Answering and posing 11 questions for the Sunshine Blogger Award

Nobody who knows me in real life, or who even reads this site for more than a few minutes, could possibly use the word “sunshine” to describe me, except sarcastically.  Even so, I have to thank Red Metal of Extra Life for nominating me for the Sunshine Blogger Award.  As part of this nomination, Red Metal put eleven questions to me and the other nominees, which I’ve done my best to answer below.  If any of my answers seem like cop-outs, rest assured that that is completely intentional.

1) In which cases would you deem the manga superior to the anime on which it’s based?

Mahjong Legend Akagi is still near the top of the list of my favorite anime series, but the manga is better if only for the fact that it’s continuing to tell the story of Akagi’s mahjong deathmatch (a literal deathmatch) with the insane billionaire Washizu, while the anime had to cut the story off partway through… because the damn manga wasn’t done yet.  More generally, I’d say any work that goes through what TV Tropes calls “adaptation decay” falls in this category.  I’m not a big manga reader, though.  I can definitely say that anime series based on video games usually are not as good as their source material.

2) Which game do you feel has the best soundtrack?

There are a lot of great game soundtracks out there, so it’s hard for me to pin down one that’s the best. I’ll cheat here and say NieR:Gestalt/Replicant and NieR:Automata together. The two soundtracks do have some thematic links, just like their respective games, so I think it works to lump them together. Everything about these soundtracks is amazing.  In different parts they’re delicate and emotional, sweeping and operatic, powerful, crushing… well, I can’t really do it justice with words, so you should just listen to the music.  You can find most or all of their contents on Youtube, though they’re both well worth a buy.

As a pair of very close runners-up, I’ll put up the Persona and Ar tonelico series.

3) If you could revive a dead video games series, which one would you choose?

No need to even think about this one – Skies of Arcadia. Since there was only one Skies of Arcadia game (I’m not counting the Gamecube remaster) it’s not exactly a series, but I’d love to see a sequel, even though the chances of that happening now are lower than the chances of my winning the Powerball.

Well, a man can dream, anyway.

4) What game/film/album/book did you have a particularly difficult time adding to your collection?

I really had to dig around for a physical copy of a single album by Tokyo Active NEETs.  They’re a doujin music group based in Tokyo (obvious I guess) and their stuff typically has to be imported, if it’s even available for sale online.

Same goes for any limited-release physical copy of an album I want.  I was very happy to get the CD release of Moe Shop’s Moe Moe EP, even though I had to import it from Japan.  The damn thing sold out in a few hours.  It’s probably stupid that I’m into collecting physical copies of albums, games, and books, but there’s always the chance that a Carrington Event could happen and melt worldwide electrical grids and damage equipment, and there go your precious mp3 files.

5) Do you prefer to see a film at home or in the theaters?

When my depression is tamped down enough to get me out of the house on a weekend, I’ve always enjoyed going to the theater. Even if the movie turns out to be lousy, it can still be a good time if I’m with friends, especially if it’s a “funny bad” kind of movie. When I’m at home, I prefer to play games.

6) In what cases did you find yourself siding with critics over fans about a work’s quality?

This is a hard one. I guess I like some of the 80s pop stuff created by formerly ultra-artsy prog-rock bands like Yes and Genesis that’s praised by critics but shunned by a lot of hardcore fans (Yes a lot more, honestly – 90125 is a legit good album.)  This answer is one of my cop-outs, though, because I like most of their 70s prog work a lot more than their 80s work, and Genesis was total crap from Invisible Touch until they broke up.  Just listen to a Phil Collins solo album and you’ll get the idea.  (Better still, don’t.)

7) In what cases did you find yourself siding with fans over critics about a work’s quality?

The Sonic Adventure games. I haven’t reviewed either of them here, though I did take a look at a related soundtrack a while back in which I called them a mixed bag. I still feel that way, but on balance I do have a lot of fun playing them, especially Sonic Adventure 2. No, they’re not perfect games by any means; yes, they do have absolutely stupid plots that make no sense (especially SA2.) But they don’t deserve the evisceration they get from critics today.

