Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Checking In/Updates

Konbonwa! Genki desuka? Anata mo neko desuka?

As briefly mentioned in a review last month, I'm taking Japanese courses! I've been attending for nearly two months now, and what an experience it's been! I'm not sure if I've discussed this before, but my acquaintance with the language has roots from over a decade ago, back when I was in 7th grade. Given my love for Nintendo and anime, it was only natural I'd want to take a Japanese course even then, but alas, it wasn't meant to be. Roughly half the students who took the course weren't so much interested in learning another language as much as they saw another opportunity to constantly goof around and interrupt class, and the sensei was ill-equipped to handle classroom control.

Combined with the immense pressure of learning a notoriously-difficult language, it was a recipe for disaster. I gave it another shot in my freshman year, but depression and self-destructive anxiety on my part rendered it impossible to continue.

But I never gave up on the dream, and my patience has now finally borne fruit. How, you ask? By salvaging what I did memorize from those ill-fated classroom ventures: the hiragana/katakana vowels and tables! My exact memorization of the latter alphabet is a bit rusty, but it helps that they share the same sounds as hiragana (and typically involve pronouncing English words!). Not only that, but a decade's worth of watching subtitled anime has gradually etched the flow and quirks of the Japanese language into my brain. Of course, many anime fans have picked up on Japanese phrases through that medium, but as I watched the entirety of Dragon Ball Z in Japanese last year, I grew to recognize I'd subconsciously accumulated various quirks of the language, including words and placement of grammar. As you'd expect, it's been a tremendous help in my class.

So why am I telling you all this? Because I plan on further studying the language, there's the very real possibility I'll be able to review Japan-only games! Y'know, ones that probably don't have any translation patches. Wowza. Of course, such a prospect probably won't happen for some time, not to mention my review schedule for the next half-year or so is already lined up. But hey, so far I've been able to translate one full panel of a Japanese Kirby manga volume I picked up some eight years ago, so it can't be too far, right? I'm also incredibly interested in playing Japanese versions of text-heavy Nintendo games so as properly gauge the untouched, Japan-native vision of the developers (like the recently-reviewed Paper Mario), so maybe some comparison articles could be in the future...?

All bragging aside, if you haven't already guessed, my new obsession with the Japanese language has been why October's been a bit sparse for the blog. Sorry about that! We've also been job-hunting lately; much as Nintendojo's a dream to work with, it's a volunteer position, so it doesn't pay the bills. As you may recall, Daily Gamer was set for that role, but unfortunately it fell through before it even began, so I'm searching high and low for another gaming outlet. I tell ya, if there's one thing worse than never hearing back from a prospective employer, it's sifting through all the terrible, eye-burning site layouts. With how web-design's slowly been homogenized into blogging formats over the past decade, it's not pretty.

Anyway, to make up for my lack of October presence, how about I whip up not one, but two reviews within the next week! We'll finally return to Ten Years of Kirby and get acquainted with another Worldly Weekend. While this means we won't have Biweekly Music Wednesday this week, we'll instead be able to jumpstart things back up on here. Look forward to them!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Biweekly Music Wednesday! ~No. 30~ Fallin' Love (Mother/EarthBound Beginnings)



Origin: EarthBound Beginnings (Mother)
Plays In: Mt. Itoi Cabin
Status: Original Composition
Composed by: Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka/Keiichi Suzuki

Over the past several years, I've gradually decided that I want to be a hermit. I'd live in the mountain country home I've always dreamed of, surrounded by trees, fields and mountains that stimulate my inner nostalgia. Walks within forests and alongside mountain roads will be my zen, blue skies and dew-adorned flowers providing endless wonder. It would be a paradise all to my own (barring the company of some cats, naturally).

But why isolate myself? Have my social anxieties and insecurities reached their limit? Is it because I have Asperger's? Sensory issues? Indeed, they're all very likely answers, but I wonder if the more suspicious might believe I'm running away from something; safeguarding myself from a potential trauma, if you will.

In that case, is it because I'm afraid to be hurt by love?

Maybe it's because I realize my dream of young love will never come true.

I have never once dated in my life. After my court jester persona simultaneously ruined my reputation and forced me into seclusion during my grade school years, I never once entertained the idea of dating any of the individuals that helped ruin my social life. Opportunities never sprang in college, either, as I was much too focused in achieving my goals.

