A review of Made in Abyss (S1)

That anime roulette concept already bore fruit again, didn’t it? Just like Yuru Camp, Made in Abyss pulled me right in — an especially apt metaphor this time too. I’ve already finished the first season and am close to catching up to the now-airing second.

Unlike Yuru Camp, however, Made in Abyss was not always an easy show to watch. That’s actually a compliment, even if it doesn’t sound like one — it’s just to say that despite appearances, this is absolutely not anime for kids or for the especially faint-hearted. (I wonder how many parents made the mistake of looking at these cutesy looking characters going on a grand adventure and sticking their small children in front of it for hours… there’s some trauma for you.)

Maybe nobody actually needs this notice, since Made in Abyss is extremely well known. This 13-episode first season aired in 2017, an adaptation of a popular action/adventure manga. It’s since gotten a lot of acclaim from audiences and maybe even from whatever professional critics pay attention to anime outside of Ghibli movies, and presumably also from those weirdo obsessives in the middle like me who write about these subjects out of pure love.

Before getting into the story and characters and all that, I may as well just say right now that I think Made in Abyss deserves all that acclaim. Though it hasn’t gone without some criticism and controversy as well, which I’ll address too as usual.

The story opens with two children, Riko and one of her friends, Nat, exploring a wilderness up against a steep cliff face. A massive fish-dragon thing knocks out Nat and corners Riko, but before it can eat her, a laser beam blasts it seemingly from nowhere and annihilates it. Riko tracks down the source of the beam: a passed-out boy with robotic limbs and a Mega Man-style cannon inserted into an orb in one of his hands.

Riko and Nat drag this robot boy back to their home at an orphanage in Orth, a city surrounding the terrifying and mysterious Abyss. Riko and her friends, being explorers in training, are duty-bound to turn in all unusual findings or “relics” from the Abyss, which this robot certainly counts as, but Riko isn’t type to follow rules. She instead keeps her robot boy in her room and attempts to revive him by recharging him with electricity.

After getting a nasty shock, the robot wakes up and wonders aloud about who the hell all these kids are, where he is, and moreover who he is, because his memory is entirely gone. Before Riko and co. have a chance to explain the situation, however, their teacher/advisor shows up to find out why the orphanage’s power just blew the hell out — apparently Riko is the main suspect when such things happen thanks to the shit she’s tried before. Robot boy does some quick thinking, using a pair of extendable arms to hide in the rafters and avoid detection. Once the danger of discovery has passed, he takes Riko out the window and down to the field below where she shows him his new home, at least for the moment.

Riko and Reg, two of our three central characters getting ready for their big adventure. I’m sure it will all go well!

Since his memory’s been more or less erased, Riko gives her new friend a name: Reg, the name of a dog she used to have (which Reg is not too happy about, but he takes the name all the same.) As that name choice suggests, Riko wants to keep Reg around, but since she can’t feasibly keep hiding him through normal means, she and her friends decide to hide him in plain sight. Reg presents himself to their instructor, who seems to accept his “I’m an orphan who happens to have robotic limbs for some reason” story and puts him in Riko’s class.

But of course Riko isn’t planning to stick around in Orth. Years ago, her mother, the famous expert explorer Lyza the Annihilator, disappeared into the depths of the Abyss from which few people if any at all can return safely. Riko believes Lyza to still be alive, however, and when she’s shown a set of drawings and notes sent up the Abyss from her mother, she finds a note in an ancient language that translates to “At the Netherworld’s bottom, I’ll be waiting.”

Believing this is her mother’s message to her, Riko decides to secretly descend to the deepest part of the Abyss. Normally such a journey would mean certain death for a kid like her, but Reg’s incredibly long robotic arm extensions and his fighting ability and general sturdiness make her plan at least feasible. Saying goodbye to her old friends at the orphanage, perhaps forever, she and Reg descend into whatever waits for them below.

Before getting into the heavy material/spoiler zone, I should address the aesthetics, because Made in Abyss has a hell of a lot of style and atmosphere. The Abyss is an entire world in itself, divided into layers with different climates, plants, and inhabitants. Most of these layers look otherworldly, a sharp contrast with the surface and the city of Orth Riko and Reg have left behind. The environments are impressive — they feel like they could be real places despite how alien they look. Sort of like a Roger Dean-painted album cover, which a lot of scenes in the Abyss resemble.

The cute chibi art style our main characters are drawn in also contrasts sharply with the monstrous looks of many of the creatures in the Abyss. We get a hint of the danger these animals pose, especially to the young recruit “Red Whistle” explorers, in the first episode. However, flying carnivorous fish-dragons aren’t anywhere close to the most dangerous creature waiting for Riko and Reg as they descend.