More generally, I side with Sonic fans about the series’ quality for the first ten years of its run, and I’ll fight tooth and nail with critics who claim that Sonic has “never been good.” Sure, there have been plenty of mediocre to poor Sonic games, but that’s no reason to paint them all with the same brush. The Genesis games are still absolute classics.

8) What is the most difficult game you’ve completed?

In terms of cheapness factor, probably Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, though there may be a few old RPGs I played that I’m forgetting about. Nocturne features a lot of old-school difficulty in the sense that it almost never holds your hand or tells you what’s coming next. SMT: Strange Journey is even more difficult, despite the fact that it lets you save almost anywhere – but I’m ashamed to say I have not beaten it yet.  YHVH damn you, Mem Aleph.

9) Which game series have you been following for the longest amount of time?

The two series I still follow religiously are Megami Tensei (starting with Persona 3 in 2006) and Disgaea (starting with Disgaea: Hour of Darkness all the way back in 2003.) In a broader sense, I’ve been following the Mario and Sonic series for longer than either of those, but I’m not an ultra-dedicated fan of either, not even of Sonic, despite all the praise I was heaping on the Genesis games up in answer #7.  I still follow Megami Tensei for the variety of gameplay and stories the series offers, from the crushing existentialist terror of Strange Journey to the schlocky fanservice of Persona 4: Dancing All Night and the Arena games, and Disgaea for the characters and the insane level of post-game content available in every game in the series.

Etna is one of my favorite characters in any game, period. Not very trustworthy, though.

10) In what ways do you feel video game critics to be ahead of their film-loving counterparts?

If we’re talking professional video game critics/journalists, I certainly have my problems with them, but I do think they tend to be more in tune with the tastes of the consumer.  A lot of it comes down to the distinction between high and popular art that I consider totally artificial.  There’s good art and bad art (of course, these definitions are subjective) but how do you draw a clear line between “high” and “low” art?  Good art is good art, no matter what other labels you care to hang on it.  PC and video games are still a young medium, a medium that’s looked down upon by many critics of other media.  So I think a lot of video game critics don’t make that same high/low distinction with games that critics of film, music, theater, etc. make.

As the medium continues to “mature”, though, I think that will change.  We’ve already been seeing this with pieces by game critics calling certain kinds of games “unacceptable” and “immature”.  If maturity means that PC and video games generally become more mainstream, corporate, and safe, I think I prefer immaturity.  But nobody asks me what I prefer when it comes to video games or anything else in the world.

11) How does hype factor into how you ultimately feel about a work?

I’d like to say it doesn’t, but that wouldn’t be true. When a game turns out to be less than expected in quality, I’m more disappointed according to the level of hype the game was receiving beforehand. Mighty No. 9 is a good example. I did not give a single flying fuck about all the drama surrounding the community manager genderbending the main character in fanart or whatever that controversy was about, but I ended up disliking the game anyway because it wasn’t that great in terms of level design and control, and I think the game probably received more hate than it deserved just because expectations were so high at the outset. As I get older, I grow more cynical, though, so I don’t buy into hype quite like I used to.

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I held up my end of the bargain.  Now here are my questions.  Almost everything I write about on this site is on games and music, but I tried to keep my questions open to fans of all kinds of media.

1) What’s your favorite or most-used medium for entertainment?

2) What character in a work of fiction would you inhabit and why?  (Assuming you’re experiencing the entire storyline of the game/novel/film/whatever as this character.)

3) What work would you wipe all memories of from your brain if you could so that you could experience it all over again?

4) What’s the most annoying trend occurring in your favorite medium today?

5) What’s the most promising trend occurring in your favorite medium today?

6) How much or how little romance do you like in your games/films/novels/etc.?

7) If you had to be the ruler of one country in any work of fiction, which one would you pick?

8) Do you think virtual reality will improve anytime in the near future to the extent that it’s actually worth using?  Or are we already at that point?

