US copyright law needs to be reformed (feat. Liru)

Standard disclaimer: This post deals with both a hentai game and copyright law. If you’re under 18/don’t want to read about a hentai game, don’t read this, or at least don’t complain if you don’t like it. Also, absolutely nothing in this post constitutes legal advice. If you want legal advice, consult your own lawyer, because I’m sure as fuck not giving that out for free or letting anyone claim they relied on the stupid speculative shit I’m writing here. You probably already knew all this, but as usual I still have to write it. Now for the good stuff.

Here’s a game I’ve had sitting around for a while now. Starting this game up again raised a few unexpected questions in my mind. For example: what would happen to an American developer if he tried to sell a game featuring the protagonist boning a licensed character from an American property? If he didn’t have the license to use that character in his game, how quickly would the copyright holder’s attorneys jump on him? And should he even have to worry about that sort of thing?

If you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, this is Ookami Shoujo to Issho, or Wolf Girl With You. It’s a doujin game that took h-game creator Seismic so long to make it turned into a joke, people online referring to the planned release for years as Wolf Girl Never Ever With You. But as you can see, it came out, because I played it. And it’s just what it looks like: a sort of slice-of-life thing where you return home every night and experience some domestic bliss with Liru, your happy and energetic werewolf girlfriend. Both Liru and the anime series she originally came from, Renkin 3-kyuu Magical? Pokaan, seem to be pretty much forgotten now, but I remember her being a big deal in the mid-2000s. That’s her normal outfit from the show in the title screen above, so you can probably see one reason why she was so popular, but she also had that animal-eared girl appeal. So it’s no surprise that I had this game lying around.

So Liru is your live-in girlfriend, and you get scenes with her, and they mostly either involve having dinner or sex. There are several scenes you can unlock depending on what you say to her when you have dialogue options available. It’s all very sweet and happy stuff, and you could even say it warms the heart a bit — sort of like Nekopara, only while Nekopara in its 18+ form was maybe 80% slice-of-life banter and 20% sex, this one flips that ratio around, featuring barely any story to speak of but a whole lot of fucking. Also, that model of Liru is animated and 3D, and there’s serious bounce there as you’d expect, and her lines are even voiced (though in Japanese only.) What more can you ask for, really.

I won’t put up any sex scenes here because I try not to just post porn on this site, but you can find them in five seconds with a Google search if you feel like it.

I guess Wolf Girl With You was so popular even among western fans that we got an official English version (note: link is NSFW for obvious reasons) which is otherwise not very common when it comes to doujin works like this. It’s honestly pretty easy to get the gist of what’s going on with minimal knowledge of Japanese, though. You might not really need any Japanese at all; it’s not a very complicated game.

Returning to the question of copyright I raised at the top, it’s pretty funny how a game like this can do so well for its creator in Japan — this is apparently the best-selling game ever released on the Japanese ero/h-game vendor DLSite. Here in the States, assuming the developer didn’t already have a license to use the character, I think there’s no way one or more threatening cease and desist letters wouldn’t have gone out from the corporate IP owner followed by a complaint in court if the C&D letter(s) were ignored. I’m not going to assume anything at all about what Seismic is doing, because for all I know his game is a licensed work. But there certainly are a whole lot of doujin artists who don’t have such licenses and are still able to sell their work.1

I much prefer this more relaxed attitude towards intellectual property and fanworks, and not just because I like hentai games about licensed wolf girl characters (as much as I like Liru, Holo is still best wolf.) Copyright law can and should protect the author’s right to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but there’s a limit to how far that protection should extend, and here in the States thanks largely to the efforts of certain massive media empires, that protection is extended much too far.

Original character do not steal

Codified at 17 U.S.C. §§ 101 – 810, US copyright law is designed to protect “writings”, a term that’s now broadly interpreted to include many forms of expression. As you might imagine, this extends to character creation. If you played Persona 5 (and chances are good if you’re reading my Megami Tensei-obsessed blog) you might remember a classroom question about Maurice Leblanc, the French author of stories featuring the protagonist’s Persona, gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, and also Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was understandably pissed off about Leblanc using Holmes and sued him over it. Leblanc lost, but in a response that puts modern-day trolls to shame, he simply moved one letter around, renaming the character “Herlock Sholmes”, and was able to continue selling his stories.

The saga of Sherlock Holmes-related copyright battles extended all the way to a US Supreme Court case in 2014, but the most relevant part of it comes out of that initial Doyle-Leblanc fight. Specific characters are protected by copyright, but broad character types are not. It’s pretty obvious why this is: if an author were able to copyright a certain style of character or story, everything would be protected by copyright and no one would be allowed to sell works without paying whoever holds that particular right, effectively stifling the creation of new fiction.

This brings us back to the case of Liru and the fangame she stars in. The Liru featured in Wolf Girl With You seems fundamentally the same character as the one in Magical Pokaan, right down to her personality quirks and the unusual outfit she wears. Yet it doesn’t seem like the maker has had any problem selling his work. The same is true of thousands of doujin artists who produce and sell fan comics twice a year at Tokyo’s massive Comiket conventions.

Under US law, these would very likely fall into the category of derivative works, which make use of copyrightable aspects of existing works (in this case, characters and sometimes elements of the world they live in) to create something otherwise new and original. The authors of such derivative works can claim copyright protection, but only for those original elements they add — the characters and other elements they borrow are not themselves copyrightable by the derivative work author according to 17 U.S.C. § 103(b).

However, although games like Wolf Girl With You and many of the other doujin games, comics, and fanworks in the market would almost certainly be considered derivative works, US law also requires that the author of the derivative work be licensed by the original copyright holder, not just to sell it, but even to produce it in the first place. To me, this is where the trouble starts, specifically with the length of time that copyright protection in the US extends. Because for works created and “fixed in a tangible expression of medium”2 on or after January 1, 1978, that protection extends for the author’s entire life plus 70 years, or in the case of multiple authors 70 years past the death of the last surviving author. And in the case of works made for hire, which would usually include works produced by a corporation, that protection lasts for either 95 years from the date of first publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter.

