turn-based JRPG series, and to be fair a lot of its games use that combat style, including the mainline SMT and Persona titles. If turn-based combat isn’t your thing, though, the series still has plenty to offer, like grid-based tactics battle systems (Devil Survivor) and real-time action (Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha.) So even if you’re completely allergic to the old JRPG “stand and wait for the enemy to hit you, then hit him back” standard, you don’t have to write MegaTen off completely.

And even the turn-based games themselves vary greatly both in gameplay mechanics and in atmosphere and narrative style. There have been a lot of complaints in the last decade about how “stale” the JRPG genre has gotten, partly because of its wearing down of old plot and character tropes and partly because of its use of the old turn-based combat system that hasn’t changed much since the 80s. That’s a take I generally don’t agree with anyway, but I do think MegaTen has been able to avoid being subject to these complaints both by defining its own unique narrative styles and by keeping combat fresh from game to game. Combat in SMT and the other series spinoffs has a different rhythm, relying on the player’s use of buffs and debuffs, exploitation of enemy weaknesses, and effective defense of their own weaknesses.

The Press Turn system in Nocturne is a good example of this: by hitting enemies’ weaknesses, the player only spends half a turn instead of a full one that can be used for a strategic advantage, but hitting enemies with attacks that they void, repel, or absorb costs the player extra turns or even cancels the player’s attack round altogether. The same rules apply to the enemy’s attacks, requiring the player to use both a strategic offense and defense to win. This creates a situation where the battle will tip for or against the player depending upon their party composition and how smartly they’re playing. As a result, brute-forcing your way through an SMT game is simply not an option.

Trumpeter toots as he pleases, no matter how overleveled you are.

And then, of course, there’s Persona. This MegaTen spinoff series has blown up everywhere, comparatively moreso in the West where Megami Tensei didn’t have much of a presence up until Persona 3 got some notice from players here. The Persona games use a modified form of the turn-based SMT battle system, but it’s their inclusion of the social sim aspect that really sets them apart from the rest. It wasn’t a new concept when Persona 3 came out — the Sakura Wars series had been doing it for a while by then — but it was a new concept to me when I picked the game up on its NA release in 2007, and despite a few pacing issues it really worked for me. But I’ll get more into that in a later post.

It’s also worth mentioning that none of these different spinoffs feel like cash-ins based on fads, as though Atlus was throwing out something slapped together for fans to buy up because it had MegaTen branding.4 All these various game styles are at the very least playable even if you’re not a particular fan of them (I’m awful at the Raidou games’ real-time action combat to the point that it’s just frustrating for me to play, but that’s more my problem than the games’.)

4) The music

Yeah, of course the music in this series needs its own section. Every Megami Tensei game I’ve played or even just seen played by someone else has had amazing music, without exception. This is largely thanks to longtime series composer Shoji Meguro (responsible for much of the music in the first three SMT titles, the Persona, Digital Devil Saga, and Devil Summoner games among others.) These soundtracks have very different feels that suit the mood set by each game: Nocturne and DDS combine hard rock with softer ambient-sounding tracks, the Raidou Kuzunoha games use some older jazz styles that suit their 1930s setting, and the modern Persona games have more modern-sounding soundtracks with emphases on rap/hip-hop (Persona 3), pop/rock (4), and jazz/funk (5). And though they don’t get as much attention, Persona 1 and the 2 duology have excellent music as well — I’ve had the battle music in Persona 5 Royal set to A Lone Prayer for a while and I’m not getting tired of it yet. The common point here is that these soundtracks are all excellent, full of memorable, moving, and powerful themes.

While Meguro is the most prominent music guy involved in Megami Tensei, credit also has to be given to Ryota Kozuka, composer for SMT4 and a great one in his own right, and Kenichi Tsuchiya, who provided the massively impressive church organ music for Nocturne and a number of other pieces throughout the 2000s. And of course, the performers get serious credit as well: rapper Lotus Juice played a big part in defining the sound of Persona 3, just as the singer Lyn did for Persona 5 — if Mass Destruction and Last Surprise were stuck in your head when you played these games, they were partly responsible for that.

I actually do like “Mass Destruction” but god damn did it get old after hearing it 500+ times in battle. From Persona 3 (2006).