The music deserves some mention as well. It’s not always the case with anime that I notice the soundtrack all that much, maybe aside from opening/ending themes, but Made in Abyss is one of those series with even memorable background songs and pieces. My favorites are the atmospheric tracks that fit beautifully with the environments of the Abyss, though “beautiful” in this context is often more on the “awe-inspiring/terrifying” side than the pleasant one. And the ending “Tabi no Hidarite, Saihate no Migite” is nicely done, and sung by the three main characters’ voice actors in-character which I always enjoy. (The ending sequence also gets my personal award for Most Deceptively Upbeat OP/ED, just beating out the Asobi Asobase OP.)

Since that sequence is a bit spoilery in a way, this is a good place to put the massive spoiler warning. Red and bold this time because of a few sort of twists and a few emotionally heavy big plot points revealed near the end of this season, and of course I’ll bring up a few of these major points below, so fair warning if you haven’t seen the show. Or read the manga, but I haven’t done that myself, so no manga-specific spoilers in this post anyway.

Now’s the time to turn back if you don’t have the stomach for some true horror. Just pretend it’s a fantastic version of Yuru Camp and don’t watch past this point.

I mentioned the heavy plot, but at least this first season of Made in Abyss feels much more character-driven than plot-driven. The plot itself isn’t the most complex anyway at this point: Riko’s mom is maybe at the bottom of the Abyss waiting for her, so Riko goes into the Abyss to find her, taking her robotic boy companion along with her. The rest of the season after the third episode almost entirely document their journey down and the hazards, enemies, and friends they meet along the way.

But the characters make this story worth following. After watching the first episode I got the feeling Riko might get under my skin a bit, but she never did despite her whole “I’m going to run ahead blindly on occasion and put myself in danger” attitude. That can be irritating, but Riko’s attitude is pretty understandable — she’s raised from the start to be curious about the Abyss with her famous explorer mother, and this explains her desire to follow in Lyza’s footsteps and to possibly meet her after years of being effectively orphaned.

Riko being likable makes this show all the harder to watch in a way

It helps that Reg is with her as well, and not just because he’s both her companion and her bodyguard/escort on their trip. Reg balances out some of Riko’s more impulsive/insane tendencies with his level head and good sense. He isn’t necessarily mentally stronger than Riko, however — he can get emotional and lose control at times, and just as he tempers Riko’s wilder aspects, Riko helps Reg maintain his strength and fortitude when times are desperate, and even when she’s in mortal danger and under immense stress and pain. As a result, she can’t totally rely on Reg to protect her at all times, particularly since every time he fires his laser he passes out for two hours. The pair have to work together, and luckily they’re both fast friends and very compatible, complementing each others’ strengths and weaknesses.

And near the end of the season, this pair becomes a trio with the inclusion of Nanachi, that fluffy rabbit-looking kid who lives deep in the fourth layer of the Abyss, where the strain on explorers starts to become oppressive. Nanachi enters the story at the time when Riko and Reg need them most, when Riko is poisoned and near death from the effects of the Curse of the Abyss. Even though these two are total strangers, Nanachi takes them in and provides for them, using their healing knowledge to save Riko’s life and help her recuperate. This rabbit child is extremely resourceful and has a world-weary sadness unusual for that age, but for good reason considering their backstory.*

World-weary and a little bitter, but fluffy

All three of these kids are endearing in their own ways, which makes it all the harder to see them suffering. And damn does Made in Abyss like to put its heroes through some suffering. This brings me back to my warning at the top of this post — if you’ve heard anyone refer to this series as full of trauma and sadness, I’m about to get into why and how along with a look into a couple of the more common and interesting criticisms I’ve seen of how the story and characters are handled.

We get some hints of how dark this story might get from the outset. Our heroes’ trek into the Abyss is already incredibly dangerous from the moment they begin. As a beginner Red Whistle explorer, Riko is only officially allowed to explore around the topmost first layer not far from Orth itself, a region that already has human-eating dragonesque creatures flying around as we see in the first episode. While she has a wealth of knowledge about the Abyss and all its layers from her studies in Orth, Riko has never actually seen beyond this first layer, so her descent with Reg into the second is already uncharted territory for her.

Moreover, turning back isn’t an option, partly because Riko is determined to make it to the bottom of the Abyss, but also because of the aforementioned strain on explorers that increases with depth. This strain is both physical and mental, causing headaches, dizziness, and nausea in milder forms and progressing to delirium and more dramatic and even life-threatening symptoms. Strangely, this “Curse” as it’s called only takes effect when an explorer tries to ascend while in the Abyss — descending is easy by comparison, though there are still increasingly dangerous predators to deal with that will gladly hunt kids like Riko and Reg.

