Takeshi’s Challenge: Shitty game yesterday, masterpiece tomorrow

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If you’re reading this, you probably already know about Takeshi’s Challenge. Never released in the West, this Famicom title is notorious in its home country for being an obtuse, ridiculous game that shits on the player every possible chance it gets. This game isn’t just hard – it’s practically impossible to play without having a walkthrough, because progression requires the player to simply know exactly what to do without any hints whatsoever, and many of the “right” choices make no sense at all. Takeshi’s Challenge is famous for its badness. Its infamy has even spread somewhat to the rest of the world thanks to Youtube let’s plays and video game shows.

That “Beat Takeshi” printed next to Taito on the title screen is not a game developer. The point of this game is that it’s a vehicle for then-and-still-famous comedian/writer/actor/director/etc. “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. Kitano is best known in the States for Takeshi’s Castle, aired in America on Spike TV as Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, that Japanese game show where contestants run through silly obstacle courses, but Kitano’s real reputation seems to lie in his old comedy act, his violent cop/gangster movies, and his later, more artsy works. As it happens, understanding Kitano, a guy with a sarcastic streak and a weird sense of humor, is important to understanding just why Takeshi’s Challenge is the way it is. It’s my opinion that Takeshi’s Challenge is not a bad game. No, in fact, it’s a masterpiece that tries to teach its player valuable lessons about life. Thankfully, someone who recognized this game’s greatness did an unofficial localization of Takeshi’s Challenge into English so that we’d all be able to enjoy it.

If you consider "PUNCH YOUR MANAGER" a viable option while at work, I'd consider getting a new job.

If you consider “PUNCH YOUR MANAGER” a viable option while at work, I’d consider getting a new job.

You play as Nameless Salaryman and start the game at your company’s office. You might think you play as Takeshi himself because of the game’s title, and that’s possible, but the game never names the protagonist, and it’s just as likely that the true meaning of the title Takeshi’s Challenge is that Takeshi himself is challenging you, the player, to complete his game. This will become clearer as the game progresses.

Mr. Salaryman works at a loan company and his sales are down, as emphasized by his manager when you first talk to him and by a big chart in the other room that says “SALES” with a red line sloping down. Here the game presents you with your first choice: you must SIGN RESIGNATION. The manager, despite his earlier scolding, pleasantly thanks you for your service and offers you an extra bonus as a parting gift. Maybe he’s just happy to be rid of you. Whatever the case, this is the first in a series of several brash actions that you must take to win the game.

So you’ve quit your job. What’s your next destination? Obviously it’s the bar. Time to get wasted!

In America, Nintendo did its best to remove all adult themes from its releases.  In Japan, Nintendo allowed children to get black-out drunk and punch people.

In America, Nintendo did its best to remove all adult themes from its releases. In Japan, Nintendo allowed children to get black-out drunk and punch people.

Correct decision #2: leave your office and drown your worries in LIQUOR. Ignore the karaoke machine in the corner (but just for now!) Drink until you black out. Yes, really. Did I mention this game was meant for children? Back in the 80s, kids were the great majority of the video game-playing populace. Thanks for the great life lessons here, Mr. Kitano.

Just when you thought it couldn't get any better.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better.

After blacking out (quite literally: after several drinks the world goes black) you wake up in your large square house. Your wife is scolding you for being drunk yet again. At this point, you face option #3, and out of a series of choices, the correct one is “I WANT A DIVORCE”. To appease your wife, you should then “PAY ALLIMONY” (sic). Your wife seems happy enough to take most of the money on you, but she’ll still punch you for being drunk, so leave your house right after. Ignore your kid, but I’m sure the protagonist has already been ignoring him for a while now.

It’s here that the first truth of Takeshi’s Challenge emerges: to start a new life, you must destroy all links to your old one. You must quit your job and divorce your wife. Also, you should be drunk as often as possible. All I can say is that I’ve done most of these things, and I likely would have divorced my wife by now if I’d ever been married in the first place. So I don’t personally need this lesson, but it’s surely helpful to other, less enlightened players.

Since you’re now just about broke, still drunk, and without a home, you should go back to the bar. Oh yeah, at some point in this mess, you should have gone to the “Culture Club” to learn to play the shamisen (a kind of Japanese lute.) Just one of those little things you’re required to do to win the game that you’re given no idea about.

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Once you’re at the bar, have two drinks to work up enough courage to sing karaoke. There’s exactly one song out of the 20 or so listed that the customers actually want to hear, though again, the game will not tell you this. You must sing this song three times (you can tap A along with the music, though the game was designed to be sung into – the Famicom had a microphone attachment. And this was in the 80s!) Assuming the other drunk people liked your singing, a bunch of green-haired dudes enter (I think they’re meant to be yakuza guys, at least since this is a Takeshi Kitano game) who you have to beat up. Then an old man approaches you and gives you a blank map that he wants you to decipher (because you were so good at singing and beating up thugs? All right, sure.) Out of your current options, you should expose the map to the sun. Then, leave the game sitting for one whole hour. Go have lunch or something. Go outside for a while. Not in the game, in real life.