I could make a list of my favorite Megami Tensei tracks, like say Normal Battle ~Town~, Hunting – Betrayal, Memories of You, Tokyo… but that would probably be an entire post (or series of posts?) in itself.

And as for the other reasons why I like this series — I’ll be getting into those in far greater depth starting with my next entry. I don’t plan to focus each of these entries on individual games or sub-series, but rather on concepts and approaches the series as a whole takes. This will still require going into depth about specific games’ plots, characters, gameplay mechanics, and themes, but I will be trying to avoid specific end-game spoilers. I don’t have any of the other posts even close to done yet, but this is a promise I’ll try to keep.

Hell, I don’t even really know how long this set of posts will be yet. Let’s just say that it will be as long as it needs to be. No need to worry about the details yet. I feel like I’m stepping into a minefield here anyway — may as well just charge ahead and hope for the best. 𒀭

 

1 But is SMT: Strange Journey a mainline SMT game? On one hand, it’s thematically in line with the other mainline games; on the other, it doesn’t take place in Tokyo and doesn’t have a numbered title. I’d say it falls into the same category as SMT if… — It’s SMT, but not a mainline game strictly speaking.

Again, though, I don’t know how much it really matters. You could just as easily argue the opposite based on the similarities SJ shares with the numbered games and where Atlus implies or some fans believe it lives in the series’ bizarre, complicated five-dimensional multiverse timeline. I’m not getting into any of that, though. I don’t have enough pushpins and yarn for it.

2 At least I don’t think it is. Maybe Kaneko was having a joke on us. He seems like he has that kind of sense of humor. Just look at Mara.

Also, I’m not forgetting Shigenori Soejima here — he’s one of my favorite artists, but I’ll get into his work when I dive into Persona specifically later on.

3 Nocturne’s Reasons are an exception, but aside from Shijima, Yosuga, and Musubi being a bit different from the usual Law/Chaos/Neutral paths, they operate the same way in the sense that the game doesn’t place a moral value upon them. I still think Hikawa is an asshole, though.

4 With the arguable exception of the Persona 3 and 5 dancing games. Technically they were fine, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get some enjoyment out of them, but the way they were released did come off like a cash grab, which is something I won’t even say about any of the other many Persona spinoffs. Still, they didn’t feel slapped together or anything.

Also with the possible exception of the gacha game SMT Liberation Dx2, but I can’t say because I haven’t played it. I’m naturally suspicious of the “free-to-play” gacha game model, but I’ve also heard that the game has had a lot of work and care put into it, so I don’t want to judge it unfairly. (Besides, even though I say I’m suspicious of gacha games, I’ve played both Puzzle & Dragons and Azur Lane, so who the fuck am I to talk.)

A review of Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out! (Season 1)

Here AK goes again, reviewing all the hot new popular shows right after they air, just as usual. Yeah, this is a bit different for me. Not because I don’t like any popular, topical shows and games, but just because I usually want to write about something that isn’t either of those things. For example, I could have gone outside the usual scope of the site and given you my whole rundown last year of why the final season of Game of Thrones was a big pile of shit, but after the 895,694th review about it being shit that already covered all those points, I didn’t feel like piling on.

All this is completely unrelated to the actual substance of the anime Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out!, an adaptation of a manga series of the same name. As a few other people have already said, this show probably would have passed by pretty quietly in the summer 2020 anime lineup if it weren’t for the completely stupid, ridiculous controversies that were somehow attached to it. At least partly as a result of those controversies, it instead ended up one of the most talked-about series of the year so far, and it’s already been confirmed for a second season.

This is one of those anime series that says its main idea in its title. Not in the kind of detail a typical light novel title would, but still, the title Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out! describes a lot of what the show is about. It opens on a college campus at the beginning of the year following Shinichi Sakurai, a second-year student. This Sakurai is a bit of a loner; while we learn later that he does have friends, he prefers to keep to himself most of the time.