There’s a complicated mess of other rules applying to works made before 1978, to sound recordings, and to works created under certain uncommon circumstances, but this is probably enough to illustrate just how long copyright protection lasts in the United States: for stupidly long periods of time. These periods have also been extended by Congress, thanks largely to political pressure applied by major copyright holders (Disney is usually the one “credited” in their efforts to protect Mickey Mouse from falling into the public domain, but they’re not the only ones responsible.)

This photo result I came across under the search term “old mouse” is the closest thing to a public domain image of Mickey I could find. Also, though they’ve produced some great films, fuck Disney now for both this and various other reasons.

I certainly support the artist’s right to protect their work. Hell, I should — I hold the rights to everything I’ve written on this site, and I’d be pissed if someone copypasted one of my posts somewhere without asking me, providing a link, and giving proper credit. However, that protection should have a more realistic limit. Compare the time periods listed above to those in patent law, which protects the exclusive rights over new inventions and processes for either 14 or 20 years from the date of filing for an application with the US Patent and Trademark Office. In these cases, the benefits enjoyed by the patent holder are protected, but not for a ridiculously long period of time. There’s good reason to protect patent for a shorter period than copyright (for example, to allow pharmaceutical companies to start making generic versions of brand-name drugs, hopefully at lower prices) but the century-plus copyright protections we now have are still extremely excessive.

Moreover, these periods have been continually extended by Congress, most recently in 1998, and there’s no reason to believe these extensions won’t continue into the distant future. It’s worth asking whether the interests of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original artists in exclusively profiting off of their works outweigh the interests of the public in having works available to freely republish and enjoy without permission in the public domain.

Thankfully, copyright holders generally seem to tolerate unauthorized uses of their characters in the US and broadly online, at least when they’re not sold for profit, as with fanfiction. And sometimes even when they are — anyone who’s ever visited the artists’ alley in an anime, fantasy, or sci-fi con has seen hundreds of artistic depictions of popular copyrighted characters being sold without an army of lawyers descending upon the operation. Of course, it’s not like the copyright holders don’t realize what’s going on. Presumably most of them tolerate that much because cracking down would give them bad press, and perhaps they even see the use of their characters as a sign of their popularity and as an overall positive.

I spent four days of hell at the Baltimore Convention Center once, but I’d still do it again. I miss anime cons.

Even so, the copyright holders still hold the right to descend upon any artists who make unlicensed, unauthorized use of their characters. That right generally isn’t in question, even if an artist can successfully argue that fair use protects them in a particular case (which is a harder defense to sustain in these circumstances than many people realize.)3 The problem lies in the law itself, which has been repeatedly adjusted to ensure that most works made and published in the 20th century don’t fall into the public domain. As I see it, in this case as in many others, the individual right should be balanced against the social good — here, the rights of artists and their descendants to enjoy the fruits of those labors against the public interest in keeping old art alive and accessible. Which is certainly something I think government has a duty to regulate, instead of simply bending over for big copyright holders as they’ve always done. Not that I have any particular hope of that happening. It’s all about who has the deepest pockets, after all.

Which brings me back to Liru once again. As far as I know, she first showed up with the rest of the cast of Magical Pokaan when the original anime series aired in 2006, so the matter of public domain isn’t that relevant to her or to many other characters now used in fanmade works. However, the idea of the public domain and the benefits it provides to everyone does apply in this case, at least in a general sense. Even if there’s no question that the copyright holder has the right to prevent the creation of derivative works based on their character without permission, it can be to their benefit to have a permissive attitude towards the use of their characters by fans.

Of course, not every IP owner might be comfortable with letting people sell porn games starring their characters or even offer them to the public for free. That’s understandable, especially if they’re trying to maintain a family-friendly all-ages atmosphere (see Nintendo’s recent DMCA takedown of an NSFW Newgrounds game starring Princess Peach.) However, there’s something to be said for letting things go at a certain point. Speaking again of Persona 5, a few years ago Atlus received massive backlash for trying to strictly police streams of that game, even though they were arguably within their rights to do so. Perhaps as a result of this backlash, they seem to have eased up on such policies.

While that had to do with streaming and not the creation of fanart, I think a very similar principle is at work here.4 It’s really in everyone’s interests to allow plenty of leeway for fans to show their appreciation for the works they enjoy, which may involve the creation, display, and even to some extent the sale of fanworks whether licensed or unlicensed. There’s certainly a line to be crossed somewhere in this area — for example, if someone’s trying to pass off bootleg “official” merchandise — but I generally feel that if there’s no possibility of confusion over whether a work is official or fanmade, a more permissive attitude should prevail, and I hope that’s the new standard we’re approaching in the West.

Anyway, thanks for joining me for this serious legal analysis post. If you’re a staff member at Harvard Law looking for a new professor, send me a DM and we’ll talk.

As always, I’d like to know what you, the reader, think about this issue if you have an opinion. There’s clearly an ethical/moral element to this matter aside from the legal one, and I recognize that some creators might have reasons for wanting to maintain control over how their characters are used by fans. I’d also like to hear from fan artists if any are around, since a lot of my assumptions about how these laws are actually enforced here come from my secondhand perspective as a fan and buyer. And of course, I’m also interested in hearing from other fans like me. As usual, I don’t really have the answers — I only end up asking more questions. 𒀭

1 Here’s where I admit that I know nothing about Japanese law, so I can’t really comment on any potential issues that could arise in Japan over copyright matters. This is only going off of a possibly mistaken assumption that the fundamentals of copyright law in Japan aren’t that different from those in the United States. If they aren’t, then clearly at least the approach to enforcement there is very different.

2 This “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” requirement has its own whole complicated factors test that I won’t get into, since all the works we’re dealing with here are undoubtedly fixed in this way. However, in some cases, this requirement can place certain performances outside the scope of federal copyright law.

