Tuesday, 14 January 2020

The Harmony Of Hope And The Dirge Of Despair: Introduction (Elegy Of The Eternals)

(What this is all about will become clear in a moment, but here's your spoiler warning: There are spoilers for both Sailor Moon and Puella Magi Madoka Magica in here. Warning over.)

Well, here we are at last. Again. You may be wondering what in the name of God this winter venture of a deep dive is all about. It is my solemn job as writer to like, tell you. And stuff. I'm belaboring the point, I know, but I have my reasons. I'm getting a buildup of steam here, okay? Plus, I got a lovely compliment from someone I care fondly about regarding my words on this blog. They said my writing style is fantastic; that I made each of my pieces feel like I was sitting in a coffee shop with the reader, talking one on one. Let's take that angle, you and I, okay? It's you and I in the coffee shop, it's a chilly winter day, and we both need a little warming up. Sip your latte or your hot chocolate or what have you, and let's catch up, sweetie.

Two years ago, in a fit of obsessive circle-closing and confused soul-searching, I started watching the original Japanese version of Sailor Moon. Over the next six months I experienced one hell of a ride, a quintessential magical girl experience that moved me on many levels and resonated personally with the confused soul-searching I was going through. It took me another three months to write it all down, and what resulted was a 20,000 word-long exegesis I called Moonlight Shines Eternal. I tell you all of this because in November 2019 I began watching another magical girl anime. It, like Sailor Moon, is a five-season experience. Unlike Sailor Moon, it's much shorter and I have only seen one season at the time of this writing. Immediately upon engaging with its themes and resonances, though, I knew I had to write about the thing. This show, Senki Zesshou Symphogear (lit. "Superb Song Of The Valkyries", if Wikipedia is to be believed, though my subs for the first season translated it as "Swan Song Of The Valkyries", which I kind of like a bit more), hereafter referred to as simply Symphogear for simplicity's sake, is something very special. Explaining why, however, leaves me with a bit of a problem. These deep dives and heartfelt explanations have never been objective; they've always been written in respect to my own interior landscape and personal resonances. On its face, Symphogear is an effective magical girl anime. To properly convey to you what it meant to me, and what parts stood out, I have to go back. Just as I had to go back to my first encounter with Sailor Moon, so too do I have to go back to three works of Japanese anime which absolutely informed how I took in Symphogear and its themes. Actually, more like three characters. I'm dipping my toe into gonzo mysticism blogging a la my output in 2014, but these are the Eternals, and understanding their Elegy is crucial to understanding me and Symphogear. Take another sip of that warm drink, sweetie. Don't be frightened. Just take my hand, and we'll explore this shit together.

Our first Eternal is Usagi Tsukino, Sailor Moon herself, and we're immediately put in an unenviable position wherein I have to somehow take a heartfelt 20,000 word outpouring of critical love and affection and summarize it in a paragraph. If I had that level of brevity, I wouldn't have needed 20,000 words. Still, we have to try. Usagi is, of course, the platonic utopian idealist magical girl whose influence still holds a place in my heart today. She's a flawed individual in many ways. A klutz, a crybaby, a gourmand. She's not that smart and doesn't get good grades, and her first battles as a magical girl are panicked terror until she manages to throw her tiara. Usagi's idealism is codified, eventually. It is unflinching in its optimistic hopes, and so is she. This manifests itself most clearly in the third season of Sailor Moon, where her optimisic hopes are put into conflict with the grim "needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" practicality of Sailors Uranus and Neptune. What I see as unflinching optimism, they see as childish sentimental naivity... but the narrative is on the side of our protagonist. Sailor Moon, the show, is pretty much on board with childish sentimental naivity and idealistic "everything will work out if we're kind" thinking. It's beautiful, hopeful, and inspiring to me to see Sailor Moon never yield against the dark, the nihilistic, and the grim. In the fifth and final season of Sailor Moon, two things occur for the sake of this Eternal discussion, and I'm just going to quote myself from my own post on that season:

"With its last breaths of relevance, Sailor Stars has opened Sailor Moon up into infinity. How fitting, then, that Sailor Moon's newest form is called Eternal Sailor Moon. That's exactly what the show does here with this reveal; it makes itself eternal by creating an infinity of Sailor Senshi. This is brilliant."

Sailor Moon, the series, is over, and despite missteps at the eleventh hour it managed to pull through. Usagi Tsukino is Eternal, the universe is open to an infinity of Sailor Senshi, and her unflinching idealism can shine on forever. Whose darkest hour could that blindingly optimistic light shine? Perhaps our next Eternal...

The second figure we need to look at, along with the show she's protagonist of, is Madoka Kaname of Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Now, I'm pretty sure you're familiar with Madoka Magica, as we'll call it from now on, but for the sake of getting you up to speed we'll talk about it a little bit. In very very broad strokes, this show feels in many ways to be the dark mirror of Sailor Moon. Again, these are very very broad strokes, but if Sailor Moon is your typical giant robot show, Madoka Magica is its Neon Genesis Evangelion. Dark, depressing, dissonant psychological nihilistic horror. You could write a whole essay on this stuff, but we're only going to stay here and brush out the broad strokes so you can understand my interiority here. (If you'd like a far better deep dive into Madoka Magica, I suggest Jen A. Blue's writings on the series.) Madoka Magica is, as I said, a dark and depressing show. Its take on magical girls is that of fatalistic entropy, of a system designed in the name of saving the world that profits itself off the pain and suffering of these magical girls. Far from being an idealistic superpower, becoming a magical girl in Madoka Magica is a horrific thing, almost Faustian and Monkey's Paw in nature where you not only pay a terrible price for your one wish, but your one wish is likely to be corrupted in ways you could only imagine. You become part of the cycle of suffering and pain, and the very energy created from your suffering is used to fuel a desperate attempt to stave off entropy at any cost by beings more powerful and more sinister than you could possibly imagine. Understanding this depressing dystopia is key to understanding how Symphogear touched me. Sailor Moon and Madoka Magica are my main two tentpoles of magical girl media, and Symphogear's driving force of metanarrative conflict is a battle between which of these styles will win out in the end; grim nihilism, or utopian idealism. We'll see how the battle plays out in Symphogear, but it's worth noting how Madoka Kaname resolves it; by finding the hidden third option. She becomes a magical girl, but her one wish is to literally rewrite the depressing system of pain and suffering, and its power is such that she ascends to godhood to make it true. Madoka Kaname, ever hopeful in the face of such despair, becomes Eternal and does her best to form her own utopia. Ignoring whatever may come after that wish, let's admire that and move to our last Eternal.