This is the game’s second lesson: good things come to those who wait. In this case, hitting any button before an hour is up “ruins” the map, and your game is over. More importantly, though, the game is teaching us that games are stupid, and that you should get your ass outside for a while. Like, right now.

Once the hour is up, the blank map somehow turns into a crude map of an archipelago. This is your path to the treasure that is your end goal (again, the game has not really said anything at this point about finding a treasure, but finding it is indeed the winning condition.) Before you leave the bar, though, beat up the old man who gave you the map.

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What’s the meaning of this betrayal? This sequence reveals the game’s third lesson: you can’t trust anyone, especially old guys who give you treasure maps. If you don’t beat up the old man, he will pop up when you finally somehow find the treasure at the end of the game and beat you up, taking it all for himself. Of course, this is the ultimate dick move, because once again the game gives you no indication of the old man’s intentions. In Takeshi’s Challenge, the correct choice is often the most ruthless one, and only the player with the foresight to take care of his only rival for the treasure will succeed.

After this you have to buy a plane ticket and fly to the archipelago, though you must first win a shamisen by losing at pachinko and beating up the yakuza who enter the parlor to fight you for no reason (because they’re loaded with pachinko balls that you can steal and turn in to the pachinko lady for a prize.) If you fail to do any one of the required tasks before leaving your hometown for your new treasure-hunting life, the plane you’re riding blows up on the way there. Yeah, it just blows up. The game briefly wonders “WAS THAT A TERRORIST ACT?” before kicking you to the title screen.

Assuming you avoid this bizarre bad end, the game goes on like this with similarly incomprehensible island adventures and frustrations until you finally find the treasure.

The only video game in history where strangers get upset when you barge into their houses uninvited.

The only video game in history where strangers get upset when you barge into their houses uninvited.

Here you get the final screen where, if you wait long enough (say, for a credits sequence) an 8-bit Takeshi Kitano will tell you to stop taking this game so seriously and get a damn life.

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You sure told us, Mr. Kitano!

Did I mention that Kitano is on record as hating video games? This is another key to unlocking the puzzle that is Takeshi’s Challenge. Legend has it (or Gamecenter CX has it, anyway) that the development team sat down with Kitano sometime in the mid-80s at a restaurant and talked to him about the game. Meanwhile Kitano, who knew nothing about video games, gave the Taito guys all kinds of ideas for what they should put into the game. All the while, Mr. Kitano was allegedly getting drunker and drunker on sake. This may well explain some of the more ridiculous or insane aspects of Takeshi’s Challenge.

For really good grilled Mormons, you have to go to Utah.

For really good grilled Mormons, you have to go to Utah.

Still, despite Mr. Kitano’s disdain of games and his probable intent here to simply play a big practical joke on the children of Japan, I think his game has some value. It’s almost a proto-GTA: you can punch anyone and run around being a belligerent asshole, and Takeshi almost encourages you to engage in these kinds of dangerous anti-social behaviors. If it had been released this year on Steam for five dollars, people would probably think of it not as a terrible game, but as a kind of surreal exploration of the world of the aimless, alcoholic white collar worker. The game would stir up internet arguments about domestic violence and first world privilege.

All that from one drunken conversation over lunch. What an achievement!

What kinds of mushrooms are Mario and Luigi eating?

As you know if you know anything about video games, mushrooms are a common theme in the Super Mario universe. The setting for the original game was the Mushroom Kingdom, Peach was originally called Princess Toadstool, etc. And, of course, Mario and Luigi gain their powers of growth and extra life collection by eating mushrooms. But the key question is: what kind of mushrooms are they eating? This is the question all of the main scientists are now asking.

First, two assumptions: 1) they really are eating these mushrooms. When a game shows your character punching a box and absorbing the turkey leg that invariably springs out of it, it’s implied that he is eating it, and I’m going to say the same goes for the Mario games. And 2) that the mushrooms are ones that exist in real life on Earth, because otherwise the answer would be that the mushrooms are some mysterious alien species. That’s too easy of an answer and I refuse to accept it.

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First: the Super Mushroom. This is the very first powerup in the Mario series. Even your grandma got this one. This mushroom has the power to make Mario or Luigi grow in size, allowing them to take one hit from an enemy before getting killed. That’s definitely an amazing mushroom. But what sort of mushroom could have such an effect?

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Here’s the same mushroom in Super Mario Bros. 3. Here we can see that the mushroom has changed color from beige with red spots to white with red spots. It has also gained a face. These changes have remained to this very day.

The Super Mushroom’s new look sheds light on its identity. The colors of the mushroom’s cap are reversed, but otherwise it has to be the amanita muscaria, a/k/a fly agaric.

Amanita muscaria is known for its psychoactive properties.  (Source: Onderwijsgek, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL)

Amanita muscaria is known for its psychoactive properties. (Source: Onderwijsgek, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL)

Amanita muscaria is well known in popular culture for being one of those “trippy” mushrooms, the kind that make you have hallucinations. These particular mushrooms are full of muscimol, a psychoactive compound that causes “effects… from nausea and twitching to drowsiness, cholinergic crisis-like effects (low blood pressure, sweating and salivation), auditory and visual distortions, mood changes, euphoria, relaxation, ataxia, and loss of equilibrium.” (thanks Wikipedia.) Apparently Siberians have been eating these for centuries to have religious experiences. Eating the flesh of the amanita muscaria can also reportedly cause micropsia, a condition in which objects appear smaller than they really are, making the subject feel larger as a consequence (see also Alice in Wonderland.) hmmmm.