3 But note that if an IP owner sits on the right to enforce their copyright for a long time, they may end up effectively losing it — the doctrine of equitable estoppel lets the alleged infringer argue that since the IP owner knew and was clearly not bothered about the unlicensed use of their IP, they shouldn’t be allowed to suddenly change their minds about it. There’s a fundamental matter of fairness involved here; the idea is that other users may reasonably rely on the IP owner’s inaction as a sign that they’re taking a permissive attitude.

Like other forms of equitable defense, it’s absolutely not a sure thing, though. As always, every case has its own quirks and has to be taken on its own.

4 However, by contrast streaming is still in a gray area. I might get into the fair use doctrine and transformative art as they relate to streaming in a later post.

Deep reads #5.2: That was cheap

Here’s a fun Hardcore History-style disclaimer: This is part two in a multi-part feature on the Megami Tensei game series. If you haven’t read part one, here’s a link — I recommend reading that first before proceeding to get the proper context if you need it. But if you just want to dive in here, that’s totally up to you.

You can also read this disclaimer in Dan Carlin’s voice if you want. But if I had his voice, I’d probably be podcasting instead of writing a blog. Anyway, on with the show.

“Cheap” is a term that gets thrown around a lot when players die in games in ways they feel to be unfair. I don’t know if it’s possible to pin down exactly what a cheap death is, or where specifically a death goes from “okay, that was my fault” to “fuck this cheating piece of shit game” along with a possible thrown/broken controller.

Maybe the best way to define cheap in this case is to use that famous definition of pornography given by US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it.”1 The best example I can give of just such an “I know it when I see it” instance is this.

I like the detail on his sarcophagus, though. Kazuma Kaneko pays a lot of attention to detail in his designs.

That’s a compilation made by YouTube user Jim Reaper of parts of the boss battle against Mot, an Egyptian god of death, in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. This fight occurs at a point fairly late in the game when the part-human part-demon protagonist Demifiend is running through the Vortex World, a small sort of bubble universe containing the ruins of Tokyo. After fighting through the somehow perfectly preserved Diet Building, Demifiend is forced to face this sarcophogus-encased asshole to proceed.

Mot normally shouldn’t be a big problem at this point in the game if you’ve built up a team of demon allies with diverse strengths and abilities. However, he has a trump card that he’ll decide to pull if you’re unlucky: Beast Eye. This is the weaker of two special abilities that gives the user extra half-turns denoted by the flashing icon in the upper right.

Essentially, Beast Eye and the even stronger Dragon Eye let you get more turns for free, something like wishing for more wishes from a genie. Only bosses can use this move; for obvious reasons neither Demifiend nor any of his allies gets to use either of them (including boss demons that become recruitable or fuseable after they’re defeated.)2 This would be cheap enough, but Mot alone among all his boss colleagues can use Beast Eye multiple times in one turn. It doesn’t happen in every fight, but when Mot remembers he has that ability, he can effectively deny the player his turn, using a combination of Beast Eye, buffs, and powerful Almighty magic attacks that can’t be nullified to kill Demifiend and company even if they’re fully healed and buffed.

Granted it does lead to the game’s beautiful game over sequence that I never get tired of seeing, but still, annoying.

So maybe it’s not easy to pin down exactly what constitutes “cheap” in a boss battle, but that sure as hell is cheap. I’m not sure if it was even put in intentionally or was an accident; there’s no particular reason Mot alone among all the bosses should have this frustrating ability, which is why I think it might not have been intentional.

But this is not the only big “FUCK YOU” moment in a Megami Tensei game. I had a much more personally frustrating experience with the Beelzebub fight near the end of my Neutral route run of Shin Megami Tensei IV. This feared chief lieutenant to Lucifer is very strong, as he should be given his position as an endgame boss, and the battle is naturally difficult to clear. However, when the fight starts there’s a good chance, possibly 50/50, that on top of all that Beelzebub will get the first turn, which he will use to absolutely fucking destroy your party. If he hasn’t completely wiped you out and sent you off to Charon before you get a turn, your party will almost certainly be too injured and weak to effectively answer Beelzebub’s first strike, and you’ll probably end up dying on your second or third turn.

After beating slapped around by this giant fly for a dozen rounds, I just started automatically quitting and reloading when he got the first shot assuming I wasn’t totally dead at that point. Because to me, this fight jumped over “challenging” and landed in that cheap territory, at least when it gave Beelzebub the first turn. I wouldn’t call it a controller-throwing moment, since SMT IV was on the 3DS and like hell I was about to break that precious thing by flinging it into a wall. But the fight was frustrating and felt fundamentally unfair. A coin toss mechanic works fine if the two parties are relatively balanced in strength, but that wasn’t the case here.

More Kaneko, depicting the Lord of the Flies in his ultimate form. I said it seven years ago in my review of the game and I’ll say it again now: Beelzebub is an asshole.

There are a few other instances I can think of in the series that might count as cheap, like the Sleeping Table fight in Persona 3. However, almost none of the other difficulties I’ve faced in an SMT, Persona, or other game in the MegaTen series has really pissed me off to such an extent as this fight against Beelzebub. I have heard some of these games called difficult to the point of being entirely cheap, though, and that’s what I want to address here. I can’t blame anyone for feeling that way about any of the mainline games in particular — they do like to beat up on the player, Strange Journey probably being the worst in that regard.3

But I don’t mind that. That’s partly because these games usually give you all the tools you need to meet their challenges. When I talked about cheap SMT bosses above, the name “Matador” might have sprung to mind — this powerful fiend dressed up like a Spanish bullfighter shows up early in Nocturne and will usually wipe out new players because of how steep a jump in difficulty his fight represents. However, there’s a big difference between the way Matador fights and the ways Mot and Beelzebub fight in the examples I gave above. In the latter cases, the player can easily get battered to death no matter how prepared they are through the enemy’s use of unique advantages that are extremely difficult to survive, much less to counter.

