Monday, February 29, 2016


It goes without saying that Shigeru Miyamoto is a genius. After all, he's the creator of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, two video games that revolutionized the game industry. They grew into multi-million selling series that forged countless childhoods over the course of three decades; in particular, Super Mario has sold more than any other video game franchise in the world at over 300 million (and that's not including the dozens of spin-offs). The names "Mario" and "Zelda" are practically synonymous with the term "video game", proving how successfully they've penetrated into culture and the public at large.

Pikmin, Miyamoto's pet project for Nintendo GameCube, never achieved those same accolades. But I'll be damned if it's not his most inspired concept. This isn't to say it's his best, yet that one could make compelling cases for its masterpiece sequels shows the series can stand proudly with his most famous titles. And yet that they were both born from this experimental little oddball fascinates me to no end. After all, Miyamoto himself said Pikmin 3, undoubtedly the finest game you can play on Wii U, was the finalization of what he set out to accomplish with this title.

The game is the little survival tale of a diminutive astronaut, who crash-lands onto an alien world. His beloved Dolphin a mess, Captain Olimar must recover the spaceship parts with the help of plant-endowed critters, who share the game's title. Divided into three separate colors for their respective strengths (reds are immune to fire, yellows are light and can be tossed high, and blues can wade through water), the Pikmin are inquisitive, adorable lifeforms who require a capable leader for their own survival. Through commanding and propagating the Pikmin, Olimar must brave the dangers of the planet within thirty days before his life support system runs out. But the team can only brave the planet's surface during daytime, as the nightlife is far too dangerous for expeditions.

Needless to say, it's a game that requires a different sort of dedicated commitment than Zelda; a far cry from the pick-up-and-play familiarity of Mario. There were those who couldn't handle the pressure of completing the game under the 30-day time limit; others didn't "get" the premise's replayability and thought it was too short. And that's fine; while we could cite shortcomings on behalf of the developers, not every good idea will penetrate the mainstream market.

Personally, I suspect another reason, which relates to the "pressure" factor, is probably what I love so much about it; mainly, there's a stark sense of humanity present, more so than its two sequels. There's as much whimsy as any other Miyamoto title, but it hits home. There's the impending threat of Olimar's demise, for one: we learn from his nocturnal logbook that as excited as he is to learn about the Pikmin and their strange world, he always reverts to thoughts of his family back home.

Then there's the Pikmin themselves. Playful as children and fierce as beasts, we delight in discovering the nuances of their life cycles. We watch with wonder as they carry Pikmin-producing pellets back to their Onion nests, or start whacking away at mysterious holes in the ground. Our hearts melt at their puppy cries when attempting to lift heavy objects, and we feel like a proud parent when they return to the sound of Olimar's whistle. Our hearts break when a plan to slay a beast goes wrong and gasp in horror at their various methods of demise, be it getting munched, crushed to death, drowning, burned alive, or, as everyone is bound to do at least once, accidently leave one or two behind at the end of the day and watch helplessly as they're devoured by nocturnal monsters.

That's right: Pikmin decides to punish you for your failures by killing off your new pets. To further rub it in, they emit one last mournful cry before they dissipate into ghostly silhouettes, rising up to the great beyond.

I'll be honest in admitting I've since enjoyed a dark humor in that as I've grown older (particularly in the sequels, as they lean more towards comedy), but that you constantly have to manage and weigh the lives of adorable little critters under a ticking clock was probably too much for some. I know it was for me as a kid, no matter how much I enjoyed it.

I cannot claim this is entirely a matter of "git gud", either. Just the year before Pikmin, there were players who couldn't accustom to the three-day apocalypse of Zelda: Majora's Mask, which coincidentally also featured oddball humor and poignant themes. However, there's a rather big difference between the two: not only would the player have to purposefully encounter Majora's Mask's hour of doomsday given how the game incorporates time travel, but the player can actually work around the game's rules through slowing time. In Pikmin, either you play ball with the rules given, or you don't. In that sense, I understand Miyamoto's regret.

But why was I so captivated by it then? Why did I try to succeed over and over? Because of the very same reason it may've turned people off: its presentation of "stark reality." The sunbaked forests and desolate springs bear eerily Earthen roots, yet are framed in a style so alien we cannot help but discover its depths. There's all the indigenous life-forms, for starters: you have the bird-serpent hybrids, mind-controlling toadstools, fire-breathing warthogs, and, my personal favorite, a bread loaf-shaped scavenger that frequently engages in tug-of-war with Pikmin for goodies.

That these creatures sound just as cartoony as the Pikmin themselves would imply the game's world is just as cartoonish, but we're instead left to traverse one of the most beautiful worlds the GameCube has to offer. A cartoonish setting would entirely defeat the game's purpose; in the end, the Pikmin's world is that of survival, and Olimar's plight is no different. The realistic setting ensures the dangers of carnivorous beasts and environmental hazards come alive.

What really drives this point home is the great music provided by Hajime Wakai. Listen how the above example, the lullaby that is Forest of Hope, fluctuates according to time and tension. The way it initially captures a languid sunny morning is a perfect complement to how the area starts off. With the landing site block off by a dirt wall, Pikmin are divided into groups of either breaking it down or securing Pellets to grow more Pikmin. The ensuing work is long and hard, but it's ultimately an eye-opener into the game's circle of life: newborn Pikmin who remain planted in the ground gradually grow from leaf, to bud, and finally flower.

But who knows how long they'll live? The Forest of Hope is the first time Olimar and his troops will engage ravenous beasts (none the least of which are the spotty Bulborbs) and hazards of the watery and explosive kind. Whether accompanied by simple percussion or sleepy xylophones, it's downright raw to hear the dying cries of Pikmin drowned out by such gentle croons. And yet, life goes on.

On the opposite side of the spectrum lies The Distant Spring. It's a flooded marsh host to both infinite beauty and certain death, as the aquatic grounds are home to most of Pikmin's deadliest creatures. As echoed by the song, it represents the number one creed of nature: survival of the fittest, and so the cries of dead Pikmin naturally blend in. Despite being succeeded by one more area, visiting The Distant Spring truly feels like reaching the ends of the world.

 It's here the player realizes Olimar is our link to the world. For as much as he's in wonder of the alien world, his fight for survival is a lonely one the Pikmin can't entirely cure. We are just as in the dark as he is, and so we share his feelings of discovery, his confusion, his loneliness. By the time The Distant Spring rolls around, enough days have certainly passed for the explorer to feel more than a little homesick. But the harsh environment cares little for his plight, and so like Olimar, we must shoulder the burden of survival and sacrifice.

The roots for this process takes place from the very beginning, although with how the game starts at The Impact Site, you'd hardly think things would take such a dark turn. The song frames Olimar's plight as an adorable intrigue; a playroom mess rather than a struggle for survival, and given the oversized flora and cardboard boxes, you wouldn't be at fault for mistaking it as such.

But given the size chart in the game's manual (Olimar is only the size of a quarter), perhaps that's the point. It's a game designed for all ages, and so the game's darkness has to be balanced out by the whimsy of the Pikmin. Like the song and Olimar themselves, we delight in discovering what they're capable of.

Which brings us to the joy of the game's greatest song. No matter what point you're at in the game--be it having just met the Pikmin or have emerged from the depressing throes of The Distant Spring---the World Map theme will be there waiting for you. Opening with a light-hearted sunrise, the World Map theme is as adventurous as it is encouraging. It'll play even when time is running out, or if Olimar's army of Pikmin has been mercilessly slaughtered.

And that's because its job is in telling you to keep trying. It implores you to explore, to persevere.  You may've had one bad day, but why not persevere and come up with new strategies for next time? Time run out and you still haven't found all the necessary ship pieces? Hey, life goes on, so why not try again? The song matches Nintendo's objective in always looking out for the player, and even if Pikmin doesn't hit all the bases for that, this one moment holds that one creed above all else.