It should be noted that amanita muscaria is not advisable to eat, as it apparently causes a lot of unpredictable side effects and could potentially kill someone, though this is very rare. It’s also not the “shroom” of popular recreational use; that’s a totally different mushroom that I know absolutely nothing about. No, nothing at all.

So, you know, don’t eat fly agaric, unless you really know what you’re doing. You’re not Mario, you won’t grow into a giant and gain brick-breaking powers anyway.

Second, we have the amazing…

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1-Up Mushroom. This white green-spotted mushroom gives Mario or Luigi an extra life, allowing him to return from the dead. This is truly a wonderful mushroom, the closest we’ll ever get to the root of immortality that Gilgamesh found and lost all those thousands of years ago.

Unfortunately, though, this mushroom doesn’t actually seem to exist. Searching for “green mushroom” either leads to info about Mario’s 1-up mushroom or to such recipes as “green bean and portobello mushroom sauté.” Which admittedly sounds delicious, but it’s not quite what we’re looking for.

The closest thing I found to an actual green mushroom is the mycena chlorophos, a bioluminescent mushroom that emits a pale green light. However, the mushroom itself is not green. Moreover, nobody seems to know if it’s edible, presumably because nobody has ever been hungry enough to try to eat a glowing mushroom.

Don't eat these.  (Source: Anonymous Powered, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Don’t eat these. (Source: Anonymous Powered, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Finally, there’s the third, too often overlooked mushroom of the Mario universe. This is the Poison Mushroom. This first appeared in the Japan-only original Super Mario Bros. 2, in keeping with that game’s reputation as way harder and cheaper than the first.

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This mushroom looks like it could be any number of types. In fact, the Poison Mushroom of the Mario universe itself has changed its look several times. This may be an acknowledgement of the sheer number and variety of poisonous mushrooms in the world. There are many species that amateurs and even experts are advised to avoid because of their similarities to poisonous species. One example is the family of white mushrooms known as the “destroying angels.”

Amanita virosa looks harmless, but if you pick and sauté this, it will kill the shit out of you.  (Source: public domain)

Amanita virosa looks harmless, but if you pick and sauté this, it will kill the shit out of you. (Source: public domain)

The poisonous amanita mushrooms seem to be the most dangerous because of their similarity to plenty of other edible, even really good-tasting, mushrooms. It’s believed the Roman Emperor Claudius was killed, probably in an assassination, by a plate of destroying angels fried in butter. Unfortunately for him, and for Mario if he ever runs into one, these mushrooms are packed full of α-amanitin, a compound that causes liver failure and death when ingested.

If there’s any lesson that the Mario series teaches us, aside from avoiding giant turtle monsters, it is that we should be careful about eating mushrooms, even the ones that might give us hallucinations or super powers. For my part, I’m going to stick with the boring regular mushrooms sold at the grocery store.

Note to the reader: if you’re a real mycologist and not just some asshole who looked at Wikipedia and Google (i.e. me) then I’m sorry about this post, because it probably looks pretty stupid to you. On the other hand, if you know a thing about mushrooms and have some useful information, please post a comment!

Anime for people who hate anime: Planetes

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Caution: there’s a spoiler in this review about a relationship between two of the characters in this series. It’s not really that much of a spoiler if you can draw real basic conclusions from character dynamics in episode 1, but still. Read on if you want.

Set in 2075, Planetes centers on the Space Debris Section of Technora Corporation. Derisively called Half Section because of its small staff and cramped, shoddy office space, this department is looked down upon by pretty much everyone. Despite the necessity of space debris cleanup, nobody really wants to do it because it’s both unglamorous and hard work – yet that’s exactly where Ai Tanabe, a recent graduate, ends up because she couldn’t get a better position elsewhere.* Tanabe is a bright-eyed, almost annoyingly optimistic young woman, and she immediately gets on the nerves of Hachirota Hoshino, a/k/a Hachimaki, a young astronaut who has a lot of talent but also a sour, sarcastic attitude. The complicated relationship between the optimist Tanabe and the realist Hachimaki is a big part of the story of Planetes.**

Tanabe (left) meeting Hachimaki (right).  Note the space diapers.  Being an astronaut is not as glamorous as Miss Tanabe thought.

Tanabe (left) meeting Hachimaki (right). Note the space diapers. Being an astronaut is not as glamorous as Miss Tanabe thought.

Planetes is a hard science fiction manga-turned-anime. There’s nothing especially fantastic about the space travel going on in the series; it’s pretty easy to imagine actually happening 60 years from now. There’s a large base on the Moon, but otherwise most activity in space occurs in near Earth orbit. The governments and corporations of Earth are planning to send a mission to Jupiter, however, and Hachimaki desperately wants get out of his dead-end job and land a spot on the elite crew to make the first trip. The mission to Jupiter sets the stage for a lot of the drama in the second half of the series.