Deep down, though, I think I was still wishing for my dream to come true. It was one I secretly cherished for ten years, one centered around an individual I believed understood me more than anyone else. She was the epitome of young love: laughter abound, a never-ending plethora of inside jokes and memories reminisced in warmth, the golden scent of hair, and in possession of the the world's most headspinning smile.

It was an impossible dream, for she never felt the same way. I was just "the friend." But I never stopped dreaming. When I was sailing the high seas of Zelda: The Wind Waker, she and I built a life together on a tropical island. When I was an awkward teenager and endlessly reading video game fanfiction, I'd insert ourselves as the romantic leads. She was my Kairi, my Tetra, my Colette Brunel. Even when I thought I didn't love her, dreams of my mountain abode had her waiting for me at the doorstep.

As they say, however, love is cruel. The dream shattered in a million pieces as we reached twenty, when she began prizing drama and attention above all else. People found themselves being cut out of her life...repeatedly. Being "the friend," I was always the first to get the boot, watching helplessly as the breadth between us grew wider and wider. My own thoughts and feelings become inconsequential, a decade of memories and friendship rendered irrelevant as I soon found myself with nothing but a broken heart and tarnished memories.



It's so easy to say, "I will never fall in love again." It's a mantra I've repeated over the past year and a half, one that has only induced confusion and disbelief from those who've heard it. I do not wish to love because it's so scary to me. For every fairy tale romance that I personally witness, I can cite five more involving closed Facebook accounts, dramatic runaways and abusive relationships. The prospect of investing years into someone else only to end with heartbreak is pointless and far too risky for me.

It's wrong to stereotype, I know, especially after having dealt with the most selfish drama queen on the planet (who was clearly influenced by unaddressed mental health issues, to boot). But when you've invested ten years of unrequited love only to be betrayed not as a romantic partner but as a best friend, it does something to your ego. Any and all conceptions of romance are ruined for you  I do not see the point in any of it. I do not understand why people constantly shut out their friends over ill-fated romantic pursuits, and I do not understand why age-gap relationships are a thing, and I do not understand why some establish cruel hierarchies of power and control to foster distorted notions of love.

It's all incredibly judgmental of me to say, as even the question of "why do people stay in abusive relationships?" often crosses my mind. If my decision to become a hermit hadn't already shown it, such statements prove that even I, too, am selfish. They're born from fear that I'll repeat my mistakes, and anger that things didn't go my way. The maelstrom of insecurities born from Asperger's, sensory issues and previous social encounters gone wrong seem to only cement the deal...

But, say, if I were ever to move on from all that, and I were to love again, who would it be with? Deep down, I already know the answer. It would be with someone who respects me, someone who does not judge me based on my background, but instead understands it and always supports me. Our thoughts and feelings are, respectively, of the utmost importance to each other. 

Such a love would prove that the boons from young love are not exclusive. It'll flutter and waltz with grace and passion, just as when Ana asked Ninten to dance with her. It will not be something I will purposely seek out, but it's a path I'm gradually beginning to accept and possibly open. Maybe sooner than I think.

Final Thoughts: ...is the first time I've ever elaborated on this subject at length on here? It's why experimenting with this column is so fun.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Retro Scope: EarthBound Beginnings (Nintendojo)

I never get the chance to speak about my favorite Nintendo franchise on here, do I? What a shame. An even bigger shame is that I never actually played the first game all the way through until the Wii U release, yikes!

Anyway, I wrote a tribute to it via Nintendojo. As for the blog's version of the review...hmm, let's say December?

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Paper Mario


To the prudent eye, the name Paper Mario isn't completely accurate to the game's theme. Yes, all the characters and various portions of the world are rendered in flat 2D sprites, but all that hardly recalls paper. While the name rolls off the American tongue easier than its Japanese name, Mario Story, the watercolor backgrounds and cutesy character designs would rather evoke the bedtime storybooks of youth.

And that's exactly what this game is: a living children's storybook. It's bigger than most, it having eight chapters and all, but every one of those tales are so charming, so delightful in how they reimagine the world of Mario within not just a "My First RPG" framework but one of such self-parody and humor that it's impossible not to fall in love with it. Be it the 80's Nintendo veteran familiar with all the references or the eight-year-old that's likely as big a fan of Mario as the Goombario character, there's something for everyone no matter how old you are.