Yeah not exactly a happy fun adventure, is it

The first hint that their journey is getting serious comes in the second layer, when the pair manage to gain entry into the “seeker camp”, an outpost controlled by the old warrior and explorer Ozen the Immovable. Ozen helped Riko’s mother rescue the girl when she was a baby, born as she was deep in the Abyss, but despite this connection she initially comes off as cold and perhaps even cruel towards Riko.

The presence of her apprentice Marulk, a child about Riko and Reg’s age who immediately bonds with them, is a comfort to them, but the next day Ozen confronts Riko and Reg with the reality of life in the Abyss and with some of the hard facts about Riko’s birth (my favorite from Ozen’s flashbacks: her reaction to Lyza’s wisp of a new husband, Riko’s father who sadly does not survive the trip out of the Abyss after her birth.) Ozen then attacks Riko and Reg and very nearly gets Riko killed, sending Reg into a rage and leading to a fight in which both almost end up dead a few times over before Marulk gets help from the camp to stop it.

This confrontation turns out to have been planned by Ozen as a test. Episodes six through eight do a great job of establishing her as a White Whistle warped by life in the Abyss to the point that she’s lost a lot of her humanity. Yet she still has some human feeling. Before they can continue their journey, Ozen forces Riko and Reg to spend several days surviving outside the camp on their wits alone, and when they return battered but alive she realizes that they at least have a chance of making the trek down to the bottom and then gives them support and her blessing. Ozen might be warped, but she’s kind in her own extremely hard and realistic way.

Ozen also mentions other White Whistles living in the Abyss who Riko and Reg might encounter and the dangers they represent, with special emphasis on a guy named Bondrewd. Our heroes don’t come face-to-face with him in this season, but Bondrewd turns out to be a true villain in contrast with Ozen’s “fake villain” act. His story is tied up with that of Nanachi and their close friend Mitty, originally two orphans from Orth who, like Riko and Reg, took an opportunity to descend into the Abyss. In this case, the two were part of a program led by the seemingly kind and caring Bondrewd to bring orphans into the Abyss and to give them a chance at getting some kind of experience down there.

Unfortunately, we know where this is probably headed, because it’s immediately obvious in Nanachi’s memory that something is wrong. Nanachi and Mitty at the time were both normal humans, and the pair today are anything but. Nanachi refers to both of them as Hollows, deformed former humans who are in danger of being captured and/or killed by explorers, forcing both to hide in the fourth layer of the Abyss. And of course it was this seemingly nice guy Bondrewd who did this to them — his “save the orphans” program turned out to be a cover for his horrible human experimentation program. Bondrewd uses these children to test the effects of the extreme strain of the Curse deep in the Abyss with terrible results.

He does pull out a justification for what he’s doing, but probably not enough of one to be murdering orphans.

As a result of these experiments, all Bondrewd’s orphan recruits with the exception of Nanachi completely lose their humanity and turn into fleshy, melted monstrosities, with Nanachi somehow only losing their physical form and turning into a rabbit-human hybrid, a “fluffy stuffed toy” as they put it to Reg early on.

Mitty’s fate by contrast is unbelievably horrific, turned into a living lump of flesh without higher brain function. This horror is compounded by the fact that thanks to some aspect of Bondrewd’s experiment on the two of them, Mitty apparently can’t die and has to live on in her degraded form, as Nanachi points out likely forever. Unless Reg uses his Incinerator on her — when Nanachi sees him using his hand cannon in battle, they realize this weapon that breaks down its target into subatomic particles is perhaps their only chance to put Mitty out of her misery. When Reg finally agrees to Nanachi’s request and kills Mitty, it’s a partly sad scene, but really more of a happy one since it means she’s been released from her suffering.

There’s a criticism I’ve seen attached to all the above horror: is it too much? The criticism here has to do with how the story plays with the watcher’s emotions, taking a peppy, likeable, and entirely innocent character in Mitty and having the maniacal Bondrewd turn her into an undying monstrosity. The effect is extreme, especially when you’re dealing with child characters. And the same argument might be made to a lesser extent about what Riko is put through starting in episode 10, when she’s forced to endure an almost fatal poisoning on top of the effects of the Curse when Reg has to ascend to a higher point in the fourth layer to bring her to safety.

I won’t post screenshots here but it’s rough, and this one fits anyway. Death is all around our heroes and they know it.

