Retrospective: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A review of Nekomonogatari Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This might be a little too close actually.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep reads #5.1: Why I like Megami Tensei

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

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

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

Speaking of Loki and Set, first things first:

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

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

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

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

And what makes this cover kind of misleading?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) The relationship between the supernatural and human

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

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

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

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

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

3) A variety of gameplay styles

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) The music

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening/reading log #12 (September 2020)

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

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

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

Highlights: not even going to try

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

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

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

Mekanïk Destruktïẁ Kommandöh (Magma, 1973)

Highlights: no

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

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

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

And now, the featured posts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retrospective: Sonic Adventure 2

Were the Sonic Adventure games good? Throw that question out to the crowds of Twitter users and watch people fight over it, because it’s a contentious one. But that wasn’t always the case. This series had a famously rough transition from 2D to 3D, but I think a lot of the poor reputation of modern Sonic stems from the total disaster that was Sonic ’06 and from some of Sega’s less bad but still pretty bad blunders such as the endless slog of the nighttime sections of Sonic Unleashed and the entirety of Shadow the Hedgehog.

The Adventure games, on the other hand, went over pretty well at the time. The first two real Sonic games in 3D were far from perfect, with plenty of camera problems and glitches, but I remember liking them when I first played them on the Dreamcast, and I don’t think anyone really outright hated them or declared the series dead after playing them. A lot of fans agreed, and I do too, that they weren’t nearly as good as the original 2D games on the Genesis, but they weren’t considered a disgrace to the series or anything like that. Even when the Dreamcast died, these two games were at least well-regarded enough to live on as Gamecube ports with new features added. Yet now they do get quite a lot of hate, especially the first one, which I’ve even heard called one of the worst games ever made.

I’m not going to address here whether Sonic Adventure deserves that harsh assessment, though I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. But I only own the Steam port of Sonic Adventure 2, so that’s the one I can write about without having to dig through hazy twenty year-old memories. I finally got around to playing this version of SA2, and I don’t feel that differently about it now than I did back when I played the Dreamcast original upon release in 2001: generally pretty all right but with some boneheaded gameplay decisions and clunky elements that make it a chore to get through sometimes.

But amazing dialogue

But you’re reading this to get specifics, so let’s get to them. SA2 opens with a nice cinematic-looking shot of Sonic being transported as a prisoner on a military helicopter for a crime he obviously didn’t commit, because he’s a good guy. So he jumps out of the helicopter and onto the streets of San Francisco using a broken-off piece of it as a skateboard (Sonic doesn’t take fall damage, so he’s fine.) It turns out that he’s a victim of mistaken identity, because the grandfather of Dr. Robotnik, now officially known in the West as Eggman, developed another anthropomorphic hedgehog as an experiment on an orbital base to be the ultimate lifeform.

When Eggman discovers this being called Shadow, he unleashes him to cause some chaos. And of course, since Shadow and Sonic are shaped in a vaguely similar way, everyone thinks it’s Sonic wreaking havoc instead. While Sonic runs from the military police, his friends Tails and Knuckles join up to help out, pairing off against Eggman, Shadow, and another new character named Rouge, an anthropomorphic bat lady and a government spy. But she’s also a treasure hunter who’s after the Master Emerald, which for some fucking reason isn’t on the Floating Island anymore.

Remember when Knuckles was the guardian of the Floating Island and sworn to keep this shiny rock on it, otherwise said island would fall into the ocean like in Sonic 3 & Knuckles and Sonic Adventure 1? Well Knuckles doesn’t, because he never even brings that up. And this is the third time he’s lost the damn thing anyway. What are you doing, Knuckles?

And since Knuckles shatters the emerald on purpose to get it out of Eggman’s hands, he has to search for the missing pieces again while also helping out Sonic. Amy Rose is also around, though she sadly doesn’t get much to do this game other than pine after Sonic and get captured by the bad guys as usual. Other things that happen in the course of the game: Sonic and Tails meet the President of the United States, and Eggman blows up half of the Moon with a giant space laser.

More stuff happens in Sonic Adventure 2, but this is enough to see that the plot is pretty damn stupid. In places, it doesn’t even make sense. The mistaken identity part is already silly enough since Sonic and Shadow clearly look different even from far away, so why does everyone mistake Shadow for Sonic? I guess it’s because the game needs someone for you to fight/run away from in these stages. And it can’t just be Eggman now, because he’s also a playable character along with Shadow and Rouge in the second “Dark” storyline that runs parallel to the “Hero” one up until the final part of the game, when both teams have to work together to defeat a greater, more insane evil than even Eggman himself.

But does anyone care that much about the plot of a Sonic game? Some people do, and five years later the series tried a sort of serious RPGish plot with Sonic ’06, but that didn’t work at all and went over horribly. So maybe it’s better if the games don’t worry so much about plot. You can easily ignore the dumb plot, because the gameplay is the main thing.

Sonic Adventure 2 also trips up a bit there, however. The first Sonic Adventure, released in 1998/99, tried out a lot of different gameplay modes, a couple of which were famously clunky (namely Big the Cat’s fishing game that’s widely hated; people also complained about Amy’s sluggish platforming style, though I didn’t mind it as much.) Sonic was still the center of attention, however; his game was by far the longest out of the six, with many more stages to play through. SA2 cut down on the number of gameplay modes to just three: traditional fast platforming action with Sonic and Shadow, an exploration-based hunting mode with Knuckles and Rouge, and a third-person mech shooter with Tails and Eggman, each mode sharing equal game time. So when you’re playing SA2, you’re only running around classic Sonic-style for one third of the time.

This is obviously a problem if you don’t like the other two-thirds of the game. You can’t even just play through Sonic and Shadow’s stages and ignore the others like you could in SA1, because instead of individual character routes, the story is told through two separate Hero and Dark routes that alternate stages between Sonic/Tails/Knuckles and Shadow/Eggman/Rouge. So you just have to suffer through those parts if you’re not interested in them.