Unfortunately for Sakurai and his beloved alone time, one of his former classmates from high school has caught up with him. Hana Uzaki, a new first-year, recognizes Sakurai from their school days and reconnects with him. However, she never really knew him that well back in high school and after talking to and observing him, Uzaki notices how much of a lone wolf the guy is. She then decides to basically intrude on his entire life. Starting in the first episode, Uzaki insists on hanging out with Sakurai constantly, ignoring his objections and wearing him down until he just gives up and lets her tag along. At first, Uzaki only seems like she’s taking this opportunity to make fun of Sakurai’s loner tendencies — for example, mocking him for going to a movie alone and for spending his weekends playing video games instead of going outside. However, it soon becomes obvious that she actually wants to spend time with him, and Sakurai likewise soon ends up getting used to Uzaki and enjoying his time with her (more or less, anyway.)

Sakurai and Uzaki become friends pretty early on in the season, with the story following these two around as they hang out and trade jabs with each other over their personalities and lifestyle choices. The two couldn’t be more different: both physically, Sakurai being very tall and Uzaki very short, but more importantly in personality. Sakurai is a quiet, reserved guy, while Uzaki is talkative and outgoing, sometimes to the extreme. A lot of the comedy in Uzaki-chan plays off of this Odd Couple sort of “look how different these two characters are” dynamic.

But Uzaki-chan isn’t just a regular comedy, it’s a romantic comedy. So of course this is one of those shows where it’s implied that Sakurai and Uzaki have stronger feelings for each other than just the friendly type, but naturally neither of them can come out and say it, partly because they’re both kind of dense and partly out of embarrassment. And there are exactly the scenes you’d expect, like Sakurai unthinkingly eating a pastry after Uzaki already bit it and them both realizing they just shared that dreaded indirect kiss (a concept I had no idea about until I started watching anime.) But the two insist throughout when people ask that they’re only friends, which happens quite a lot — based mainly on their bickering, they come off like a couple to almost everyone they meet, and about halfway through the series they’re pretty damn close to actually being a couple without the romantic aspect, Uzaki visiting Sakurai’s apartment almost every day and even cooking for him.

Their situation is also complicated by two other characters: Ami, another student who helps her father run the coffeehouse Sakurai works at, and Sakaki, one of Sakurai’s college friends. Thankfully, these two aren’t thrown in to create a love triangle, square, pentagon or any other polygon that drags the show out with irritating drama: they’re actually rooting for Sakurai and Uzaki to get together and try throughout the season to make that happen, though their philosophies are a bit different with Ami being more of a hands-off observer.

These two are always around waiting for something to happen, just like us.

I don’t normally watch shows like this, and Uzaki-chan reminded me of why that is. Not that it’s a bad series at all. I actually did enjoy about the first half of the season — it was some light comedy that made for a nice escape from work and various bullshit in real life. After a while, though, the show started to wear me down. This may have been partly because the comedy bits started feeling like the same thing rewritten in slightly different contexts. You can’t keep writing the same “two characters who actually like each other in that way but don’t realize it have awkward moments” jokes forever without repeating yourself. And while a few of them feel like they’re meant to be callbacks to earlier episodes, I don’t know how much of it is just the show trying to drag things out between the two to keep itself going.

That raises the question of just how far a series like this can drag things out before people start to give up on it. Romantic comedies like Uzaki-chan are based on the premise that these two opposite types of characters who make an unlikely pair will end up together, so they have to deliver on that at some point. But when they do get together, the story is pretty much done, or at least it’s done telling that part of the story — I guess there’s no reason such a story couldn’t continue showing their relationship’s evolution, maybe even all the way to the two getting married and having a kid or something. But the “will they, won’t they” part of it is finished at that point.

And here’s the problem for me: the “will they, won’t they” aspect doesn’t appeal to me that much. If the answer is “yes, they will”, then I’m not that interested in watching the pair go through the same bullshit rigamarole for 24 or 36 episodes before that happens. And if the answer is “no, they won’t”, then by the end I’ll feel as though I’ve been strung along. This is one of those cases in which subverting expectations wouldn’t work, since the expectations are established by scenes that clearly imply Sakurai and Uzaki do have romantic feelings for each other that they can’t express or perhaps even understand yet. And in any case, that slow realization of romantic feelings seems to be the whole point.

No, we’re just two friends. You know, doing normal, friendly, not romantic at all things like feeding each other chocolate.