Our third and final Eternal is an unexpected one, as she's not actually a magical girl. Still, she's important enough to the interiority of Symphogear and how I took it that she gets a nod. Say hello to Minamoto Sakura of Zombie Land Saga. Yes, okay so she's an Eternal not because of ascending to godhood or spreading her influence upon the world, but because she's an undead corpse, but semantics!! It may seem strange to talk about a Japanese idol zombie girl in a magical girl anime post, but I have my reasons. Mainly that this stuff is utopian resonant, and it was still fresh on my mind as I watched Symphogear. I did a big post on it in October for my Halloween marathon, but let's hit the brief points. Symphogear, as you might have guessed from it being a portmanteau of "Symphony" and "Gear", as well as the whole "Song Of The Valkyries" part, is very much concerned with the element of song. Zombie Land Saga, being a Japanese idol anime, is also very much concerned with the element of song. Bam. Connection made. I am a genius. Oh no. Oh wait. I forgot the even bigger connection! Yamada Tae, undead zombie girl pal of Minamoto Sakura, is "voiced" by the same VA who did Usagi Tsukino! Thank you, past me, for writing about that so I could look it up. Anyway. The power of song and using it to heal will become very important for one of Symphogear's main characters, so that will be something talked about in-depth later. For now, let's appreciate Minamoto Sakura and the other dead girls which make up her band. All disparite misfits who died far too young and are back to some form of life, all of them slowly learning to trust and love each other, to help each other get through their traumas, anxieties, and fears. True friendship through adversity. That'll come up, believe me, but let's leave Sakura and her group for now. I hope I've given you an idea of where my headspace was when I finally sat back to watch Symphogear. Now, get yourself another coffee, won't you? I'm by no means done yet.

It's finally time to talk about Symphogear.


Monday, 13 January 2020

Doctor Who Series 12 First Impressions: Episode 3 (Orphan 55)

Ed Hime. You beautiful messy bastard. You're two for two. Spot on.

This is the future liberals don't want.
So yeah, we get to talk about Orphan 55 now! In the 90 minutes between the episode's end and me going to bed, I saw... a fair few takes. Most of them, a lot of them actually, calling this a goddamned mess. I don't think I can go quite that far. Nope, sorry. Is it messy? Yeah, a little, if we're being honest. The whole Chibnall-era aesthetic of a wild ride roller coaster with everything and the kitchen sink tossed in along the way is definitely still here, and the episode blasts through several different concepts/themes/ideas before eventually settling on something to anchor all this together... or attempt to, anyway. This is where the divisiveness comes in. If that anchor doesn't sell you, if you find it wanting in some way, then the whole ride is just a bunch of half-baked appetizers hurled into your face at 80 miles per hour with an ending that looks directly into the camera and preaches politics at you. You know what? I can just about see it from that perspective. I'm going to do my best to touch on the elements of the ride before getting into that political anchor of a main theme, but I have a feeling it may end up like the Spyfall Part Two writeup. There, after about three or four times of saying something to the effect of "Well this was part of the episode and was... okay... I guess...", I kind of just threw up my hands and talked about what I actually wanted to talk about. This episode is better than Spyfall Part Two for me. Why? Because the part I really want to talk about in Orphan 55 is better than the part I really wanted to talk about in Spyfall Part Two. Before we get there, I will do my very best to shotgun you through the ride the episode takes us, and the concepts left behind that still kind of resonate. Here's words on Orphan 55, and why I loved it. Yes. I loved it. I will bear the cross of being an easily-impressed contrarian if I must, but fuck it. I loved it. Here's why.

Tranquility Spa! Hell of a place! And then it becomes hell. The speed and intensity at which Tranquility Spa becomes absolute shit and overrun with Doctor Who monsters can give one whiplash. We're back down to a 45-minute episode for some reason, and that just makes everything a little faster and less defined than it might be with a 50-minute slot. One hopes for an extended edit or something on the Blu-Ray. Still, the Doctor and pals barely have time to settle down for their vacation before the alarm bells sound. I do, however, like the quick explanation and inclusion of the hopper virus. It's basically Mr. Chekov setting his gun on the mantle, but it's a bonkers sci-fi concept and a great bit of comedy for Tosin Cole. Then we get to the monsters themselves, and well holy shit. They're actually quite spooky! The direction for this bit keeps them mostly obscured, showing parts of the monsters and really amping up the spooky vibe. These creatures, the Dregs? Thinking on it here as I write, they may actually be the spookiest alien designs the Whittaker era has served up so far. The Kasaavin were close and were spooky by being unknowable light beam things, but as far as traditional scary monster things go? The Dregs are excellent design. I was actually thinking we were going to get an I Am Legend-style twist where the colonists behind Tranquility Spa were the antagonists, and the Dregs were only attacking them to survive or something. What we got was quite different, but let's talk about the Dregs and the colonists for a bit.