9) I’ve heard people say that the novel is a dying form of art and that changes in attention span length and the constant multitasking our generation is involved in will make them obsolete.  If you have an opinion on that matter, do you agree or disagree?

10) Are you optimistic about the future of the human race?

11) Cake or pie?  (There’s only one right answer.)

And here are the 11 (edit: 12.  I can’t count.) people/sites I’m tagging.  Yeah, for once I’m following the rules of the game.  If you’ve already been tagged, or doing this kind of thing just isn’t your style, feel free to ignore my questions.  Of course, anyone else is also free to take part if they feel like it.

Retro Freak Reviews

Otaku Orbit

Strange Girl Gaming

Games Revisited

Otaku Alcove

Home Button

Blimps Go 180

Hi-Fi Adventures

The Bibliophagist

NekoJonez

Wordynerdbird

Shoot the Rookie

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Music to hear with your ears and brain: Moe Shop

I am going through a horribly stressful period in my life right now in which my inevitable death seems more like a comforting promise made by a friend than a threat made by an enemy. What can relieve this feeling? Maybe drugs, and certainly alcohol. But also good music. Namely Moe Moe, the latest EP release by French group Moe Shop.  These guys put together funk basslines and synths straight out of the 70s/80s and join them with cute female vocals.  Moreover, every song on the EP is hypnotically catchy.  See above for my favorite track, “Virtual”.  However, unlike previous Moe Shop EPs featuring absolute standouts like “You Look So Good”, this one is extremely even throughout. If you like this kind of music, moe moe disco/funk like Parliament-Funkadelic if it was entirely composed of cute anime girls, you should check out Moe Shop. Moreover, they wrote the ultimate yandere girl anthem seen below (highly NSFW, I guess???) What more do you want in your entertainment. You can’t get this shit from LA or Nashville or Atlanta.

Soundtrack review: Cowboy Bebop (all four main OSTs)

Yeah, so I took another one of my month-long breaks from writing.  In this case, I hope I can excuse myself by saying that I started a new job and the pace of it has been nearly killing me.  When I get home the last thing I feel like doing is writing.  Still, I felt like writing something at least, if only to assure my millions of readers that I’m not quite dead yet.  As a way to relax after an especially stressful day at work last week, I started rewatching the amazing Cowboy Bebop, the second anime series I watched in my life after Neon Genesis Evangelion.  While Eva doesn’t quite hold up over time (it’s still good, but way more impressive when you’re an edgy 12 year-old boy like I was when I watched it) Cowboy Bebop totally does hold up, every bit as well as it did when I first saw it on Adult Swim ages ago.

So I thought about writing about Cowboy Bebop as a part of my long-dead “Anime for people who hate anime” series.  I gave up on that idea, though, because there’s no point.  Everyone already knows Bebop as that one anime that you can recommend to your normie friends without them thinking you’re a big nerd or a pervert.  I can’t say anything about the series that hasn’t already been said.

I can write about the music, though.  I’ve listened to my entire four-album Cowboy Bebop soundtrack playlist on my commutes about seven times over now, and it isn’t even getting old.  Out of all four albums, almost all the tracks are great.  As the show’s name implies, Cowboy Bebop features both a lot of American country-western-sounding music (Spokey Dokey, Don’t Bother None, Forever Broke) and a lot of jazz (OP theme Tank!, Rush, Odd Ones.)  But there’s a lot more that composer Yoko Kanno and her band The Seatbelts have to offer – straight up rock (Want It All Back), Queen-style operatics (Rain), weirdness (Cats on Mars), and a crooner ballad (Words That We Couldn’t Say) that I don’t like very much but that at least has enough care put into the music and lyrics that they’re not brimming with cheese.  And a god damn great recording of Ave Maria performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic just for the show.  If I have any favorites among the four albums I’ve got, though, they’re probably Piano Black and See You Space Cowboy.  And Wo Qui Non Coin, which might make you cry if you know the whole context of the song with regard to the show.  Not that I’ve ever cried while listening to music or watching a show.  No.  Not me.  I’m a tough guy, got it?