At this point, I’d just say these kinds of romantic comedies simply aren’t for me, but that’s not quite true. I wrote a bit about the manga Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro a while back, a series that like Uzaki-chan is a slow-burn romantic comedy between two very different characters, and I really like it. I think the difference is that I can see the characters developing in Nagatoro in ways that I can’t see in Uzaki. That character development makes that initially rocky relationship between Nagatoro and her nameless senpai interesting to watch — we can see both characters changing for the better and realizing things about themselves and each other that they wouldn’t have realized otherwise.

In the Uzaki anime, by contrast, I don’t see that Sakurai or Uzaki have really changed by the end of the first season. Sakurai still loves the alone time he manages to get, and Uzaki is still poking and prodding him in the same way she was in episode 1. Their relationship definitely develops, but the characters don’t so much, at least not that I can tell. Which makes sense: Sakurai and Uzaki are young but basically adults at this point and are pretty self-assured in their personalities, whereas the characters in Nagatoro are still in high school and figuring out who they are. I just think the latter makes for a more interesting story.

The question I have to consider now is whether I’ll watch the second season, and I’m not sure yet. If it’s just more of the same, I’d prefer to let Sakurai and Uzaki go on without me. On the other hand, I feel kind of invested now that I’ve watched a whole damn 12 episodes of them. I might check out the manga instead — it’s a lot farther along in the story as you’d expect, and I’ve heard that it might do a better job with character development than the anime does.

There are also a few “a crowd overhears and misconstrues the main characters’ conversation and shames one of them unfairly for it” scenes. Do you know the kind I mean? I hate these. People out in public need to mind their own damn business, screw these judgmental assholes.

Again, none of this is to say that Uzaki is bad or poorly done. It looks nice enough, and the characters are mostly pretty likable (even Uzaki, who sometimes walked a thin line between endearing and irritating for me, and I guess for Sakurai as well.) I can also appreciate the escape that a light comedy like this can deliver. But this show might just not be for me. Then again, maybe you’ll end up reading a second season review here at some point, in which case you’ll know that I’m full of shit.

Finally, I don’t want to pass by those controversies that I mentioned. For those who don’t frequent Twitter (and good for you if you don’t honestly; you’re better off for it) Uzaki-chan was the subject of a lot of pissy complaints from people who didn’t like the title character’s design. You can see from the screenshots that Uzaki’s bust is indeed SUGOI DEKAI (SUPER BIG) as her shirt states. She’s also short and pretty small otherwise, and apparently this just didn’t work for some artists on Twitter who generously decided to “fix” the art, redrawing Uzaki to suit their own preferences, along with some complimentary lectures on how “fiction affects reality” and so on (for greater detail/analysis of the situation and examples of the redrawn art, check out the article I linked here from a fellow blogger titled “The Uzaki-chan Drama”; it’s a very interesting read.)

Setting aside the supreme arrogance it takes to redraw someone else’s character and declare that you’ve “fixed” her (and the “fiction affects reality” argument that I’d like to address some other time) Uzaki-chan was just a weird target for this sort of attack. I’d be willing to bet that most of the complainers didn’t bother to watch a single episode of the series, because there’s nothing potentially offensive in it that I could find beyond the light ecchi elements that are present in every single series like this. Hell, if this is how these people react to something as mild and unobjectionable as Uzaki, the Nagatoro anime is probably going to give them a fucking stroke when it airs next year.

The required beach episode was about as crazy as things got, and the beach part was only half of the episode too. Nothing here to get too shocked about.

But I’m sure everyone involved with producing and airing Uzaki-chan is laughing about all this business, because there seems to have been a Streisand Effect here with the negative attention converting to more press for the show and a bigger audience. At least, that would explain why screenshots and art of Uzaki were being spammed all over the place for the last three months. Maybe it was a secret advertising strategy?

But now I’m getting into crazy conspiracy theory territory, so I’ll stop here. Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out! is a pretty decent romantic comedy that hasn’t really gotten to the romance just yet. If that sounds like your kind of thing, or you’re looking for a light comedy and don’t mind watching events repeat themselves a few times, it’s a nice show to check out. Once again, it’s probably not for me, but I didn’t drop it partway through, so that has to count for something.