Tranquility Spa's a big holodeck/colony dome on the planet Orphan 55, an uninhabitable dead zone that these people are hoping to make livable. Well, the Dregs have learned to adapt... and that name choice is a thing. The Dregs. A name with connotations of lower class, of disposable nature. Seeing the bit where the armored vehicle is out looking for old man Benni, and its driver only continues on when his girlfriend pays up, only reinforces this idea of class and wealth and put that I Am Legend thought into my head. Hmm, I thought. Maybe this story is flirting with some sort of political message. How interesting! Before we can ponder that too much, more fun with the Dregs. They're apex predators, says the Doctor, perfectly adapted to the hell world outside. They also do some fuckery involving Benni that... well, here's where things arguably stumble. There's an ambiguity here. Are the Dregs dragging a wounded Benni off to play with their prey, or are they such good predators that they're mimicking him to lure the others out? The episode never says, though there's enough evidence to suggest A. Still, no explanation is given. It's all part of the ride and we move on from that, but this is what I mean when I say a lot of people found this half-baked. It hits on a horrific concept, but it's going at such a breakneck speed with about six other themes and concepts ready to go in the next 20 minutes that it doesn't explore this. Even some of those themes don't get as much breathing room as they could have, like the theme of family. We have three familial pairs in this episode, and the episode's doing something with them. Graham and Ryan we know of course, but we also have the green-haired mechanic and his green-haired son who is a better mechanic than he is but his dad doesn't want to admit it? Or something to that effect? Far more intriguing to me are Bella and Kane. Kane, having built up Tranquility Spa and neglecting her family to ensure her daughter has a luxurious birthright to inherit one day, and Bella resenting the fact that her mom wasn't around and deciding to blow Tranquility Spa the fuck up. Which, you know, I appreciate the radical anarchy of that. It seemed like they were setting this up as the big political twist, about colonialism and neglectfulness and resentment and other stuff. Okay, sure, I thought. I can roll with that. Sounds like a fun concept, right?

OH MY GOD, I WAS WRONG! IT WAS EARTH, ALL ALONG!!! This shit is wild. Partly because, hours before broadcast, I was watching a classic Doctor Who story. A little ditty called "The Mysterious Planet" featuring Colin Baker where, ten minutes in, we discover the titular Mysterious Planet that has been ruined by solar flares is actually Earth. Orphan 55 is Earth, and the Dregs are actually the mutated/evolved remnants of humanity that have adapted to survive. They even breathe carbon dioxide and exhale pure oxygen. What horrible tragedy befell Earth to leave it as a dessicated husk with Dregs running around? IT WAS CLIMATE CHANGE! IT WAS CLIMATE CHANGE THE WHOLE TIME! There's your fucking anchor, kids! This motherfucker's a topical hot-button political issues story once you get to the end of the wild ride with those other half-baked concepts! Let's shotgun through the resolution. There's some wild technobabble involving the green-haired mechanics and using Chekov's Hopper Virus to "infect" their teleport pad in such a way as to make it work again, and Bella and Kane end up fighting off the rest of the Dregs together while the Doctor and company warp back to the TARDIS. (Quite why the Doctor can't just zoom the TARDIS back to Orphan 55 to save them right after is never explained, and this is sure to be a bee in the bonnet for some.) Then we get to our ending, and... My god. The brass balls on Ed Hime. The Doctor, before explaining that the hell world of Orphan 55 is but one possible future (and speaking of bees in the bonnet, this explanation of time travel is going to stick in some people's craws), basically gives a speech to camera about how this shit isn't set in stone and humanity can fix it. This shit is not inevitable. You can do something about it. Do something about it. DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT, YOU FUCKS. It is absolutely political, and holy fuck I love it. As messy and as undercooked as some of the myriad concepts and themes Hime throws into the story to give us a wild ride, I can't not love an episode with an ending message of "DO SOMETHING ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE OR WE'RE ALL FUCKING FUCKED, YOU FUCKS!". It's hopeful in just the right ways. The Chibnall era has been... shall we say, obstinate when it comes to the idea of changing the past. One need only look at stuff like Rosa, Demons Of The Punjab, or Spyfall Part Two to see that. If it had offered Orphan 55 as an inevitability, something that couldn't be changed and wasn't worth trying to due to the unmoving power of History and Fixed Points, this would be a horrifically nihilistic episode. With that speech, with the Doctor saying that she can't fix this but humanity can, it offers a glimmer of hope via a direct call to action aimed at the audience. The Doctor's a made-up TV space alien. You're real, you can do something about it. Do something, or we're fucked. It's Doctor Who as Greta Thunberg. I fucking love it. That's Orphan 55. Is it perfect? God no. Is it messy? God yes. I'm willing to let all that slide. I don't give a shit, because I believe in the message it anchors itself around. I think it's meaningful, it's important, and it had to be said. For that, I loved Orphan 55. Wow. Goddamn, Ed Hime. Goddamn.

Monday, 6 January 2020

Doctor Who Series 12 First Impressions: Episode 2 (Spyfall Part Two)

Oh, Chibnall. Oh, Chris Chibnall. That was so close enough to fine that what I have to complain about almost hurts to do. I want to stress that last sentence again. Last week, I called Spyfall Part One the best story Chibnall has ever put out for Doctor Who. Now that Part Two has aired, I can't say that I want to take that back. Part Two is functional and good and a wild ride that kept me guessing up until the very end. The act of watching it was fun! It's a fine episode when you look at it from broad strokes; not quite as good as Part One, but still a solid like... 6/10, if you want to play the number game, where Part One is a 6.5 or maybe even a 7. Look, I don't know, I don't play the number game, numbers are bullshit. We've got to rip the band-aid off, though. Part Two's revelations, along with a handful of other teeny little nitpicks, compound together to form something that just does not gel with me. We'll get to those, but I really want to start this off with praise. We'll do that, and then I'll let my grievances out. Okay? Okay. Here's Spyfall Part Two.

Look. I kind of love the sheer playful "fuck it" mode of resolving the cliffhanger with a fucking Bill And Ted-style predestination paradox. Just seeing the confusion on the companion's faces as they find all the setup pieces is one thing, but the payoff at the end of the episode with the Doctor realizing she has to go back and set all that shit up is hilarious. Granted, Chibnall nicks a joke from Blink, but it doesn't spoil just how fun this all is. From there, now that we have two villains in the form of the Master and David Barton, the companion/Doctor split allows for an interesting structure where each of them gets to face off against one villain. The Doctor has adventures in history, jumping around time and meeting historical women while the Master keeps running into her and trying to kill her. In the meantime, the companions are on the run thanks to Barton's dominion over the tech world, trying to figure out how to stop him without the Doctor's help. It's quite well-structured, and the Doctor half in particular is kind of neat. Ada Lovelace and Noor Inayat Khan play off of her well, but it's Ada who works especially great here. I could almost see her as a Big Finish-style companion in the future, were it not for how the episode ends.