I mentioned reimagining Mario, which is funny considering Paper Mario's origins. The game started as something of a sequel to Super Mario RPG, which, as the very first Mario RPG, presented the dangerous risk of transitioning the series over to the RPG format. What ensued was something far more outlandish than Paper Mario: being developed by RPG legend SquareSoft, the game was stuffed with Final Fantasy-inspired tropes of all sorts. As a result, it was a Mushroom Kingdom the likes of which we'd never seen before; for instance, platforming was distilled into an isometric framework. Mario was still the silent protagonist, but now Toads and Koopas alike spoke on behalf of a cheeky script. There was an actual plot, one populated by dozens upon dozens of bizarre new characters that we'd never see again. And despite what the prologue might imply, Princess Peach does not remain the damsel in distress by the tale's end, nor does Bowser remain the antagonist; in fact, they both join Mario's party!



While Super Mario RPG was a masterpiece in it's own right, Paper Mario chose to dial back on the craziness. It eventually settled on being something of a spiritual successor, borrowing the most pivotal elements for a beginner's RPG format (the "timed" attack system) and for a Mario game (the aforementioned self-parody and humor). The result: a much more familiar Mushroom Kingdom -- there are new characters, yes, but here we witness settlements of not just Toads, but Goombas, Koopas, and Boos alike, some of  who even join Mario on his adventure. Bowser starts as the villain and ends as the villain. The plot revolves around magical stars again, but they now possess countenance and even speech.

Whether or not this is actually better is up to preference, but the end result is so undeniably sweet-natured, so fun and bursting with life. Toads of every sort roam the streets of Toad Town, be it the guy screaming about current events, the little old lady who'll cook you treats, or the dude raising money-grubbing piglets. When visiting home, Mario receives letters from all sorts, right down to the Ninja Turtle-ripoffs he trounced in Chapter 1 (and in return, you can deliver lost letters courtesy of Parakarry). And no matter who they are, your friend Goombario has the deets on every single NPC.

Because the game hews closer to home, we delight in witnessing the every day routines of supporting Mario characters. We smile at how Shy Guys, for instance, invade Toad Town with all the giddiness of prankster children (a prelude, you understand, to the bit where you have to infiltrate their lair: a Shy Guy Toybox). We shake our heads at how we're forced to explore a volcano with a zealous Koopa treasure hunter. We giggle when we discover Luigi's diary, chock-full of all his latent desires. And while Peach may be a prisoner in her own castle, her post-chapter escapades with an aspiring star child ensure not just her relevance, but an adorable tale of friendship.



I admit this Paper Mario doesn't have me rolling in hysterics like it's later sequels (The Thousand Year Door and Super); rather, I'm more prone to innocuous giggle fits. And that's really where Paper Mario's humor lies: whereas those two sequels delight in exploring the darker underbelly of the Mario universe, there's not a single cynical bone within their predecessor. It frames a good deal of its conflicts within light-hearted mischief, which is why the game's "darkest" scenario--Mario being the prime suspect of a penguin murder mystery--is also its most ridiculous.


Hence why the game's depiction of Bowser is Paper Mario's funnest character. The big softie in Super Mario RPG may be echoed in the cuddly design, but the Bowser here is a big bully who adores his title and revels in his newfound powers. He's also kind of an idiot, as we witness in one of the game's best scenes where he interrogates Peach on Mario's weaknesses. Here the aforementioned mischief theme comes into play: we could lie and say that Mario hates Mushrooms for a free snack, but it's far funner to pick, say, wimpy enemies and watch them cower in the face of Mario (my favorite being the shell-shocked Goomba: "feel my, uh...wrath, I guess!").


Which reminds me: let us not forget the efforts of NOA's localization. Indeed, it was Paper Mario that shifted the course for Treehouse translations. No more dry scripts or awkward translations of Japanese nouns (as seen in Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Zelda: A Link to the Past, respectively), for this was to be a fun localization! Lively characters everywhere! Liberties to be taken with the dialogue!

But what sparked this new direction? Were they attempting to emulate Ted Woosley's Super Mario RPG localization? Could it be how it was the very first localization project for now-famed Treehouse member Nate Bihldorff? Was it simply times and standards changing? All are viable guesses--indeed, that the previous fall's Majora's Mask was a significant improvement over OOT in this regard already proved changes were coming to Nintendo's localization practices, and boy do they deliver.