Listening/reading log #12 (September 2020)

No, I didn’t forget — the monthly recap is here. And this marks a full year of them. It’s weird to think, I had the idea for this post series when I was at the office, which is somewhere I haven’t been now for the last half-year since the work-from-home plan was put into place. But I’m okay with that. I would honestly be fine with never leaving my apartment again. In fact, I’ll just sign up for that Singularity thing where we get to become consciousnesses in a massive universal computer network or a simulated universe or however that’s supposed to work.

As usual, I’m going to highlight some excellent posts from around the community here, but first, here are short looks at a couple of albums. This time I wanted to do something more seasonal. Everyone likes Halloween and it’s October now, so here are two real classics that I like but also find to be spooky. Well, maybe more unnerving than spooky. I’d include that Boards of Canada album I covered in the very first one of these posts, but I already wrote about it. It’s pretty chilling too; check it out if you’re into that.

Duck Stab!/Buster & Glen (The Residents, 1978)

Highlights: not even going to try

The Residents might be the most bizarre band ever created. It’s hard to call them a “band” actually; the names and even the number of Residents have always been unknown, and some of what they do involves other media like film or falls more into the realm of performance art than music alone. And even though they tour and do live shows, the performers always wear various disguises, most famously giant eyeball-helmets, sometimes with top hats and full formal suits included. Maybe that’s where Daft Punk got their own helmet disguise idea from?

However, I didn’t pick Duck Stab to highlight because of any of that. It’s rather because this album creeps me the fuck out. None of it’s “scary” exactly, but it can be kind of unnerving in parts. The Residents are known for their deconstruction of pop/rock music, and you can hear that happening right here — most of these songs should sound pretty close to normal with beats, melodies, verses, choruses and all that, but everything is just “off” enough to sound completely bizarre instead. Some of the songs sound intentionally ugly, like the opener Constantinople that seems like it was made to try to get you to turn the album off in its first ten seconds. Or Semolina, which sounds like a Beach Boys song produced in Hell. Laughing Song and Birthday Boy are genuinely creepy as well.

Listening to Duck Stab, I get the feeling that the Residents could have easily made a good album full of regular rock and pop songs if they’d wanted to. Even though a lot of it’s ugly, this music is also interesting and even catchy sometimes. It’s very obvious that these songs weren’t just some shit they threw together but were written, probably with a lot of care. The Residents just chose to make the songs fucked up on purpose, with clashing instrumental parts and vocals and lyrics that almost make sense but not quite, resulting in something that I think resembles an Uncanny Valley effect for music. Captain Beefheart did the same sort of thing in the 70s; this reminds me a lot of his album Trout Mask Replica. It’s worth looking up Duck Stab if you’re into that kind of strange music (and if you haven’t heard it, look up Trout Mask Replica too!)

Mekanïk Destruktïẁ Kommandöh (Magma, 1973)

Highlights: no

More weird stuff from the 70s. And yeah, the title is meant to be written that way. Both the album and song titles, and even the lyrics themselves, are written in a fantasy language that sounds a lot like German but isn’t quite. Magma was a French band, however, and the only French prog band I know anything about. Like the Residents, these guys were known for their strange compositions, but Magma’s are different. Mekanïk Destruktïẁ Kommandöh has separated tracks with titles but feels like one full piece, almost like an old opera with characters singing and sometimes yelling and ranting in this fantasy language over organs, pianos, and pounding bass and drums.

There’s a story behind the whole piece that looks spiritual in nature, but I can’t tell what’s going on with it. Maybe it’s an extremely high-minded concept album like Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans about some esoteric religious ideas. But I just think the music is cool aside from whatever the lyrics might be about. The first parts sound ferocious and martial and can even get a bit frightening with the main singer’s ranting and yelping and more singers joining in, but the tone softens and gets more peaceful in the second half of the album. From the flow of it, I can believe there’s a story being told here, even if I don’t really get it.

In any case, Magma are some interesting guys, quite different from a lot of the British progressive bands I’ve covered. I like the fantasy language element of the music as well. Reminds me of the Hymmnos songs from Ar tonelico and the made-up futuristic English/French/Gaelic/Japanese lyrics in the NieR games’ tracks.

And now, the featured posts:

The Great JRPG Character Face-Off: The Results! (Shoot the Rookie) — pix1001 concludes the contest co-run with Winst0lf to determine the greatest JRPG character, and the result may surprise you! But I’ll say it’s a deserving win.