Do you know the Pumpkin Hill song by heart? I fucking do

I don’t hate all the non-Sonic/Shadow parts of this game. The Knuckles and Rouge hunting levels get a lot of shit, but I don’t find them that bad. The scavenger hunt element of those stages work pretty well, and the three emerald shards or whatever other three objects you’re hunting for are placed in randomized locations that you need to find by using a sort of hot/cold radar system, so each run through of a stage plays a bit differently. The horrible camera controls can make it hard to dig around in tight areas as you’ll often have to do, but the camera in this game is always a pain in the ass anyway.

No, the sections of SA2 I really don’t care for are the mech stages. It was a fun novelty to play as the villain Eggman, and it makes sense that he’d be using a mech to get around, but Tails is now also stuck in a mech throughout the game, which means the player misses out on his unique flying ability that made playing as him in Sonic 3 & Knuckles so fun. I know Tails is supposed to be an engineer, so it’s not crazy that he’d be driving a mech around, but that still seemed pretty dumb to me. You can fly, so why not use that skill?

The greater problem here, though, is that these stages are just too slow and dull. I don’t see anything special about them. Though I do know people who really like them, so this seems like one of those “your mileage may vary” issues.

excitement

But the Sonic and Shadow stages are pretty fun. They’re still not as fun as the stages in the original Genesis games, partly because they’re far more linear. But I think the main appeal of these stages in the early 3D Sonic games is seeing how quickly you can make it to the goal. This game even implements a time/score-based ranking system from E to A (no F, I guess because if you reach the goal, you haven’t technically failed no matter how long it took you to get there) along with four extra challenges in each stage and bonuses for completing them successfully. If you’re a completionist, you can get a lot of replay value out of Sonic Adventure 2.

Some of that replay value is also provided by the Chao Garden, where you can raise some weird onion-headed blue creatures with any of the six playable characters, feed them animals to make them strong, run them in races, etc. I’m not into this kind of virtual pet stuff, but if you are, it’s worth checking out.

This is pretty much how you raise Chao as far as I know

The team that ported SA2 to Steam seems to have done a pretty decent job, because it mostly plays fine.* I do get some slowdown in a few parts of stages (mainly Sonic and Shadow’s visually busy jungle stages) but I’m not sure how much of that is me having a piece of shit PC that I can only run visual novels on. For the most part, this game plays how I remember it playing in 2001. All the good and bad elements of the game are still there: the camera is still garbage and the mech stages are still boring, but the Sonic/Shadow stages and some of the Knuckles/Rouge ones are still fun to play.

The soundtrack hasn’t been touched either, which is again both a good and a bad thing. I really like some of the music in SA2, especially Rouge’s smooth jazz lounge stuff and Shadow’s extra over the top angsty-sounding themes like “Supporting Me”. The Knuckles raps are still really bad, but then again they’re so bad that they’ve become jokes, especially the Pumpkin Hill theme — and in any case, it’s hard to imagine those Knuckles levels with any other BGM. If you’re a fan of Crush 40 and Jun Senoue’s guitar-playing then you’ll also really like Sonic’s character and stage themes. I’m not a big fan of the style, but “City Escape” is still catchy. Just try to get it out of your head when you’ve heard it once.

Hey Knuckles, when you’re done flailing around like a dumbass, let’s have a proper fight.

In the end, I still have mixed feelings about Sonic Adventure 2. It’s mostly fun to play, and even the mech sections aren’t horrible to get through aside from a couple of extremely overly long stages late in the game. On the other hand, I think it also represents a shift away from the old Sonic style that I grew up with as a kid and that I liked so much. The first Adventure also added new characters and a dumb plot, but it felt more in line with those older games somehow. With SA2, we’ve now got much more “adult” characters with the extra-edgy Shadow, who looks like he was designed to appeal to depressive loner kids (i.e. me) and Rouge, who looks like she was designed to appeal to furries on DeviantArt (i.e. not me, but I guess I get what they were going for if in fact they were going for that.) And the President is a character in the Sonic universe now for some reason. Sonic Heroes is where the series really lost me, and Sonic ’06 is where it gave me a giant middle finger, but in some ways SA2 feels like the beginning of that shift into unfamiliar territory.

But does it really matter that much? Sonic the Hedgehog as a whole has had plenty of ups and downs, and even though I’ve been mostly out of the loop with the Sonic series for the last two decades, I’ll probably always have a soft spot for it. I certainly will for Sonic Adventure 2, which in my view counts as one of those ups. At the very least, this game is certainly not the disaster some critics paint it as. I guess that’s not the most enthusiastic endorsement I could give the game, but I’d say it’s still worth trying out, even with its problems. 𒀭

 

* This isn’t the case for the ports of Sonic Adventure, however. The Gamecube port Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut was supposed to be an upgrade, but it actually downgraded some of the graphics and added new glitches that weren’t present in the Dreamcast original. The PC version is even worse in this regard, taking the Gamecube version and compounding these problems, and unfortunately the SA offered on Steam is based on that one, making it a port of a shitty port of another shitty port. Thankfully, fans have created patches to fix many of these issues, doing far more for the game than Sega ever bothered to. For a comprehensive rundown of the port issue, see a video overview here (made by Cybershell, an excellent YouTube video maker who recently reappeared for the second time after years of hibernation) or go straight to the source to get all the details.

As far as SA2 goes, I also played it on both the Dreamcast and the Gamecube, and I don’t remember so many differences between the two versions aside from a few bits of added content like multiplayer battle mode, but I could be wrong about that. It’s been a long time, after all. I should also mention that the extra Gamecube content is offered on Steam as DLC. I didn’t buy it, but it’s only a few dollars as of this writing.

Blogger Recognition Award pt. 2

No, I can’t think of a clever title this time. But I did get recognized again, which is always nice. This time the recognition comes from Yomu of Umai Yomu Anime Blog, which if you have any interest in anime you should be following without question. Yomu also posts some great insights about living and working in Japan as a teacher.