Then there are the aliens, the Kasaavins. I had to look that up. In Part One, there was a real air of mystery about just what the hell these things even were. They're... well, exactly what the Doctor thought they were. Alien spies trying to infiltrate our dimension, using time travel and technology to find out how best to do it? Also they wipe your DNA to use it as a genetic hard drive and want to do that to everyone on the planet. I think that's the plan? We get Barton's big villain speech at a tech conference, and it seems like the episode's going for a thing about big tech and invading your privacy and all that. Hell, he even quotes Steve Jobs. If anything falls flat from being explained in this episode, it's the Kasaavins for sure. The idea of interdimensional invaders is a wild one, and the mystery behind what they were in Part One helped a lot. Here, I don't think they even get a line and they just get thwarted by the Doctor doing a clever thing off screen. Hmm.

I'm going to level with you. Writing up the positives about this is proving difficult. The positives of the episode involved the journey along the way, and I can't take you on that journey in text. Summarizing the elements doesn't work nearly as well. Part Two is very strange in that regard. Analyzing single elements of it doesn't give you much to work with. Putting it all together into the whole tableau, though, does give you something. Most of the things I mentioned here work when you put them all together. I again want to stress that this episode's fine. That being said, there are elements I didn't like. Again, when taking these elements in isolation, they can seem like needless little nitpicks; things that raise an eyebrow but otherwise don't hurt the episode. Put together, though, they form an unsettling picture, and one I can't say I'm fond of. Let's start with the Master. I made a thing last week about how I hoped there was justification for him being bad again. There's probably maybe one line in there about how killing people makes the Master's hearts go doki-doki. Okay. He's bad because it's a rush, an addiction. In isolation, disappointing but acceptable. Sacha Dhawan is once again fine, it's just... well, the little things around the episode. Alright, fuck it. I'm going to have to rip the band-aid off and try this paragraph again. I'm giving you my real time thought analysis here. This isn't working. We need to just out and say it.

Gallifrey's ruined again and it kind of sucks. Chris Chibnall's grand arc idea appears to be just rolling the clock back to 2007, where the Doctor and the Master are the only two Time Lords out there. There's also something at play involving, of all things, the Timeless Child mentioned in The Ghost Monument. Look. I want to give Chibnall the benefit of the doubt. Spyfall Part One was good. I'm not out to hate him on principle and say that he can do no good. I just don't see this going anywhere interesting. Oh. The Time Lords have a deep dark ancient secret from the forbidden annals of their past? You don't say. I will eat humble pie if I must, but there's nothing interesting here. It's a retread of shit we dealt with years ago. That gets into the other major thing; the level of Moffat-era erasure at play here. As I said, it's all little things. The Master reverting from Missy's ambivalence to being a baddie again with little to no explanation. Gallifrey, having been revealed to be saved in the Moffat era, now a ruin once more. Two non-consensual mind wipes of Lovelace and Khan, when Hell Bent specifically made a big deal out of how the Doctor was an asshole for doing this to people. This whole thing is a retro throwback to the RTD years, and it kind of feels like it's throwing the Moffat era under the bus in order to do it. Quite how severe this is depends on your own personal takes, of course, but I hang out in a lot of spaces which liked the Moffat era and the people whose takes I respect are not pleased. Nor am I, really. It's not an arc I'm particularly excited for, nor am I happy that the era I liked had to be ignored (or, worst case scenario, actively erased) in order to make it happen. I'm not a fan. That'll do it on Spyfall Part Two. Thankfully, we get six weeks of not Chibnall writing, so we'll see some more varied takes and maybe less of this arc. Time will tell. Until next week, I'm very tired.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Doctor Who Series 12 First Impressions: Episode 1 (Spyfall Part One)

I play poker now. Poker is cool.
(Welcome back to Doctor Who First Impressions! This is your spoiler warning. There's a really cool thing this episode does that you should see with your eyes, rather than hear me spoil for you. Just a heads-up if you haven't seen this one yet. Don't let me be the one to ruin it for you. Let's get on with the show!)

Hot damn. Welcome back, everyone, and much sooner than I expected! I was looking over the post I did on Resolution, a year ago, and in that I was so damn sure that we weren't back until April 2020. color me surprised that we only equalled the Moffat gap year of 2016 by having it be exactly a year off. We're back at it again, and it's definitely a confusing and nebulous time that only exists here and now. This is absolutely First Impressions time, where we don't know what's coming and can only read what we got in light of... well, what we got. That means theorizing, looking at the episode carefully, making guesses based on what happens and what we might want to happen. Holy fuck. I missed this in 2018. I don't remember doing much of it during Series 11, because Series 11 didn't give me that much to do beyond watch it and complain about the mediocrity of the day. With the first volley of Series 12, on the other hand, I remain amazed... but still cautious. What's been laid out before us is... you know what? I'll say it. I'll recant it in half a week if this turns out to be a red herring to boredom, but I'll say it here. Spyfall Part One is the best story Chris Chibnall has ever written for this show. Its pastiche and energy make it a wild ride from start to finish, and the mysteries it sets up (along with the big things it reveals) actually make me excited and want to think about where the episode could go! I don't know if this is a case of improvement, or if absence merely made me grow fonder for new Doctor Who, but let's sit back and admire this set up and theorize where it could go before all is said and done.

Sunday, 29 December 2019

Frezno's Games Of The 2019 Thing!

Ahh. Now that was a hiatus well-earned. Things are going to get real busy around here in the new year, both because the Doctor Who First Impressions are coming back and because of yet another massive screed about a utopian idealistic show. So yeah. Did you expect anything less of me? You know the drill at this point, which brings us to the topic of the moment: Games I Played In 2019! I've kept a record of all the stuff I played, and now that the year is all but dusted I'm going to talk about them. Some of them are great, some of them were bad, some of them... just kind of okay and mentioned in passing. Get yourself like, a coffee or something, and let me tell you about my Games Of The Year for 2019. It'll be fun. No, really. I promise.

Biolab Wars (Switch)

I almost feel bad for putting a spotlight on this poor little thing. It was only 2 dollars on the Switch Eshop, it's about an hour long, and thanks to the gold coins I technically didn't pay for it. Nevertheless, it was still really quite bad. On the surface, it looks to be sort of a Contra-esque game, but the vibe I got was a little more Mega Man with a deliberate focus on slower platforming challenges. It's hard to express the disappointment of this game without just letting one experience it, but I will try. It uses B to jump and A to shoot, which just feels awkward on a Switch controller and led to a lot of crossed wires and confusion. More to the point, it just does not feel good to play. It's very limited with its weapons, and things soak up just enough damage that they always manage to get a strike off towards you first. It is a slog, through and through, and for that it earns the stinker award. Not a game I'll be going back to any time soon...

