Deep reads #2.1: Why I like Disgaea

Since it’s still pretty much the new year at this point, I thought I’d defy the natural way of things and start it out with a retrospective series.  It certainly could not be more obvious that I’m a fan of Nippon Ichi’s Disgaea series, but I’ve never fully dedicated more than a couple of posts to the subject over the last 6+ years.  Today that changes.  In this post, I’ll be covering it at the proverbial bird’s-eye view, going over some of the general themes, aesthetics, and gameplay mechanics.  I’ll also be going over why I think you should try Disgaea out, even if it looks too strange or like too much of a time sink at first glance.  (Well, it can be a time sink, but we’ll get to that.)  And if you’re already a fan, well — you’re in the choir I’m preaching to, so just sit back and enjoy the sermon.

What the flying fuck are all these numbers about?  And why is this well-endowed lady called an “Item King”? I’ll answer the second question, but you’re on your own with the stats.

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness came out in 2003 on the PS2, following Nippon Ichi’s first major strategy RPG titles in the Marl Kingdom series, The Puppet Princess of Marl Kingdom and La Pucelle.  Those two preceding games both received NA localizations, but they never got much attention here in the US.  Perhaps because they were games about cute girls in frilly dresses fighting demons and witches, and the niche western audience for games like that didn’t really exist at the time, or at least not on the scale that it does today.  Marl Kingdom even went through a bit of a rebranding when it came West to the American PSX, with the title Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure and a cover that ensured no boy in the prime Playstation-player age range would be brave enough to buy it, assuming they might have even had an interest in it (and remember, this was well before the days of Amazon Prime, so that was pretty much the only choice unless you bought from a catalog and waited the two or three weeks it took to ship.)1

Once 13 year-old me gets to the “her one true love” part on the back he’s quickly shoving it back into the stack on the shelf.

Disgaea was a bit different.  This game established a new series with a different look and feel. The gameplay mechanics were improved and streamlined, the fantasy Renaissance European setting was replaced with a strange, alien Netherworld, and the villagers and demon hunters in frilly dresses are replaced with demon lords and monsters beating each other over the heads for supremacy and fighting against invading groups of angels from the heavenly Celestia and humans from Earth. While the Marl Kingdom series also featured demons and otherworldly settings, the focus in those games was mainly on the human characters. With Disgaea, the focus shifted more towards the demonic perspective.

A battle in the original Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (2003).  The basic gameplay is an isometric grid/turn-based system similar to that of Final Fantasy Tactics and the Fire Emblem series, with a lot of gameplay twists and differences.

All these changes must have played well in the western market, because Disgaea: Hour of Darkness succeeded over here where the Marl Kingdom games didn’t so much.  It wasn’t a massive seller, exactly — it was still very much a niche title — but for a niche title, it really took, because we ended up getting every sequel in the Disgaea series ported and localized, along with most of the expanded and handheld versions and subsequent spinoff games, all the way up to Disgaea 5, the latest game in the series.2

I’m not a gaming historian or an industry analyst, so I can’t explain with any authority the reasons that this series took with the gaming audience, or at least with the niche audience it aimed for.  I can only speak to my own experience with it and try to extrapolate from my personal impressions (i.e. completely bullshit.)  So that’s what I’ll do.  I’ve boiled the reasons for why I think Disgaea is so damn great down to three categories:

1) Flexible structure and gameplay

Laharl, Prince of the Netherworld and villainous protagonist of Disgaea 1, comes up with an evil scheme.

RPGs don’t usually have a whole lot of replayability, at least relative to most other kinds of games.  You play through the main story, max out at least some of your characters while hoping the holy gods of RNG are good to them (see the Fire Emblem series for some real nerve-wracking dice rolls with stat increases), and then aside from a second playthrough or some DLC you’re probably done.

That’s not the case with Disgaea.  While each successive Disgaea title would add more and more gameplay elements, mechanics, bells and whistles, the series started out stuffed full of things to do beyond simply playing through the main scenario.  This ensured that obsessive players would be able to spend hundreds of hours and more on a single playthrough, many of those hours spent trying to beat post-game boss characters and level up weapons while grinding their characters up to level 9999 and using the reincarnation mechanic to make them even stronger.

An Item World map in the remastered Disgaea 1 Complete. This one is full of near-death copies of the same cloned enemy that can be easily killed for EXP.