Despite the mundaneness of their jobs, the crew of Half Section get involved in a lot of action. Several episodes feature situations in which the crew must recover runaway satellites and other such dangerous, potentially life-threatening hazards. Any fans of realistic science fiction or dramatized accounts of real space flight missions (for example, the film Apollo 13) will probably enjoy these scenes. I even read somewhere that the animators increased the number of cels used in scenes involving zero gravity (which are a lot of scenes in Planetes) to increase the realism of the movement of characters and objects.

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Points to the reader who’s already figured out that Planetes is, in part, a love story. It’s pretty obvious from the first episode that Tanabe and Hachimaki are going to end up romantically involved, because they’re about the same age and they have a weird kind of love/hate thing going on for the first half of the series.

I usually don’t go for love stories because I’m an asshole who doesn’t believe in true love. The romance aspect of Planetes works, though, because it feels realistic and Tanabe and Hachimaki have believable character traits and flaws and a relationship that the series builds upon from the first episode until they end up hitting it off. It also doesn’t overpower the larger story. The romance plot of Planetes in that sense is the opposite of the one in Titanic, which both overpowered the larger story and was fakey and unbelievable. Seriously, watch it again. Jack and Rose are perfect characters with zero flaws who “fall in love” within one or two days of meeting each other. This is okay though because Rose’s fiancé is a two-dimensional rich shithead who only cares about money. Fuck you, James Cameron. Fuck you and your billions of dollars. You rich shithead.

This is way more what an actual relationship is like: screaming at each other from the very first episode.

This is way more what an actual relationship is like: screaming at each other from the very first episode.

Tanabe and Hachimaki are the most central characters in Planetes, but the series gives a lot of screen time to the other crew members of Half Section. Also present are Fee Carmichael, a chain-smoking, eternally stressed female pilot; Yuri Mikhailkov, a pilot who lost his wife to an accident caused by space debris; and the clerks and accountants of the office, who usually stay inside during cleanup operations but also play a part in the struggles of the department. Some of these characters are more comic relief than serious figures (for example, the office-bound department chief and his assistant, a divorced accountant from India with several children who is usually seeking out a way to pay his massive child support bill.)

Planetes also doesn’t focus exclusively on the positive aspects of space exploration. There’s a subplot that runs through most of the series about a terroristic resistance to humanity’s expansion into space – because it allegedly takes resources away from and ignores the needs of the third world. Planetes doesn’t condone such acts, and it definitely seems to lean towards the “space exploration/expansion is good” viewpoint, since its protagonists subscribe to that view. But the series does ask the question, and that’s significant in itself.

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Forget the fact that Planetes is an anime series. It is simply one of the best TV shows that I’ve ever seen. I do like Akagi and Kaiji better, but Planetes is really a completely different sort of series. Despite the fact that Planetes is mostly set in space, its characters and story are far more grounded than the insane gambles and superhuman feats featured in Fukumoto’s works. (By the way, here’s just another reason why the whole “anime as a genre” idea that seems to be so common is silly and nonsensical.)

Anime or not, I’d honestly recommend Planetes to most anyone. Unless they’re into Keeping Up With The Kardashians or that kind of shit. Then they probably won’t like it, I guess.

* I know this experience all too well, because I’m going through it right now.
** Planetes manga writer and creator Makoto Yukimura apparently had some fun with his protagonists’ names. The Ai in Ai Tanabe is written as 愛, meaning “love”, and Tanabe, as an optimist, believes in the power of love. Hoshino, Hachimaki’s last name, is written 星野, which as far as I can tell means “star-field”. That name makes sense for Hachimaki considering his goals.

Seven questions that apparently need answering

One of my favorite things about having a blog (now that I’m actually writing on it again, I mean) is that you can occasionally see what kinds of search terms bring people to your articles and posts.  Some of these terms are pretty mundane and expected.  My post on Shin Megami Tensei IV’s alignment system has gotten a lot of views from people search google for ways to get on the various paths to achieve certain endings (by the way, sorry that I don’t actually tell you how to get on each path in that post – I’m a really useful writer like that.) The terms there are pretty standard – “smt iv chaos route”, for example.

However, some search terms I find are just puzzling. Some of them are quite understandable in meaning and purpose, but I have no clue why Google decided one of my posts could answer their search query because they sure as hell weren’t anything I ever talked about. Others are truly bizarre. Since I can’t imagine these people got the answers they were looking for at my blog, I thought I’d take a selection of these search terms out of my stats page and address them one by one.

1) how early in a.m. can i get fried chicken at piggly wiggly

I have no idea. A better question would be why the hell you’re getting fried chicken at Piggly Wiggly when it is injected with something that they refuse to specify on the box. Also, if you have a Piggly Wiggly nearby, I’m willing to bet you also live near a Publix, and Publix fried chicken is about a thousand times better. Go to Publix instead.

