Friday, 23 August 2019

Repost: Ushio & Tora ~ Truth of the Superversive

NOTE: Due to many reasons I am unable to put out a new post this week. Please enjoy this repost from 2016 in the meanwhile.

Following up on my last anime post, I wanted to expand a bit on what I meant about a show based on a 25 year old manga being better than most of what is being put out now.

This might be very easy to misconstrue as an old man longing for the "good old days" who can't understand that things are different now, consarnit, we are a more evolved people and therefore the stories we see now are better because they are newer and therefore more true than those icky old things.

To the first point: Watch your mouth, kid. I ain't that old! To the second: Well, no. You're wrong. Not even a little wrong, you're so wrong that you wouldn't know right unless it sliced apart your cinderblock heart into tiny cubes to wake you from your lucid dream of "realism" and despair.

Stories are meant to be Superversive. To lift up. To brighten someone's day. To give them hope. To show them that the dark can be fought against and driven back. These are what stories used to be before the 20th century began to upturn that tradition which fully toppled the cart over in these early years of the 21st. Good is evil, bad is good, true is false, and . . . is it no wonder we're so messed up we have to take pills to sleep through the night?

But not everyone is sitting tight letting the darkness overtake the world any more than it already has.

The goal of the Superversive Movement has always been for those who refuse to take this lying down. We all have this inkling that things are not as they should be, we live in a broken world that will not be fixed, and stories are made to reflect this drive we have to live to brighter times and in a wider world. Not only to live to those dreams, but to show they exist at all. To prove they are real.

From Mrs. L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright's post on the blog:

"Why give a book like this to children to read? What are we trying to teach them? That life is difficult and meaningless? That sometimes its okay to kill something we love for a “good reason”? That life is pointless? That dreams and hopes are a sham? That no matter how you try, you cannot improve upon your circumstance, so it’s better not to even hope? (That was what The Pearl was about.)
What possible good is such a message doing our children?"

 She then goes on to end with this:

"This is what the Superversive Literary Movement is for—to whisper to the future Trisha’s, Don’s, and Andrea’s that miracles are possible. 
That hope is not a cheat. 
The goal of the Superversive is to bring hope, where there is no hope; to bring courage, where without courage, hope would never be manifested. 
The goal of the Superversive is to be light to a benighted world. 
The goal of the Superversive is:

To tell the truth.

Though a term invented by writer and master essayist Tom Simon, "Superversive" has taken a life of its own for those tired of all the pointless subversion pulling the world down into the muck with stories about nothing but pointless negativity and stories that poison the soul blacker and blacker. The world is not getting any better, but we don't have to sink with it.

I bring up Ushio & Tora as an example of a Superversive story, as it is indicative of a story that seeks to rise up. This does not mean author and artist, Kazuhiro Fujita, set out to make a story to highlight attributes like friendship, heroism, and the greatness of being good, just that those are the features that underpin his story. His is an action/adventure story, yet it manages to be more than that for telling truths we all know beneath its action-packed exterior.

Ushio & Tora is about a boy named Ushio Aotsuki who lives in a shrine run by his father, who is the priest of the place they live in as their home. Ushio is a normal rough-housing teenager who gets into arguments with his dad and his crush, and lives a relatively average life that he enjoys very much. He's just an average boy.

But his father tries to warn him of something else. He tells Ushio there are spirits and monsters in the world and he must take care to watch out for them, but Ushio, being a teenager, doesn't believe in things he can't see. He thinks his dad is full of it, and isn't afraid to tell him. This all changes one day when his dad has to head out on business and leaves Ushio to clean up the storehouse. Ushio begrudgingly complies, but stumbles upon an opening cellar to a basement he never knew about under his home.

He finds his way down into the basement and into the dark where he finds his whole world changed in an instant. There he meets a creature called a Youkai, a monster, colored like a tiger, who has been pinned to the rock of the basement for hundreds of years by a mystical spear called the Beast Spear which chooses its wielder and has not been removed since the Youkai was pinned there. His dad's stories were true after all.

Ushio removes the spear and is granted immense strength, speed, and agility, as the Beast Spear has chosen him to wield it for whatever duty he will have fulfill. Now since he has come in contact with supernatural, he can see spirits and monsters, and pledges that he will not let them hurt anyone. He quickly tames the formerly trapped Youkai and takes responsibility for letting him go by keeping watch that he does no evil.