Matador, however, can easily be countered as long as the player has the right party and skill setup. He seems to be the game’s way of telling the player “Hey, we’re not going to let you breeze through this just by staying properly leveled. You have to use your head.” You could argue that a boss battle designed to beat the player the first time around is a bit cheap in itself, but as long as you’re hitting save points promptly, you’ll lose very little progress, and it’s an easy matter to fall back and come up with a new strategy. And almost every other difficult battle in the series I’ve played so far fits this model: it presents an obstacle that seems insurmountable until you come up with the winning strategy (though having some luck still helps.)

And don’t forget the buffs. No joke, Megami Tensei really is the one JRPG series I’ve played in which buffs and debuffs are not only useful but essential to winning.

That’s not the only aspect of Megami Tensei that sometimes feels unfair, however. There’s another mechanic present in a lot of these games that might make you tear your hair out: demon negotiation.

Negotiating with fellow humans is hard enough. But when you’re a human (or a former human-turned-demi-human as in Nocturne) dealing with devils, angels, spirits, and even deities, it’s time to leave behind logic entirely. Players new to the series who picked up Persona 5 got a taste of that pure insanity in its own negotiation system, but the mechanic in that game is fair and easygoing compared to its counterparts in the mainline games.

In the other games, the demons you’re talking to aren’t typically knocked down or pleading for their lives, so maybe that’s the reason for their relative docility in P5. And in case you’re wondering, yeah, I did let her live.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a summary: in many Megami Tensei games (ex. the SMT series, the Devil Summoner series, and of course Persona 5) you have the option of fighting against your enemies or talking to them.4 Once you initiate the conversation, several things can happen depending upon the game you’re playing. Most often, the demon you choose to talk to will acknowledge that you’re asking them to join your party and will start to haggle with you, asking you to give them specific items or amounts of money or to let them drain some of your HP or mana. After a few requests that you can either take or leave, the demon may then ask you a multiple-choice question. This question is often a philosophical one, something like “Don’t you think the strong should protect the weak?” or “Is beauty only skin-deep?”, the sort of question depending upon the demon you’re talking to. And if the demon likes your answer, it will probably join your party.

But note all those qualifiers I wrote above: often, may, probably. None of these are sure outcomes. Again, it depends on which game you’re playing, but the demon you’re talking to may be able to reject your advances outright, or take the items and money you’ve given it and run, or decide it doesn’t like how you answered its question and leave or even get angry and attack you, or decline to join your party but give you an item instead (sometimes the very same item you gave it!) Sometimes the question it asks has a bizarre “correct” answer, or one that doesn’t seem to line up with the alignment of the demon asking it. Sometimes the “question” isn’t even a question but an exclamation or a command that you have to do your best to interpret. And depending upon the type of demon, you might not even be able to enter negotiations, either because it’s a mindless beast that can’t communicate with you or because it’s an evil god or demigod who’s too arrogant to even consider giving you the time of day.

And if you talk to a demon under certain circumstances, like a full moon phase in a mainline game, good luck getting anything meaningful out of it, because the full moon apparently gets demons high. Though that’s also a great time to trigger events that won’t normally happen at any other time, like having one of those haughty but extremely powerful Tyrant demons join your party (though I wonder if they end up regretting their decision when they come down after the full moon phase ends. Too bad, because it’s too late once you’ve got them!)

Okay Demifiend, I agreed to join your party but does that mean we have to take these weird group photos? Also please stop twisting my nose. (Source: still more Kaneko official art. This post is really doubling as a Kaneko art appreciation piece, isn’t it.)

At this point, you might be wondering whether it’s worth negotiating with these jerks at all if there’s always a good chance that it will go wrong. To be sure, it’s extremely annoying to have a demon run off with your items without you being able to stop them or to constantly get turned down by one specific demon you’re trying to pick up because you keep failing its stupid tests. But negotiation is still a must. It’s necessary to getting through these games’ challenges efficiently, since it provides useful fodder for fusion to get new demons with more than their typically meager default set of skills.

More importantly, negotiation in these games is fun, largely because of how insane it can get. Negotiation is a gamble that provides the player with a lot of possible outcomes, some of which may only turn up after dozens or hundreds of rounds of talks with various enemies. This makes the mechanic a lot more interesting to use for me, even if the results can be occasionally frustrating — especially when you’re trying to recruit one particular demon you need for a fusion (or just because they look cool or are a hot lady demon or guy demon depending upon your preference; those are legitimate reasons too.) If the gambling aspect of negotiation weren’t there, I could imagine it becoming a bit repetitive and boring, but I’ve never had that feeling about it in one of these games.

Moreover, the crazy, unpredictable nature of negotiation in SMT and the other spinoffs that feature it fits in nicely with the chaotic environments that most of these games take place in. Imagine trying to talk to a powerful mythical beast or spirit, much less trying to convince them to join your team and follow your orders. You’d be lucky if they merely ignored you and didn’t decide to eat or possess you or something similar. Since your protagonist in these games typically has either the natural ability or the pure strength to bring these beings over to his side, it’s reasonable that he at least has to deal with this human-demon cultural divide, and in a few cases with a sort of language gap.

Uh, shit. Okay, maybe “human” is the right answer because it’s the odd one out, but maybe this demon will agree and eat me if I say that. What to do.

To me, this is why these crazy, often unpredictable negotiations fit in so well with the general feel of the Megami Tensei games, and especially with the mainline apocalyptic SMT ones. When you’re thrown into the deep end like that, it makes sense that you’d have to deal with this kind of madness. The games usually do give you a bit of help with a free demon, typically a Pixie who takes some pity on your squishy human self, joins your party for free, and explains the basics of negotiation to you. But beyond that, generally speaking you’re on your own, which is just the way it should be.

And I think that’s true for the entire Megami Tensei experience as a whole. These games vary in tone a lot, from pretty hopeful and even light and fluffy with a few of the spinoff of spinoff games (really the Persona ones) to grim and “why even go on living” with stuff like Strange Journey. Those are both aspects of the series that I plan to cover in later parts of this run of posts, but I think the mercilessness of the combat and dungeon-crawling and the chaotic nature of the negotiation throughout a lot of the series suits it well in both cases. I couldn’t imagine MegaTen in general without it, anyway. It just wouldn’t be the same. Even the fights that feel cheap still fit that kind of setting in my opinion, though I could still do without Beelzebub starting first and destroying my party while I watch helplessly.