As before, here are…

The Rules:

Thank the blogger that nominated you and give a link to their site.
Do a post to show your award.
Give a summary of how your blog started.
Give two pieces of advice for any new bloggers.
Select at least 15 other bloggers for this award.
Let each nominee know you’ve nominated them and give a link to your post.

I’ve gotten through the first requirement and am currently working on the second, so now it’s time to take on the rest. I already gave a summary of my blog’s history in the first Blogger Recognition Award post I wrote a while back, so you can read that if you like. Here’s a summarized summary: I started this site seven years ago when I was looking for an escape from my routine after returning to get my last degree. Video games, anime, and music are my escape, so those are what I write about. For years I had almost no involvement with the community here just because I wasn’t really making the effort, but I’m happy that I am now. You’re all great people, and that’s not flattery so you’ll keep reading my site, I promise.

Twitter leaves me in despair, but the community here cures it. Thanks!

Since none of this information is new, here’s another fact about the site: for a few weeks it had a different name, which is why the URL is what it is. I use that name on Twitter as well, but other than that I should probably do something about the difference between the current name and address.

And now for two more pieces of advice for new bloggers.

1) Maintain a sustainable posting schedule

Another piece of advice that sounds obvious but that I’ve ignored at times. Burnout for writers is a real problem, especially if you’re taking on long hours at your job or at school on top of the work you’re putting into your site. There are people who make a daily posting schedule work, turning out great posts every morning or evening, but if you can’t manage that, it’s nothing to be down about. I can’t do it myself, which is why I usually post between once and twice a week. And I have to admit I can only keep up this schedule now because of the free time I have thanks to working from home and cutting out 10-15 hours of commuting time every week. I know this won’t last, not when I’m called back to the office.

I’m not actually Joker, I’m one of these depressed fuckers in suits in the foreground.

Do the best you can while keeping your limits in mind. When you’re starting out, you probably won’t know those limits yet, so don’t worry if you do end up feeling burnt out for a while: just take that time to readjust. And if you end up having to take a break, don’t worry about that either. It can be hard to do, but it’s just necessary sometimes.

2) Write about what you want, but try to target an audience

This advice only applies if you care about getting views and finding and keeping dedicated readers. If you don’t, then go nuts — write about the movie you saw last week, what you had for lunch yesterday, some relationship advice based on past experience, and maybe throw a few political rants in for good measure. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with writing a blog like that, but the fact is that you’re going to be attracting such different audiences with all those sorts of posts, none of which are probably going to have much overlap, that you won’t retain many long-term readers.

My site isn’t the most focused in the world, but I do try to maintain my focus on anime, manga, and games that are in that general sphere — visual novels, JRPGs, platformers about shrine maidens fighting demon girls, that kind of stuff. That doesn’t mean I won’t write about a totally western-made and -styled game; I do that sometimes too (not lately so much, but it does happen, I swear!) I’ve also reviewed other forms of media outside the usual areas I cover like artbooks. But I also feel that maintaining a strong site identity is important, because otherwise people won’t know quite what to expect from the site.

Again, it’s not bad in itself to write a blog with a broad focus or no focus at all. Especially if you’re getting what you want out of it — if so, then forget about what I or anyone else thinks of your work. With regard to your site, do what makes you happy: that’s a more important rule to follow. But don’t expect to do very well with your stats if you don’t strategize a bit. I’m not even talking about SEO or using Google Analytics or any of that stuff here, just the basics.

If serious revenue is what you’re looking for, I can’t help you at all.

And now for even more nominations. Fifteen is a whole lot for someone as lazy as me, but I’ll give it my best try. I hereby recognize:

K at the Movies

Lost to the Aether

Frostilyte

I drink and watch anime

MoeGamer

Nepiki Gaming

Otaku Alcove

Mechanical Anime Reviews

Extra Life

Nintendobound

Mid-Life Gamer Geek

Crow’s World of Anime

Raistlin0903

The Traditional Catholic Weeb

A Geeky Gal

All of the above are great blogs to follow as well, which is part of why I’m recognizing them. Be sure to check them out! I’ll be back soon with a game review/retrospective idea I’ve had sitting around for a while now, one that I’ve wanted to complete for some time. Until then!

A review of Nisemonogatari

Yes, it’s even more Monogatari. I know, I said I’d mix things up, but I’ve been continuing this series and I keep finding there’s plenty to write about every time I finish each of its parts. So it was with Nisemonogatari, an 11-episode run from 2012 that picks up from where Bakemonogatari left off. At first I thought of it as the second season of the Monogatari series, but there’s a long run of episodes later on called Monogatari Second Season that also contains a bunch of other named series within it each with the -monogatari suffix. And it’s not even entirely agreed upon when you’re supposed to watch this: some say you have to watch the Kizumonogatari prequel movies before Nisemonogatari, and some say you can put them off to later. I already watched and reviewed those movies here, and I’m happy I did, because they provide context for an important character relationship that develops in this series.

I’ll get to that one later on, though. The more obvious focus of Nisemonogatari is the relationship protagonist Koyomi Araragi has with his little sisters Karen and Tsukihi. These two only very briefly show up in Bakemonogatari when they’re violently waking up their big brother by pummeling him while he’s in bed, but here they play central roles. The “Fire Sisters” as they’re known at their middle school dedicate themselves to fighting for justice, beating up bullies and the like. However, in the world of Monogatari even this kind of stuff can get you in serious trouble, which is exactly what Karen and Tsukihi both find themselves in. The entire season is taken up by just two parts, in fact: Karen Bee and Tsukihi Phoenix, each focusing mostly on the title character as before.

I really like this stained glass depiction of them we get at the beginning of the series

These two character arcs are quite different from the five that came before in Bakemonogatari, however. The title of this series is another play on words: nisemono, 偽物, means a fake or counterfeit. While it does focus partly on demonic or spiritual possessions, at its core Nisemonogatari is about fakes: distinguishing between the fake and the real and asking how or whether that difference matters.