He names this orange Youkai "Tora" and takes him in as the two fight among each other over who will eventually get to destroy the other. This pair forms an unlikely duo that is destined to save the world from a terrible evil.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The story begins as we get to know the characters through monster-of-the-week scenarios for the first six episodes before we finally learn that everything we have seen has a purpose. Events that didn't seem to mean much, come matter a lot in the long run, as do characters you wouldn't first think would have much prominence eventually have quite a bit.

Ushio's character is established as a good-hearted kid that never gives up, but unlike modern anime heroes like Naruto, he isn't just good-hearted, but determined to do what is right. He aspires to do what is right, not for personal glory or recognition.

Tora is shown to be a monster who doesn't care about anyone other than himself, but as he spends time with Ushio he begins to understand that being good isn't all that bad. Unlike most modern stories, he does believe there is good and evil and he is proud to be evil. But Ushio and those he meets on his journey begin to change him slowly but surely.

Around the seventh episode is where the main story begins and Ushio & Tora comes into its own. This is where Ushio and Tora head out on a journey that ends up shaping their destiny and those around them.

You see, there is black and white in Ushio & Tora, but that doesn't mean there aren't flawed individuals doing the right thing for wrong reasons, or those on the borderline before choosing one or the other. And when you meet the main villain, you will believe that there are only two choices and eventually we all have to make a choice as to whether we choose to be on the side of angels or demons.

One of the things I have always liked classic anime and manga, especially the shonen genre, is how the main characters never mope, never whine, and never give up. They have a resolution and they stick with it even in the face of impossible odds. The cliche for this genre is called "Hot-blooded shonen" for a reason.

Ushio and Tora have a complex relationship

But Ushio Aotsuki is on another level for most of these series. He believes in good as a force (an early episode where he saves a cursed soul and sends it to Heaven is particularly touching) and sacrifices everything he has in order to save even complete strangers. And what is it that makes Ushio so strong and powerful? Well, it isn't just the Beast Spear. The weapon might choose its wielder, but the real strength of Ushio is that he is at heart a fundamentally good kid who always gets up again even when he screws up.

It is this good heart that slowly changes Tora into thinking there might be more to humans than what he knows, and it is that strong moral compass that draws others to him. His strength and spear is not what makes him special, though it does reinforce his inner strength to match.

This is anime at its best. It's inspiring, hopeful, exciting, truthful, funny, and a blast to watch. It is why I ever got into anime and manga in the first place.

So why am I saying that most anime and manga are not like this anymore.

Well, because they're not.

Can you name the last anime that had a main character that wasn't starring:

A) An anti-hero who is treated as being "cool" despite having no redeeming qualities
B) A dimwit who does things for personal reasons and nothing else
C) A coward weakling boy that doesn't change one iota to become better
D) A busty (or very young) girl that has no definable personality besides how attractive she is

Whoever you might be thinking of to dispute this, I doubt the examples are very plentiful, especially over the last ten years. There are a few I can personally think of, such as Izuku Midoriya from My Hero Academia, and Osamu Mikumo from World Trigger, but they are fairly obviously in the minority. There are certainly not as many like Vash the Stampede, Kenshin Himura, or Ushio Aotsuki as there used to be.

And don't think I'm mocking "rogue" characters. Gene Starwind, Spike Spiegal, or Gungrave, might have been more on the anti-hero side, but they were never treated as infallible or always right about everything and they did have good underneath the muck. They were outliers even back when their shows came out.

But if you want to use those as counter-examples, Outlaw Star has the crew essentially meeting God in a machine. Cowboy Bebop's ending is a classic for a reason. Gungrave is about rejection of Ultimate Good and the dead end it leaves you in. Shows and manga like Gantz, Attack on Titan, or Tokyo Ghoul, do not aspire to even things like that. Though they are fine for what they are, they are not aspiring to anything above themselves like those classics did.

Ushio & Tora was written in 1990 and ended in 1996. The world is supposed to be a different place now than it was then, but you wouldn't know it from watching this anime made in 2015/16. The good that Ushio inspires in us is as real in 2016 as it was back in 1990. The conflicted nature of Tora to choose between what he was and what he could be hasn't dated a bit in over 25 years. The story's adamant refusal to say good and evil are a matter of perspective, and it's insistence that one choose a side or else one will be chosen for you, is timeless.