The soundtrack to this show is so damn good that it is absolutely worth buying all four albums, even if you have to import them.*  As far as I can tell, none of the albums are any better than the others; they each have a lot of great tracks from the series that are essential to have.  Though I guess I should mention that Vitaminless is about half the length of the others, but if you skip it you’re missing out on the ED theme The Real Folk Blues and the weirdly hilarious Black Coffee, featuring dialogue between a guy continuously asking a girl out for coffee (“aw, come on, just this time”) and the girl continuously refusing (“nnnno!”) over a jazz accompaniment.  I know how that feels, guy.  I’m sorry.

I’m lazy, so that’s all I’m going to write – aside from my rating, which is a perfect 7 for every single one of these albums.  Just listen to the music.  Or better yet, hear the music when you watch the show.  The music on its own is great, but it’s a lot better if you’ve seen Cowboy Bebop.  The series uses music in a way that few other series do, anime or not.

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*Of course there’s an alternative to buying these soundtracks, but I’ll leave that to your imagination.

Anime for people who hate anime: Planetes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NHK satou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retrospective: Saya no Uta

It’s Election Day here in the United States. I went to the polls today, in fact, though I didn’t really much like either of the choices I was given. It’s hard to get excited about electoral races in a two-party system.

Why do I bring this up? Because today I’m also taking a look at a game that I’m surprised wasn’t banned by law in the US, because it definitely walks some sort of line – definitely the sort of game that any good “family values” interest group would try to have dumped into the gutters if it had enough notoriety.

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Some games are damn near impossible to review, and Saya no Uta (eng: Saya’s Song) is one of them. This 2003 visual novel was released by Nitroplus, a prolific developer also responsible for big names like Steins;gate and Phantom of Inferno. Nitroplus’ work tends to be pretty dark, and Saya is no exception.

Saya no Uta tells the story of Fuminori, a medical student who is involved in a car accident and is badly injured. To save him, his doctors undertake an experimental procedure. Fuminori survives, but at great cost: the entire world and everyone in it now appear completely grotesque and horrific in his eyes. All of his friends and associates look like monsters made of rotten meat (and stink as well.) Of course, the world hasn’t changed at all – only Fuminori’s perception of it. This fact doesn’t really help, though, even as Fuminori tries to continue living his normal life.

Fuminori, wearing the expression of a man who has just finished his exams after two weeks of binge studying and isn't convinced that he didn't fail all of them.  I know that look because I've had it.

Fuminori, wearing the expression of a man who has just finished his exams after two weeks of binge studying and isn’t convinced that he didn’t fail all of them. I know that look because I’ve had it.

Only one thing sustains him: the existence of a girl, Saya, the only person around who looks to Fuminori like a normal human being. Saya is a mysterious girl who approaches him shortly after his accident, seemingly without anyplace to call home, and Fuminori subsequently clings to Saya as the last thing in his life that seems at all pure or good. However, Saya isn’t merely a girl without a home – she’s something much more, and her relationship with Fuminori ends up driving him to extremes that he could never have imagined.

Saying anything else about the plot would spoil the game. All I’ll say is that it is one of the best VNs I’ve played as far as writing and emotional impact go. (For you anime fans, Saya no Uta was written by Gen Urobuchi, also responsible for writing the popular series Puella Magi Madoka Magica.) It’s short, too; just around five hours or so, and there are only a few endings, so Saya isn’t a massive time investment like other VNs tend to be.

She looks like a typical cutesy anime girl, but Saya isn't what she seems.

She looks like a typical cutesy anime girl, but Saya isn’t what she seems.

Warning: Saya no Uta is a hentai game. That’s to say that there are sex scenes in it. More alarmingly, Saya’s appearance and mannerisms (she comes off something like a young teenager, although the anime style adds some ambiguity to that) may seriously turn some people off. However, none of this bothered me too much, firstly because Saya doesn’t exactly have an age, at least as we understand it, and secondly because Saya no Uta is the only h-game I’ve played in which the sex scenes actually added to the game’s story instead of simply being some beat-off material shoved between normal scenes to sell more copies (I’m looking at you, Fate Stay/Night, but you’re not the only suspect.) In any case, the sex scenes in this game aren’t really made for that sort of thing, and I didn’t feel especially dirty for reading them. I did feel creeped out, but that’s exactly the feeling the makers were aiming for, after all. Together with the rough (in a good way) art style and the haunting soundtrack, Nitroplus succeeds at creating a strong atmosphere with Saya that you might feel drawn into.