The interesting question here is whether the story is being emotionally manipulative with all this “cute kids made to suffer horrifically” stuff. Despite how extreme it can get, I don’t think Made in Abyss goes too far, at least in this first season. The immense danger of the trip is set up from the very first episode, and Ozen plays an important role in snapping Riko into reality about what the Abyss is really like early on in their journey. Even though Ozen turns out to be a friend and a support to Riko and Reg, she’s absolutely a hard realist who seems perfectly ready to let both of them die if she had concluded that they couldn’t handle their task.

The same is even true for Mitty and Nanachi’s story. Though Bondrewd naturally comes off as evil and perhaps outright insane, his actions sadly don’t feel unrealistic considering how often the powerless are taken advantage of by those with authority and influence. As a White Whistle, Bondrewd commands massive respect among all of society up on Orth, to the point that the orphans he collects willingly go with him down to the Abyss, even volunteering for the trip and without any clue of what’s in store for them.

The newly transformed Nanachi witnessing pure horror, kept by Bondrewd as an assistant before escaping the facility with Mitty.

The world that Riko, Reg, and Nanachi live in might be beautiful, but it’s also hard and unforgiving. This harsh aspect of the world is built up in a natural way from the beginning of Made in Abyss, so while seeing Riko bleeding from her eyes from the Curse and the horrific human experimentation carried out near the end of the season is terrible, it doesn’t come from nowhere and doesn’t really feel like it’s inserted just for shock value. And it’s not all pure misery, or at least not yet — the season even ends on a positive note, with Riko and Reg sending a note by balloon up to their friends in Orth as they prepare to continue their journey with Nanachi coming along.

The other, more common criticism I’ve seen of Made in Abyss is that it has an unseemly fixation on certain bodily functions and fluids. To put it bluntly, there’s a lot of talk about blood, vomit, piss, and bloody piss (not an exaggeration, that does come up once), and some more generally about nudity and private parts (that last mainly having to do with Reg and him and other characters wondering what a robot needs with those particular parts.)

Aside from plenty of blood and some Curse-related vomiting, we don’t actually see any of this stuff, which is good — most likely this series wouldn’t be hosted on HIDIVE or any other streaming service if that were the case. But some people feel uncomfortable with all this material all the same.

Honestly, snot is bad enough

Considering the fact that most of these characters are just kids, I totally understand that feeling, and there were times I wondered whether this stuff was really necessary. A few times it does feel like the author threw something in just for the hell of it, or maybe for comedic effect (Nanachi telling Reg that Riko has to have medicine injected through the back end, for example.) However, for the most part, I felt the story more or less justified all its talk about bloody piss and so on. While Reg seems to be immune from the Curse of the Abyss, it’s a constant threat to Riko, with symptoms attacking her any time she makes even a slight ascent. Together with the regular physical strain of traveling in this wilderness, the emphasis on the terrible physical effects of the Curse feels pretty natural.

Riko and most of the other characters in this series also have a matter-of-fact attitude towards life and the harsh world they live in. Early on, Nat talks frankly about having to eat rotten and toxic food as an orphan in the poor part of town before he was accepted as an explorer in training, and Nanachi had a similar background before their descent into the Abyss. Riko especially isn’t fazed by anything, a trait she seems to have gotten from her mother — as long as she’s making new discoveries, she doesn’t give a damn. Funny enough, it’s the physically far tougher Reg who has the weak stomach and who gets visibly embarrassed over nudity and the like.

Reg might be a robot, but he acts like and basically identifies as a human. I expect this point will come up later in the series when we learn more about his origins.

For these reasons, I think most of these instances can be either overlooked or accepted as a natural part of the story. Though I should note that I’ve seen far harsher criticisms of the manga and its author Akihito Tsukushi on this point, suggesting that the anime might be toning down some of the weirder aspects of the source material. I can’t say that for sure, anyway, since again I haven’t read the manga. I just dug around on Goodreads last week.

Not that I agree with every review I’ve read on Goodreads. There are some real up-their-own-ass types on that site, so it’s vital to use your own judgment as usual. I don’t even expect anyone to necessarily agree with my opinions here. I just say whatever I feel like on this bullshit blog because it’s the one thing in my life I have any control over at all. A trip down the Abyss doesn’t seem so bad at this point, really.

It’s not all bad, though I don’t know about this water

See, I can’t even go one post without some depression now. That’s life for you. As for this first season of Made in Abyss, I liked it a lot — it was thoughtfully put together, telling a gripping story with interesting characters in a both beautiful and terrifying fantasy world. That said, I get why the more extreme aspects of the series might put some viewers off.