2) why ummayyad consider as irreligious

This might have been directed to my now dead post about Damascus, where the Umayyad Mosque still stands (hopefully, at least.) Damascus was also the center of the somewhat short-lived Umayyad dynasty, which ruled most of the 7th-8th century Islamic empire following the death of the last of the “Four Good Caliphs”, Ali. The Umayyads were the first to establish a traditional father => son dynasty over the empire – initially, caliphs had been chosen by election and thus were pretty smart and capable guys (hence the “Good Caliphs” tag they are honored with.) The Umayyad caliphs, as tradition goes, were a bunch of no-good dirty bastards who enjoyed wine and women and all that sort of thing. That’s probably why they were overthrown in the 8th century by the Abbasid dynasty, though a branch of the Umayyads did escape to Spain to rule al-Andalus for a few centuries. But that’s your answer.

3) can you have more than one of the same demon in your party smt 4

Not sure whether I did address this, but the answer is no, you can’t.

4) anime that religious people really hate

This is an interesting one. I’m not really sure of a good answer, though. Maybe Neon Genesis Evangelion, that one’s pretty blasphemous. I’m more interested in why this guy is looking for anime that religious people really hate. Is he trying to upset a religious person? Maybe he’s religious and is looking for a reason to stop watching anime.

5) young lucifer over a camel and everything burning

Okay, this isn’t a question. I suspect he was directed to my blog because of all the Shin Megami Tensei posts I’ve written, but I wonder what exactly this guy was looking for – maybe some kind of fantasy painting? I’m no Roger Dean, so you’d better check out his website instead. I’m not into fantasy art, really, but Dean’s stuff is much less “dragons and huge-breasted bikini armor women” and much more “otherworldly landscapes.”

6) the bad about abu dhabi

I did write about Abu Dhabi, back when this was also a travel blog, but I never addressed any of its bad sides. So here are two reasons not to travel there:

– It’s harder to buy booze. If you’re a tourist you’re naturally going to be drinking at hotel bars and such, which is totally fine since UAE law allows that. Unless you have a letter from your employer, though, as I understand it, you can’t buy any from the special shops they have. And if you have a Muslim-sounding name, it’s totally impossible even with such a letter. Still, you can get a friend to buy beer for you instead.

– It can be a bit boring. Abu Dhabi isn’t nearly as flashy as Dubai. On the other hand, it is building up, and the rulers of AD are doing their best to bring more attractions to the city, even if some of those attractions are gaudy and fakey-seeming. Maybe they think westerners like that sort of thing. Maybe they’re right.

7) i hate pickled foods

This is also not a question. In fact, unlike the lucifer guy above, I have no idea what this searcher was seeking out. People with similar opinions, I guess? In that case he’s out of luck, because I love pickled foods. Better visit a different blog, guy.

So that’s all, I guess. I’d like to think I’m providing a sort of public service here, but let’s be honest, this was totally worthless. But at least it was entertaining for me, and that’s all that counts.

A review of Freedom Planet (PC)

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The love of indie game designers for retro-stylings is pretty understandable – it means way less in production values, and playing on the players’ love for the games of their childhoods is always a good bet. Still, most of these games have seemed to focus on the 8-bit era of the Famicom/NES/Master System. Which is just fine, but the video games of my childhood are more in the 16-bit SNES/Genesis category. So I’m pretty happy about Freedom Planet, an early 90s-style action platformer released in 2014.

Not that mere nostalgia is enough for a game to be good (see Retro City Rampage, which seems to try to survive on its nostalgic appeal alone and fails.) A game, even a pretty basic platformer like this one, has to have fun gameplay and some aspects that set it apart from other, similar games. Luckily, Freedom Planet has both.

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First things first: Freedom Planet obviously looks like a Sonic game. The level art and the sprites and character designs are really reminiscent of Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Moreover, the characters play a bit like Sonic, Tails and Knuckles as far as speed and special moves go. Hell, the game even has half-pipes and loops that look like they were taken straight out of an old Sonic game. And the main character (Lilac, above) kind of looks like a redesigned and recolored Sonic character.

So big deal, you might be thinking: Freedom Planet is a fangame starring a modified Sonic sprite. However, it’s really more than that. Freedom Planet also takes influence from other 16-bit series like Gunstar Heroes, Rocket Knight Adventures, and Mega Man X. The player can make use of lots of different moves unique to each of the game’s three characters to take down enemies and bosses. The mix the developer used here ensures that this game feels not like a Sonic pastiche, but like its own game, which is important as hell (at the very least, it lets him claim a way broader copyright on his work without getting mixed up with SEGA’s lawyers.)

But this isn’t an article on copyrightability in video games, so let’s move on. Freedom Planet tells the story of Lilac, a dragon (yeah, she’s a dragon, somehow), her tomboyish cat friend Carol, and their new annoyingly hyperactive dog friend Milla as they help a mysterious stranger defeat an evil alien overlord who has instituted a coup in their country by killing the king and mind-controlling his son, the prince. It’s a lot more grim than a game from the time would have been (just imagine Dr. Robotnik doing something like this. You can’t, can you?) However, the game still manages to maintain a light and fun atmosphere. It’s colorful and fast, the level designs are varied and interesting, and Lilac, Carol, and Milla play quite differently, requiring a different approach to the same levels for each character. Despite the Sonic-looking-ness of Freedom Planet, the sprite and level art are all great, and it’s obvious that a lot of work went into putting the game together. There’s even full voice-acting. And the voices aren’t even bad! Try to beat that.