While flashy anime with edgy plots and super cool protagonists with angry backstories fill the mainstream airwaves and shelves in Japan to decreasing market shares, stories like Ushio & Tora still float to the top to show that what is true will never truly stay down no matter how much we want to look away from it or pretend it is irrelevant.

Just like Ushio's insistence on the good, Truth always wins in the end.

I hope you enjoyed that old nugget. If you like stories similar to the above, I have recently written a hero story of my own called Gemini Warrior. It is the story of two young men given powers and transported to a whole new world. You won't see anything like it coming out of Marvel or DC these days!

"And when the description says that this is a pulp superhero adventure, this is less the Shadow, and more Flash Gordon. We even have an evil emperor who has magic powers (come now, Ming could walk through fire, and the "science" was more magic than anything else), as well as other super powered lackeys to do his bidding. And much of the villains look like they utilize a combination of mad science and magic in order to wield unearthly forces at their command." ~ from author Declan Finn

Check it out here!

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Gemini Warrior is Here!

It's finally here!

I know it's been promised for a while now, but it's finally time to officially unveil my newest novel Gemini Warrior fresh from Silver Empire. Taking place in the Heroes Unleashed universe (featuring other authors such as Morgon Newquist's Heroes Fall and Kai Wai Cheah's Hollow City) my approach is a bit different than what you would usually see in the genre. It's not a typical superhero yarn: Gemini Warrior is a full blown adventure story.

It's been a long time coming, I know. Today I'm excited to show you what you've got in store with this one!

The official description is here:

A steady paycheck. A simple job. Absolutely no contact with another human being.
The night shift at a science lab sounds like the break Matthew White has been waiting for. A steady paycheck. A simple job. Absolutely no contact with another human being.
It’s perfect. 
But Matthew gets more than he bargained for when he accepts a different position with the company. A job that is highly paid – and highly bizarre. He is plunged into the terrible machinations of his new boss, Mrs. Stohl, and a sullen teenaged boy named Jason is along for the ride. The fact that Jason is practically his twin only makes it all creepier.

Dragged through a mirror into an alien dimension, Matthew is in way over his head. He should have known the job was too good to be true. To escape, Matthew and Jason must brave the wilds of this new universe and learn to control their new powers.
And hardest of all, Matthew must learn to be a hero. 
Will they escape Mrs. Stohl’s terrible plans for them? Can they make it home to their world, or will they be trapped in the mirror dimension forever? 

Not only are our heroes the recipients of new powers, but they find themselves stranded on a whole new alien world on a far off planet! Expect battles, monsters, and strange sights unlike any you've ever seen in this one.

When I was approached to do a project in this universe I wanted to do something completely off the wall. I wanted to do a story of two very different people with different powers who nonetheless look the same and need each other's abilities somehow. That was how I came up with the wannabe loner Matthew and the wannabe hero Jason who clash with each other and yet need the other to survive both due to their powers and due to their new location.

What you're dealing with is the separate journeys of two different people nonetheless tied together as if by fate. Where will they end up? Well, you'll just have to read it and find out!

I would also announce that every book is going to be very different from the last. So don't think you've seen everything with Gemini Warrior! There's still more to come.

This is only the first taste!

Once again, you can find Gemini Warrior here. Dive into the adventure, and enjoy!

Thursday, 8 August 2019

From Where the Sun Rises

At the time of this writing 2019 has been a good year for anime (with one tremendous black mark which anyone reading surely knows about) in regards to the material put out. It's been getting steadily better in Japan since 2015 and this year has been no slouch. It's been surprising, to be quite honest. If you're looking for something to watch on your television or monitor then you have no shortage of series to enjoy. Good times are here.

While I make no bones about enjoying classic anime that doesn't mean I can't enjoy the modern material. In fact, some of which is airing now will definitely go on to be known as classics down the road. I can bet on it. Some examples can be found in this post.

For today I'd like to share with you some of the highlights coming out of this year. There's a bit to go through and I've got a few I would like to highlight.

Of course it is important to note that we've barely started the third (out of four) season of the year. This means there are still series such as My Hero Academia which have not yet started which are sure to be huge. With that in mind one really doesn't have to stretch in order to find good shows to watch even without it. Options are crawling all over the place.