Resident Evil 4 (Wii)

14 years. It's been 14 damn years since this game came out and haunted me for very personal reasons, but I have at last managed to blast my way through it. I have to say, it's quite the excellent little gem and still holds up. There may be a naysayer or two telling me the Wii version is the baby easy version and I didn't "really" beat it, but to them I cite the Battletoads Defense. I beat Battletoads. I earned this. Giving me the precision to aim my gun with my own arm helped me get good at this in a tangible way I could really feel, but it never felt too easy at the same time. Okay, so maybe I made the final boss a chump by saving that other rocket launcher for it, but other than that. This game didn't get its legendary status of having revolutionized character action games for no reason, after all. 14 years on, it still holds up and was one hell of a wild ride that I'm glad to have caught up with at long last. Speaking of...

Tales Of Symphonia (PS3)

Ah, at long last. This is the game that my pals stopped playing with me during our meetups because Resident Evil 4 came out. To polish them both off within six months of each other is cathartic. At its core, Tales Of Symphonia is a fairly good action RPG that felt more like a strategy game for me at times, swapping between the characters all by myself to queue up spells and whatnot. Story-wise, it's a whole other thing that really resonated with me. Not to give too much of this 15 year-old game away, but it very much is about the organized systems of this world all conspiring together to serve the petty whims of a privileged few. Thousands of years of suffering, torture, death, and false hope, all propagated by the hands of one masterminding asshole with noble intentions turned to bitter rage. Tearing it all the fuck down was satisfying as shit. Really, what else is there to say? If I haven't spoiled too much already, it's worth a go around.

Mega Man ZX Hard Mode (DS)

We're running with a bit of a theme, here, as we hit the third entry in a row that's "I did something I should have done a long time ago". Mega Man ZX is, frankly, the game that made me want to get good at playing hard games. I'd like to think I partly succeeded in that goal, but I had never actually cleared the game that started it all on its hardest difficulty setting. There's good reason for that, as Hard Mode ZX doesn't fuck around. You have a piddly little lifebar where you can take all of three hits, and there are no heart tanks to boost it. You have to beat the game with that, and you can only find one energy tank to boot. It was grueling and meticulous, learning boss patterns and playing cat and mouse with each of them to eke out a victory. Then I had to take them all on in sequence and beat a multi-phase final boss. Needless to say, my heart was pounding out of my chest when I pulled that off. I'm proud to have put a cap in a personally resonant hard game, and I'm really looking forward to the Zero/ZX Collection on Switch in February.

Blazing Chrome (Switch)

Why in the holy hell did I buy Biolab Wars in December for my Contra-like fix when Blazing Chrome was right the hell there for me in July? I'm so glad it was, too, because this game is the legit shit. I cannot believe there was a world where I considered buying the "official" Contra game released in 2019. This thing blows it out of the water. The "loving tribute" games usually manage to pull off this quite well, and when you add the track record of developers Joymasher (who created the also excellent Oniken and Odallus), you've got one hell of a Contra-like on your hands. Aesthetically it will remind a Contra fan of Contra Hard Corps, which is a very good game! Blazing Chrome is also that, but I'd probably rather play Blazing Chrome if we're being honest. Gorgeous pixel art, great run and gun action, and a game that's hard but not too hard. Holy hell I loved this thing. I got to go through it on co-op a while back with a friend as well, and it was a good revisit that held up just as well as the initial plays in the summer. Like ZX, it's a game I was more than happy to put the work into to get good at. Maybe one day I'll put more into it and do its hard mode, but for now I'm good.

Metroid Zero Mission All Endings (Game Boy Advance)

Alright, look. For years I kind of gave Zero Mission the side-eye because I loved the original game and this felt to me like it was stripping away the ambiance to homogenize it into a Super Metroid-like (because Metroid Must Be Alike). Turns out AM2R was the one I had to be worried about for doing that, but then a friend of mine started doing this challenge for themselves. I was intrigued and had never done it before, so I dusted off my copy and set about doing it myself. What I found was quite a lot of depth and intrigue in how I had to plan things. Getting 100% on a time limit meant mapping things out and plotting optimal order of item acquisition. Getting a lower time meant knowing what to grab and when was best to grab it. The game accomodates this at at every turn, even if it seems impossible at first. I still adore the ambiance and spookiness of the NES original, but I have to say that Zero Mission sold me on its merits after I played it eight times in various challenging ways. Not a replacement for the NES game, but still very good and incredibly well-designed. I'm happy I pulled this off.

Fire Emblem Echoes & Fire Emblem The Sacred Stones (3DS/Game Boy Advance)

So this one requires some setup. In March 2018 I impulse bought Fire Emblem Echoes, a game in a series I never really got into in the past. I wrote a bit of a thing about me liking it but then never actually finished the game, stopping about... 60% into it, maybe? It actually got a special section at the end of last year's GOTY list called "The Unfinished". Well, I dusted it off and powered through this year, but it was on Casual Mode so I didn't have the nail-biting hell of permanent death hanging over me. Still, it got me into the right mindset, and I played another Fire Emblem game I remembered liking and getting far into; The Sacred Stones. This one does have the permanent death, but you can also level grind in between battles. I really enjoyed Sacred Stones, and I amassed a pretty good murder squad by the end of it. This category exists to highlight these two, and how their graceful concessions to Fire Emblem's perceived hard edge helped me to get my foot in the door. I should mention I also bought Three Houses on impulse this year, but only played an hour of it. I did, however, start it on Classic Mode. Maybe 2020 will see me further break through this hard game barrier and really enjoy this series. We'll see, but for now, special thanks to the two esoteric, weird, and easy ones.