I could go on with even more such banging my head against the wall but also fun instances from these games, but I hope I’ve made my point well enough by now. Next time, I plan to move from gameplay mechanics over to story elements, diving right into the characters, story, and lore, so prepare yourself for that. Once again, I hope you’ll join me on that journey. 𒀭

 

1 Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964), in case you thought I wouldn’t bother to cite the case properly. You can find the quote on page 197 if you don’t believe me. There are also very obvious questions raised here about how much experience Justice Stewart had seeing pornography considering his comment, but these questions lie outside the scope of this post series.

2 And possibly some very strong normal enemies as well, but I don’t remember if that’s the case. In general if I write something incorrect in these posts, which is very very likely, please feel free to leave a comment correcting me.

3 Just to be clear, I’m not talking about ultra-frustrating final bosses like Mem Aleph in Strange Journey, or optional extra bosses like Demifiend in Digital Devil Saga. Some people might see those as kind of cheap, especially Demifiend who can summon a wide variety of demon allies just like he can when the player’s controlling him in Nocturne. However, these are the kinds of bosses you fight either specifically for a challenge or at a point in the game where you’re expected to throw everything you have left at it, so if there is any cheapness there, it feels more appropriate to me.

4 If “talking to enemies instead of fighting” makes you think of Undertale, that’s no coincidence: from what I understand, Megami Tensei is where its creator got the idea from, though he took his own conversation mechanic in a very different direction. There’s no pacifist run possible in any MegaTen game that I’ve ever played, anyway.

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.

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.)

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.

Summer cleaning game review special #5 and final: Princess Remedy in a Heap of Trouble

Now here’s a throwback, one that feels right for the last post in this series. It’s not a throwback to my childhood or anything, but just to 2016 when I looked at the free short RPG-looking shmup Princess Remedy in a World of Hurt. I liked that game enough that I bought the very cheap sequel, Princess Remedy in a Heap of Trouble, and then not unusually for me forgot about it for four years. But it’s been sitting in my Steam library all that time, and I’ve finally returned to play it. And hey, it’s a good game too, especially if you’re looking for a simple shoot-em-up to take up an hour or so.

The story is that Remedy, the nurse/princess* character from the last game, has been called back from her vacation to deal with another health crisis. Once again, her cures involve talking to sick people and fighting monsters that represent whatever’s wrong with them. These illnesses can be either physical or mental/emotional, so Remedy also works as a sort of therapist.

Your first patient

Also as before, during battle Remedy keeps firing her medicine shot automatically until all her enemies are dead, but she also has to dodge the enemies and their shots in order to survive. However, this time around she can get help from the people she cures by going on a “date” with them. It’s not a traditional date, though: her partner simply follows her around and gives her an extra active or passive ability in battle. Characters can also be freely dumped for new dates, which you might do just to see what they say when you ask them out. Princess Remedy is a heartbreaker.

But her dating around is justified, because she needs to defeat some serious bosses to proceed through the land. Several of them wait for the princess blocking off new areas until she gets the number of powerups in battle sufficient to face it.

Some of the bosses also look like fever dream JRPG monsters

Despite how they look, these Princess Remedy games are only a few years old as of this writing. I think they’re meant to resemble old Atari or Commodore 64 games, or maybe a game from one of those British systems like the ZX Spectrum that I’d never heard of until recently. These were well before my time, so I can’t say I have any nostalgia for the look of these games. But I like them anyway, which hopefully says something for their quality. They’re quite simple but fun, especially if you’re into free-movement shmup action.

They also have a bizarre sense of humor that I like. All the way back in part one of this series when I reviewed Qora, I mentioned I didn’t care for the “so random” humor being dumped on me in the game’s last ten minutes. Part of that was probably because I felt the game was boring to play, but part of it was also that it all seemed like an inside joke that I was never meant to understand in the first place. By contrast, the conversations you have with other characters in Princess Remedy are just kind of absurd. I don’t know if they really count as humor, but I find it a lot funnier than the self-conscious “look at how wacky we are” stuff in Qora. I don’t know, maybe there’s really no difference between the two and there’s something wrong with my brain.

Maybe the problem is that you should be in the ocean instead of on the dock

This is probably more than I needed to write about this game. I liked it. That’s simple enough. And like most of the other short games I’ve reviewed in this series, it’s only a few dollars to buy, so not too much of an ask.

Anyway, I hope this break from the usual was interesting. I still have a couple of other games that I’m currently playing through from that 1000+ game itch.io bundle. Not all completely good stuff either, but you’ll see when we get there — if it’s interesting enough, I’ll write about it whether I like it or not. Until then.

* And maybe a doctor too, but it’s not clear whether she has her medical degree. She’s not called Dr. Remedy after all. Then again, Mario isn’t a doctor but he calls himself one in Dr. Mario. I don’t think standard medical ethics rules apply in these games.

Summer cleaning game review special #4: A Short Hike

A Short Hike is another game I dug up in the pile of 1,000+ games in that itch.io bundle. I didn’t know it at first, but this game seems to have gotten a lot of attention for a small indie title since it was released last year. Makes sense: it has a lot more polish on it than most of the others I’ve played, with nice graphics and music and a small world to explore.

You play as Claire, a bird girl in a world of Animal Crossing-looking characters, on vacation on an island popular for its hiking trails. There’s not much direction at first; the only stated goal is to climb up a difficult trail that turns out to lead to the top of the mountain in the center of the map. Since she’s a bird, Claire can fly and glide, abilities that will help her get up the mountain, but there are also items that will improve those abilities. The key items to look out for are the golden feathers sold by a couple of characters and scattered around the island; these give Claire the added ability to climb up steep surfaces and to jump multiple times in midair.