Much of this time is invariably spent in the Item World, a more or less randomly generated set of maps contained “inside”3 every weapon and piece of equipment in the game numbering 30, 60, or 100 depending upon the item’s rarity. I say more or less because the Item World maps do follow certain geographical rules: they can only be so large, and the exit panel is always on the same piece of land as the home base panel. The result is a massive tower of successively harder levels in every single item in the game waiting for the player to master.  While single-use items’ worlds are rather pointless to enter, weapons and equipment can have their stats greatly increased through Item World leveling, especially if the player defeats the boss at the end of every tenth level (hence the “Item King” in the top image, the final boss of a common 30-level item.  Yes, female units can be kings too.  Quite a progressive message, isn’t it?)

It’s hard to express just how addictive the Item World can be. The concept on its own — an endless set of randomized maps to complete — might sound a bit boring, but the execution is designed to draw the player in.  Aside from the obsessive leveling of weapons and equipment, the Item World offers chances to bulk up the characters themselves by clearing each map of enemies.  However, the games also give the player the choice of clearing each map by simply sending one of his units to the exit panel.  This is often possible to achieve within one turn by building a great Tower of Babel of units and throwing each one, unit by unit, in a path that ends when the final one is thrown into the goal. In this way, the player can choose to quickly level the item or take a more leisurely approach while building his party’s levels and skills.

The top of my character tower, ready to be thrown into the goal. That Nekomata on top looks terrified.

And of course, there are the notoriously powerful post-game bosses to take on.  A Disgaea game can typically be beaten pretty easily with a team of at least a few units at around level 70 to 80, a range achieved naturally through playing the story maps.  However, the character level cap is 9999 for a reason.  Optional boss fights that take place entirely outside the main story often feature enemies from the several-hundred to several-thousand level range.  Even if many players never reach them, these bosses are entertaining challenges for those who are sucked into the vortex that is a round of post-game Disgaea.

Best of all, at least from my perspective, the games don’t try to hold your hand and guide you at all, aside from some optional  tutorials to help new players get the basics down.  The Disgaea games do feature shortcuts that the player can use to get through the game more quickly, including maps that are specifically designed for the purpose of powerleveling, but they leave it up to the player to figure all that out.  In a time when games were starting to not only hold the player’s hand but forcefully take it and not let go, this was a very nice change of pace.

For example, sometimes a crew of Ninja Pirates will sail up and you just have to deal with it. From Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories (PS2, 2006).

At the same time, the Disgaea series isn’t exactly a punishingly difficult one to play through.  Most characters learn pretty powerful skills after gaining just a few weapon proficiency levels, and the games downright encourage the player to use these skills to try crazy shit on new maps because of the relative lack of consequences for failure.  This was a major change from the tactical RPGs I’d played up until then, which featured pretty realistic hand-to-hand and ranged combat (realistic aside from the use of magic, I guess, but even those are just another kind of ranged weapon in such games.) For me, it was mainly a change from Fire Emblem and its old strict permadeath rule. In the world of Disgaea, characters that get knocked down to zero HP are simply sent home to recover, so there’s no real risk involved in throwing one into a mass of enemies as a sacrifice or a distraction. While I don’t have a problem with Fire Emblem-style permadeath (and I love some of the battlefield death monologues, as aggravating as it is to lose a character and have to restart) I also like the freedom that Disgaea gives the player to mess around with unorthodox tactics.

2) Colorful characters

Both literally and figuratively.  A lot of the look and feel of Disgaea can be attributed to artist Takehito Harada, who has a very distinctive style, the kind that you can identify immediately when you see it.  It’s all cartoonish, bright, strangely colored hair and eyes and sometimes exaggerated features on a diverse mix of demons, angels, monsters, and plain old humans. The same idea applies to the characters’ personalities, which are also sometimes over the top, and in the case of the demons especially can seem a bit twisted when compared to the angelic and human characters.

No. 1 Delinquent Raspberyl and her ninja/samurai crew in the high school-themed Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice (PS3, 2008). Demons are supposed to be callous assholes, so being a nice demon who loves peace and has good manners makes Raspberyl a dangerous delinquent in the Netherworld.

You might think this would result in characters that are jammed full of “attitude” to the point that they’re annoying.  Think a character like Bubsy, that failed 90s platformer mascot who was so wacky and lighthearted all the time that he refused to shut his god damn mouth during stages, constantly spewing bad puns.  While there might be a few Disgaea characters that seem to approach this point, I find most characters in the series to be some mix of endearing and entertaining, and even the ones that come off as overly idiotic or buffoonish are sometimes putting on an act and have some kind of agenda that the player isn’t let in on right away.  A few Disgaea characters do have that annoying “sentence-ending vocal tic” thing going on that probably flows better in the original Japanese than it does in English, though.  I don’t have a problem with the Prinnies’ signature “dood” exclamation, but with other characters it just sounds weird.

I like Usalia, but I hate her god damn fucking constant plip-ing. Is that supposed to be a sound rabbits make? I don’t care, it’s still annoying.  From Disgaea 5 (PS4, 2015).