Also, just a note to avoid confusion: I’ll be referring to almost all the characters by their first names from here on because we now have multiple Araragis active in the story. I’ve just gotten used to referring to most of these characters by their last names because that’s how they read in Koyomi’s narration, but it feels wrong to mix up the use of first and last names unless it’s necessary, or if it feels off to refer to them by their first name (like for Meme Oshino or another character who’s going to show up soon.)

Also, a general spoiler warning, because I feel it’s hard to say much about this series without getting into them to some extent. If you haven’t seen Bakemonogatari at the very least, none of this will make sense anyway. We’re in neck-deep at this point.

You might imagine that the start of a new Monogatari series should be a bit weird, or at least I did after just watching the first series and the prequel movies. So the opening scene with Koyomi chained to a chair in the old cram school, falsely imprisoned by his  girlfriend Hitagi Senjougahara, isn’t such a big surprise. She hasn’t turned on him, though: she tells Koyomi that she’s chained him up to protect him, specifically from a man he briefly met named Deishuu Kaiki. This Kaiki is a conman, but from Hitagi’s description of him he seems to be more dangerous than the average grifter.

Hitagi chaining her boyfriend up makes some sense. As we know, Koyomi is the kind of guy to rush headlong into danger to save others. And since Hitagi knows this Kaiki character — he was one of several cheats who conned her family out of money when they were seeking a solution to her weightlessness problem — she knows how dangerous he is. (She also seems to enjoy having Koyomi at her mercy a bit in these scenes, but that’s to be expected from her at this point.)

A rare look of contrition from Hitagi

Nevertheless, Hitagi allows Koyomi to go free pretty soon after tying him up thanks to a threatening call she gets from their classmate, one we know very well by now: Tsubasa Hanekawa. We only hear Hitagi’s side of the conversation, but knowing Tsubasa, this threat was made in her characteristically sweet way and with serious intent behind it. Hitagi even apologizes to Koyomi, but says she’ll be taking care of Kaiki either way.

And it’s a good thing Koyomi is now free to act, because Karen has already had a dangerous run-in with the conman after she sought him out specifically to “beat him up” for his crimes. She failed in her goal and was left ill with a fever that Kaiki induced through some kind of — magic? Power of suggestion? It’s not clear at this point, but when Koyomi consults with his sisters and Tsubasa back at their house, he starts to put the pieces together.

Kaiki, who couldn’t possibly look shadier.

As in Bakemonogatari, Koyomi is surrounded by aberrations and supernatural dangers that aren’t quite what they seem at first. The story in Nisemonogatari is complicated by the fact that the aberrations this time fall into that theme of “fakes.” Kaiki himself is merely a conman; he denies the existence and power of magic, but he also knows that he can use those beliefs to his advantage by selling supernatural curses and cures to gullible middle school students.

Strangely enough, though, when he’s finally confronted by Koyomi and Hitagi, Kaiki quickly and easily caves in to all their demands, agreeing to close up shop and leave town. He also tells them that the illness he inflicted Karen with was really a sort of mind trick and will disappear soon, leaving her perfectly well. In the end, it seems Kaiki was only doing what he did for one reason: to make money. It makes more sense to him to cut his losses and leave town that to get into a fight.

Mayoi knows it too: money is the most important thing in life.

The Tsukihi Phoenix arc uses this theme of fakes in a very different way. This time, the “fake” isn’t an antagonist, but rather someone very close to Koyomi — his own younger sister Tsukihi. After another run-in with an extremely dangerous person, the aberration specialist Yozuru Kagenui, Koyomi learns that Tsukihi is actually the manifestation of an immortal phoenix that’s reborn when a human infant is stolen and replaced. This phoenix is “evil” according to Yozuru and should be destroyed, despite the fact that it’s also harmless and doesn’t even realize it isn’t a real human. But hell if Koyomi is having that — phoenix or not, Tsukihi is still his sister. Enlisting the help of his vampire companion/mistress Shinobu, he fights Yozuru and her undead familiar Yotsugi until Yozuru either decides she’s bored and gives up or sees Koyomi’s way of thinking, walking away and letting the Araragi family live in peace again.

At the end of Nisemonogatari, as a consequence, all the counterfeits that came into the story are still around. Kaiki is still out there conducting his shady business, and the “fake” Tsukihi who doesn’t realize her true nature is still living her normal life. Yet it’s all okay. At least for the time being. This seems to be a running theme so far to these series. Each one has a dramatically satisfying ending, but a lot of things are still left to be resolved — they simply can’t be resolved because of weird or difficult circumstances. But that’s life, isn’t it?*

Nisemonogatari may just be the second series of Monogatari, but it does feel very different from Bakemonogatari in some ways. I didn’t measure it or anything, but it feels like there’s even more comedic banter between Koyomi and co. than there was in the first series. He spends most of the first two episodes making the rounds, visiting and talking with each of his lady friends before the plot starts in earnest with Hitagi chaining him up, and even deep into the seven-part Karen Bee arc there’s plenty of messing around. This is combined with some of the usual fanservice stuff I now expect from this series: again, even more of it than before. And then there’s the infamous toothbrush scene in episode 8, which I can’t even do justice with words. If you haven’t seen it, you just have to watch it for yourself. It’s weird as hell to say the least.

Proper dental care is is a serious matter.

Because of all this, I can’t say I blame people for thinking this series is self-indulgent. Nisemonogatari especially indulges in a whole lot of the above stuff. However, again I think most of this messing around isn’t here just for the sake of fanservice or to show off the writer’s clever wit (though I think those are probably reasons as well.) A lot of the banter establishes characters and relationships between them, sometimes in ways that are easy to miss the first time — one of those cases of “you might not have noticed, but your brain did.”