I’m not put off, though. I’ll be moving on to the now-airing second season, but I’ve heard I have to watch the third film Dawn of the Deep Soul first. Apparently the first two films Journey’s Dawn and Wandering Twilight together are just another version of these 13 episodes, so maybe you can get by with watching those instead of the first season if you’re pressed for time, but it’s not necessary to watch both. In any case, you can maybe expect a post about Dawn of the Deep Soul at some point if I have anything to say about it (which considering how damn long this post turned out, I probably will.) Until next time.

 

* Nanachi’s gender is undetermined/never expressed, hence the use of the singular they that I’m honestly still not used to. Still feels awkward to use in writing after constantly having “don’t use singular they” drilled into my head in school, but to hell with that — English doesn’t give us a better option, so that’s what we’ve got. Thanks for fucking nothing, English.

Breaking the fourth wall: A review of Contact (DS)

Contact_boxart

Have you ever wondered whether the characters on the other side of the screen knew you were there, controlling them, fighting with them? Have you ever played a game in which one or more of the characters knew they were being controlled by “the player”?

Well, chances are you haven’t, because Contact was a commercial failure. Published by Atlus and developed by Grasshopper Manufacture under the direction of famous weirdo game maker Suda51, Contact was released in 2006 for the Nintendo DS, which was still a new and fresh system at the time. This game has Suda’s marks all over it: weird story, surreal scenes that don’t make a lot of sense, puzzles with strange solutions, etc.

Above: the Professor and Mochi. Below: the primary game field.

Above: the Professor and Mochi. Below: the primary game field.

The element of Contact that really made it stand out, however, was the fourth-wall-breaking part. The game opens with the Professor, a really professorial-looking man with white hair and a lab coat, who is amazed to see you and starts asking you questions directly. He even addresses you by name (which the game presumably gets from the DS profile.) The Professor, and only the Professor, knows that you exist, and he talks to you throughout the game. Your participation in the game is pretty cleverly woven into the story and mechanics. The game even uses the unique (in 2006) split-screen DS in an interesting way, putting the Professor and Mochi in their lab on the top screen and the main part of the game in the bottom screen.

Oh yeah, and the Professor also has a cat named Mochi. Mochi also knows you exist because you can play with him (i.e. poke him with the stylus) in the save screen.

The player-controlled character throughout the game is “Terry”, a silent kid protagonist who has to help the Professor recover fuel cells to get his spaceship running again. There’s also a plot about evil astronauts, and Terry chases around a girl who may or may not be a villain, but she keeps disappearing for some reason. Despite having played Contact, I don’t really know what the game is about, although this is standard as far as Suda51 games go. Also, since Suda wrote the game, there are a few creepy and vaguely sexual parts in the game despite its E 10+ rating. For example, at one point Terry decides to caress a set of nightwear folded on a female NPC’s bed while he is alone in her house.

You didn't believe me?

Yeah, really

The game itself is pretty simple. It’s a basic adventure game: you move your character around on the field, hit enemies with swords and axes, talk to NPCs, run through dungeons, and find things. Contact also features a set of jobs Terry can take on, such as chef and thief, which modify his abilities. Combat is the weakest aspect of Contact, actually – it’s pretty much “run up again enemies and hit A until they die.” Special abilities and recipes for potions and dishes that modify your stats add something to this combat system, but not much.

Even so, Contact is a good game. It feels like a very “small” game – it’s short (for an adventure/RPG game), the characters are bare sketches, and the combat is as simple as it could possibly be. These qualities might have been the reasons for Contact‘s failure to sell well. However, the game is also bizarre and weirdly fascinating, with a nice soundtrack, an interesting gimmick that doesn’t feel too out of place, and a plot that keeps you at least wondering what the hell is going on. It’s a strange trip into a different world and a pleasant break from my own. I’m happy I played it. Contact takes your morning coffee and puts a drop of fairy juice in it and messes around with your brain-wires a bit, and sometimes that’s just what you need.

So if you like Suda51 and you don’t mind a kind of crappy combat system, I’d highly recommend Contact. It’s not the greatest game of all time by any means, but it also didn’t deserve to be almost totally ignored. If you find a copy for ten dollars (probably without the manual and box, but such is life) give it a try.

Takeshi’s Challenge: Shitty game yesterday, masterpiece today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7

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

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

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

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

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

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

10

You sure told us, Mr. Kitano!

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

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

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

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

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

Retrospective: Riven

Welcome to Puzzle Island

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

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

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

A scene from Riven.

A scene from Riven.

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

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

Riven, aka Puzzle Island(s)

They really enjoy solid gold spinny domes in Riven.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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