It’s easy to forget now with all the changes to the genre and the landscape as a whole, but back in the 90s, JRPGs tended to be deadly serious.  Some series threw humor into the mix (see the infamous Wall Market section of Final Fantasy 7 that absolutely won’t and can’t be replicated in the remake today) but in general, when these games decided the fun was over, everything became dark as a meteor hurtled towards the planet, or an evil lord reigned over an oppressed country while holding the magical crystals needed to restore balance to the world, or whatever apocalyptic thing happened to be occurring that our heroes needed to fix.

While the Disgaea games do get dramatic at times, by contrast, there’s a much stronger current of humor flowing through them than through most other JRPGs.  Even when the chips are down and our heroes are in a dire situation, they manage to keep things pretty light while staying in character with some wordplay, which occasionally gets dirty, and even some dumb slapstick.

Seraphina’s entirely non-lethal gun from Disgaea 5 is pretty much a slapstick comedy device.

This seems to be the aspect of Disgaea critics cite when they call these games “juvenile”.  It’s pretty easy to see some silly, exaggerated facial expressions and some slapsticky comedy routines and write the series off on those grounds.  However, I think that approach is much too surface-level.  The Disgaea games feature characters with more depth than they might seem to have at first glance. And it usually becomes clear throughout the course of the game’s story that they’re not fighting whatever conflict they happen to be involved in just for the sake of fighting, even if they often claim that’s exactly what they’re doing — there’s always something more going on that the game will address, leading to the heavier dramatic material.

Etna gives Flonne a warning early on in Disgaea 1.  Despite all the levity in this series, things do get serious sometimes.

I’ll save specific examples for my more in-depth posts.  For now, I’ll leave it at this: it’s far easier to write characters that are trying to be profound and serious all the time but fall flat because they’re actually shallow than it is to write characters that goof off and fuck around with slapstick and dumb comedy bits but are also substantial and interesting. That’s to say that some writers get the style down well enough while completely missing the substance. In my opinion, Disgaea has both: a unique style and plenty of substance. The quality of the writing isn’t uniform throughout the series, but the better games have some truly memorable and excellent characters, and even the lesser games are pretty good on that count.

3) Everything takes place in the same multidimensional universe

Or would that be a multiverse?  I guess it would.  I don’t like that term very much, though.  Feels like it’s overused.

Part of the Disgaea 3 central cast drops in on Disgaea 5. I don’t even remember the context of this scene, why that one guy is buried neck-deep in the sand, or what the hell Mao is yelling about.

Whatever you want to call it, the Disgaea games and even other Nippon Ichi-made spinoffs all seem to take place in the same general realm of existence, even if that realm contains many different dimensions that just happen to intersect in weird ways sometimes.  The only direct sequel in the series is Disgaea D2, which continues the story of the original Disgaea. The rest exist in their own more or less separate settings, with their own casts of characters and stories.  However, the post-story sections of each game are full of bosses who are characters from previous games that can be recruited once beaten.  Even Disgaea: Hour of Darkness back in 2003 featured the characters Marjoly and Priere from the older Marl Kingdom series.  And Priere is eternally popular, with her latest appearance in the Disgaea 5 post-game boss battle roster.

Well, I can think of a couple of reasons why Priere is a fan favorite…

These intergame crossovers aren’t restricted to the post-game, however.  Two of the leads from Disgaea 1, Etna and Flonne, play central parts in the stories of Disgaea 2 and 4 respectively, so these characters are clearly all hanging out in the same uni/multiverse.  But why do I consider this a positive?  Because it means that the series can bring back popular characters like Etna and Flonne without breaking its own rules relating to setting, time, and continuity.  How can you break rules that don’t exist in the first place?  That’s an attitude I like, and it’s a big part of why I like Disgaea and Nippon Ichi’s work in general. It’s all about having a good time, even if the stories get a bit heavy and emotional sometimes.

***

And now I plan to dive deep into a couple of my favorite games in the series.  If I haven’t yet convinced the skeptical reader that this series is worth exploring at least a bit, I hope the following posts will be more persuasive.  Though unlike this one, these upcoming pieces will probably be full of spoilers.  If you don’t care about that, though, I hope you’ll look forward to reading the latest obsessive, overlong analyses I’ve been working on about the games I play to escape from this pointless, bitter grind that we call life. No, being more positive wasn’t one of my resolutions this year, in case you were wondering. I’m not even bothering to pretend this year. Anyway, until next time! 𒀭

 

1 Not that many boys would have been comfortable buying a game called The Puppet Princess of Marl Kingdom either, now that I think about it.  I wouldn’t have been at the time, but I was a real dumbass then.