One of my favorite scenes in the series is part of a conversation between Koyomi and Tsubasa where they’re discussing Karen’s fever, and during which Koyomi refers to his sisters as “Karen-chan and Tsukihi-chan”. Apparently it’s a bit weird to refer to a younger sister using the -chan honorific, or maybe it’s weird if you’re a guy or something. Because Tsubasa instantly seizes on it and makes a bit of fun of Koyomi for it. When he self-consciously tries switching over to simply calling them “my younger sisters”, Tsubasa even stops him and reminds him that they’re “Karen-chan and Tsukihi-chan” with a sweet smile.

Tsubasa looks really different without those braids and glasses, but she’s still her usual self, too happy to find a chance to make fun of Koyomi in a good-natured way.

I get the impression that Koyomi referring to his sisters in this way shows how close he feels to them and how much he cares about them in a way that some older siblings might not, but also that he feels a bit embarrassed about that. While Tsubasa makes fun of him for it, she also seems to recognize this in Koyomi, and maybe she envies those relationships being an only child herself, and one who’s living with a lousy family situation on top of that. I feel like this is no accident: these and other exchanges show how subtle the writing in Monogatari can be; through one short exchange it can convey important information about the characters and their feelings.

Speaking of feelings, there are a lot of those to be resolved between Koyomi and Shinobu, and Nisemonogatari shows us some real progress in that relationship. Shinobu, that blonde vampire girl who all the way through Bakemonogatari was silent and sullen-looking, decides early in the series to start talking to Koyomi again. And I like the way the story handles their relationship from here on: Shinobu declares that they won’t and shouldn’t forgive the other for how they’ve hurt each other, but that doesn’t mean they can’t work together. Koyomi accepts this arrangement gladly, and from here on he has a vampire living in his shadow who he has a telepathic connection with, except when she decides to manifest in the real world to complain that she wants him to buy doughnuts for her.

After watching Kizumonogatari, it was really nice to see Shinobu being her old self again — as arrogant as you’d expect from a centuries-old vampire, but also talkative and even friendly sometimes.

This relationship progress is part of why I completely agree with those who say you should watch the Kizumonogatari prequel movies between Bake and Nise — they provide all the context for the complicated connection and history between Koyomi and Shinobu. Without that, Shinobu might just seem like some vampire girl Koyomi happens to know because he’s a weirdo who keeps attracting and getting attached to mythical beings and demigods. Which she is, but she’s also much more than that to him, as he is to her.

I look forward to their unusual relationship developing through the entire Monogatari series, but just watching their banter here is fun too. Though Shinobu refers to Koyomi as “my master” and omaesama (an archaic respectful form of “you” and a reminder that she learned Japanese back in the 17th century) she still acts pretty superior to him, albeit in a friendly way. At the very least, Koyomi has come to expect that attitude from Shinobu, and they have a nice working relationship at this point.

The technical aspects of Nisemonogatari are still excellent. It all looks just as Shaft-ish as you’d expect if you’re familiar with the studio; there are still all the weird scenery, head tilts and poses, cutaways to screens full of text, and the other usual weirdness that seems to be connected to director Akiyuki Shinbou. The music is once again great, suiting and enhancing the moods the show creates (and adding another earworm OP with Tsukihi’s theme Platinum Disco.) And the character models still look nice and very distinctive. I brought up original designer VOFAN who created the cover art for the novels, but the anime characters were designed by Akio Watanabe, and they’re both now favorites of mine after seeing so much of their work in Monogatari.

Nadeko Sengoku in her one scene in this series, acting a little scary.

I wasn’t planning to address this aspect at first, because I already did somewhat in my Bakemonogatari and Kizumonotagari posts, but Nisemonogatari turns up the sexual innuendo scenes between Koyomi and the girls around him to such an extent that I feel I need to bring it up once again. I read on another blogger’s site some time back (I can’t find the link anymore, otherwise I’d post it) that he was happy about Koyomi getting knocked down a few pegs later in the series because the character was too flawlessly noble and might give some viewers the impression that as long as they’re nice and helpful, they can be just as pervy as Koyomi gets sometimes and still have the favor of the women in their lives.

However, while I agree that getting knocked down is great and even a necessity to keep things interesting and help the protagonist of a story learn more and grow as a character, I don’t see Koyomi or his antics in the same light as this blogger did. Partly because Koyomi does come off as quite a flawed character. It’s important to remember that the novels up to this point are written from Koyomi’s perspective, and though I don’t ever get the impression that he’s trying to mislead the reader/viewer, he is a pretty unreliable narrator sometimes. He has noble intentions and wants to save people, yes. And if he seems “too flawlessly noble” sometimes, this is probably a function of his being in his own head a lot.

But he also doubts himself and his own intentions pretty often. Even in Nisemonogatari, where his relationships with Hitagi and his various friends are pretty solid and well-established, Koyomi’s views are challenged by the new antagonists Kaiki and Yozuru, who aren’t even painted as necessarily evil, but rather as people with very different approaches and philosophies that clash with his. In other words, he’s not a Mary Sue. He doesn’t do what he does to pump up his ego but rather because he just feels he must. Even then, he doesn’t get a pass when he screws up, least of all from himself. And while Koyomi does have a sort of “harem” around him, with a couple of other characters having pretty obvious feelings for him, I haven’t yet gotten the impression that Monogatari is meant to be the kind of power fantasy that some actual harem series might be.

Also, remember: he’s already in a committed relationship.

Aside from that, I don’t think anyone (in their right mind, anyway) would watch Koyomi doing his thing and think “oh, I can do that in real life and it won’t be a problem!” Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel these antics of his are so over-the-top that they come off as complete jokes. These scenes are unrealistic, just like the unrealistic dialogue in the series, and that feels very intentional. I think viewers can pretty easily see the difference between actions and consequences in the narrative of Monogatari and in real life for that reason. (And anyway, if off-color material is how we’re judging that, Suruga has him beat.)