Freedom Planet's trio chilling out between stages.

Freedom Planet’s trio chilling out between stages.

I’m gushing over the game at this point, so let me tune it down just slightly: along with the old-school stylings of the art and the gameplay, Freedom Planet also features plenty of old-school cheap difficulty, and some of the levels are long and drag a bit. However, even the pacing and difficulty aren’t really an issue, because Freedom Planet gives Lilac and friends unlimited continues and mid-level checkpoints to start from. Moreover, unlike an old Sonic game, which capped the player’s time in each level at 10 minutes, Freedom Planet imposes no time limit at all, letting you explore and find new ways to get through a level. Finally, the game tries hard to mix things up with new level mechanics in each part of each stage. Some level sections require the player to solve a puzzle to open a door further back in the level. Others feature Indiana Jones huge boulder escape parts. It’s easy for these sorts of games to get dull after a while, but Freedom Planet succeeds for the most part in keeping gameplay fresh throughout.

Oh yeah, the story is also kind of stupid, but I don’t remember a platformer on the SNES or Genesis that had a story worth caring about, so who cares? Nevertheless, there is plenty of story in Freedom Planet, complete with long cutscenes (long for this sort of game, anyway) but if you don’t care to watch them, the game lets you cut them out by choosing “Classic Mode”, which takes you from stage to stage without interruption.

The game features lots of powerups and shields that go more or less unexplained at first.  Also notice the nice graphics (again.)

The game features lots of powerups and shields that go more or less unexplained at first. Also notice the nice graphics (again.)

So: the verdict on Freedom Planet. It’s sometimes frustrating, but basically a really good game. I could even say it’s great, though that might be too much praise. In any case, I basically enjoyed Freedom Planet, even though some parts of it are way too god damn hard (specifically some extra-long parts of later stages and boss fights.) If all of the above sounds good to you, you might consider buying the game on Steam: I’d say this game is worth the $15 price tag.

I should disclose that I might be biased here because, as a kid, I really enjoyed the old Sonic and Mega Man series and some of the other games Freedom Planet cribs from, and I still do, so I naturally took to this game’s approach. I also appreciate the fact that, unlike a lot of modern 2D action/puzzle platform games, Freedom Planet doesn’t seem to take itself all that seriously or have pretensions to being meaningful all-capitals ART. For the most part, it really feels like a game that could have been released in the early 90s on the SNES or the Genesis. There’s a place for serious art in video games, and even in platformers, but sometimes you just want a good time, and Freedom Planet delivers that.

Anime for people who hate anime: Welcome to the NHK!

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I’ve consumed plenty of books, games, and shows that I’ve enjoyed. But only a few have really hit a nerve with me. Welcome to the NHK!, a novel-turned-anime series aired several years ago, is one of those few.

NHK is not, as I first thought, about a young journalist starting a new job at Japan’s biggest national news network. It is instead the story of a hikkikomori – roughly speaking a jobless, asocial shut-in. Tatsuhiro Satou is 22 years old and a college dropout. We soon learn the reason he left school. A powerful scene depicts Satou walking to college from his home, all the while imagining the thoughts of people he passes on the street: “Disgusting”, “what a loser”. Of course, these thoughts are purely in Satou’s head, but the anxiety they produce drive him to shut himself into his tiny apartment until he’s kicked out of school for non-attendance.

NHK satou

The first episode of NHK gives us a depressing look into Satou’s daily life. He sits inside all day, sometimes watching TV, eating and drinking, but mostly sleeping (16 hours a day, as Satou himself narrates.) He receives no visits from friends and effectively has no life outside his apartment. He ventures outside only to buy food and other necessities and to visit a nearby park at night, when no one else is around. Without a job, Satou relies on his parents for support, but conversations with his mother suggest that source of support is about to run dry. Satou knows very well that his life is going nowhere, but he feels powerless to stop his downhill slide. On the contrary, in the course of his isolation, Satou has started to imagine a nationwide conspiracy keeping him in his miserable state, blaming his problems on the Japan Hikkikomori Society (or NHK in Japanese. Hence the title of the series.)

One day, someone comes to his door. This surprise visitor is a sort of door-to-door religious missionary lady. Satou isn’t interested and tells her to go away (while simultaneously freaking out a bit at having to talk to another human being.) However, as she leaves, Satou notices the young woman helping her.

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Satou tries to put her out of his mind, but the very same young woman ends up dropping by later on to drop a message into his door’s mailbox asking him to meet with her at his regular park haunt that night. Satou has no idea what this girl might want with a shut-in loser like him, but he finally decides to go to the park after fighting with himself over it. As it turns out, this girl, Misaki, has a plan to “cure” Satou of his hikkikomori-ness and get him out into the world.

Satou reacts to this surprise pronouncement from this girl he barely knows in the same way most people would: “Who the hell is this person?” Regardless, Satou agrees to Misaki’s “program” and even signs a written contract to that effect.

Misaki and Satou.  The bizarre relationship between these characters drives the story of NHK.

Misaki and Satou. The bizarre relationship between these characters drives the story of NHK.