This means I will only cover the first half of the year here. I'll try to cover the rest around December instead of cramming everything in a mega mess of a post. With that in mind, let us begin.

First up is MAPPA's adaption of Osamu Tezuka's Dororo. This began airing in the winter season, which is usually the slowest season of the year (not the "worst", I should specify) where a few more measurably paced series tend to get the most focus since the explosive action packed shows don't begin until spring. But Dororo straddles the middle-ground between the extremes quite well creating a good action show with compelling drama along the way.

Dororo is the story of a baby whose body is stolen due to a pact his father made with a demon. He is supposed to be killed but ends up escaping and living a life without most of his body parts and much in the way of his senses as he grows to adulthood. Thankfully his adopted father builds him artificial limbs which allows him some semblance of normality and he can see and hear things despite his handicaps. Finally he learns that killing certain demons will give him back his body and allow him to become fully human again.

But will it?

In my opinion MAPPA might be the most underrated studio in Japan right now. They are composed of ex-Madhouse staff which means they know their way around dynamic direction and cool animation. They wrote an original ending to this series (Tezuka didn't really end the original properly) propping up the themes of forgiveness, friendship, and family, that almost makes you believe Tezuka was writing a series for Shonen Jump back in the day. But it can get pretty brutal at times despite this. However, the ending is worth it.

Suffice to say, Dororo is one of the highlights of this year. 24 episodes long and worth every minute (one episode with odd animation aside) I'm sure Tezuka would be proud.

Should you like romance the winter season also featured what might be the most enjoyable series in years with Kaguya-Sama: Love is War which is about two teenagers from an elite high school trying to get the other one to fall in love with them. It takes the on school comedy and romance genres in a balancing act that matches the central conflict with main leads quite perfectly.

While this would normally be an excuse to have two annoying characters be irritating for the space of half an hour it actually leads to very funny comedy and much character growth. Over 12 episodes you get to see how deeply our two leads might actually like each other, and how it might not be a game despite what they think.

At the same time the surrounding cast is just as interesting with their own issues and problems apart from the main pair. This is what makes me hope for a season 2 announcement in order to see more of them. Just like Saiki K or School Rumble much of the comedy comes from the relationships every character has with each other and their clashing and developing friendships and love lives. This series deserves more seasons if only for that.

But until then I can say this is a series worth watching and one of the best of 2019 so far.

And now for a few others. These are returning series with new seasons.

Mob Psycho 100 returned for its second season to continue where we left of last time. In case you missed it, this is a series about a teenager named Mob (a nickname) who is a psychic and learning what it means to be normal. If you've seen the first season animated by Bones and want to see more cray animation or just like the writer of One Punch Man's style then you've probably already seen it. If not then you're in for a treat. Here's hoping for another season to finish the story off.

Another one from this season was The Promised Neverland, animated by CloverWorks. This is a Shonen Jump series that doesn't feel like you would expect such a series would be. Orphans being raised as a giant group in an orphanage suddenly learn a secret about who they are and why they're there. That's when things get horrific and intense. If I said anymore I would spoil the reveal, but I can say this can be a dark series. However, it's not hopeless. Being Shonen Jump it refuses to be nihilistic and always finds a way to shine some light in the dark. I'm sure a second season will be out next year and I can say it will have a slightly different tone to this one. So if you want something unique then be sure to check it out.

Other series from the beginning of the year include yet more returning series as well. Karakuri Circus reached its conclusion after three seasons, Ace Attorney returned for a new season, the overlooked Hinomaru Sumo ran the second half of its season in winter, and JoJo's Bizarre Adventure's new season continued. The new City Hunter movie also released on top of all that.

This a remarkable amount of material considering where we were a decade ago. It doesn't mean everything is great, but there is much to choose from. Not to mention more manga and light novels getting complete adaptions than ever before when before many would leave us high and dry and unfinished.

Then there was the controversial Rising of the Shield Hero which also premiered in January. It managed to maintain a loyal audience despite the notoriety. However, it's yet another series to watch despite that. There was no shortage of things to watch.

And all that is just the first season of the year.