Halfway up the mountain

In addition to the main objective of “get up the mountain” there are a bunch of fetch quests, races, and other challenges you can take on by talking to NPCs. The game doesn’t demand you do any of this stuff, though. If you feel like leisurely exploring your surroundings, you can just do that. There’s no way to die; Claire doesn’t take fall damage or drown or anything like that, and there’s no time limit. And the controls feel very natural, so it’s fun to just run around aimlessly in this world finding new characters and items.

A Short Hike feels like it was made to be approached this way. Maybe I’ve played a few too many indie games that looked innocent and fun at first but then had a big plot twist and turned into psychological horror or broke the fourth wall and started talking directly to me. So for a while part of me was bracing for something weird to happen, but nothing ever did. As much as I like some of those games, it’s fine that I could take this one at face value. A Short Hike isn’t trying to shock the player or make any big statement; it just feels made for relaxation, especially in the way the background music changes as you run and fly around the island to suit the mood of each area.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a big deal

A Short Hike goes for eight dollars on itch.io. Admittedly I didn’t pay that price, but it doesn’t seem like such a bad one considering what you get for it. I think it’s the kind of game I might just load every so often to run around in for a bit. If that’s not your thing, then you should definitely avoid it, because there’s not much else to do beyond the various side quests and exploration. But it might be therapeutic for you, especially in these shitty times.

Summer cleaning game review special #3: Radical Solitaire

Does that screen hurt your eyes? Well it did mine. This is Radical Solitaire, another game in that itch.io bundle. You might be wondering what’s so special about a solitaire game, especially one released this year (and not in 1982 as developer Vector Hat claims, the liar!) And especially one that at first doesn’t look that different from the standard game of Klondike that has come with every version of Windows since the dark ages, aside from having a title screen that changes to different eye-destroying color schemes every ten seconds.

Well, there are a few differences. The only reason I decided to check Radical Solitaire out among the many games in that bundle was that it claimed to be different in its tagline, which makes the promise: “never a bad deal, always a RAD DEAL!” So I downloaded it to see what was so rad about this solitaire game.

This deal doesn’t look that fucking rad to me

At first it just seemed like a regular game of Klondike with some weird sound effects, something like a robotic yelp every time I uncovered a new card. However, when I got stuck in my game, I went over to the GET RAD button. Clicking it didn’t do anything, but dragging an upturned card to it did:

Yes, this is a Klondike/Breakout hybrid. Any time you’re stuck, you can drag a useless card to that GET RAD button and play a game of Breakout to change it out for any still-hidden card. Every time one of the balls breaks through and hits the card, it changes, and each game can get quite chaotic — new balls are embedded in the wall and can be broken out and used to hit the card as well. There’s no guarantee that the card you’ll end up with at the end of your Breakout game will be useful, but you can play new games of Breakout as many times as you want to get something you can use. Hell, you can just play Breakout all day if you want. Radical Solitaire doesn’t seem to care if you ignore the solitaire part of it.

It’s definitely an interesting combination, and I think the basic idea works. The fucking color schemes still hurt my eyes, though to be fair the game does at least provide a night mode if you’re up playing this at 3 am. As for whether I’d recommend it, I don’t know. If the weird colors don’t bother you and you’re a huge fan of both solitaire and Breakout, you’ll probably like this. If not, it’s probably not for you. If it were free I’d say try it out either way just to experience how strange it is, but it does normally cost three dollars, so whether you want to spend that money is up to you (and if you have epilepsy, I guess you should be careful — I’m not sure how the flashing lights issue works, but this game does have those, though it looks like they can be turned off.) In any case, next time I’ll look at a game that hopefully won’t give me eyestrain.

A review of Atelier Meruru DX (PS4)

Years ago, to take my mind off of my extremely irritating studies, I bought a digital copy of Atelier Rorona Plus for the Vita. This was my very first Atelier game, and though I liked its unique style quite a lot, I never got around to playing any of the other Atelier games. Not until I dropped part of my tax refund this year on Atelier Meruru DX, a deluxe PS4 edition of the original Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland on the PS3.

I really like to think that some mom in a Gamestop bought her princess-obsessed kid this game based on the cover, but then it turns out to be all about a princess dealing with bureaucratic deadlines and resource management.

Meruru is the final game in the Arland trilogy, a sub-series of the much larger long-running JRPG Atelier series made by the Japanese developer Gust. While the Arland trilogy shares the central alchemy mechanic in common with the rest of the Atelier games, it also has its own identity distinct from the others.

But first a catch-up on the characters and plot. The protagonist, Merurulince Rede Arls, is the daughter and only child of Lord Dessier, the King of Arls. Somehow this tiny podunk town, population 1,000, counts as a kingdom and has a king with a giant stone castle, but we can’t question that too much. In any case, all that’s about to change.

Princess Merurulince, or Meruru to her friends, constantly shirks her royal duties to practice alchemy under the direction of her teacher, the master alchemist Totooria Helmold. Meruru doesn’t like being a princess, and she reasons that since their tiny kingdom is going to be merged into the far larger Arland Republic in five years, upholding her royal duties doesn’t matter that much anyway. Even so, her dad understandably isn’t too keen on his daughter studying a trade that requires hunting for ingredients in the wilderness, killing monsters, and working with potent poisons and explosive fuels.

However, Meruru won’t back down, so the king’s butler Rufus proposes a compromise that they both accept: if Meruru can use her alchemy skills to increase the population of Arls to 30,000 within three years, Dessier will allow her to become a full-time alchemist.

The stamp makes it official

So while Dessier sits his royal ass on his throne for three years, he leaves it up to his teenage daughter to actually do all the work to strengthen the kingdom. Some king he is, but there’s nothing to be done about it. Meruru (meaning the player) must find some way to increase the population of Arls to thirty times its original size while also maintaining her popularity among the people, otherwise it’s a game over and a bad end.