But suppose you do succeed, and are thusly rewarded with the heartfelt you play again? After all, this sort of game is supposed to reward creativity. To achieve one goal in different ways and discover new shortcuts and tricks. Such a game begs for replayability, yet as mentioned before, Miyamoto and co. observed not many chose to do so.

Does the reason go beyond the stressful time limit? We can offer the argument that Pikmin and fellow GameCube launch title Luigi's Mansion offered a style of gameplay that flew over the mainstream's heads, yet I can't help but shake the feeling both games stuck too closely to their experimental roots. Of course, not every inspired concept will come barreling out the gate with heaps upon heaps of polish and content, but their respective setpieces never "wow" us as the N64 and SNES launch efforts did prior. We're drawn into their creativity, but leave considering them appetizers to the main course (in this specific context, Super Smash Bros. Melee).

 Pikmin is a step above Luigi's Mansion in that there's more nuance to its gameplay; namely, you don't have to tackle every single enemy with the exact same strategy. And yet, it never quite breaks out of the "glorified tech demo" label Luigi's Mansion was also branded with. It's not that there's ideas left unfinished or anything resembling sloppy design, but there's a notable incongruity in how inspired the game's objectives can be. Take The Final Trial: the final boss is as difficult as they come, but barring the bit with the isolated bomb rocks, the "trials" preceding it are painfully simple and short. That's not to say the game doesn't get creative--look no further than The Forest Navel--but such moments aren't uncommon. In the end, Pikmin's concept ends up being more creative than the final product.

It's why I label the game as experimental, but that doesn't mean I don't think the game's a beautiful rough draft. Just because the general public may've been done with it after one go doesn't mean I wasn't, and the aforementioned nuance is enough to keep me coming back on lazy afternoons. What propels Pikmin from "good" to "great" mainly boils down to two things: a) the character and presentation involved and b) the presence of an addictive Challenge Mode. The latter has been undeniably outstripped in the sequels, but the former possesses a unique niche even those masterpieces may have yet to surpass.

In the end, while Pikmin doesn't reach the awesome heights of Miyamoto's more famous works, it nurtured enough love and passion to blossom into one of Nintendo's finest franchises. In that respect, such humble beginnings are rendered just as stunning. Hmm, I wonder what that reminds me of?

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Worldly Weekend: Dragon Ball Z: Budokai (PS2)

And now, to geek out even more.

While Pokémon was what cultivated my interest in anime and manga, Dragon Ball was what captivated that interest and promptly skyrocketed it into a permanent hobby. Akira Toriyama's tales of monkey-tailed boys, alien combat and musclemen protruding golden hair three times their size captured my heart like every other young male living in early 2000's America, and I celebrated my fandom in every way possible. My friends and I constantly invented new adventures for our DBZ action figures. I dressed up as Vegeta for Halloween (I think the wig my mom made is still lying around somewhere!). I memorized the power levels of every character as I frequented the web for plot summaries and pictures. I downloaded translated ROMs of the Japan-exclusive games. I even discovered that, gasp, the show was being censored for American television!

That all began fifteen years ago, and after all these years, my Dragon Ball dorkiness is still alive...if not a tad more latent. Episodes from the fabled Dragon Box sets frequently serve as nostalgic background noise within my basement. I'm quite behind on the new animated adventures, having only seen the first two episodes of Dragon Ball Super and the Battle of Gods movie (for the record, I loved both). Every now and then, I take one of my old manga volumes and take a whiff of that familiar smell; once upon a time, I was convinced Japanese children reveled in that holy scent twenty years before I did.

While still regarded as an action masterpiece, it's easier to discern the flaws of something I once deemed as perfect. The childhood and adulthood periods of protagonist Goku's life--marketed outside of the original Japanese manga as Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, respectively--are too thematically dissonant (if anything, I prefer the whimsy of Dragon Ball). Non-Saiyan characters are frequently shoved into the sidelines, no matter how much time had been invested into them prior. Yet no matter how much I could go on, none of it matters whether I'm reading or watching it. I could say it's just my childhood speaking, yet every story beat, every character moment have become so ingrained into shonen manga that it's little wonder it remains the cornerstone of Weekly Shonen Jump (to provide an American equivalent, I suspect many feel the same about the original Star Wars trilogy and how it impacted cinema). Needless to say, it's a series I still deeply respect and adore.

With all that said, Dragon Ball Z: Budokai requires some context. See, Japan had been living it up with Dragon Ball video games since the 80's, yet we Americans never got in on that action (not including the infamous Dragon Ball GT: Final Bout). It wasn't until 2002 when animation company Toei, American anime licenser/localizer FUNimation and game publisher Infogrames finally got off their sorry keesters and began distributing DB games across the West. While we were initially gifted with a spectacularly shitty duo of Game Boy Advance games in The Legacy of Goku and Collectible Card Game, everyone's eyes were on what was to be the first 3D DBZ fighter for PS2: Budokai.

That's a pretty big deal, as evidenced from the above intro animation. Mute the rancid (yet catchy) 90's rap song and merely observe the video. Yes, you're watching a replica of the Cha-La Head-Cha-La opening from the Japanese version. For the first time, every scene from this iconic 1989 animation had been rendered in beautiful, luscious 3D. That America was not only treated to a butchered version of the opening for the show but that the original song was axed in favor of Rock the Dragon dilutes the nostalgic impact somewhat. Thankfully, we were too distracted by the shiny PS2 graphics to really notice.

What made Budokai so special is that it framed itself as a genuine celebration of Dragon Ball. It didn't cover every chapter of the saga, but the game sprung to life from the get-go with winks and nods everywhere (just look at all the little character icons up there!). Menus were peppered with animations and stills that perfectly matched the style of Toei Animation (with how the company handled the opening sequences for the sequels, I'm convinced they at least provided the latter for this title). The voices were the same as the show, and the soundtrack--composed by series veteran Kenji Yamamoto in a collaboration with Tower of Power--was so good it had practically defined the game by itself.

And how my heart aches knowing I can no longer appreciate all that.

I say this knowing full well Dragon Ball Z: Budokai never had the deepest battle system; even back then, I was able to discern the more homogenized attacks between most characters in the first two games (the most baffling case being in this title, where one particular combo is literally just a couple kicks. Bear in mind there's a dynamic camera involved). But it was good enough...and cool-looking. Like, really cool. The game's emphasis on arena-destroying supernovas (the best being Mr. Satan-er, Hercule's, where, in a fake plea for mercy, he hands over a remote-controlled bomb to the enemy), emulating the super-fast flurries of punches/kicks through button-mashing sequences, and delivering attacks so hard they send your opponents careening into alternate arenas all authentically matched the show.

Except now it's not. Unlike most games ravaged by time, Budokai's in a...peculiar predicament. For one thing, it's the forerunner in a series that shifted over to cel-shaded graphics just the next year. The awkward graphical look would be bad enough, but there's also the matter of just about everything else. You have the voice acting, which is the same as the show but FUNimation's dubbing for DBZ has always been a mixed bag, to say the least. Then you have the music, which, I don't have the heart to say it yet.

Needless to say, a "just good-enough" battle system can't support all that, no matter how flashy it is. It'd be easy to dismiss it a static relic of its time, yet somehow it's preserved its spot as the fondly-remembered DBZ game by American fans. We could just chalk it up to it being a runaway sales success over here, yet there's other matters to consider, namely that Budokai was the only Dragon Ball Z game for years to host a fully-animated Story Mode that reenacted the original series.

Not that the subsequent games up to 2008's Burst Limit didn't have a Story Mode, but they were all propped up through board games (Budokai 2), 2D "still" images (Budokai 3, although Dragon Universe was mighty cool for what it was), or the models just standing there talking (the entire Sparking!/Budokai Tenkaichi trilogy). Subsequently, Budokai's first stab at retelling the story we all know and love in 3D won by default for most folks.