2 Yeah, I’m saying “latest” instead of “last.”  I know Nippon Ichi is in dire financial straits, at least last I heard. But even if the company dissolves in the course of a bankruptcy proceeding (I don’t know anything about Japanese law, much less Japanese corporate bankruptcy law, so I’m just guessing it’s not too different from our system over here) the Disgaea IP seems like it would be too valuable to just leave sitting around.  What form the series would take if it left Nippon Ichi’s hands is a different question.

3 The implications of entering a separate world “inside” an item is so weird and abstract that from what I can tell, none of the games even try to address it.  It’s just another one of those aspects of the series’ mechanics that you can’t worry about too much.

2019 First Annual EiBfY Game Awards (and a brief site forecast for 2020)

Yes, in yet another first, I’m starting my own very prestigious annual game awards ceremony!  Hell, I have as much right to do that as Geoff Keighley and his stupid Game Awards.  Do I really have any less legitimacy than they do?  (Please don’t answer that question.)

Anyway, here are the awards.  These aren’t based on what came out in 2019 but rather what I played or otherwise experienced in 2019, and also in December of 2018 because that’s really when I revived the site again, so why not.  Congratulations to the winners, who can hopefully take some comfort (or discomfort as the case may be) in their achievements.

Best free game that should be converted into a mobile game if it hasn’t been already

Winner: Cappuchino Spoontforce VI: Girl of the Boiling Fury

In this bizarrely titled game, you have to attend to one Sajiko, a miniature woman taking a bath in a cappuccino by adding coffee to keep the temperature up.  You can add milk and sugar cubes to the coffee to gain points, but they lower its temperature, and if you hit the bathing girl in the face with any of them she’ll get pissed off.  The object of the game is to get as many points as possible before she gets so upset that she leaves the bath (again, she is wearing a towel, so this isn’t 18+ or anything.)

This is a strange concept for a game, but it’s a fun diversion for a few minutes.  Fellow blogger the Otaku Judge suggested down in the comments that this would make for a good mobile game, in fact, and I quite agree.  Never mind that most games will probably devolve into the player giving up on keeping the coffee hot and seeing how many times he can smack Sajiko in the face with sugar cubes/douse her with milk. At least that was my experience with it.  Now that I think of it, maybe this game actually is 18+.  All depends on how you approach it, I guess.

Best game of the year that I already played 15 years ago

Winner: Disgaea 1 Complete

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness is an eternal classic, but it was really asking for a remaster, and 15 years after its release it got one.  I was very happy for the chance to play through Disgaea 1 again, complete with all the additions made in its mobile versions on the DS and PSP.  However, it’s hard to deny that aside from the extras and cosmetic upgrades, Disgaea 1 Complete is at its core the same game it was in 2003, which is why it gets this award.  I still highly recommend it to anyone who’s never played the original.  And hell, you can probably find it pretty cheap now, so even if you played the original you may as well get this one as well.  It probably is worth it just to have those extras, especially Etna Mode.

Most effective fourth-wall-breaking

Winner: OneShot

Yeah I was late to the party on this one, I know.  But out of the two fourth-wall-breaking games I played this year, OneShot made the more effective use of the mechanic by making me feel connected to a fictional character in a way few other works ever have.  I think this partly has to do with the game not keeping its central premise a secret.  You know almost from the beginning that Niko, the cat kid protagonist, knows you exist in a different world and that you have some degree of control over his actions and the world around him.  It also really helps that the writer managed to create a child character in Niko who is actually likable and not overly precocious and irritating on one hand or dumb on the other.  I still highly recommend this game to pretty much everyone.

The other fourth-wall-breaking game I played this year was good as well, so it gets an honorable mention, but the title is left out for those who don’t want to be spoiled on its central premise.  Even if everyone already knows its central premise, and they do.  You probably know what game I’m talking about anyway.  Never mind.  On to the next award:

Best game soundtrack that still has some really bad songs on it

Winner: Passion & Pride: Sonic the Hedgehog: Anthems with Attitude from the Sonic Adventure Era

This might be the most “back-handed compliment” award ever made.  Or maybe it’s just a plain insult.  I have pretty fond memories of playing Sonic Adventure 1 and 2 way back in the day on my Dreamcast.  I know they’re not perfect games, but I still like them.

However, the music is a different story.  Some of it’s actually pretty damn good, especially the smooth jazz/pop Rouge and Amy themes that I couldn’t appreciate when I was younger because they were too “girly”.  And a part of me really likes Shadow’s theme, the part that’s still an angsty 13 year-old boy.  (In fact, I think SA2’s angsty as hell song “Supporting Me” is a great boss theme, though it’s not on this album.)  But some of this music is rough to listen to.  I hate Tails’ theme, and Knuckles’ bad rap and Sonic’s bad hair metal throwback music annoy me too.  And the lyrics, even in the songs I like, are generally pretty fucking terrible.  If I didn’t understand English, I think I’d like this album a lot better than I do.