As the series proceeds, we watch Satou’s character change in serious and sometimes unpredictable ways. Satou’s progress isn’t always forward, either: he meets with some serious setbacks as well, with funny but also depressing results. He’s introduced to MMOs and spends hundreds of hours addicted to a game that is Final Fantasy XI but that the show can’t call that for legal reasons. He’s unwittingly drawn into a suicide pact and into a pyramid scheme, both by different former female classmates. He wastes a week of his life downloading hentai to the point that his hard drive is full. A lot of this action is moved along by Kaoru Yamazaki, Satou’s next-door college freshman neighbor and other former classmate, who fits the nerd stereotype perfectly (more specifically the otaku anime-loving nerd one.)

NHK manages to both be genuinely funny and emotionally affecting. Satou, Misaki, Yamazaki, and the other few secondary characters that show up are interesting and three-dimensional, and this helps the viewer care about them. Despite the wacky situations the characters sometimes find themselves in, nothing in the show really comes across as unnatural or forced. One of the best scenes in the show depicts Satou spying on Yamazaki’s meeting with one of his female classmates in the hall at their college. He’d formerly claimed to Satou that this classmate was his girlfriend, but after tailing Yamazaki to school, Satou discovers that Yamazaki was bending the truth: she’s no more than a casual acquaintance. Yamazaki continues to insist she’s his girlfriend, though not in a creepy or obsessive way – the viewer gets the impression that Yamazaki has a thing for this girl but simply can’t admit to himself that she’s not interested in his nerdy self. It’s funny and pathetic, and it’s also a feeling that I’m willing to bet you can relate to.

If don't you know what Yamazaki is talking about in this screenshot, that's a good thing.

If don’t you know what Yamazaki is talking about in this screenshot, that’s a good thing.

Despite a lot of its otaku trappings (trips to Akihabara to buy figures, a running plotline about Satou and Yamazaki creating a dating sim, Yamazaki’s pining after “2D girls”, etc.) NHK can also appeal to people living outside that weird circle of nerds (of which I’m sort of a part myself.) The reason NHK spoke to me was its theme of social anxiety and the devastating effects it has on people’s lives. I was never quite as bad as Satou – I never physically shut myself into my room or my apartment – but I did mentally and emotionally shut myself in, shoving away potential friends. Those feelings of despair and worthlessness that drive Satou at the beginning of NHK to sit inside every day and dog him throughout the show are all too real for countless people around the world. I’m not even sure they totally go away. Even now, as a more or less normal person (at least as far as public appearances are concerned) those poisonous thoughts nag at me occasionally. It’s hard to describe if you’ve never been in such a situation – as if you just missed out on some vital information on how to live life that everyone else in the world seems to have been born with. It’s a lonely, painful experience, and NHK addresses it in a meaningful way.

So that’s Welcome to the NHK! It’s a genuinely good series that I believe has appeal for viewers both in and outside of the “typical” anime-watching crowd. I should also note that NHK is based on a novel by Tatsuhiko Takimoto, a writer who I think must have experienced some of Satou’s travails, the story tells them in such a realistic way. I haven’t read the novel or the following manga series, but I understand they’re quite different from the anime in terms of where their stories lead.

Up at 3 am scrolling through hentai image sites: welcome to the NHK

Up at 3 am scrolling through hentai image sites: welcome to the NHK

What a way to start the new year. To everyone, but especially to those wrestling with social anxiety, insecurity, a lack of purpose, and all those inner demons that drive you to seek solitude, I wish you a happy one. Remember that, for better or worse, the future is unpredictable. Life is never worth giving up on, even though it might seem like there’s no light at all at the end of the tunnel – hell, I still feel that way sometimes. Satou might be a fictional character, but his story is a real one, and his final “recovery”, even though it’s not quite complete, is a part of that story too.

Retrospective: Riven

Well-known top dog adventure game designer Cyan is working on a new game, Obduction (no, it’s not just “Abduction” with a creative spelling, as I first thought: obduction is a real thing.) Obduction looks really good so far, and I plan to get it as soon as it’s released. So what better time to talk about Riven, one of Cyan’s biggest and best games?

In 1993, no game looked as good as Myst. It was displayed in what today seems like a tiny resolution, but the graphics were clear and incredibly detailed. Moreover, their environments somehow looked real – the various worlds of Myst were obviously computer-generated, but at the same time they felt like real places, unlike other 90s efforts to create detailed 3d worlds, which often came off as bizarre or unreal. This was all the more impressive considering the fantastic nature of some of the game’s worlds. Finally, Myst wasn’t just a bunch of pretty pictures: it told a story, and quite a deep one, although the real depth of the story wouldn’t be revealed for a few years.

The same can be said for Myst‘s 1997 sequel, Riven, only that game looked even better. Sure, both were composed entirely of still shots with some Quicktime movies imposed on top to create animations, but this all worked for the sorts of games that Myst and Riven were: point-and-click adventures with a heavy emphasis on exploration and puzzle-solving.

A scene from Riven.

A scene from Riven.