And it's not like it did so through laziness. For one thing, the cinematics are well-animated for their time. Yes, we can nitpick the grainy textures (look no further than the bleached green of King Kai's planet) or that fart sound that comes out of Yamcha's clenched fist in that one cutscene, but god damn did they look cool. Take how it adapts Goku's iconic transformation into Super Saiyan, where the screen quakes with such intensity every time he screams. It was electrifying to watch as a kid, and even now it's one of the legitimate pieces of direction that holds up.

But wait, I thought I just said the game didn't age well graphically? Yes, well, note how I said it's well-animated, and even then that only applies to the cinematics. While the cutscenes may be of adequate quality, it's shocking how that all falls apart when the fighting comes down. The characters lack breathing animations, and everyone's beefcake designs renders it even more awkward, particularly when a good chunk of victory animations consist of character crossing their arms and grinning smugly into the camera (the winner goes to Piccolo, who hangs his mouth open in stupefied wonder at his endlessly-wiggling antennas).

Needless to say, it's really easy to see why they moved into cel-shading. For instance, there is nothing natural about the power-up animation: as opposed to lifting the iconic stances from the show, characters statically scrunch up into a position quite akin to that of taking a dump. Despite the beefcake designs, there's a real lifeless look to everything that was never going to hold up. While the GameCube version added in a unique cel-shaded look of its own, the animation problems persist.

Honestly, I think I'm even being generous with the cutscenes in regards to modeling. Just look how ghastly Karin (Korin) the cat looks up there. That's actually a shot from the HD version, and apparently whoever was in charge of that remaster couldn't fix such a monstrosity.

Anyway, there's also the matter of VAs. Look, let's be honest: while FUNimation may be the best anime dubbing company in America now, that'd be a difficult case to make in 2002 (let alone when they first started out). While Dragon Ball Z was what got them on the map, it fell victim to about every bad dubbing trope from the late 90's: stilted VA direction, corny scripts, a never-ending replacement BGM, and embarrassing opening songs. You cannot sit here and tell me that a dub host to a character singing "CAT LOVES FOOOOOOD YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAAAH" (if you pay attention, the dialogue exchange doesn't even match the context of the scene) or a villain randomly making homosexual advances is better than the original Japanese, a thing of beauty host to the best seiyuu in the anime industry.

But hey, don't take it from me. Why, who is that handsome young man grilling voice actors Sean Schemmel and Christopher Sabat? That would be me, at last year's Otakon! And I gotta say, while I don't entirely buy the "old equipment" answer, I'm quite impressed with their opinion on nostalgia. After all, it's not like Dragon Ball is some holy grail many of us superfans treat it as such. To some people, it's just their favorite goofy Japanese cartoon they grew up, and the meaning of "dubs vs. subs" hold little meaning to them, and that's quite alright.

With all that in mind, Budokai is a pivotal moment in researching the history of DBZ dubbing. Not only was the show coming to an end in America, but this was the first time the cast was brought together for an extensively-voiced video game. For starters, there's Chris Sabat and his dozen roles: his stern direction for Piccolo had evolved just fine, yet he still hadn't figured out how to make Vegeta sound anything other than, as Kanzenshuu once put it, a guy in a booth doing a gruff voice. Meanwhile, Sonny Strait has come a long way in his voicing Kuririn (Krillin): no longer has his direction for the character rendered him an annoying squeaky-voiced punk, but as a genuine sidekick that immediately grows on you.

And then there's voices that continue to, well, flat-out suck. Like Ocean's Pauline Newstone before her, Linda Young's Freeza remains the most notorious miscast in anime dubbing history. Don't let the lipstick fool you; the character has absolutely zero business sounding like an old woman who's had far too many smokes. Despite being the series' most infamous villain, it's hard to believe that in context when you cannot take anything he says seriously. It goes to show FUNimation's worst casting weakness lied in body type: the less said about Philip Wilburn's squeaky Android #19 and Sean Schemmel's "marble-mouth" Kaio (King Kai), the happier I'll be.

In context of the game, it's interesting to witness the juxtaposition of direction. Rumor has it that Toei representatives oversaw the localization, and it'd definitely show in the Story Mode. Regardless of any voice mismatches, there's not a single instance of dry delivery, further granting the impact these cutscenes had back in the day. And then, once again, it falls apart a bit in actual battles. Characters announce attack names super quickly to accommodate the quick frame executions (check out Gohan's take on Kamehameha), and there's an obvious glitch regarding the Cell character: no matter how much he transforms in battle, he's always stuck with the nasal "bug" voice of his first form. It's something they never actually fixed for the sequels, and it's especially odd when contrasted with the normally-dignified countenance of his Perfect Form.

Add in how the voice clips' muffledness has grown more distinct over the years, and the delivery of the bad voices are amplified. Of course, Freeza is absolutely terrible, but the most egregious cases lie in the representatives of the Ginyu Force. Chris Sabat's Arnold Schwarzenegger impression for Recoome borders on incomprehensible and obnoxious, as is also the case for Captain Ginyu himself. The elderly Brice Armstrong is a baffling replacement for the adequate Dale Kelly; he's clearly too old for the flamboyant character and it shows in his nasal delivery.

Speaking of baffling, we now arrive at the most heartbreaking case of all: Kenji Yamamoto, the soundtrack's composer. No, not the same Kenji Yamamoto who composed the Metroid Prime trilogy; the Kenji Yamamoto who's not only been involved with composing songs for DBZ since its inception, but for all the video games dating back to the Super Famicom era.

As mentioned before, Budokai's score is so damn good that it's practically impossible to discuss the game without bringing it up. What made it excel was that it struck that perfect balance between Dragon Ball's lighthearted humor and adrenaline-rushing action. The above themes, which respectively accompany the menu and character select themes, represent the former and dress up the overall presentation; they're so fun that you can't wait to dive into the action.

And what action it is! Kenji Yamamoto's collaboration with Tower of Power definitely bore fruit; yes, those are real instruments you're hearing, all accompanied through some kickass synth. Raging guitars rev up the familiar locales that are Budokai's battlefields, and they're all the better for it. Combined with the arena-shifting mechanics, one could even say they heighten the glory of a shallow combat system.

The Story Mode isn't neglected, either. They emphasize more on synth, but Yamamoto ensures they inject blood-pumping adrenaline and appropriate drama when needed. The above example is actually spliced into three different components for varying cinematics: quiet anger (when Goku observes his dead friends slain by Nappa), anticipation and encouragement (Goku convincing Gohan to take on Cell), and awesome kickassery (Goku's Super Saiyan form scaring the shit out of Freeza).

Heck, he even goes out of his way to pay homage to the original DBZ recap theme! You see what I mean when I said this game celebrates Dragon Ball? In fact, rumor has it there's a cameo from Super Famicom fighter Super Butoden 2 somewhere...

So, wait, I just spent the past four paragraphs singing the soundtrack's praises. If the music's so good, what's the problem?

Well, it's plagiarized.

Yeah, how's that for a kick in the balls?

Kenji Yamamoto's plagiarism scandal has been well-documented, and while I was careful enough to cite the tracks that (as far as we know) weren't "inspired" from other sources, therein lies the rub. It's immensely disappointing that someone who clearly had talent fell to thievery, let alone the fact that he strung along his none-the-wiser collaborators for the ride. And even in the case of my cited tracks, I'll always be asking myself if they were truly born from his "talent."

Perhaps my memories of how much I enjoyed the game are what's most important, but that they won't live on to future generations is the most heartbreaking factor of this ordeal. Just like how Dragon Ball Kai's soundtrack was swiftly replaced across the world following the scandal, any games currently on the market that had Yamamoto's involvement had their scores replaced with recycled tracks from the Tenkaichi brand of games (which, in themselves, were actually replacements of the original Japanese score).

The Budokai HD Collection for PS3/X360 was no exception to the rule. Let it be known the dance music of the Tenkaichi series is not at all like the grounded guitars of Budokai, as evident in this collection of cinematics. It's too blatant how the cutscenes were built around the original score, and all these overly-peppy tracks induce emotional cues so differently that you may as well be watching/playing a whole different game altogether.