I still like it more than I don’t, though, so congrats to all the composers and musicians, even on the lousy songs.

Best game about telephones

Winner: Strange Telephone

Okay, so this game didn’t have any competition in its category.  However, it still deserves an award for its unique and interesting gameplay and for the creepy, oppressive atmosphere it created.  Not that it’s really a horror game at all — it’s more of a psychological exploration puzzle game.  Strange Telephone barely gives you any hints and throws you into the deep end to let you figure out how to get Jill and her magical flying telephone back to her world, and that’s just the sort of thing I like.  Congratulations to the developer yuuta for making something different that worked.

Best physics

Winner: Senran Kagura Estival Versus

There was only one game I played in 2019 that truly qualified for this prize, and so it won: Senran Kagura Estival Versus is a masterpiece of physics. Lots of bounce in this game, even in the above screen if I could have posted it animated. I suppose I could have made a gif, but that’s too much effort. Just play the game yourself and you can make Yumi and her friends and rivals bounce as much as you want. Unless you’re playing as Mirai, of course. But Mirai brings that “short angry pettanko” appeal that every series needs; see also Cordelia from the Atelier Arland games.

And speaking of angry pettankos, here’s the most important award of all:

Best girl

Winner: Asano Hayase (Our World Is Ended.)

Asano is the most bullied character in a game I played last year or possibly any year.  Not that she’s alone in getting that kind of treatment — most every character in the apocalypse summer sex comedy visual novel Our World Is Ended is made fun of, both by the other characters and by the game itself.  But Asano really gets it bad.  She’s a terrible cook, a tone-deaf musician who thinks everyone loves her singing, and a lousy drunk who responds to the slightest provocation with violence.  She has an almost flat chest, a fact that she can’t help but that she gets made fun of for anyway.  And she has some extremely socially unacceptable interests, to put it politely.  She’s a complete wreck.  She could also be the mascot of this site, because I’m a complete wreck too.  So she gets her deserved recognition today.

(None of that’s counting her many good qualities, which you can discover if you play Our World Is Ended.  I’ll also give honors to Asano’s voice actress Eri Kitamura, a professional singer who had to force herself to sing incredibly badly and also record a bunch of lines spoken in drunk.  I don’t know much of anything about voice acting, but I thought Kitamura did an excellent job, so congrats to her as well.)

***

And that does it for the First Annual Everything is Bad for You Awards.  Will there be a Second Annual next year?  That depends on whether I get a minute away from work to play any games this year.  I certainly hope I do.

And now that we’re done with the big retrospective, we can look forward to 2020.  I never like to make solid plans, but I do have a few projects I’m working on, including two sets of posts about two of my favorite game series, one of which I wrote about above (points if you can guess which one, though I suppose it won’t come as a big surprise when I start it.)  I’m finding I like doing these kinds of deep-dive commentaries, even if they take a god damn eternity to write.  But I do have a few of these epic-length analysis articles mostly written up already in very rough forms, and a few more outlines for others that I think would be interesting.  If you liked my treatment of Kaiji back in November I hope you’ll like these posts as well, because they’re panning out to be just as obsessive as that one was.

Aside from continuing that deep reads series of posts along with maybe a few basic game retrospectives, I don’t have any particular plans, which is my usual approach.  If I get an idea, I’ll try to make a post out of it and hope it’s entertaining, or at least not irredeemably stupid.  Until next time, I hope your return to work from the holidays isn’t too painful (or if you also worked through the holidays, well, I hope you can take a vacation soon.)

Listening/reading log #3 (December 2019)

I know I said I’d be off for the rest of the year, but there’s still one piece of old business for 2019 left to address. So let’s get right to it:

Magic (T-Square, 1981)

Highlights: It’s Magic, Sunshine Sunshine

Quite an album cover, isn’t it?  Pretty magical in my opinion too, at least as far as the subject matter goes.  Magic is an album recorded by Japanese fusion band T-Square, which has existed in various forms from the late 70s up until today.  These guys along with Casiopea were apparently a big part of 80s fusion.