So I feel like a creep now, writing about what’s technically a porn game (though I would argue it absolutely isn’t one in spirit, even if it does sit in the h-game category.) But hey, that’s why my blog is anonymous. God bless anonymity, right?

Anyway, Saya no Uta is up for sale through JAST here (of course, you can also buy the original in Japanese if you understand it.) JAST localizes a lot of Japanese VNs, and they apparently haven’t censored Saya at all, which is nice – censoring the game would pretty much kill the whole point of it. It’s supposed to be a little shocking, after all. But please don’t play it if you’re under 18 or you have a weak stomach. There, you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Retrospective: Disgaea

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I’m a big fan of Nippon Ichi Software. Their approach to the strategy RPG is unique, and their games have a light comedic quality that’s a real breath of fresh air in a genre that is choked with seriousness and end-of-the-world scenarios and angst-filled heroes (SRPGs as a whole aren’t as guilty of this sort of thing as more typical turn-based JRPG titles are, but they’ve got their fair share of DRAMA.)

NIS, a Japanese developer (if you couldn’t tell from their name – “Japan’s Best” I think it means?) started out getting notoriety with the release of Marl Kingdom for the Playstation. I’ve never played Marl Kingdom, but it is apparently an RPG about a teenage girl in a fairytale land with a puppet girl as her best friend and is full of Disneyesque musical numbers. For a reason that is totally impossible to understand, this game was stamped with the title Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure and imported to the US, where I’m pretty sure 98% of Playstation owners at the time were teenage boys who wouldn’t be caught dead with such a game in their Playstations (well, I know because I was one of them.) So the game flopped Stateside. NIS followed up with the SRPG La Pucelle Tactics for the PS2, which I have played, and it really tones down the pure unadulterated cheese of Marl Kingdom. You play as a tomboy nun-in-training who’s also a member of an elite demon-hunting team. So that’s different right there.

Prier, the protagonist of La Pucelle Tactics

Prier, the protagonist of La Pucelle Tactics

It’s still a pretty obscure game here, but La Pucelle must have been a relative success in the States, because big-time developer and publisher Atlus took a chance on 2003’s Disgaea and published it in the US. And Disgaea was definitely a hit – it would become the first title in a long line of sequels, spinoffs and ports to portable systems.

So what is Disgaea exactly? For the novice, imagine an SRPG – say a Fire Emblem or Shining Force game – with soldier and mage sort of characters moving around on a grid and attacking each other. Now replace these soldiers and mages with demons and monsters that have 500,000 HP, 300,000 MP and attacks that can bring down meteors and giant lasers upon their opponents. Every turn. Also, exploding penguins. That’s Disgaea.

Step 1: Become the Overlord of the Netherworld.  Step 2: Laugh menacingly inside your huge castle.

Step 1: Become the Overlord of the Netherworld. Step 2: Laugh menacingly inside your huge castle.

Disgaea tells the story of Laharl, the son of the king of the Netherworld, who unbeknownst to him has been dead for two years (because Laharl has been taking a two-year nap, you see.) Laharl, who now believes himself to have inherited the title of Overlord from his dead father, decides to show all his new vassals that he means business. Sadly for him, nobody seems to accept this kid as their new king, so he’ll have to use some force to get his subjects to obey him.

Laharl doesn't get much respect initially, no.

Laharl doesn’t get much respect initially, no.