Thankfully, Meruru isn’t left alone in her efforts. She first gets help from an unexpected place: the castle itself, represented by Rufus. Though he calls himself a butler, he’s really more of a chief advisor and minister to Dessier, and he takes his job extremely seriously — a single needle can’t drop in Arls without Rufus knowing about it. He’s also serious about the development plan he proposed. When Meruru receives requests from the citizens to develop new patches of wilderness or to clear up monster-infested areas, Rufus creates plans for the princess to carry out that will variously open new areas for exploration, increase her popularity, and bump up the kingdom’s population. As Meruru fulfills these goals she also gains points that can be used to build new facilities, bringing even greater population increases and other various benefits.

And of course, the princess doesn’t have to go off gathering alchemy ingredients and killing monsters all by herself, because she has plenty of friends to help her. These include both new characters native to Arls and returning characters from the two previous Arland games, and some of them can be recruited to join Meruru’s party in battle while she explores the various fields, forests, and mountains of the surrounding country. Each of these characters has a different combat style: some are more defensive and supportive like Meruru’s childhood friend/chief maid Keina, while others are offensive like the warrior Lias. They also have very different attack ranges and skills, so no one character plays quite like another, which adds some nice variety (even if it means that some characters kind of suck in battle when compared to others.)

And then of course there are the other alchemist characters. The Arland series specifically features a chain of masters and apprentices continuing from game to game starting with Atelier Rorona, in which Rorona is the player character and apprentice (which you can read about in my very old, completely inadequate review of that game.) In the second game of the series, Atelier Totori, the main character Totori is apprenticed to Rorona, who has become a renowned master of alchemy, though still exactly as clumsy and ditzy as she’s always been.

Totori joining up to kill some wolves in the mountains

Carrying on that tradition, Meruru is now apprenticed to the master Totori. As such, a lot of Meruru’s time is going to be spent in the atelier crafting items using the ingredients she finds in the field and after battles while under Totori’s supervision. Though the Atelier games are turn-based JRPGs, they’re very different from the typical sort of JRPG, and part of this difference comes from the all-important alchemy mechanic. The alchemists in these games are special because they alone have the ability to craft and use items that do everything from heal allies’ wounds to destroying the shit out of enemies, making them potentially very powerful.

This unique gameplay feature adds quite a lot of variety to the game by letting the player mess around with ingredients that have different qualities and traits. One of the most fun aspects of the Atelier games is experimenting with new mixes to see what works and what doesn’t, and the games generally give the player leeway to try new things out. Because as with the other Atelier games, alchemy in Meruru isn’t a mere crafting system: it’s practically a science in itself. For a while, you’ll see traits passed on through synthesis that you have no idea of, there are so damn many of them. Players who commit themselves to getting alchemy down can make truly amazing items, however, and that’s part of the satisfaction that playing Meruru provided me.

Once the princess learns how to synthesize weapons and armaments, that mom realizes this game wasn’t quite what she expected

You might have noticed that I haven’t elaborated on the plot a whole lot beyond the basic premise, and that’s because there isn’t much of one. Certainly unusual for a JRPG, which tend to be very plot-heavy, but in Meruru there are no world-ending comets or plagues or any magic crystals to take away from an evil overlord. There isn’t exactly any villain in this game at all, at least not in the way we’d normally understand it. Meruru’s big goal is simply to be allowed to practice alchemy, nothing more or less, so that motivation is the central force driving the plot.

This is an element of Atelier Meruru that may put some players off, but I don’t really care about it. In fact, it’s nice to play a JRPG (hell, an RPG at all) for once that doesn’t have a great evil emperor pretending to be the big villain with a greater evil god or god-controlled lieutenant of the emperor behind him as the true villain. If you want that, you can get enough of it out of Final Fantasy, Fire Emblem, and as much as I like it yes, Megami Tensei too. The conflicts faced by the protagonists in the Arland series are much more personal — saving your small business from being closed by a corrupt government minister, finding your missing mother, and in the case of Meruru simply not fitting the mold you were intended for.

Offtopic but I like that thing Totori wears on her head, whatever that’s supposed to be

That’s not to say there is no villain at all in Atelier Meruru. I’m not talking about the boss battles you have to fight, or even about that lazy bastard Lord Dessier. No, the villain in Meruru is far greater than any of those: it’s the calendar, or more broadly time itself. When you’re given the three-year time limit arrangement at the beginning of the game, you might be thinking “Okay, three years. That’s a long time. This will be easy!” And then it’s very easy to start getting sidetracked by going on journeys through the countryside and freely doing alchemy. Of course, you’ll notice that time is ticking down as you proceed — traveling, gathering items and getting into battles in the field, and synthesizing items in the atelier all take parts of days or full days to complete depending on the size of the task in question. But no, three years is plenty of time, right?

Hey, look at this fortress we built all thanks to alchemy. We’re doing fine, Meruru! No need to worry about that stupid time limit.

When I played Rorona years ago, I remember Rorona having deadlines to fulfill certain tasks or else she’d get a bad end, but I don’t remember ever having to worry very much about meeting those deadlines. They seemed easy enough to fulfill while playing the game pretty naturally. So I went into Meruru with the same mindset, and it turned out to be the wrong one. It might be my fault for not realizing that it’s a lot easier to gauge your progress towards a one- or three-month deadline than it is towards a three-year one. Still, I got legitimately pissed off at one point when a certain event occurred that I wasn’t expecting, causing me to have to waste extra months running back and forth from a distant area to acquire an item necessary to a development quest. It’s a good thing I make several saves, because when this event occurred I didn’t even know how absolutely fucked I was until a few months later when I realized I couldn’t synthesize what I needed in time to meet the three-year population deadline. So I did something I normally don’t — I reloaded an old save.