Myst was an undeniable hit. The fact that a puzzle game did so well shouldn’t be such a surprise, either, when you consider that it was released at a time when a lot of people had just bought their first PCs with CD-ROM drives. Myst was also designed (perhaps purposely designed) to appeal to parents who might have been wary of buying violent PC games like Doom for their kids. (As it turned out, though, the story of Myst and its following games had plenty of implied violence in them!)

Which brings me to Riven. I was 11 years old when this game was released. Like a lot of kids, I’d played through Myst, and while my 7 year-old self wasn’t all that great at putting the pieces together as far as the game’s puzzles went, I somehow managed to get to the good ending without much help thanks to trial and error and frequent saves. Riven was a different story, however. Sometime between 1993 and whenever they started working on Myst‘s sequel, developer Cyan apparently decided that Myst‘s puzzles were just too damn easy. So they ratcheted up the difficulty. Really, really ratcheted it up. Riven quite literally drops you into an alien world with very little information as to how you’re supposed to achieve your goal. Thankfully, there is a clear goal to Riven from the very beginning, which wasn’t the case in Myst, but getting there requires you to tie together three or four different sets of puzzle clues scattered across the game world. There are number puzzles, color puzzles, sound puzzles and shape puzzles. There are clues laying around that seem totally irrelevant to your object until you have the context to put them into. There’s even a puzzle that requires you to learn a new system of counting (hint: it’s not base-10. Have fun figuring that out.)

Riven, aka Puzzle Island(s)

Riven, aka Puzzle Island(s)

All of the above considered, it’s no wonder that the series’ popularity fell off after Riven came out. Myst was fairly easy as far as its puzzles went, but Riven was unforgiving. While Myst could pretty much be solved through a lot of trial-and-error screwing around, Riven required the player to draw lots of inferences from journals, symbols, and even from the islands’ environments and use them in ways that don’t seem that obvious, even in hindsight. It’s like going from doing your local paper’s word jumble straight to the New York Times Sunday crossword. Four more games came out after Riven, including an MMO sort of thing, but from Riven on, this was a fans-only deal. At least, that’s what I assume, because although according to Cyan themselves it was very successful, I don’t remember Riven being nearly as much of a thing as Myst. Damn near everyone played Myst, even your grandma who still didn’t know what the weird clicky rolly thing connected to the computer was. Riven‘s appeal, it seems, was far narrower.

It’s really kind of a shame, because Riven is actually a very good game – it’s just hard as hell. The premise of the Myst series and the lore behind it are interesting and original: an ancient civilization’s art of linking to other worlds by writing books describing them and the death and destruction that eventually result, both for a lot of those linked worlds and for the civilization itself. Some of the characters of the Myst story are able to practice “the Art”, as they call it, by linking to these worlds and even writing changes into said worlds, with varying results. Riven tells a vital part of this story.

Myst lore simplified: people write magic books and fuck up life for a lot of other people.

Myst lore simplified: people write magic books and fuck up life for a lot of other people.

The main object of the game is to entrap a certain character inside a prison book – a normal linking book with part of its connection destroyed, so that the person linking through is trapped between worlds in some kind of void world (note: this isn’t a spoiler; you’re told the plan at the very beginning of the game.) This prison can only hold one person at a time. As the anonymous/silent protagonist, you’ll have to figure out how to trap this dude and bring a happy close to the story. Not that the game gives you any help getting there. Riven was made in the 90s, a period when video and PC games didn’t bother to give the player hints beyond “go to X and kill Y”, and the same is true here: you’ll get vague hints for how to get to the bad man, but trapping him is something you’ll have to figure out on own, using your brain skills. As a result, managing to get the good ending on your own is pretty rewarding (although, to be honest, the game really shoves you towards the good ending – all the other endings require either serious oversights on the part of the player or the simple desire to see all the endings possible, which can be fun in itself.) In the tradition of Myst, there aren’t any bullshit Sierra-style deaths in Riven: every bad ending occurs because you explicitly fucked up.

It may be nostalgia talking once again, but I think both of these games are still well worth a play. They’re atmospheric, interesting, and have aged a lot better than other early CD-ROM adventure games. Apparently a lot of other people think so too, because both are available on mobile platforms. Makes sense, when you think about it: the formats of Myst and Riven are perfect for a tablet or smartphone. (Also, Riven is on sale for three dollars on Steam until January 2nd, which is a great deal.) I also like the basic idea of the Myst/Riven universe and the overarching story that connects all of these games. We can only hope that the coming Obduction, currently predicted for release late next year, will be as great as Cyan’s first games.

Riven also featured decent to good acting, which is basically Oscar-level as far as old CD adventure games go.

Riven also featured decent to good acting, which is basically Oscar-level as far as old CD adventure games go.

One more point: back in the day (yeah, all the way back in the late 90s, that legendary age) industry people talked about the Myst phenomenon having “killed” the adventure game genre, I guess by bringing too many plebs unused to traditional adventure game mechanics and standards into it. For a response to this, see this article from the great, now dead, game website Old Man Murray, which sums up the whole debate. No disrespect to Sierra or adventure game queen Roberta Williams, but some of their games’ puzzles really were absolute arbitrary bullshit. Which is something you can’t say for Cyan’s work: as hard as some of Riven‘s puzzles are, their solutions basically make sense.