You are the main character of your own life. (Umai Yomu Anime Blog) — An introspective post from Yomu about how we think of our own places in our lives and how anime usually puts that in a different light. I can’t really do it justice here, so do yourself a favor and check it out.

The Last of Us Part II (Extra Life) — A massive and truly comprehensive review of the controversial The Last of Us Part II from Red Metal, digging into both the gameplay and the story. No matter how you feel about the game, this is very worth reading.

Introducing the Frosty Canucks Podcast (Frostilyte Writes) — Frostilyte is now co-hosting a game-related podcast! It’s good stuff, I’ll be following it from now on, and you should too.

Rozen Maiden (The View from the Junkyard) — From Roger Pocock, a review of the mid-2000s anime series Rozen Maiden, which is about a socially maladjusted kid who gets a harem of living dolls that fight each other. This is one that seems almost totally forgotten these days, but it was insanely popular back at the time it aired. Also not quite as weird as it might sound from how I described it, though it has been over a decade since I watched it so I might not be remembering something. I do remember Suigintou being a pretty good villain, though.

Divinity, demons, and decay (Kimimi the Game-Eating She-Monster) — Kimimi writes about her take on Shin Megami Tensei II, a game that until pretty recently was a pain in the ass to play here since it was never officially localized. Anytime anyone writes about SMT I’m interested, and especially about the older or lesser-known titles like this one.

Freaked Out Now and Dead on Arrival. The Persona 3 Retrospective, Part 6(a)- Characters (S.E.E.S. and Protag) (Lost to the Aether) — Speaking of Megami Tensei, Aether’s in-depth analysis series of Persona 3 continues with a look at the unusual school club SEES and the protagonist who joins it at the beginning of the game. Nothing is what it seems at first, and Aether has some great insights about the game once again in this post.

Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light – Review (Nepiki Gaming) — Check out Nepiki’s newly remodeled site for a great review of this Final Fantasy game. I’ve been off the FF train for a long time now, but it’s still a rich series and a good time to read about.

Why I Hate Fan Service in Anime (The Anime Basement) — Keni over at The Anime Basement puts forward some arguments about why fanservice can be a problem and how some anime series use it in a way that’s not very tasteful. I partly disagree with him, but he does bring up interesting points, and it’s always good to get a different perspective on these matters. (I do agree with him that Kill la Kill does fanservice really well and in a way that makes sense in the context of the show, but maybe that will be a subject for a separate post someday.)

Anime I like, but haven’t talked about yet: Maria the Virgin Witch (Mechanical Anime Reviews) — Scott writes about Maria the Virgin Witch, another anime series that doesn’t seem to get a lot of talk. It’s a pretty short series, so no reason not to take the time out to watch it — I’m halfway through it now and it’s very good so far.

Hololive English: Examining a Worldwide Phenomenon (MoeGamer) — I’ve admitted that I fell into that infamous Hololive/Vtuber rabbit hole recently, just before that English-language branch that started a few weeks ago (and you’ll know that for sure if you saw me talking up Gura’s great singing or Amelia’s interesting mix of chilled-out and weird on Twitter or in comments somewhere.) Pete here gives a history of the Vtuber phenomenon and a rundown of what makes the various personalities of Hololive special.

The Soul of an Online Community (ft. Vtubers) (Anicourses) — Sadly, though, the Vtuber thing is not all sunshine and roses, as we’ve seen recently with the suspension of popular streamers Kiryu Coco and Akai Haato over extremely sensitive international political matters (really, I’m not kidding.) Over at Anicourses, Le Fenette examines empathy and connections between fans and players in online communities, including the very active and sometimes volatile world of Vtuber fandom and how it may have contributed to cutting one Vtuber’s career short.

And finally, congrats to The Traditional Catholic Weeb and Dewbond on two years of blogging!

So let’s finally close the book on last month. These posts keep getting longer, just like my reviews. And I have plenty more coming up: I’m in the middle of a few visual novels that I may or may not finish soon, I’ve just started 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, and I’ve finished a few anime series I may write about soon (including even more Monogatari! So I hope you’re not tired of that.) Until next time.