Even worse, an angelic assassin has been sent from Celestia to kill him. Fortunately for Laharl, she’s new to the job and doesn’t really know what she’s doing (see top of page.) Together with his “loyal” vassal, Etna, the three of them end up having wacky Netherworld antics together. Or something. It’s definitely a nice story, and in 2003 Disgaea stood out for its humor where most other games in the genre were deadly serious. Juvenile jokes are mixed up with references to the Power Rangers (or old sentai shows if you’re from Japan) and 50s sci-fi serial Buck Rogers-type stuff. It’s a weird mix, to be sure, and it could be dismissed as a lot of pointless goofiness, but I think it works.

A pretty basic Disgaea battle

A pretty basic Disgaea battle

Gameplay-wise, as good for its time as La Pucelle was, Disgaea outdid it in every category. Disgaea is more or less divided into two parts: the initial game, which covers the main story, and the post-game, which is totally optional and can potentially go on forever if you let it. The core of the gameplay should be familiar to anyone who’s touched an SRPG before. You have your units and move them around on a map divided into squares on a big diagonal grid. The object of each map is usually to kill all the enemy units, though there are also maps where the goal is to reach a particular space on the map.

Disgaea has a lot more to offer than its regular missions, though – specifically two innovations that have become a staple of the series. The Dark Assembly (or the Dark Senate) is the first. Here, you can choose one of your characters to present a “bill” to an assembly of other demons who will vote on it. Subjects for debate include opening up new post-game areas, getting triple exp on the next map played, and even extorting money from the senators. If your bill fails, you even have the option of forcing it through – by beating up all the nay-voting senators in the assembly.

Like this, but with more swords and magic spells.

The second innovation in Disgaea is the Item World. The Item World is a truly devilish gameplay element. It allows you to level up any item in the game by playing through a succession of maps “inside” that item (it’s weird, I know.) Most items contain 30 levels, but some have 60 and some 100. Each level is designed to be beatable but is otherwise more or less randomly generated. The Item World is infuriatingly addictive and may well comprise the part of Disgaea you spend the most time playing.

An actual Item World level.  They're usually not this easy, believe me.

An actual Item World level. They’re usually not this easy, believe me.

Together with the ability to create new units from dozens of different character types and classes that can fight alongside the story characters, Disgaea offered an insane amount of customization and depth when it came out. I played the hell out of it and loved every minute, and that’s why I’m now an NIS fanboy. Not the proudest of badges to wear, but I will wear it all the same.

Disgaea has spawned three sequels featuring different casts and stories (Disgaea 2, 3 and 4), a direct sequel featuring the original cast (Disgaea D2), a bunch of SRPG spinoffs with different stories and different gameplay mechanics (Makai Kingdom, Phantom Brave, Soul Nomad and the World Eaters), a couple of stupidly difficult PSP platformers (Prinny 1 and 2), a weird visual novel sort of thing (Disgaea Infinite), a sort of crappy looking anime adaptation, and a truckload of portable system ports for the PSP, the Vita, and the DS (basically one for every Disgaea game and then some.) It also inspired this cross-stitch of one of its main characters, Etna:

To be honest, later Disgaea games have really improved on the old formula, especially the third one; Disgaea 3 is a great title that I like about as much as the original. Still, the original is the original and should get some respect. The original Disgaea is currently out in its PS2 original and as a port to the DS and the PSP. Of the two ports, the PSP one is definitely better, though the DS port has a couple of extras that fans might like (like the opportunity to get fan favorite silent girl Pleinair as a playable character.)

Pleinair doesn't talk.   That's her thing.  She has a sentient stuffed rabbit toy that sometimes talks for her.  No, I don't get it.

Pleinair doesn’t talk. That’s her thing. She has a sentient stuffed rabbit toy that sometimes talks for her. No, I don’t get it.

So if you’re unemployed and need something to do between searching for jobs, or you’re in solitary confinement for life and somehow get to have a PSP or Vita in your cell with you, I highly recommend Disgaea. I’d also recommend Disgaea 3, which is just as good cast-wise and has tons more content (and also looks prettier, being a PS3 game.) You can’t really go wrong with either one. The only danger involved is that you’ll become an NIS fanboy/girl, which is not really a fate I can recommend. Well, better than being a brony, I guess.