You might think that those two would clash with each other. If this story were in the hands of a less clever writer, they probably would. But Nisio Isin manages to combine unrealistic situations and character actions with very real-feeling sentiment in a way that works. Even that Nadeko section of episode 2 that’s seemingly disconnected from the rest of the story, where she’s doing her best to seduce Koyomi, feels like it’s setting up a future plotline. Although it’s played off like a joke, it’s been obvious for a while that she’s in love with him, and I get the feeling this is going to cause serious problems later on for both of them. And just what the hell is Nadeko hiding in her closet, anyway? Maybe we’ll find out in the second season, because that few seconds of dialogue about it feels extremely ominous.

Tsukihi is her friend, but she’s not the only one who realizes Nadeko’s feelings for her brother. Koyomi still doesn’t seem to get it, though.

And that’s it for this part of Monogatari. I see why people have some issues with this run of episodes considering, again, how much messing around there is even compared to the first one. I wrote in my review of Kizumonogatari that I thought that set of movies was divisive, but I think now I was wrong — this is the divisive series, at least as far as those I’ve watched, and judging from what else I’ve read about it. But I like the mix of banter and comedy with drama and action that Monogatari has been using up to this point. Nisemonogatari carries the “screwing around” aspect further than the others I’ve watched so far, but I think it still manages to keep plenty of substance mixed in with all the style.

Now it’s on to the next series and the last of this first season of Monogatari: the four-episode Nekomonogatari Black, which despite the short length will get a post all to itself. It’s another prequel, taking place before Bakemonogatari and telling the story of Tsubasa’s initial possession by a wild cat spirit, an event that until now has been referenced a lot but not actually shown. I’m betting that, as usual, the story won’t be a straightforward one.

* Edit: Looking back at it, that seems to be part of the point of Tsukihi’s story anyway: the fact that the fake tries to be genuine makes it more valuable than the real thing, so there’s really nothing to “resolve” about Tsukihi anyway. Though ask a coin dealer the same question about counterfeits and you’ll get a very different answer.

The Super Happy Love Award

Did you ever think you’d see such a title to a post on this site? It’s all thanks to Frostilyte, who nominated me for the Super Happy Love Award originally created by fellow anime/game blogger Pinkie to make the internet a happier place. That’s ambitious, but definitely a commendable goal, so I’m happy to do my part. Here are the rules, quoted in full:

  1. Thank the one who tagged you and if at all please tag the original post as well. This is my first blog tag and a bit of a passion project so I would like to see where it spreads! Oh and use Super-Happy-Love as a tag!
  2. Display the Super Happy Love Logo in your post Share the rules!
  3. Choose a minimum of 2 out of these 6 prompts to answer in this blog! More is always allowed! These six prompts are as follows:
    • Tell about a person you love, this can be a friend, partner but also a celebrity or even youtuber who means a lot to you. As long as they once took breath on this earthly realm you are allowed to pick them… Tell us why you love them.
    • Write something about a fandom or franchise you love. It can be your favorite game series or about just about anything that is bigger than just a single product! Tell us why you love this so much!
    • Tell us something about a character that you love. Do you have a Waifu, a Husbando, maybe a mentor or someone who taught you a valuable lesson. Tell us why you love them.
    • Tell us something about a piece of music that you love. Does a anime intro mean a lot to you? Did you have a special memory to a pop song, like your first dance at your wedding? Maybe a piece of video game music? If you love it, you should tell us why!
    • Show us why you love a piece of media so much! A Book, A Game, A Anime, A Movie maybe even a random piece of fan art, you are free to pick as long as you can show us why you love it.
    • Write something about yourself that you love! For those who like a challenge, there is a hard mode in this blog prompt as well. Tell us why you love a certain aspect of yourself
  4. Put on your rose tinted glasses. For once you are allowed to gush about the things that you love without having to balance it out with negatives so that you seem objective. In fact your are actively encouraged not to bring negativity into this tag. So no, “Nowadays is poopoo but back in my days…it was great”. Just say it was great! Love is blind after all!
  5. Tag 6 bloggers you love so they can take on this challenge as well.
  6. Everyone who comments something lovely about your post ALSO gets nominated (should they so choose).

Quite a challenge for me, but I’ll take it. Firstly, thanks to Frostilyte for the nomination. He runs a great blog over at Frostilyte Writes (now with a fancy new .ca domain, I’m jealous) featuring posts about video games and his original art. If you follow my site, you should follow his as well.

Now for the main event. I can definitely be positive about some of the stuff I like — I mainly write about stuff I like here, after all. So here we go:

1) My favorite franchise: Megami Tensei

In news that will be surprising to absolutely no one at all, I’m declaring that Megami Tensei is my favorite game series. I think I’ve declared that a lot, actually. But why do I like it? I’m thinking about writing a few more in-depth posts on the series in general and a lot of the themes in particular later on, but I can address that generally here.

It’s not what it looks like, really

One of the things that struck me first about the series when I first got into it with Persona 3 was its use of mythological, historical, and religious figures from around the world as demons (“demon” here being a neutral term for any supernatural being, not just the typically evil ones — even angels are included in that definition.) In Persona 3 and 4, these beings are the Personas, who are representations of the characters of you and your friends (and of a few of your enemies as well.) I loved Kazuma Kaneko’s unique designs, and when I discovered the mainline Shin Megami Tensei series through Nocturne I found some of the same and many more of these figures were fought as enemies and could be recruited into your party. There was a lot of novelty to that, but even after the novelty wore off I kept finding Easter egg-style bits of dialogue between related demons during combat that suggested the writers had really done their homework with regard to their stories and myths. So I was very happy to see Persona 5 include the same beings as enemies in its shadow worlds.

In that sense, Megami Tensei is a bit like the Fate series, which also makes use of both historical and mythological characters to tell its stories. Only Megami Tensei doesn’t take quite so many liberties, like making King Arthur a girl who the main character can get romantically involved with (Saber in the first route of the original Fate/stay night visual novel. If you know a better way to transfer mana, I’d like to hear it.) It also puts these figures into a very different context — instead of being purposely summoned like the Servants of Fate, the Personas are usually summoned entirely by accident or spontaneously (I know Saber was also summoned by accident in F/SN, but that’s an exception.) And in mainline SMT and some of its other spinoffs, the demons/angels/spirits/monsters/etc. typically decide to invade some place, usually Tokyo, without asking anyone’s permission, and then massive destruction usually follows that we humans have to deal with.