Monster Hunter World & Stardew Valley (PS4/Switch)

Games can be extra special when you play them with friends, and these two very good games got rocketed up to that extra special status thanks to that. We'll start with Stardew Valley since I did that first. I played this game exclusively in co-op over the summer with one of my best friends from high school. Every week, on his two days off, we'd set aside a few hours to play together and co-run a farm. Laying back on the couch in the cool basement on a warm summer night, Switch laid out in portable mode on the table while the tablet with a voice chat active sat on the floor beneath me so we could talk as we played. I ended up focusing most of my time in Stardew Valley on fishing, since the load of running the farm was shared between us. What all this ended up doing was making Stardew Valley an incredibly soothing unwind after a hard and hot summer day. I could kick back, get away from the heat and the work, and just fish on a pier while talking to a good friend. Stardew Valley almost made Game Of The Year for that alone, so you can believe that this was incredibly important to me. The same friend later gifted me his old PS4 for my birthday, and I got myself a copy of Monster Hunter World with it. Now, by contrast, this is not a relaxing game. It's high-paced action with deadly shit that wants to kill you, but I played what I could solo. When I couldn't or didn't want to deal with the harder stuff myself, that's where friend assistance came in. It gave us a fall routine, not unlike our Stardew Valley fun, and it also helped me grow stronger in the game. I did beat some of the tougher challenges in Monster Hunter World all on my own, including the final boss. As of this writing I have yet to delve into the Iceborne expansion, but that will come in due time. For now, I want to sit back and relax as I thank my pals for their generosity, and making these two lovely games stand out that much more with their help.

Sayonara Wild Hearts (Switch)

My criteria for Game Of The Year has always been a game that fills me with a particular positive emotion. Love, friendship, inspiration. You know. Sappy shit like that. Emotional resonance is the key to winning my heart and being the best computer game I played in a year, and Sayonara Wild Hearts is filled to the brim with that. Even before you get there, though, the presentation is absolutely stunning. Its gameplay is part rhythm game, part fast-paced dodging and weaving action reminscent of a certain Turbo Tunnel from a certain infamous hard game. All of this is conveyed with bright and stylished visuals, giving the game its own unique feel... but, let's get right to it. Sayonara Wild Hearts lands because of that incredible soundtrack. Its soundtrack is almost an album unto its own, merely using the medium of games and going fast on a motorbike or flying tarot card in space to tell a moving and inspiring story about loss and love, heartbreak and healing, regret and remembrance. It is simply beautiful, and helping matters for my own personal resonance is the fact that the game was suggested to me by quite the special person. Finishing Sayonara Wild Hearts, on vacation and away from that person while also reminded of them thanks to this stylish video game we could bond over when I got home? That was something truly special. I can't thank you enough for convincing me to get this game, and I hope I've convinced you at home to give it a shot as well. It's every resonant thing I could want in a game, and it easily earns Game Of The Year for me.


It's fun to make up categories for very special games, but sometimes there are runners-up that could also fill that category. Sometimes there are games you can't easily categorize quite like that. Sometimes a game was just okay, but not bad enough to be ignored on one of these lists. That's where And The Rest comes in, to highlight the rest of the interesting experiences I had this year. These games aren't lesser, and some of them are better than some of the things that got categories, but... well I'm not going through it all again. Let's roll them!

Splatoon/Splatoon 2 (Wii U/Switch)

Yeah. I played some Splatoon this year. It's neat. I paid for a used copy of the original Splatoon years ago but only had a CRT, so I didn't get much use out of it. I dusted it off and played some multiplayer, and found it was interesting. Then I did the Octo Valley campaign and enjoyed its style enough to grab Splatoon 2 on the Switch. I haven't touched the Octo Expansion or any single-player, but I did manage to have good times in a few of the Splatfests before they ended. I'm not great at Splatoon or anything, but it served a fun little purpose a handful of times this year.

Mega Man X6 (PS1)

I wrote a whole thing about this... interesting experience back in January. I still don't know if it was a bad game, or if I played it badly. It's such a strange specimen of a mainline Mega Man game, and it's wild to compare it to ZX's Hard Mode. Their difficulties are nothing alike, but since X6 was one of the only computer games to get a deep dive write-up from me this year, I figured it deserved a slot down here. Good work, you... strange game, you.

Blaster Master Zero 2 (Switch)

I enjoyed Blaster Master Zero for what it was in 2018; a very good re imagining/retelling of a B-list NES game with fancy bells and whistles. Blaster Master Zero 2 is more of that, and though the mists of time have obscured a lot of the specifics of what made it great, I do remember it being solid enough to be worth playing, and thus solid enough to get on this list. Nice one, Inti Creates.

Gato Roboto (Switch)

A fun, short, and very cute Metroid-style adventure featuring an adorable kitten running around in a mech suit doing the usual exploratory platformer thing of exploring and getting new items to do... more exploring. Fairly breezy and simple, all things considered, but it had a great deal of charm. It's quite nice, and I recommend it.

Final Fantasy II: Mod Of Balance (Game Boy Advance)

For some ungodly reason which still eludes me, I attempted to play the infamously bad Final Fantasy II with a supposed balance patch to make the thing... more balanced. At this point, I am convinced this is one of those games with no middle ground, except the middle ground in this case is "a well-balanced game with just the right amount of challenge". It is either a difficult slog or a ridiculously easy slog, and once again it was the latter for me. I almost wrote about it because of this, so I'm giving my own foolishness the nod here.

Slain: Back From Hell (Switch)

A difficult action platformer with a gnarly heavy metal theme going on. You know, I think I'd have to look up a Youtube video to remember most of the tricky stuff in this game, but I am remembering equal parts innate frustation and hard game satisfaction. Let's call it okay, if not a little unmemorable in my scatterbrained head, and move on to another highlight of the year.

Super Mario Maker 2 (Switch)

Yes, this ended up down here. I mean, it's Mario Maker on the Switch. It is, in the end, very nice. I did enjoy the added story mode levels and had fun going through them, and there was some fun had in building my own levels and playing others. It didn't quite hold my attention all the way through the year, but I'll blame that on my own scatterbrain rather than the game. It's a lovely experience, and I can tinker with it again one day if I have down time and some fun level ideas come to me.