And therein lies the real problem: I actually prefer the plagiarized score because it functions better within the game's context. Isn't that messed up? It's too ingrained into me, too loved to accept any morally-correct replacement, and that's all because some jackass in Japan decided it was okay to steal. Maybe I'm at fault, too, but to dismiss it as "it is what it is" feels so wrong.

I love everything else Budokai brings to the table. I love that the Tournament is framed within the World Tournament/Tenkaichi Budokai from the original series (complete with the lovable announcer guy!). I love the concept of custom fighters and collecting abilities through Hoi-Poi Capsules. I love the "what-if" scenarios, particularly the scenarios involving Cell's "nightmare" and The Legend of Hercule, where the big faker actually ends not up being a faker and beats up everyone attending the Cell Game.

But I love that all with a broken heart, and I can no longer call Budokai one of the truly great Dragon Ball games. It doesn't fall nearly into the "so bad it's good" rabbit hole I rediscovered last summer with Sonic Adventure DX, but the polish found in everything else can't save how it's a victim of circumstance. The combination of flash over substance, Toei-blessed presentation vs. generic models, and an amazing soundtrack tainted with plagiarism blend together to create a product with big, gaping cracks gradually rising to the surface.

I suppose it'd be a bit mean to label Budokai mediocre; I mean, I love what it tries to do too much to label it as such, but as it stands, it truly is a relic meant for study and getting one's nostalgic kicks, not entertainment.

(I blame Yamamoto; seriously, fuck you, man.)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Tales of Xillia 2 (Gaming Grunts Review Repost)

Note: This review was originally published in 2014 for Gaming Grunts, which went under some time ago. Having recently salvaged most of my articles on there, I've decided to give them a new home here for archival purposes. Please bear in mind they differ in structure from this blog's reviews, and be sure to join me at the end for a bonus reflection!
Tales of Xillia finally arrived in America last year to much criticism, as the game’s cut-corners and immense asset recycling (all consequences of rushing to meet the series’ 15th anniversary) rendered it the latest disappointment in the series. Could a sequel right all of the predecessor’s wrongs? Perhaps, although the last attempt at a Tales sequel (the wretched Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World) did not inspire any optimism. While Tales of Xillia 2 for the PS3 avoids such dreary levels, it still settles for stagnant mediocrity.

A year after the events of Tales of Xillia, new protagonist Ludger Kresnik fails to attain his dream job: an agent at the Spirius Corporation, where his brother Julius is a respected officer. His unlucky streak continues as he not only winds up in a train hijacking (possibly spearheaded by Julius?), but is suddenly slapped with a twenty-million dollar debt and entrusted with caring for a mysterious young girl named Elle. As Ludger begins to awaken his heredity-branded power of the Chromatus and takes over his brother’s job, he and Elle find themselves joining forces with the original Xillia cast to restore the balance of spirits, chase down Julius, discover there may be worlds lying beyond their own, find the Land of Canaan, reunite Elle with her father, put an end to the Exodus terrorists, learn the secrets of the Chromatus, settle tensions between Reize Maxia and Elympios, pay off Ludger’s debt, and watch the antics of his fat cat Rollo.

If the above summary sounds like a mess, it’s because it is. It’s frustrating to see Tales struggle in story and character over the past half-decade, what with great characters being wasted by aimless plots (Vesperia), bland characters in a bland setting (Graces, excluding Sophie and Pascal), or base personalities that, while fun, lack purpose in story (Xillia). Xillia 2 wastes no time in continuing this tradition: while the scrappy, charming Elle fits in just fine, Ludger is subject to the most boneheaded series decision in quite some time: he’s mute, so as to take advantage of the Mass Effect-esque “choose your own adventure” dialogue choices players can choose for him.

While starring a mute character isn’t necessarily bad in itself, it’s woefully awkward in a game chock-full of chatty characters and spoken dialogue. The split dialogue choices don’t even possess much of an impact–barring “affection” gained from other characters to obtain quick bonus scenes–and we’re just left wondering why this character couldn’t have a proper personality to call his own. No matter what plot moments “justify” this decision, the overall execution is just far too clunky and we’re left with a lame self-insert protagonist.

And even then, the plot itself isn’t so hot. Despite being divided into chapters, there’s far too much for the story to juggle, and consequently certain story elements are frequently diminished and sidelined. Julius is meant to initiate the “battle between brothers” trope, but his infrequent appearances and vague–if at all discernible–goals render him peripheral. The fragmented worlds subplot raises questions of morality that never go anywhere, and the original cast shows up because…well, just because. Any genuinely interesting twists are far and few in-between, and the result is just more wasted potential on Namco’s front.


Just like the original title, Xillia 2 takes place over various countries presented in a third-person camera perspective new to the series. Such a bold shift could the bag of fresh air the series needs, but alas, it comes included with a dreadfully boring overworld. Most Tales games prior enforced something of a semi-top-down camera perspective with a sprawling map representing the game’s world, yet Xillia 2 continues to opt for long, boring “pathway” segments from town to town. They’re tepidly uninspired, are hardly unique from one another, and will compel players to either dash past all enemies or scramble to the Quick Jump button just to escape the tedium.

As Xillia 2 is based on the same engine as the original, it’s not surprising the game reuses all of its predecessor’s assets, right down to towns and cities looking just as they did before. Since only a year has passed in-game, it could be somewhat forgivable…if the obvious signs of laziness that already plagued the original weren’t present. All the ships ports are still practically identical, and the cries of fresh muttons continue filling the air of every single city. No matter how much content Xillia 2 presents, this homogenized presentation does it absolutely no favors.


Flashy combo strings and magic spells continue decorating the battlegrounds of Tales. More characters, arte improvements, and borrowing Graces’s “CC” combo system are points in favor of Xillia 2’s combat system, but the anemic attacks render them somewhat moot. While the artes and spells are as quick and fancy as ever, hardly anything feel satisfying to land, and so pulling together combos has all the excitement of beating up a paper bag. Okay, maybe it’s not that dull, but when considering just how great combat felt in the game’s predecessors (particularly, Vesperia and Graces), it’s disappointing for Xillia 2 to feel so sluggish.

While the entire party can be controlled, Ludger is a special case in that his Chromatus ability–usable when a time-based meter fills up–teleports he and his opponents into a space-time continuum of sorts where he can unleash amplified artes without risk of damage. Regardless of its imposed time limit, it’s also unabashedly, unavoidably broken; of particular note is the “Falling Snow” move, where Ludger can just slice back and forth for a whopping 30,000 HP within the span of maybe twenty seconds. Getting bored with battles? Just spam Falling Snow.


Remember the train hijacking plot bit? See, Ludger was roughed up quite a bit during that escapade, and the Spirius Corporation was kind enough to treat his wounds…for a price. In what’s an absolutely shameless method of padding out the game’s length, Ludger is forced to pay over a $20,000,000 debt over the course of the game. The debt acts as paywall: before you move on the next chapter, Ludger and the gang are forced to earn Gald (Tales currency) through job requests and monster bounties.

To be fair, the debt intermissions are beneficial in highlighting the game’s healthy collection of sidequests (specifically the character sub-chapters that feature self-contained narratives for each party member), yet that hardly excuses how it blatantly halts the main quest. Job requests amount to little more than repetitive fetch quests that tend to repeat and redress themselves, and their meager payment is rendered useless by the big bucks offered for giant monster kills. No matter how many sidequests the game throws at you, an overbearing impression of pointlessness pervades the entire thing, and it may as well be seeing as how it too falls victim to the mess of a plot.

Its mere presence begs the question: why am I doing this in a fantasy RPG? Yes, the Xillia games are a tad more modern than your typical Tales adventure, but what place does this have in an epic? Despite Xillia 2 being regarded as a “Mothership” entry by Namco, the constant intrusion of something so conceptually insipid (let alone the tedium of its actual execution) trivializes it to budget-levels of “Escort” Tales games (such as the aforementioned Dawn of the New World). Keep the financial woes in Animal Crossing and let me go save the world, please.