The problem is I don’t seem to like 80s fusion very much, not even the later Casiopea stuff I’ve listened to.  70s fusion, sure, I’m into it.  But 80s fusion might just use way too many cheesy, ridiculous synth tones for my taste.  Some of those are on Magic too, and that might also be part of why I’m not a fan of the instrumentals here.  Half the songs on this album are vocal pieces, however, and I like those.  These feature lyrics in English sung by famous Filipina vocalist Marlene (yeah, just the one name) who I only learned about last week.  Her singing is unbearably cute and uplifting and makes the album opener “It’s Magic” as well as “Sunshine Sunshine”, a song you may be shocked to hear that I really like.  I’m not crazy about the message (which is essentially “don’t mope around, just be happy” — yeah, if only it were that easy) but when I listen to the song, it’s impossible not to imagine Marlene bouncing around a stage while singing the lines “SUNSHINE SUNSHINE IT’S A SUNNY DAY SUNSHINE SUNSHINE LOVE IS HERE TO STAY!” and that does actually make me happy.  So maybe this stupid shit works.  Anyway, Magic is mostly pretty good, and maybe you’ll like it more than I do if you’re not allergic to cheesy 80s synths.

H to He, Who Am the Only One (Van der Graaf Generator, 1970)

Highlights: Killer, House With No Door, Lost

Hey, was I being positive there for a few minutes?  Fuck that!  I know just the cure: some Van der Graaf Generator.  This was an English prog rock band that started back before prog was even really a thing, fronted by excellent singer/crazy lyricist Peter Hammill.  VdGG was pretty uneven in my opinion, but when they were good they were great, and H to He (referring to the solar fusion process — no idea what the rest of the title means) is one of their best albums.  This is dark, bitter, sad artsy rock featuring Hammill singing what sound like a lot of very personal words over a saxophone/organ-dominated background.

Which you might not think you’d be especially into depending on your tastes, but the songs here are really good.  “Killer” is energetic and catchy and has a monster riff that I love, and “House With No Door” is a ballad sung by Hammill sounding like he just had his heart torn out.  My favorite is “Lost”, though.  It meanders like crazy through its 11 minute run time and bizarre time/key signature changes, all classic prog-style, but it works because the whole song is about a guy who’s lost his love and is wandering in the same fashion.  Nothing pretentious here, it’s really just a love song.  Check it out!

So it’s only two albums I’m putting up for your consideration this time, but I hope the contrast between them is enough to cover pretty much everyone’s tastes.  If it isn’t, try out some of the following excellent pieces by my fellow blog writers.

Shadows of Mass Destruction.  The Persona 3 Retrospective, Part 2-Gameplay — Aether dives deep into Persona 3 in his continuing retrospective series on the game.  If you like the Megami Tensei content I post here (what’s that, about two-thirds of my site?) you should follow Lost to the Aether as well for some great in-depth analysis.

Humanity Has Declined: Nameless Adventures With Incalculable Entities — Scott of Mechanical Anime Reviews writes about the uniquely weird anime series Humanity Has Declined and why it’s worth watching.  I liked the show a whole lot, and Scott captures the essence of it very well.

Editorial: Supporting the Little Guys — Professional and semi-pro game journalism sites are largely copy-and-paste clickbait outrage factories, and Pete Davison of MoeGamer takes on some of the problems this causes in this piece.

[GAME REVIEW] Mega Man 2 — Red Metal of Extra Life reviews one of the best NES games in such a thorough way that I don’t think there’s anything else to say about it.

Chapter 754: Hachinohe Station Giant Lanterns and History Museum — If you have any interest in traveling to Japan, or traveling anywhere for that matter, be sure to follow The Flying Tofu, now on part 754 of her travels through Japan and other lands.  I can’t go anywhere at the moment or anytime in the near future, so I like to read a few travel blogs instead, and this is one of them.

And that’s it once again.  A preemptive happy new year to everyone — doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a great year coming up in general, but we’ll see.  The last few years have turned me into a real fatalist, both as far as my personal life and public/world events have gone. But what the hell.  There’s not much ordinary people like us can do (assuming you’re ordinary too, dear reader — if you’re extraordinary, can you please do something about all this shit?)

Anyway, if all else fails, just remember this: no matter how much things might suck, nothing is forever.  That’s what I tell myself, anyway.  Until next time!

Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 12 (Pixie)

We started this series with one of the most common demons of Megami Tensei, and we’re ending the series with another. Even if she isn’t the unofficial company mascot like Jack Frost is, Pixie is in some ways even more iconic. In Nocturne and Strange Journey, Pixie is the very first demon ally you receive to get you started off before you get the hang of negotiation, and I can’t think of a single Megaten game that she’s not in.

Pixie is a British demon from the southwestern regions of Devon and Cornwall, derived from the legendary pixies, small fairies that live in the forests and glens and play tricks on humans. Like their fairy colleagues such as Jack Frost, while the pixies are capable of causing harm, they’re not malicious by nature and have even been said to occasionally help humans who get lost in the woods. While you probably wouldn’t want to get lost and wander into the pixies’ residence, therefore, you’d at least have some chance of getting out safely.