Note, for instance, how slang starts seeping into the English-speaking Mushroom Kingdom. Of course, the American localization team was already on this way back in the days of Super Mario World (via the special world stages; "Tubular", anyone?), but there was nothing as radical as, say, Kammy Koopa--Bowser's elderly Magikoopa assistant--referring to her king as "your Gnarliness". It's a word obviously not present in the Japanese version, but as she frequently varies her evil-themed appellations, even today I am amused at the thought that she meditates day and night coming up with new titles to address her king. So thank you for that imagery, Mr. Bihldorff.


  And let us dispel the concern Paper Mario wasn't inherently funny in it's native Japanese language; after all, that would dismiss any of the aforementioned scenarios (particularly the Koopa Bros., undoubtedly birthed from Japan's fascination with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). That's not even mentioning how the game pokes fun at RPG tropes, such as how Merlon's family elaborates on pretentious, useless backstories of their youth. You don't need the world's best game localization team to see the humor in that, although it certainly helps!

I mentioned earlier that Paper Mario is best described as a children's storybook. Obviously, that's not to say the games are only for kids, but I remain amazed at how in regards to actual play, it strikes a perfect balance for any audience to master. This is mainly regarding the battle system; at first glance, that attacks rarely venture into the realm of double-digit damage seems like a significant downgrade, but Paper Mario expands upon what made Super Mario RPG so fun to play: the "timed" hits. Note how every one of Mario's companions possess unique button commands -- we're encouraged to aim with the control stick, flick it back and forth, and even holding the A button for brief, intermittent periods. Through this process, we learn that they're not just immensely satisfying to pull off; when we slip up on a timed press, we're legitimately disappointed and strive to do better.

And that's not even bringing up the equippable badges, flexible to any player's tastes and needs as according to a limited point system. For instance, do I spend huge badge points on boosting Mario's HP and FP, or do I balance all three point upgrades for the level-up rewards? Do I stick with just one set of attack and defense-based badges for the entire adventure, or switch 'em around as I go? Be it solely for use of battle or even for convenience within battles or the overworld, there's an unlimited amount of combination for players to choose from.

            

Of course, the true star of Paper Mario's battles is the impossibly fun battle theme. Fire Emblem veteran Yuka Tsujiyoko, a master of the xylophone, draws out every ounce of that instrument to craft a lively cacophony I always look forward to. RPG battle themes have the reputation of growing old, but I daresay this song ranks alongside Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga's as being the very best within Mario RPG canon.

                   

Indeed, so much of Paper Mario's innocuous adorableness hails from its soundtrack. As seen above, it's no surprise Toad Town is the game at it's most idyllic (except for Chapter 4, anyway). Its accompanying song varies from location to location, but the core melody always establishes a warm sense of familiarity and home. Being the central hub of the game, it's undeniable this is the song that sparks nostalgia for longtime Paper Mario fans.

                   

Speaking of which, as a children's storybook, Paper Mario never forgets that wistful scent of dreamy nostalgia. It pops up in spades near the game's climax, with its best example displayed above. Snow Road encapsulates so much of those misty, snowy December nights you might've spent gazing out the window as a child. It's the perfect segue into the village of the Star Children, who I imagine frolic about within those very same nights.

With all this lavish praise, would it be easy to deem Paper Mario the best Mario RPG? Perhaps, but the highs and lows in relation to it's GameCube successor, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, grant me pause. In particular, the perfect cast of TTYD really shines a light on how bland most of the original's party members are even by themselves. Fun as they are in battle, there's a stark contrast regarding who's actually well-written and who's not. There's a world of difference between, say, Lady Bow and Bombette, as the former is a driving force for the plot whereas Bombette is, well, Bombette.

But let us not linger on any such imperfections. Paper Mario may not reach the highest of highs found in TTYD and even Super Mario RPG, but that it possesses hardly any lows is a sign of fine craftsmanship. It's a warm, feel-good adventure, one that embraces any audience and certainly one I know I'll revisit whenever I'm down in the dumps as a full-grown adult with very real responsibilities. Lord knows I need to project my troubles into Jr. Troopa, another bully who decides his life mission is to stalk Mario and lay the beatdown on him. What a prick.


----

This is probably my shortest review yet! As I'm aiming for a five-to-seven day waiting period between reviews, more condensed pieces like this will be inevitable. At the very least, I hope I struck that balance of "less is more" with this one! Please let me know what you think.

Anyway, see you guys tomorrow with another Retro Scope courtesy of Nintendojo!