Virtually identical to the original, Xillia 2 continues to ape washed-out colors for its aesthetic. Despite the occasional gorgeous location (such as the capital of Fennmont), Xillia 2’s locales are typically dreary, pale and uninspired to a literally depressing level. While character models are some of the series’ most detailed and well-animated, not even the big green eyes of Leia Rolando can light up Xillia 2’s color palette. As mentioned before, the game loves to reuse assets (NPC characters, backgrounds, ports, etc.), amplifying its homogenized nature.


Series composer Motoi Sakurai reports in for the game’s soundtrack, albeit in one of his weaker outings. Much of the BGM is again recycled from the original, and while it’s not outright bad, things get off on the wrong foot with the piano-styled ambiences that pervade the cities and dungeons of Elympios. They’re dreadfully banal and only promote the lifeless, dead nature of the segmented roads (which worked in context of the original game, but serves as meager motivation for a new title’s beginning). Don’t expect anything special from the new songs, either.

Thankfully, Tales’ sense of humor hasn’t gone anywhere, as evidenced via the jubilant voice cast. With a superb localized script and the hundreds of “skit” conversations providing plenty of laughs, it’s a blast listening to the antics of the party.  Best of all, the muffled recording for the Milla character has been done away with, so no longer does her jarring lisp grace our television speakers. All in all it proves the Tales producers can still create fun characters…

But it's not enough. While Tales of Xillia 2 may have made up for all the original's missing content via sidequests and such, there's just no excusing such obnoxious missteps via tiring paywalls and a senselessly mute protagonist. It's not terrible, but Xillia 2's consistent tedium, clunky execution, and a still-empty well of inspiration impede any sort of player immersion. As it stands, it's just the latest in Namco's series of JRPG junk food. Go check out the Tales of Symphonia HD port if you haven't already.

  • Characters are as fun as ever.
  • Uhh…I guess spamming the daylights out of Falling Snow was kinda fun.
  • Story and presentation are a mess.
  • Combat is easily exploited and rather dull.
  • Sorry excuse for an overworld.
  • Intrusive, tedious debt system.
  • Boring, uninspired score.
  • Reused assets and lazy art direction.
Bonus Reflection: This was easily the funnest review to write. Let's face it: we all love trashing media below sub-par standards, and video games are no exception. Reviewing Xillia 2 again in blog format would be interesting, but I think I expressed my feelings so well here that there's no need. Not yet, anyway.

But if you're looking for more brutal criticism from me, don't fret. As anyone who's been following my Twitter knows...well, let's just say year's Tales game gives Xillia 2 a run for its money in terms of sheer awfulness. In any case, expect the actually good Tales to pop up in Worldly Weekend.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Tomodachi Life (Gaming Grunts Review Repost)

Note: This review was originally published in 2014 for Gaming Grunts, which went under some time ago. Having recently salvaged most of my articles on there, I've decided to give them a new home here for archival purposes. Please bear in mind they differ in structure from this blog's reviews, and be sure to join me at the end for a bonus reflection! 

The lovable Mii avatars have gone from playing sports, throwing parties, karting with Mario and even engaging in a bout of fitness, so surely starring in a life simulator shouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary, right? As expected from a life simulator, Tomodachi Life on the 3DS has everything from bachelor pads to turbulent romances and the heartbreak of having your child leave the nest…but what happens when you throw in the disturbed minds that brought you the original WarioWare? The answers involve bacon, romantic relationships between expressive caricatures of your favorite television stars and video game characters (which Final Fantasy character do YOU want to pair with Oprah Winfrey?!?) , and lots and lots of head scratching…both literally and figuratively.


Welcome to Tomodachi Life, where you take on an omniscient role as your Mii’s “look-alike” to care for an island development. Whoever lives on the island is up to the player: they can either be culled directly from the 3DS Mii Channel or through handy-dandy QR Codes littered across the net. Whether it’s your father, SpongeBob SquarePants or your fourth-grade teacher, anyone can live in your apartment building, dine together in cafés, forge friendships and romaces, get married, shop for eccentric clothing, take photo-ops, and dream of worshipping the 1995 failure Virtual Boy with your friends and family.

Wait, what?


Much like WarioWare before it, Tomodachi Life utilizes the power of absurdist Japanese humor to separate itself from the rest of its ilk (that is, life simulators). Thanks to a fully synthesized speech program and customized animations, observing the Miis’ daily lives is a genuine surprise unto itself. There’s a special joy in the having Mii look-alikes of people/characters you know, but it’s their hysterical animations and hobbies that keep the player hooked. Whether its spotting your Kanye West Mii spying on his friends’ night out at cafés or peeking into their dreams of being sentient seaweeds, Tomodachi Life never lets up with its barrage of random humor.

To quote from personal experience, I’ll never forget the moment when my Peggy Hill Mii received a letter instructing her to meet on top of the apartment that night. As she made her way up, my mind wandered with the possibilities of what was to happen. Was she to receive a love confession, or was Mrs. Hill walking into a deadly conspiracy? My heart pounded as the silhouette on the roof was revealed to be….Kirby/Super Smash Bros. creator Masahiro Sakurai, dressed incognito as he handed Peggy a package and left her with one message.

“You have to protect my family’s recipe.


The “gameplay’ of Tomodachi Life revolves around your Miis’ happiness levels. By granting them snacks, gifts (such as clothes, room interiors, and daily headscratches) and having them forge friendships and romances with other Miis, you’ll be able to teach them new tricks and catchphrases. Ready to grant your Epona the Horse Mii the power to perform pop musicals, or have Nintendo president Satoru Iwata angrily exclaim “PLEASE UNDERSTAND!”? You’ll have to be ready to bribe them with hamburgers or jester costumes or the like. Of course, food and clothes cost money, but you’ll earn payment through daily donations and maintaining your Mii’s happiness levels. The more Miis you include, the more cash will flow in.
By the way, I happened to dress Iwata in the aforementioned jester costume. He seems quite satisfied whenever he goes for a jog on his treadmill.

The Miis are also fond of interacting with the player and tend to invite you into playing games. These can range from simple memory games to frustrating games of catch, but I was personally a fan of their take on football, which consists of slamming the bejeesus out of a table with their fists (or in the player’s case, repeatedly the screen with the stylus) waiting for their opponent’s football player figures to tip over.  Expect to be rewarded for winning with gifts such as a hypnotizing pendulum and a AR camera, all of which further contribute to the hilarity.

For those into Mii customization, one of these gifts will be nothing less than a godsend. While the Miis were flexible already in design in the right hands, unique to Tomodachi Life is a hair-color spray that offers a wide variety of colors.  As hair colors were rather limited before, this’ll be quite useful in perfectly replicating, say, your favorite anime character (or, y’know, if you want a blue-haired Alf or something, you’re free to do so).

Island Activities

The island home of Tomodachi Life is full of activities for the Miis to engage in. Anyone who’s browsed Youtube videos of the game is no doubt familiar with the Concert Hall, where the Miis can form bands and perform pop, techno, rap, and even musicals. The lyrics can be adjusted to your liking, so if you want to witness the hilarity of a Nintendo developer boyband singing about love and peace, it’s up to you.

Events are also scheduled in various locations on the island. These can range from barbecue get-togethers at the park to games found at the amusement park. These locales are not only gradually unlocked as more Miis move in but are scheduled in real time, so much like Animal Crossing you’ll have to appropriately schedule your day to participate. Rumor has it there’s even an 8-bit RPG tribute hidden somewhere, so adjust those clocks.


Tomodachi Life comes equipped with its own speech synthesizer program, so the Miis speak in complete English with a sort of robotic inflection. Each Mii can have his or her voice fully customized and adjusted to levels of pitch, rate of speech, and even accent, so the power to create a garbled, raspy abominable caricature of your favorite (least favorite?) politician is yours.

As one would expect, this cranks the silliness up a notch when Miis are proposing to each other or screaming their frustrations all the while flailing about their plastic, Lego-esque arms. Going back to my Peggy Hill Mii as an example, I deliberately made it so she enunciates every word as slowly and deeply as possible within the confines of her high-pitched squeakiness, so I can’t bear to skip any of her long-winded dialogue.