I also like this cyberpunk-style Pixie from Soul Hackers

The Megaten version of Pixie is similar to the traditional pixie in character and type. While she’s always a very low-level demon, she’s also typically important to the player as an initial team healer. Pixie also usually evolves into the more powerful High Pixie, and sometimes from High Pixie into the much more powerful high-level Queen Mab, an alternate version of Titania.

No look at Pixie is complete without exploring her role in Nocturne. While she’s not strictly part of the game’s plot, she can play a major part in the final team composition against the True Demon Ending boss. If the player keeps the Pixie that joins up with Demifiend near the very beginning of the game all the way until reaching the fifth kalpa of the optional Amala Labyrinth dungeon, she’ll evolve into a mega-Pixie, bulking up to level 80 with five excellent skills and three empty slots to fill with whatever other useful skills the player desires (protip: one of these should be Pierce.) The resulting mega-Pixie will look exactly the same as she did the day you met her, but she can now give just about any enemy you meet a black eye.

It’s vital to remember that this transformation will only occur with that original Pixie — I believe she can used in a fusion and the product of said fusion can be kept in the party instead, but if she’s let go or sacrificed and the player recruits a new Pixie to replace her, that Pixie won’t transform. Which implies that your original Pixie was only able to transform because she traveled with Demifiend all this way. Maybe you won’t be surprised to learn that just like with Raidou and Moh Shuvuu, there’s a lot of fanart putting Demifiend and Pixie together in a sort of implied relationship. Not sure how that would work physically. I’m sure if you use the right tags on pixiv you can find out.

And here’s Pixie in the forgotten, not highly regarded Devil Survivor 2 anime adaptation. See, I connected this series to anime in the end, so it fits right in with the rest of the “12 days of anime” series running this month.

On that extremely perverted note, thanks for reading this whole damn series and happy Christmas. I’m taking a break for the rest of the year. See you in 2020, assuming a demon apocalypse doesn’t occur before then.

Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 11 (Trumpeter)

2020 is coming.   I’ve never seen an upcoming year that people seemed so nervous and uncertain about.  To be fair, I grew up in the 90s, which was an incredibly optimistic time by comparison, at least where I lived.  But now?  No, no matter who you talk to, no matter their political affiliation — the world is ending, our culture and values are being destroyed, and future AI will destroy human society (but that last one only if you ask Andrew Yang supporters.)

So who better to ring in the upcoming, terrifying new year and decade both but Trumpeter, an infamous Megaten demon and one of the angels of the apocalypse mentioned in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament?  According to Revelation, at the end of the world, seven angels will blow seven trumpets, each causing a different plague or disaster.  So Trumpeter isn’t an individual angelic character like Abaddon or Gabriel but is rather a type or class of angel.  Or maybe the Trumpeters are just regular angels who get assigned trumpeting duty at the end of the world, like how you might be given extra tasks at work.  I wonder if they get special overtime pay for that, perhaps from the heavenly version of Melchom.

Trumpeter is also in this Christmas series representing Megami Tensei’s Fiend race of demons.  The Fiends typically have skulls for faces and include other apocalyptic Biblical figures like the Four Horsemen as well as original characters like Matador and Hell Rider.  They usually act as optional bosses in the SMT games, though a few of their fights are mandatory, such as Trumpeter’s in Nocturne.  Trumpeter is usually a high-level demon with excellent resistances and skills, making him a pain in the ass to fight but a real asset to have on your team if you can defeat him.  The Nocturne battle is so fucked, in fact, that I’ll just do something I haven’t all this series and post a link to a longplay clip of it.  I know it’s only in 480p, but this is from ten years ago when streaming HD videos didn’t exist yet.  And I feel the need to pay respect to MasterLL, the guy who recorded this and a lot of other Youtube SMT content early on.

If you don’t want to sit through that whole fight, basically Trumpeter has special attacks he uses at regular intervals, one healing the character with the lowest HP (including Trumpeter himself) and the other killing the character with the lowest HP (not including Trumpeter, because he’s not an idiot.)  This fight provides another example of how Nocturne and SMT games generally don’t let you get away with brute-forcing your way through — you actually have to strategize.  Powerleveling won’t help you here, not unless you really go nuts, and then you’ll just be wasting your time.

A summary of the Nocturne Trumpter fight

Despite all that bullshit, it’s usually worth taking on Trumpeter even if he’s an optional boss as he is in Strange Journey and Shin Megami Tensei IV.  The same is true of several of the other Fiends in SMT.  Daisoujou, for example, can utterly break the MP system in Nocturne if you manage to beat him and get the right skills on him.  See, these games aren’t nearly as cheap as some people claim: they give you ways to screw the system; you just have to figure them out.

Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 10 (Alice)

Who’s the deadliest demon in the Megami Tensei series?  Many, many high-level demons can make that claim, but Alice might have the best claim of all.  Because while Alice might initially come off as just some kid, she possesses a unique dark skill called Die For Me! that acts as an extremely effective insta-death spell, except against demons that resist or are immune to dark magic.

So why does Alice alone have this skill?  And who is she, exactly?  The games’ encyclopedias are not very clear on these points.  One says that Alice is the spirit of an English girl who died young and leaves it at that.  Another claims that Alice is Scandinavian in origin and is used as a way to scare kids — “behave or Alice will take you away to her realm so you can be friends forever”, that kind of thing.  One thing there’s no doubt about is that Kazuma Kaneko based Alice’s design upon the protagonist of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.  Megaten Alice doesn’t seem to have anything in common with Lewis Carroll’s Alice other than her appearance and the animation for Die For Me! that features those playing card soldiers, though.

Alice is typically a mid-high level demon with excellent resistances that make her a great asset to any team.  She’s a lot of fun to have on your team for the contrast between her looks and her extremely powerful attacks, and her absence from Nocturne is one of that game’s few flaws. She made her first appearance as a boss in Shin Megami Tensei I, so you can fight her there if you’re okay with trudging through an extremely old-school JRPG that’s frustrating to navigate because all the dungeons look the fucking same when you walk through them. I know everyone’s clamoring for remakes or remasters of Persona 3 and 4, but if any games really need them it’s SMT1 and 2.  The Playstation remasters are nearly as outdated-feeling as the originals.  Fight her in Strange Journey or Devil Survivor 2 instead if you don’t feel like dealing with that.

I’d rather not die for you miss, thanks very much (source: 燈田いりあ, pixiv)

Here’s an interesting (?) translation note: in Shin Megami Tensei and every other game she’s in, Alice’s Die For Me! skill is phrased in the original Japanese as a question instead of an exclamation: 死んでくれる?/ shindekureru?  This is the question she asks the protagonist when he runs into her in SMT1 before she tries to kill him and his friends. The fact that she’s asking you to die for her rather than telling you in the original might be a look into Alice’s strange psyche — she really is just looking for friends to play with, but since she’s dead, her friends have to be dead too.  For that reason, it’s hard to say she’s really evil; she just doesn’t seem to understand why you wouldn’t die to make her happy.  I don’t know if that counts as yandere or just plain psychotic, but either way, Alice is a demon to be avoided unless you can defeat and fuse her so she’s on your side.

 

Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 9 (Mothman)

The great majority of the demons in Megami Tensei are European or Asian in origin, but today we’re covering Mothman, one of the few demons from the Americas.  The myth of the Mothman originated in my own country, in fact.  He’s a classic American mythical beast right alongside Bigfoot, the Jersey Devil, and those strange animals that dig through all our trash bags at night.

Back in 1966, the police department of Point Pleasant, West Virginia started receiving reports of sightings of a large gray creature with giant wings and red eyes.  The local newspaper reported the sightings, presumably because nothing else was going on in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and somehow the story got national press.  The whole thing culminated in the collapse of a bridge in the area a year later that many believed was connected to the mysterious creature.  Local authorities and wildlife experts maintained that the “Mothman” was a large crane of a species not native to the region that had gotten lost.  But that explanation was too reasonable, so many people to this day believe that the Mothman existed and that he perhaps exists to this day.

A sculpture of Mothman in Point Pleasant. I like Kaneko’s design better. (source: Jason W., CC BY 2.0)

You might be getting from my tone here that I’m not one of those people.  I’m not a fan of any of our cryptids over here, in fact.  They’re just boring to me.  If you’re going to believe in something that almost certainly doesn’t exist, why not magical catgirls or bird girls who suck men’s brains out of their skulls?  Why just sort of strange-looking animals like Mothman or Bigfoot?  Boring, just god damn boring.  We can do better than this, can’t we?

However, my insults don’t extend to the Megaten version of Mothman, a low to mid-level demon who shows up as a common enemy in many games.  Some use it as fusion fodder, but if you really want to have one in your party it can make for a good ally given the right setup.  The most interesting aspect of Mothman, though, is its design: the descriptions of the “real” Mothman are of a terrifying bird-like man thing, but the Mothman of SMT just looks like an animal with a somewhat cute appearance.  This design might be the reason for Mothman’s popularity among Megami Tensei fans, who have put Mothman in a bunch of memes.  No, I don’t really get it.  But at least this means that Mothman gets to live on as a character in a successful video game series, instead of being stuck with one lousy Richard Gere movie.  So good for him.