Maybe some people would consider that cheap, but I don’t give a shit. I don’t pour hours into a game like this to get a bad end and get kicked back to the beginning of year one. I’m a busy man with a life outside of these games. Anyway, if the game wanted me to commit to a single straight-through run, it wouldn’t have given me multiple save slots. I highly suggest you use at least a few of them unless you’re the type to fully commit to one run without reloading no matter how badly you might screw up. I have respect for people who commit in that way, but hell if I’m one of them myself. The key in this case, as far as I’m concerned, is that the game gave me no reason to believe that I needed to take a certain action before an arbitrary date. Looking back, Meruru did drop a hint of what I should have done, but it turned out to be the kind of hint that you only see in retrospect. Or maybe I’m just an idiot. I have made a lot of terrible real life decisions, so perhaps that’s more likely.

I don’t know if nectar calms your nerves, but I might need a glass after that bullshit.

Without spoiling anything, my general advice to new players is to trust your instincts: if the game seems to be suggesting that maybe you should check something out and it won’t take you too much time to do so, go and check it out and gather what ingredients you can, because you might need them. If the game is giving you a tool to use, say by bringing a new shopkeeper into town who offers a unique service, you should try using it as soon as possible. You should also be fulfilling requests at the tavern on a regular basis, if possible with high-quality items, to keep Meruru’s popularity up and to make extra money, because you can never have too much of either.

Even with all the time pressure, it’s hard to get too mad at Meruru. The game is just too damn positive, cute, and friendly. A lot of this has to do with the game’s style. Every entry in the Arland trilogy features character and background art by the excellent Mel Kishida. The sheer amount of detail in the character portraits and CGs alone make the game worth looking at even for people who aren’t so into turn-based JRPG stuff. I’m not sure if he’s also responsible for the item illustrations, but whether it’s him or someone else, the work on those is even amazing, all the more so because there are hundreds of ingredients and synthesized items in the game.

Playing this game actually made me hungry at times. If only I knew how to bake, damn.

I also have to mention the game’s beautiful soundtrack. I don’t hear Atelier get mentioned too often when it comes to game soundtracks, and to be fair I haven’t mentioned it either, but now I’ll give these composers their dues, because both Rorona and Meruru, and I have to assume probably Totori as well, feature a wide variety of music that’s all suited for fighting in battle, gathering ingredients in the field, running around in town, and working in the atelier. From what I’ve heard of the following Dusk trilogy in the Atelier series, that quality of music continues on as well.

The game also gives the player plenty of time to relax with dialogue cutscenes that come up throughout the game without any prompting. A lot of these involve characters from the previous two games in the Arland series. Though it helps provide context if you’ve played those games, it’s not necessary to understanding what’s going on. I’m in a bit of a weird position since I’ve played the first game in the series but not the second, so while old faces returning from Rorona are familiar to me, those from Totori aren’t. But again, it doesn’t matter that much. In fact, if you start off playing Meruru before the others, you’ll be in the same position as Meruru herself, who’s meeting all these recurring characters aside from Totori for the first time.

Totori having a flashback to her own game.

Of course, all these character interactions wouldn’t be so fun if the characters were all two-dimensional cardboard cutout types, and they aren’t. Some of them are a bit exaggerated in their weird traits, but almost all of them feel more or less like people who you might know in real life (well okay, maybe not Pamela, but I did say almost.) Series with a lot of characters like this tend to give their secondary characters very little detail, usually with only one broad trait and absolutely nothing else, but the Arland games take that extra step to make them feel a little more fleshed out. Maybe because they contain dialogue and slice-of-life style chatter in place of that big serious plot.

This aspect of the series is more obvious with the main characters. The protagonist here is a great example — although Meruru gets along well with her teacher Totori, the two have very different personalities: while Totori is careful and meticulous, Meruru tends to jump into new, potentially dangerous situations without thinking too much about it. And this balance works: Meruru, despite not really wanting to be a princess, accepts her role as a leader for her people and uses alchemy to help them thanks in part to her more level-headed teacher’s guidance. The alchemists central to the games’ plots are all very different kinds of people, but they manage to work together to create amazing machines and objects to help their friends and fellow citizens, and isn’t that what life is all about?

So this might be a pretty obvious conclusion to this review since I’ve been mostly gushing over how good it is, but do I recommend Atelier Meruru? I do, especially if you’re into the kind of obsessive collecting that I am, because unlocking new items to create through alchemy fulfills that weird need I have very well. I don’t know how it measures up to any of the other games aside from Rorona, but it  measures up to that game pretty well even if I still feel like Meruru was quite a bit bullshittier in parts. But again, I’m pretty forgiving of that. Maybe too forgiving. It’s that damn bishoujo style Kishida draws — I would not have accepted this nonsense from a less cute game. There is also plenty of game content left after your three years is up assuming you don’t get a bad end, so that adds some slightly more relaxed time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. And as with the other Arland games you get some benefits from a new game plus, making successive runs quite a bit easier to manage if you decide to go after some of the game’s hardest challenges or see new endings.

As for which version of Meruru you should buy, the only one I’ve played is the DX version on the PS4, which runs well and contains some DLC costumes and recruitable characters who weren’t in the original. There are also DX versions on the Switch and PC, and those are probably fine as well, but not having played them I can’t say whether they might have some technical issues. If you’re the kind of true patrician who owns a Vita, there’s also Meruru Plus, which is probably also fine to play if it’s anything like Rorona Plus, but again, I can’t really say. Just buy whichever one suits you best.

I don’t own Meruru Plus, but here’s a screenshot from my very own Vita copy of Rorona Plus if you want a general comparison. Why do I have so much high-grade perfume? I don’t know, but Pamela seems happy about it.

As a side note, the Atelier games in general still seem to be in a bit of a weird niche area, though the series may be branching out to a new audience now. All of the more modern games have been localized, but the series as a whole seems to have gone largely unnoticed outside of the usual weeb circles up until the most recent game Atelier Ryza, which attracted some new players thanks to Ryza’s, let’s say “generous” character model. But so much the better. I know some people feel that bringing in more fans can “ruin” a series or whatever (just have a look at any Persona-oriented board for some of that) but more fans mean more exposure for the series in question, and that probably isn’t such a bad thing. It also means more people get to appreciate these quality works, and I don’t see how anyone could object to that. 𒀭