At its core, Tomodachi Life is a game that emphasizes management and laughter. Life simulation is already a difficult genre for many to get into, and Tomodachi Life’s Mii approach might not be enough to change minds. Like Animal Crossing before it, repetition will gradually sink in and no amount of wacky faces from your Conan O’Brien Mii will change that. I’ve personally yet to reach that level of boredom, but I like to think my tolerance in that area is stronger than most.

Those who stick around with Tomodachi Life will be rewarded with new gifts from Nintendo’s SpotPass service throughout the coming months, yet I doubt that’s an enticing reason to stay for many. Much like, again, Animal Crossing, continually engaging with the Miis of Tomodachi Life for months on end is a task only its most dedicated players will undertake.


Tomodachi Life is as weird as they come, and I couldn’t be happier about that. I don’t quite know how long I’ll be entertained by watching my Mr. Saturn and Epona Miis dating each other, but I’m still laughing at them just standing there staring. And watching Iwata scratch his backside in his goofy jester costume. And taking photo ops with the Miis of myself and my brother angrily taking a stroll down the beach. If any of that sounds appealing to you, this life simulator can’t be recommended enough.



  • Off-the-wall Japanese humor is like nothing you’ve ever seen before
  • The novelty of Miis has never been better
  • Interaction with the Miis is hilarious and fun to discover
  • Fun mini-games
  • Voice adjustment potential is limitless
  • Slamming those footballfigurines!


  • Repetition can set in.
  • Time management with your Miis can be time-consuming and humor may wear thin

Bonus Reflection: I actually haven't gone back to this game since Iwata passed away. I'm not sure I have the heart to see him happily jogging on his treadmill, still wearing that jester suit.

On the other hand, Tomodachi Life was a great coping tool in dealing with Michael. I picked it up not too long before the anniversary of his passing, and just before that date I came up with the idea of including him so I could visit him anytime I wanted. Of course, his Interior design couldn't be anything but the Rock Band one.

I suppose if I could deal with that, Iwata deserves it just as much.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

One Piece: Unlimited World Red (Gaming Grunts Review Repost)

Note: This review was originally published in 2014 for Gaming Grunts, which went under some time ago. Having recently salvaged most of my articles on there, I've decided to give them a new home here for archival purposes. Please bear in mind they differ in structure from this blog's reviews, and be sure to join me at the end for a bonus reflection!

The Japanese mega-hit anime/manga One Piece once again lands on Playstation 3, this time with the latest installment in the Unlimited series. Unlike the pure brawling action of the Pirate Warriors series, Unlimited World Red emphasizes the beloved adventuring of the source material, featuring the Straw Hat pirate crew exploring distant lands and collecting materials and crafts alongside combat. With new characters designed by series creator Eiichiro Oda, Unlimited World Red’s resume is off to a great start…but alas, some head scratching flaws and downgrades render the game appealing only to hardcore One Piece fans.

As if the World Government didn’t have enough on their hands, the legendary pirate Redfield has resurfaced! He wastes no time in attacking Marine forces, but why do his companions sport some familiar faces? Meanwhile, the Straw Hat Pirates–the series protagonists–accompany a tanuki named Pato to “the Island of Promises,” but is the talking critter all that he seems?

Anyone who’s intimately familiar with the term “anime filler” should know what to expect: nothing special. While Redfield and Pato fit in with the Straw Hat crew just fine and–to their credit–have some genuinely touching scenes by the game’s end, the story just can’t lift a candle to Oda’s hard-hitting original themes. The after-school special themes of “it’s never too late to give up” simply don’t gel with One Piece and it even clumsily enforces plot twists just for the sake of plot twists. For what it is, it’s still tolerable, but don’t expect to be blown away.

With cel-shading being the go-to presentation for anime-based video games, it’s no surprise Unlimited World Red heads down the same path. The characters are true to Oda’s overly-cartoonish artstyle: full of exaggerated body proportions, hilarious facial expressions and bright colors everywhere. Any fan can tell it’s also a good sign when the new Oda-designed characters fit right in.

But that’s just the characters. Developer Ganbarion has always struggled with graphical presentation in just about every other area, and Unlimited World Red is not exempt from this. Embarrassing Nintendo 64-levels of draw distance “pop-up” effects are a common sight, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say environmental textures and models would feel right at home in the early PS2 era. If only the same care given to character animation was shared across the board.

Unlimited World Red introduces Transtown (before you ask, no, it’s not home to the gender-ambiguous “okama” of the series), a budding port town that serves as the game’s hub. In exchange for free lodging, the Straw Hats are roped into a material-gathering scheme to help the town expand. As the pirates discover gold and nab loot from their adventures, they’re able to contribute their hard-earned materials for crafting new tools, pay off construction for new facilities, and even contribute to the local museum.

Home to disposable mini-games and infrequent music transitions, completionists might still find some worth in Transtown. Of particular note  are with the numerous expedition/mission requests; with DLC thrown into the mix, hunting treasure and tracking down familiar outlaws can keep players busy. Having Luffy’s Gum-Gum Rocket as an interactive quick-jump is also a fun–and much appreciated–touch.

By far the most disappointing aspect of the game is how Unlimited World Red has stripped down the series’ core element: exploration. Whereas in earlier games it was fun to get lost in exotic jungles and caverns, areas are stripped down here to a more linear model. Progression comes packaged with all the excitement of exploring your nearest hallway, and so the novelty of revisiting fan-favorite locales such as Alabasta and Marineford is rendered rather dull.

This isn’t so bad in the aforementioned mission requests since the streamlined level design eases their progress, but it comes across as cookie-cutter and lazy in the actual campaign. Even worse, those interested in collecting materials and insects and the like will find the process to be a laborious, tedious process, as it just consists of revisiting the same flat planes over and over. So rarely does the game apply any twists on level design (such as Skypiea’s maze-like jungle) that it makes the player wonder why they even bothered.
Even the unique actions for each crew member feel superfluous; for example, crew archaeologist Robin could once decipher hieroglyphics for clues, yet the equivalent action here grants the player a coconut (wait, what?).

“Clunky” is appropriate for describing Unlimited World Red’s combat. Combat in earlier games ran smooth as butter, yet Unlimited World Red is rather sluggish in comparison. Excluding the gauge-consuming special moves, attacks barely feel like they’re landing on enemy characters and it takes forever for many of ‘em to keel over.

It’s not totally throwaway, though. Fighting side-by-side with fellow crew members provides for a somewhat engaging experience, and there are some undeniably cool maneuvers characters can pull off; in particular, fans should get a nice kick out of how Cyborg Franky’s carpenter skills are put to use in the heat of battle, and witnessing Brook’s hypnotic musician skills is always a delightful sight.


Based off the current Dressrosa story arc in the original series, the Straw Hats–along with fellow pirate Trafalgar Law–enter Donquixite Doflamingo’s Coliseum tournament in hopes of winning whatever mystery prize the warlord has in store. Anyone who’s familiar with the series should know Doflamingo is not the type to hand over anything so easily, and rumor has it he’s pulling some strings with his Marine contacts…
Unfortunately, while the Coliseum is a decent diversion via solo and multiplayer, there just isn’t enough variety for the player to chew on. Fights often boil down to one-on-one duels or fending off mobs, and while the original story involves recent new characters, its predictably struggles to maintain further interest. Its saving grace are the unlockable promises of fan-favorite characters (including Ace, Jimbei, and Crocodile), yet one can’t help but feel their potential is wasted here.


True to the anime, Unlimited World Red utilizes classical-style music to express the romance of adventure. While there are a couple of stellar tunes expressing the grandeur of The Grand Line’s imaginative locations (such as the sand kingdom Alabasta and the floating islands/jungles of Skypiea), much of the music comes across as overly typical classicism or just simply misplaced. Fans who remember the daunting government facility Enies Lobby will be perplexed as to why its accompanying score would suit a walk in the park, and it’s a shame how woefully inadequate the song for the ravaged Marineford is.