I just find that supernatural/human mix to be exciting. I like it enough that I wrote a whole daily Christmas series on some of my favorite demons in the series, and maybe I’ll even do it again this year.

Just because it’s the post-apocalypse and you got turned into a demon-human hybrid, it doesn’t mean you can’t get along and make friends

I could go on for many pages about Megami Tensei, and I probably will at some point not too far in the future, so I’ll save the rest.

2) A soundtrack I love: Sonic the Hedgehog 2

I guess this post is going to be all about games, but that’s fine, isn’t it? Video games have had a massive impact on my life, and probably on yours too if you’re reading my site. And a big part of that impact has been the music featured in those games.

Most games have pretty basic soundtracks. If you just need passable background music to fill the silence, it’s not too hard to create. There’s also some impressively and even entertainingly bad music to be found in games. But the soundtracks I remember are the ones featuring tracks that are both complex and catchy. The 90s childhood series that come to mind when I think of game music from back then are the ones you’d probably expect: Mario, Mega Man, Final Fantasy, but to me Sonic was the most memorable.

Almost all the classic Genesis/Megadrive-era Sonic games have great music, but Sonic 2 sticks in my head specifically for some reason. Maybe because that’s the game I remember playing most as a kid, but the soundtrack is absolutely top-tier as well, written by musician/producer Masato Nakamura. Some people prefer the Sonic 3 soundtrack with the rumored Michael Jackson contribution, and that’s an amazing one as well, but if I had to pick one to own in physical form, it would be 2 for me.

3) Bonus thing I love: this video of a virtual rabbit girl playing games and killing enemies while talking like a gangster

Look, I found out about Vtubers and now I’ve fallen down the Hololive rabbit hole. That’s an especially apt term to use in this case. If you want to know the deal with this stuff, check out Lumi’s post on the subject here. Or just ignore this and move on. That’s probably your best option. All my recommended YouTube videos are now Hololive clips and it’s an endless cycle of me watching one after another. Don’t do that to yourself.

Now for the nominations. I’ll nominate Lumi, since I’ve already taken the liberty to use his post above, and also:

Ace Asunder

A Richard Wood Text Adventure

Winst0lf Portal

Peak Weebing

KS Blogs

And as stated in the rules, whoever else is reading this and feels like it gets nominated too. And as usual, apologies if you don’t do these, feel free to ignore, etc. I still have one more of these tag posts to make, but in the meantime I’ll be watching more Pekora videos.

On the use of public office to suppress the display and sale of artistic works

Weeks ago, I heard about a controversy in Australia having to do with the sale of certain manga in the Sydney branch of Kinokuniya, a Japanese bookstore chain with locations around the world. Last July, South Australian state legislator Connie Bonaros made a complaint regarding volumes sold there, including such titles as Eromanga-sensei, No Game No Life, Sword Art Online, and Inside Mari, on the grounds that they violated Australian law regulating certain types of sexual artistic depictions. The exchange of letters between Bonaros and Kinokuniya officer Keijiro Mori can be found in the link above, but the gist seems to be that Bonaros thought some of the anime-styled girls in works that include sexual content looked like minors and came to the conclusion that their sale in Australia constituted a violation of the law.

If we talk about how horrible this is and have it banned from stores, people will definitely stop reading it! That has always, always worked.

I feel bad for Australian manga and light novel readers who were into those series, and especially for fans of No Game No Life, a few volumes of which received an outright sale/importation ban. It’s worth mentioning that we’re not even talking about some hentai doujins and manga you might find in the seedier shops in Akihabara; most of the affected series are massively popular and none are pornographic as far as I understand. It also seems weird that a South Australian state legislator can have any say at all over what books can be sold in Sydney, which is located not in South Australia but in New South Wales. That sounds to me something like a Virginia state senator getting books removed from a New York bookstore, which would be unthinkable here in the US.

But I’m not an expert in Australian law. In fact, I don’t really know anything about it except that the Australian constitution doesn’t contain an explicit protection for freedom of speech or expression. Since Bonaros is an Australian lawyer and I’m an American one, I’ll defer to her understanding of her own country’s law. I just hope fans and other artists in Australia can find a way to gain a stronger voice in politics.

All that said, I think the victory won by Bonaros has to be examined more closely. It raises a question that’s relevant to every fan of anime, manga, video games, literature, and art in general living in any country on Earth. That is: how far should a public official be able to use the power and influence afforded by their office to suppress the display and sale of an artistic work? Because that is apparently what Bonaros did. No legislation seems to have been proposed; no evidence was brought forward to show that the contents of the listed works actually violated Australian law (or if it was raised, it wasn’t mentioned in the reports I found.) And there’s certainly been no solid evidence brought forward that said works have a harmful effect on their readers or on society in general. It seems that Bonaros simply saw some manga that rubbed her the wrong way, used her platform as a legislator to complain about it, and successfully pressured Kinokuniya into removing it.

I can’t pretend that this incident in Australia doesn’t affect fans of manga, anime, or related works here in the States either. Because Bonaros also requested a list of other countries in which Kinokuniya still sells No Game No Life and the other titles she objects to, presumably including its American branches, and pressured the company to ban their sale globally.1 As a result, it’s now undoubtedly an issue for us Americans as well. And since she’s made it an issue for us, let’s have a look at US law to see whether or how such an incident might play out here.

Unlike my last couple of posts on this general subject, this time around we’re specifically concerned with the First Amendment. Here’s the original text in full:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Pretty short considering how much has been said about it since it was ratified in 1791. And we’re only concerned here with the middle clause, and specifically with this statement: Congress shall make no lawabridging the freedom of speech.