Etrian Odyssey Nexus (3DS)

The series finale of the 3DS, if only Persona Q2 didn't come out after it. I love the hell out of some Etrian Odyssey, and I was excited to dig in to this loving tribute swan song to the series as the era of dual screen handheld Nintendo consoles faded away. It's an absolutely great game, and the only reason I didn't put it on the RPG thing over Tales of Symphonia is that it's about 25% too long for its own good. Long enough that I played it for three weeks straight and then shelved it for six months because I'd burned myself out on the dungeon crawling. Still, I did come back to it and get through some tricky challenges to finish the thing. I adored it, even if I had to let that adoration recharge. A fitting end to the series, unless Atlus and friends can figure out a way to make it work on the Switch.

River City Girls (Switch)

I mean, it's very good. Not quite on the same level as Blazing Chrome when it comes to "new old" games, but very good nonetheless. It's cute girls beating the shit out of everything in sight for 5 hours, in a charming and well-presented way. Some of the beating the shit out of things is just a wee bit bullshitty, though, in that old beat-em-up way, which is a bit of a sour note. I still enjoyed this, and it's again fun to play in co-op with pals. Worth the wait when it was announced.

The Legend Of Zelda: Link's Awakening (Switch)

It's good. I don't really know if it was "80 Canadian dollars plus tax" good, mind you, but it's good. You have the rock solid foundation of one of the Game Boy's top games, with quality of life improvements and one of the best new coats of paint I've ever seen. Seriously, this game is beautiful and adorable and that alone is almost a selling point. Its new additions range from helpful to "okay that's there I guess". It even brings back the Trendy Crane Game, the easiest Zelda minigame that absolutely nobody had any trouble beating ever! I just wish it didn't cost me so much money to play a really really pretty Game Boy game from 1993.

Pokemon Shield (Switch)

For the third time, I have to throw up my hands and say "yeah it's good". It's another fun Pokemon adventure, but it didn't exactly completely light my world on fire which is why it's here. I still blazed through the main game in a weekend and had an absolute blast, and it's quite breezy with its quality of life improvements. Thanks to them chopping out half those Pokemon, I was able to complete the Pokedex again! Oh, and I look absolutely stylish in it. Yeah. Quite fun.

Shovel Knight: King Of Cards (Switch)

So this is how Shovel Knight ends. Intriguingly. The new King Knight expansion has some things to like about it. King Knight's moveset and playstyle is definitely interesting, with its dash and bash mechanic offering a balance between feeling great and puzzling your way through platforming challenges. I appreciate the move to a quantity of shorter levels, each with their own set of collectibles within, as it helps makes things nice and breezy in short bursts. I just really don't like that goddamned card game. Yes, it is kinda sorta optional. Yes, you can pay gold to cheat at it. Yes, it gets more tolerable as you go along and earn better cards with better pointy arrows. It still filled me with despair and dread when I saw I "had" to play more of it, and that's a real downer in an otherwise neat capstone to Shovel Knight content. Also the final boss sucks ass and is kind of unfair and unfun. Yikes.

Okay, that does it. Thanks for sitting through however the hell many words that is, and I offer my apologies to my future self who gets to spend Sunday morning and afternoon banging this together into the form of a coherent post with italics and image links and shit. Oh no I just gave you more work, didn't I? What's that? (Intrusion from the future: You son of a bitch.) Can't hear you over the time differential. To all of you at home though, I hope you enjoyed the list and that your 2019s were full of fun and good times all around. It's going to be a very interesting 2020, as I have not only some good new posts lined up but some good new games to crack into. Maybe I'll be writing about how good they are in a year's time! We'll find out. Until then, you all have a good one, and a very happy New Year to you when we all get to it! Much love!

Thursday, 31 October 2019

31 Days, 31 Screams: Resurrection- Day 31 (Halloween [2018])

At last. We're here. Spooky night itself. I just have to finish this and then I'm free! Free from spooky analysis, at least. We've even got a really good movie that I just finished not 5 minutes ago. I watched it in the dark and everything. Honestly surprised at how few kids interrupted movie time for me to give them their treats, but that's just how it be with small town life. We're even going out on a really high note! It's that Halloween movie that came out exactly a year ago today! I had to watch goddamned Halloween 4 instead of going out to see this and writing about it last year. Not so this time. Now we're here for real, and I've finally seen the thing. Wow. It's one hell of a movie. I'm gonna talk about what I liked about it for an amount of time, and then this whole wild Halloween marathon adventure will be over. Hop on in, it's the train to SPOOKYTOWN!

It's another one of those Godzilla 1984-like situations here, where the people in charge just go "right, fuck all this other shit, only the first movie happened and we're building on that for the anniversary.". Rather surprisingly for me, this also includes throwing out Halloween 2. It's been two years, but I'm pretty sure Halloween H20 counted Halloweens 1 and 2 as canon. Here, though? Nope, we're just following up on the 1978 original. No Laurie Strode as Michael's sister, Dr. Loomis lived past that Halloween night, just... a sequel to the first. They even lampshade it which got a chuckle out of me. Okay, movie, I'll let that one slide. There are a lot of little cute callbacks to the original, some of which have a point beyond just whooshing a nostalgic chuckle out of you. (Okay, their variation on the bedsheet ghost is a good twist that has you laughing in a morbid moment of tense anticipation. Which is exactly on tonal point with the scene from the original it's referencing.) I like the cinematography and editing a lot, too: there are some fun cuts, and a lot of cute tricks like continuous shots, both tracking and static. It's a very slick and put-together movie, but I'm not one for pointing out cool film school tricks. No, I'm here to be the passing-grade English student that I am and point out thematic resonance and stuff. So. The ballad of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode, 40 years later. Let's get into that for a bit.