Thankfully, the immaculate, ever-present Japanese voice cast from the anime step in for their roles. If you’ve watched the show in its native language, you understand what they’re capable of, and therefore know they’re practically perfect at what they do. Redfield and Pato are provided some nice pipes as well, although in the end I wished I could have seen their full potential in Oda’s hands.


Unlimited World Adventure is a decent diversion for One Piece fans, yet its half-baked features are too jarring to overlook. While fun can still be mined from the title regardless, it's a shame the title is so stripped down from what made the series fun. Only hardcore One Piece fans should give it a look.

  • Great character animation; models are true to Oda’s art
  • Cool new characters
  • Transtown provides some fulfilling sidequest material
  • Focus on linearity renders general gameplay tedious
  • Combat feels clunky
  • Poor graphical presentation aside from character models
  • Coliseum feels throwaway
  • Uninspired, clumsy music score
Bonus Reflection: Honestly, I haven't touched this since I reviewed it. It's weird how Unlimited Adventure wasn't even that great, yet that they downgraded what was good about it in an Oda-involved game is really disappointing. I doubt another in-depth review courtesy of Worldly Weekend would differ much from what I've written down here (however, rumor has it another One Piece game might be hitting the column soon...)

By the way, the new Zou arc in the manga is just incredible. Those cat gags get me every time.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Archive Restructuring/Reviews for February.

Hey, all! Dropping by with two announcements.

1. As I was cleaning up The Archives, I realized it was high time to separate Biweekly Music Wednesday! into its own separate archive. It's up now if you wanna check it out. I'll probably do the same with Worldly Weekend as I review more games for it. I'm looking forward to seeing how they'll grow...

2. JUST as I was all ready to plop the next Worldly Weekend today, a sudden family get-together called me away from writing! Argh! But not to fret--this means the end of February will be host to the launch of not one, not two, but THREE reviews! Construction's already well-underway for the other two, so I'm quite confident in that date.

Just to tide you over, I think I'll get the rest of those Gaming Grunts reviews here throughout the week. There's actually some really interesting reflections in store for several of 'em, so keep an eye out!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Biweekly Music Wednesday! No. 32 ~Freezy Flake Galaxy~ (Super Mario Galaxy 2)

Origin: Super Mario Galaxy 2
Plays In: Freezy Flake Galaxy
Status: Original Composition
Composed by: Mahito Yokota

What an abnormal winter we've had here in America. Can you believe we only just started getting snow a few weeks ago? And it finally arrived in a record-breaking blizzard, no less...

We've had regular snowfall since, but the rain always dilutes its impact. Regardless, I was really impressed with the snow formations the blizzard left in my front yard. As always, the way they piled up around the roads and covered our mailboxes whisked me away to another time of snow forts and snowball fights. I wanted to dive in, but it was another day of work. 

Oh, did I mention I finally began my first real job? Since last month, I've been working as a substitute aide for none other than my old school district. From middle school special ed to covering different grades of an elementary school in one whole day, I work around the clock when I'm not taking Japanese. I have a real knack for entertaining kids, and I'm something of a big kid myself, so it's right up my alley. 
Lately, I've been spending my time between the two elementary schools of my youth. Undoubtedly, the kids I work with were thrilled at the onslaught of snow days, two-hour delays and, of course, the unpolished snow forts that caused all that trouble in the first place. How they probably dug into those blockades and piled up reserves of snow balls, much like I used to just down the street...

Visits to my old schools unload a never-ending stream of reflection. The tales of my social and educational struggles thanks to Asperger's could fill an entire a volume all on their own, yet instead of dwelling on those events, I find myself thinking about where am I am now thanks to them. Naturally, this gives rise to an explosion of feelings; awe is one of them. Numerous individuals responsible for my success are now my co-workers, which I'm certain is just as rewarding to them as it is to me, if not more so.

Morality and the relativity of adulthood/childhood comes into play as well. Isn't it funny how when we start to grow up and hail childhood as this perfect holy grail of innocence? Being tasked with the job of watching adorable children may affirm that on a surface level, but the scribbled pleas against bullying that decorate school hallways doesn't just stop at reminding us of another era of priorities and fears. Now that we're adults, we recognize the all-too-real reasons for it and the consequences.

Which brings us to something far more cathartic: forgiveness. Friends came and went throughout the entire duration of grade school, and I've met my share of less-than-satisfactory adult figures. I could hold grudges against numerous individuals that fed my worst habits and betrayed me in heartbreaking ways, but I choose not to and focus on what I can contribute to the world. I could've spent my entire life disowning the high school I graduated from because of a terrible senior year, but rather than lead a verbal crusade via memoir, I instead choose to put that memory behind me and actually work there so I can help improve it.

Today, awe was the feeling of the day. I was at the school I spent 2nd to 5th grade, and all I could think of was how small everything was. There was the lobby I spent every morning in; how small its windowsills and seats seemed. The cafeteria was no longer as big and imposing as it was. I spent my outdoor recess staring down the playground. What captivated my attention every weekday for three years was dwarfed next to its newer, shinier neighbor. It wasn't just my interests and priorities that shrunk in size.

How ironic that I was admiring the wonder of snowfall. Just goes to show you how amazing nature is. If I had the time today, I'd go for a walk.

Final Thoughts: By the way, that one rabbit's cabin in Freezy Flake Galaxy seems a little small. Do you think he's okay with that?

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Evaluating Cut Corners in The Wind Waker (Nintendojo)

It's been a big week for Nintendojo! We've been celebrating Zelda's 30th anniversary all week, so I figured I'd chip in with something of a defense for my favorite game in the series. Rumor has it that you might see this elaborated upon in a certain review...

Not only that, but this isn't the end of my contribution for Nintendojo this week. Expect to see me participate not just in the Weekend Roundtable, but in a certain presentation coming your way soon!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgames! (Gaming Grunts Review Repost)

Note: This review was originally published in 2014 for Gaming Grunts, which went under some time ago. Having recently salvaged most of my articles on there, I've decided to give them a new home here for archival purposes. Please bear in mind they differ in structure from this blog's reviews, and be sure to join me at the end for a bonus reflection!

Released back in 2003 for the Game Boy Advance, the original WarioWare captured the hearts of Nintendo fans everywhere with its quick-fire gameplay and absurd, off-the-wall humor. Starring Wario—Mario’s greedy doppelganger of sorts—and his band of misfits in yet another money-grubbing scheme, WarioWare Inc.: Mega Microgame$ immediately distanced itself from other mini-game collections (such as Mario Party) in hosting over 200 “microgames,” of which stack onto one another in five-second bursts. Ridiculous in both concept and execution, yet bursting with inspiration: the addiction of WarioWare still remains one of the most innovative, original handheld experiences to date


Wario was spending his day in his mountaintop Diamond City home idly picking his nose and watching TV when a sudden news report informs him of a best-selling video game. Sensing another opportunity for cash, he speeds off on his motorcycle to purchase a laptop so he can make a popular game of his own! Then he discovers programming video games is really, really hard. Just as he’s about to give up, an idea hops to mind: he’ll just establish his own company and hire a bunch of schmucks-er, his friends, to make games for him! His new employees include Jimmy T., an afro-sporting disco dancer; Mona, an ice-cream serving girl; 9-Volt, an elementary Nintendo nerd; Dribble and Spitz, a pair of anthromorphic taxi cabbies (a dog and a cat, respectively); Kat and Ana, a pair of kindergartener ninja twins; Dr. Crygor, a cyborg scientist, and Orbulon, an alien dude. The products of their sweat and tears are now yours, the player, to discover.


The aforementioned “microgames” were what rendered WarioWare so original: as opposed to the minute-long sessions of Mario Party’s mini-games, WarioWare layers a bunch of five-second concepts—whether they be jumping over wheeled potatoes, picking noses, or controlling a burlesque Mario in some sort of weird Street Fighter knock-off—onto each other, gradually increasing the pressure as the games increase in both speed and inanity. It becomes readily evident that WarioWare is a game that awards success via reaction time and quick thinking, and given the right sense of humor from the player, an addiction will quickly be born.