It’s understood that artistic expression counts as “speech”, and this naturally includes manga (and visual novels, and drawings, etc.) However, that doesn’t mean these are all entirely safe from regulation. Congress has made laws abridging the freedom of speech since, but these were passed when the courts carved exceptions out of that guaranteed protection. An example of such an exception is found in the Supreme Court case Brandenburg v. Ohio2 (note: citations provided in the footnotes in case you want to look them up) in which the Court determined that the government could not regulate speech on the basis of violent or incendiary content unless it was 1) “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action,” and 2) “likely to incite or produce such action.”

So it’s unconstitutional to arrest someone for throwing out extremist political views, for example, unless they’re actually stirring up a group to do some immediate violence or lawbreaking. It’s a very limited restriction but an important one — essentially, the Court has said that the government shouldn’t have the power to restrict this kind of speech unless it’s about to cause actual harm.

Artistic expression has also been restricted in limited ways and on similar grounds. Certain kinds of expressions that involve causing harm to others, for example, are rightly recognized as falling outside of the First Amendment’s protection. When the artistic expression in question doesn’t involve such harm, however — for example, when actors are depicted being harmed through the use of effects and studio tricks, or the expression consists of drawing or sculpture or some similar form — the standard for regulating the expression is far higher. Even if an artistic expression seems revolting, as long as it’s not found to be obscene or otherwise outside the protection of the First Amendment, it can’t be banned or suppressed through government action.

And the obscenity standard set by the Supreme Court in Miller v. California is extremely difficult to meet. Attempts at getting around this test through other sorts of official action have usually failed, as in the case of Bery v. New York,3 in which the Second Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a government regulation requiring artists to be officially licensed to sell their work on public streets. Even if a regulation isn’t obviously intended to restrict freedom of expression, if it has that effect, it’s subject to the First Amendment and likely to be struck down in the same way.

However, let’s say that “official” government action isn’t being taken. What if, as in South Australia, some legislator stands up and simply talks about how bad some work of fiction is, how it’s degrading the morals of the people by its very existence, and how for those reasons Amazon should stop selling it? What if people petition Amazon on that basis and the company gives into public pressure and removes said work? In other words: can a public official legally use the power and influence of their office to skirt the First Amendment and have an artistic work suppressed without “making a law”?

Again, this is no hypothetical, because we’ve already seen it happen. I brought up several examples of such attempts at content-based regulation in another previous post. The most relevant here is the string of attacks on video games made by Congress in the early 90s, most famously against the Sega CD game Night Trap. Looking back, it seems strange that this FMV game was ever at the center of a controversy. Its contents are pretty tame, but some legislators spoke against it anyway, most notably former Senator Joe Lieberman, for containing gratuitous violence and lewdness. Following a congressional hearing in 1993 on the subject of video game violence (during which Lieberman admitted to never having actually played Night Trap) the game was pulled from distribution by major distributors and later pulled from the market altogether.

If it hadn’t been for that controversy, though, this game wouldn’t have gotten a rerelease/remaster on Steam, no way in hell.

The facts that the Sega CD was a marketing failure, and that by most accounts Night Trap was a lousy game, might have something to do with its pulling from distribution, but the influence of interest groups driven at least in part by public condemnation has to be considered. In my view, the use of a congressional hearing in this way taints the market and is an example of government overreach into the regulation of art. Lieberman’s view of Night Trap doesn’t seem very different from Bonaros’ view of No Game No Life and the rest of the manga on her list: both came to conclusions about the meanings and effects of the works seemingly without supporting evidence, and both ended up having an effect on the distribution of the work (in Bonaros’ case a much more direct and obvious effect, though.)

It seems this kind of government interference in art is hard to prevent even in the US, however; it’s happened so many times already (see also the Hays Code and the Parents Music Resource Center.) And there’s no reason to think it won’t happen again. At the moment, the US is going through a shitstorm for lack of a better term, or at least I can’t think of a better one to use, so people aren’t thinking too much about how music or video games are going to turn fans into degenerates or criminals. But that won’t last forever. One day when things are less chaotic, we’ll have another moral panic in which art is attacked as a way to avoid actually addressing societal problems. And since it doesn’t seem to be considered a violation of the First Amendment for politicians to use their influence to try to have works regulated or removed from sale, maybe the better question to ask at that point is: “Should they be allowed to do so?”

Let’s just do this again, why not.

Of course, my answer is “no.” The First Amendment’s guarantee of free expression loses some of its teeth when politicians are able to use the resources and influence of office to essentially get around it. Yet I don’t see a solution to that other than maintaining a culture of open and free expression. That’s a culture that has been under attack recently, especially with regard to anime, manga, and anime/manga-influenced games. We just have to remain vigilant as usual, calling out hypocrisy and scapegoating when we see it, and always in a civil but forceful manner.

I’ve lived in a country where the government had near-complete control over art and the press and where the dominant culture supported that control, and I can tell you it’s not fun. Many of the people who think they want that kind of power to be exerted against expression they don’t like here in the US might be in for an unpleasant surprise when they find works they like on the chopping block. But by then, if we ever get to the point where the First Amendment is so eroded, it will be too late to do anything about it.

So there’s my dire warning as usual. And as usual, I’m interested in other opinions. Do you have a different angle on these issues? Do you think Bonaros was right and justified in what she did? If you do, I don’t think we’ll find much common ground, but it’s still worth talking about. Maybe there were some important facts in that case that were glossed over or that I missed. Or maybe my own views on the issue as an American are considered weird in other countries. I know for a fact that’s the case, but that’s also part of why I came back here after all. 𒀭

1 Thankfully, Kinokuniya’s response to this request was: “In terms of our action globally, wherever our stores are situated we respect local law and culture, and make ordering decisions respectively and accordingly.” Which sounds like a diplomatic way of saying “mind your own damn business.”

2 395 US 444 (1969).

3 97 F.3d 689 (2d Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 117 S.Ct. 2408 (1997). There’s an interesting note about the case here (a note being an article written by a law student in an academic journal — I wrote a note myself, but it was a piece of shit and rightly didn’t get published.) A good read if you’re interested in the subject.