Oddly enough, the theme I got from this is that Michael Myers exudes a sort of aura around him, which manifests itself in quite a few different ways. Notably, the aura of fascination over him and his crimes. This shows in the opening moments with the British true crime podcast duo, who are an effective device the movie uses in several ways; exposition to get us up to speed with the current status quos of both Michael and Laurie, and then as fresh bodies for Michael to murder in a pretty fucked-up scene at a gas station bathroom. I was honestly surprised they got killed off so quickly, but I guess they'd served their narrative function and were used for the scares. More interesting is Dr. Sartain, this movie's version of Dr. Loomis (and Laurie even textually says this) who fills the same narrative function... to a point. Recall that Loomis spent time trying to understand Michael Myers before deciding he was evil incarnate and had to be locked away. Sartain has spent 40 years studying Michael, trying to understand him.... and it's both a fascination and obsession. It ends up making him turn heel and knife a sheriff to protect Michael, even going so far as to briefly don the mask. The fascination and obsession in understanding Michael turns Sartain into Michael. Last, but certainly not least, we have Laurie Strode, in this movie a paranoid recluse who's all but alienated her family from her anxieties over Michael coming back to finish the job. Her wounds are more psychological, of course, but in the end the movie is basically mirroring her with Michael in a strange way. She's obsessed and determined to kill him, just as he's obsessed and determined to just kill in general. At least two shots of the movie go out of their way to reference iconic shots from the 1978 movie, only with Laurie in the place of Michael. I see what you're up to there, movie. Very slick.

If I have a complaint here, it's that Laurie briefly falls into horror movie trope levels of letting her guard down during the climax where Michael is attacking her stronghold. I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, I don't want to be a naughty nitpicker and wagging my finger because OH NO THE TRAUMATIZED CHARACTER UNDER SEIGE BY HER NEMESIS ISN'T ACTING WITH FULL LOGICAL EFFICIENCY, DIIIING. On the other hand, Laurie has been preparing for this for 40 years. She should kind of be a step above basic tropes like "investigate the noises instead of staying in your bunker and waiting with your gun for Michael to come to you". On the other hand, she is traumatized as hell from all of this... It's a very tricky tightrope to walk! In the end, though, it all works out and this is a really great sequel to Halloween... but it's by no means the end. They've got sequels planned for 2020 and 2021. For the love of god. Okay. We'll see how those go, but as for me? I'm done. That's another Halloween marathon in the bag. Here's where I'd usually make a terrified joke about NaNoWriMo tomorrow, but honestly I'm relieved for that! It means I get to watch things that aren't spooky and write about totally different things! You have no idea how much of a mental breather that will be for me! Anyway, this is me, signing off. See you for... let's be real, unless something big pops up, it'll be the Games Of The Year list in December. Until then, y'all. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

31 Days, 31 Screams: Resurrection- Day 30 (The Simpsons: Treehouse Of Horror II)

Back to this again. It's a bit of a short thing, given I only have 25 minutes of TV to work with, but I'm on a deadline due to other things going on tonight. That and I'm a little burnt out from this spooky month. I am looking forward to tomorrow's view, though, as it's something I've never seen before. You can probably guess what it is, but in the meantime here's the second Simpsons Halloween Special, from 1991. Somehow it has been three years since I did a Simpsons Halloween special. That was the first one. It managed to give me a lot to talk about, and I even worked in some personal Simpsons history. Again, as with Beetlejuice, my insistence on doing things in order means we hit a Halloween special that never was my favorite. It's fine for golden era Simpsons, sure, but just doesn't stand out in the nostalgic mind compared to the later ones. Still, we're going to take a crack at it. What's fun about these early specials are both the Marge warnings at the top, and the idea that they have a framing device. Both of these get dropped pretty early on, but the former at least makes me remember that pearl-clutching people lost their shit at the Simpsons being a bit irreverent and rude. For fuck's sakes, I think there's one scene with blood in this entire thing. It's goddamned tame by today's standards. Our framing device is simple, almost perfunctionary. "Oh no the Simpsons ate too much Halloween candy and had nightmares". Let us delve into some of these nightmares.

They're not titled segments or anything, but Lisa's nightmare is just the Monkey's Paw. The Simpsons get a cursed monkey paw and make wishes that backfire. Actually, that's not even entirely true. The subtle subversive comedy of it is that the wishes only backfire if they would benefit the Simpsons in some major way. We see this when Maggie makes the first wish for a golden pacifier, and Ned Flanders gets the paw at the end. That's the gag. It works fine for them, but for any other substantial benefit it's curse time. This is evident in the wish to make the Simpsons rich and famous, which also serves as a little meta-commentary for Simpsons mania. The Simpsons are a big name, they're on fucking everything, and people are sick to death of them. Oh. Oh you sweet summer children of 1991. You have no fucking idea. Even Lisa's wish for world peace gets shit on with a Kang and Kodos invasion. There's a lovely bit with Homer's last wish, and then everything goes fine for Flanders. It's a fun retelling of the Monkey's Paw, and it's actually saying some things which resonate with the state of the Simpsons now. Wild. What's next?

Oh it's just that one Twilight Zone episode with the spooky kid that sends you to the cornfield, but it's Bart with the powers. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the anecdote connecting the Simpsons with this specific Twilight Zone story. Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart, previously had a part in the Twilight Zone movie during the segment remaking that spooky psychic kid story... and her character dies by being trapped inside a cartoon. Ha. Ha ha ha. Holy shit. Despite a few cartoonish existential horrors, for the most part this one plays its joke simple enough. Ha ha ha it's Bart doing wild shit with his unlimited psychic powers, and everyone's acquiescing to him. (Okay, but the Bonerland callback gag is something else entirely.) Then it becomes a story about... taking Bart to therapy? And bonding with Homer, who he'd previously turned into a jack in the box? And this is the nightmarish part which makes Bart end up screaming. Wow. Fucked up. Uhhh let's go to the last one?

It's Frankenstein. But with Mr. Burns. Pure capitalism at work, as he hopes to make robot workers who will work harder for him, presumably to make him richer. I got a chuckle out of "Behold, the greatest breakthrough in labor relations since the cat-o'-nine-tails!" because ha ha ha capitalist hell world. Anyway they steal Homer's brain for the thing, and what should be a violent dissection of his brain becomes utterly comedic and yet not lacking at all in grotesqueness. The top of his head rolls off like a ball once it's cut off, and Mr. Burns severs the spinal cord and puts the thing on his head, with the immortal line "LOOK AT ME, I'M DAVY CROCKETT!". Of course the plan for unfettered capitalism is ruined because Homer is the laziest thing alive, even in a robot body, and we get a big twist of Mr. Burns grafting his head onto Homer's, ha ha ha special end. Yeah. It's fine. A few good jokes, a general fun time. I honestly don't have any more to say. Only one day left, and then we're free. See you tomorrow for spooky times.