It cannot be stressed enough how perfectly WarioWare takes advantage of this newfound addiction, such as how Wario and his friends divide the microgames into themed packs. For example, Mona represents strangeness (Pick noses! Twirl spaghetti! Now chicken pinch!), 9-Volt presents a loving library of retro Nintendo-themed games (Balloon Fight, Donkey Kong, and the Famicom keyboard? Oh my), and Kat & Ana focus on nature (“Raaarrrggghh!!!”). Every pack is just as fresh and creative as the last and players will want to keep diving back to not just achieve a high score, but to unlock every last microgame for individual play.

Aesthetics and Humor

Through the magic of 2D sprite animation, WarioWare’s visuals successfully capture zany Japanese humor. Anyone who’s not well-versed in said Japanese humor will be in for some culture shock, as the microgames’ aesthetics change on a dime, such as a retro anime-styled woman sniffing up a loogie, extreme forms of minimalistic artwork, and fun takes on obvious photo-captures. The character of Wario was no stranger to weirdness beforehand, but this game takes it to another level entirely.

However, with humor being an acquired taste as it is, it may be the breaking point for certain folks who don’t find WarioWare’s brand of insanity to be their cup of tea. This is not in any way a knock against the game’s actual graphics and animation (although a couple of character cutscenes haven’t aged too well), but if a particular player finds themselves scarred by the sight of potato facials and all that, there’s nothing that can be done.


But just what is the secret ingredient to WarioWare’s humor? It all lies in the game’s use of sound, as while WarioWare does not boast an incredible soundtrack of any sort, but it doesn’t need to. What it really excels in is masterfully applying sound effects in every facet of the game. Take Jimmy T.’s basketball microgame, which consists of a shadowy man preparing himself to take a shot at the basket. Its minimalist visuals are malleable to any sort of sound direction, and so we take witness of jazzy saxophone music in the background as the basketball player’s hops are accompanied by spring noises. Every microgame is full of hysterical touches like this to the point where I’m always shaking my head in amusement.

Of course, simply dismissing the overall soundtrack would be a mistake. While it mostly serves as a backdrop to all the zaniness going on, there are some brilliant pieces here and there. Players will probably take note of the beautiful, super serious Japanese vocal song that plays throughout Kat and Ana’s section, even when you’re snapping a photo of a flying squirrel.

Replay Value

The real magic of WarioWare lies in its flexibility of playtime. Need to cram a quick three-minute session before class starts? Don’t worry, you’ve got your fix. Got nothing to do for an hour? Your high score in Orbulon’s I.Q. section is waiting to be felled. It’s a prime example of a pick-up-and-play video game, suited for just about any idle moment to snag your attention for however long you need it. With how every individual micro-game can be accessed for high score play and an array of full-length mini-games to unlock (including a strangely familiar puzzle parody involving doctors and viruses), the fun never ends with Wario and company.


  • One of the funniest games ever made
  • Innovative and original in every fabric of its being
  • Addictive gameplay
  • 9-Volt!
  • Unlockable features and mini-games are a blast
  • Hilarious use of sound effects and music
  • Infinite, flexible replayability


  • Might be too weird for some
  • Occasional dated visuals

Is WarioWare crazy? Beyond a doubt. Too crazy? Maybe, but WarioWare has no patience for those unwilling to get some fingers dirty digging for gold. Regardless of your personal taste in humor, its relentlessly wild direction is still one of the most creative, joyous products in Nintendo's handheld history. Whether you're in the market for used GBA cartridges, scrolling through the Wii U Virtual Console catalog, or were one of the lucky 3DS Ambassadors, WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgame$ is the perfect choice for a pick-me-up.

Reflection: This is definitely the odd duck of my Gaming Grunts reviews. Their subject matter were all quite recent, yet here we have a game that's well over a decade old. Thing is, the site actually encouraged us to discuss retro games ("they're proving popular with collectors," I was told), and so I figured why not write about a game I'd been revisiting at the time? One I still happened to love, at that.
Regardless, I was really happy with how it came out. The first three WarioWare games are nothing less than classics, and I can't wait to fully discuss them later this year.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Biweekly Music Wednesday!: No. 31: Winds Across the Plains (Fire Emblem)

Origin: Fire Emblem (Fire Emblem: Blazing Sword)
Plays In: Overworld Map for Lyn's Story
Status: Original Composition
Composed by: Yuka Tsujiyoko

Now here I find myself in a peculiar predicament. This song, which hails from the seventh Fire Emblem title (don't let the confusing localized title fool you), is probably the most nostalgia-laden song in the whole series. Anyone who's read this blog knows this is right up my alley: after all, discovering EarthBound and Kirby Super Star years after they'd released was a huge part of my childhood, and the way their respective nostalgia bled into my own is nothing less than mindblowing to me today.

Yet here we have a game that came during my time; one that passed me by. For whatever reason, Fire Emblem was never on my radar despite its landmark release in America--after all, it was the first Fire Emblem game coming stateside! Though I passed it up, however, it still found a sizable audience in America, one I interacted with frequently on the long-gone Nsider Forums. Every member frequently sung the game's praises, none the least that of an acquaintance who casually claimed she beat the game over forty times.

It was no wonder they fell in love with it; after all, this particular installment was designed with new foreign players in mind. It was the first Fire Emblem title to include the player as an actual character via in-game tactician, who slowly learned the ropes under the character Lyn's careful guidance. As with any good SRPG, it slowly sinks its addictive hooks into you. In fact, it may very well be the series masterpiece.

Fast-forward to 2008. I spot a used copy at GameStop and, having recently been awakened to Fire Emblem's glory thanks to Path of Radiance, I pick it up. Soon after Lyn's introduction, this song plays. Unlike the sweet nostalgia of EarthBound, however, I'm hit with a sense of melancholy, for Nsider had only closed a half-year ago, in the fall of 2007. While I was still in touch with several friends from there, all excited that I finally picked the game up, I could only look back and wonder about those I lost forever. All the pre-teen boys who worshipped Lyn, people who used the avatar of the healer Serra (whose awkward position made it look like she was about to poke you), those who kept making fun of Jaffar's name...

Most of all, I wondered how my friend was doing, the one who beat it over forty times. Had she beaten it even more? Was it still her favorite game? Did this song make her sigh with wistfulness, just like Kirby Super Star and Smash Bros. Melee made me do so long ago?

Except, it wasn't quite like either of those cases. It wasn't a game that came out before my time, yet I passed it up when it arrived into my own. I was no longer a boy filled with dreams, but a hardened teenager worried about what my future held. As was too often the case, I was now reminded of a time I would never get back.

Had I played it just a few years earlier, I was certain it'd give birth to the warm nostalgia it was supposed to exude...but it would perhaps be far more painful.

Funny how game music can evoke feelings they never meant to summon. Anyone could tell this particular track, Winds Across the Plains, has all the makings of a journey's beginning. It plays during what's basically an extended tutorial, but it's the rare kind that's lovingly remembered upon by gamers. While it's undoubtedly in part to how they're introduced as an actual character, this wistful song undeniably plays a role.

How many others feel the same about wistful game music? Does Dire, Dire Docks make people sad? Aquatic Ambiance? Smiles and Tears? How many were intended to make players cry? Were they intended to make me feel nostalgic about an age long past...?

Today, I'm a much more healthy human being, so Winds Across the Plains no longer holds such away over me. I can listen to its DLC cameo in Fire Emblem: Awakening just fine. I smile when I hear it in the above video, where the song was orchestrated for last year's  Fire Emblem 25th Anniversary Concert in Japan. I wonder if it'll ever be arranged for Smash Bros.

I still wonder about my friend; namely, how many times she's heard this by now. I hope she's doing alright.

Final Thoughts: Man, I want to hear that concert. I know they just released a DVD, but I want a CD to import, dang it!