For spring there was a new season of One Punch Man with decidedly average animation. Of course Attack on Titan returned with ten more episodes, too. There was also a new adaption of Fruits Basket in an attempt to apparently make it closer to the original manga. My Hero Academia was delayed until October but that didn't mean there was nothing else to watch in its absence.

But the best series from the first half of the year, in my mind, was Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba animated by Ufotable and adapted from the Shonen Jump manga of the same name. This is a series about demons who prey on humans and the swordsmen who fight them off. What you get is plenty of action, emotional bits, and character growth, along with some of the best animation and music this year. The action genre was made for series such as this. If this isn't on everyone's best of the year list by December I will be disappointed.

Anyway, that is only the first half of the year. There are still series running this very season I haven't talked about yet because that would be jumping ahead of myself. Nonetheless, there is still much, much, more to cover beyond what I have.

I'd also like to mention at the same time as this is happening more classic anime is getting released over here every day. We just recently had an announcement that the entire City Hunter franchise was licensed by Discotek. At the same time we still have releases such as Megazone 23 (the Kickstarter is incoming!) and Voltes V in the future. I also believe the groundbreaking Giant Robo OVA is  meant to be out by this Christmas season.

The train just doesn't seem to stop rolling.

Considering how bad things were a decade ago with weak selection, one should keep in mind how much things have gotten better. It's not perfect, but you can't argue it hasn't improved. Things can change. There is still quality being made, and there is still much to see. And the future still has much more promise left.

So go have fun with it!

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Legendary Beasts, Giant Robots, Psychics, and Cyborgs ~ The Different Sides of Babel II

We've gone over how Japan's pulp history is a lot stronger connected together than those of us in the west. Nowhere does it show better than in Japan's biggest entertainment exports of anime, manga, and video games. Fun rules the roost, romance rules, and the magic of wonder remains the key ingredient. While bad trends might come and go, the cream still floats to the top and there are still products worth checking out from them to this day.

Can't say the same about Hollywood today.

However, if one were to read old Japanese pulp or manga from say, the 70s, you would be surprised to see how much they had in common with the west at the time. This continued into the late '90s before everything stagnated for us, but that's been covered before. What I want to point out is what was big in '70s pulp and how it bridged the gap.

This was the age of James Bond, Paul Kersey, and Dirty Harry, three different pulp archetypes that lived on strong for decades afterwards. The superspy, the hardened vigilante, and the last good cop, were the go-to characters to use in modern action stories. In Japan the same applied. Golgo 13, Cobra, and Mad Bull 34, among many others, were big and well loved. Not much diverted from this wheelhouse. But there were other series that tried things a slightly different way and met with just as big success.

One of my personal favorite franchises is known as Babel II. This is a shonen manga with a bit of a different twist from what was going on at the time. The original series ran from 1971-1973 for twelve volumes and was written by Mitsuteru Yokoyama, one of the major influences of Katsuhiro Otomo and Hirohiko Araki among many others.

If you don't know the name you might recognize his output. Yokoyama created Tetsujin 28 (Gigantor), Giant Robo, Sally the Witch, God Mars, and Akakage, some of the most important and influential manga series ever made. Babel II is up there with them and might be my favorite of his works.

Yokoyama was known for popularizing the hard-boiled style in manga. This means his heroes and villains don't tend to display their emotional struggles or make speeches about it, but stoically suffer whatever misfortune comes their way as they find a way to do what needs to be done. This makes his works have a quick pacing focused on external threats and a clear dividing line between good and evil. Babel II is a perfect example of this style.

Babel II is about a teenage boy named Koichi who learns that he is a descendant of an alien named Babel and is awakened to be his successor. The name should tell all: Babel was the one in charge of building the biblical Tower of Babel which crumbled because . . . it's the Tower of Babel. Everyone knows how that went. But there is a bit more behind the story which is where Yokoyama gets his set up from.

The tower was meant to be a transmitter as Babel crash-landed on Earth and was stranded, but he had no way of contacting home. Instead he becomes stranded here and becomes one of us. Babel, and his descendants, are imbued with psychic powers which grant tremendous strength as well as control over three mystical beasts of land, sea, and air. The first beast is Rodem, a black panther that can transform its inky shape into whatever it wants. Then there is Ropross, a giant pterodactyl-type creature that can fly anywhere. And lastly there is Poseidon, a giant robot that patrols the seas and is tougher than anything. But Babel puts these into hiding until his chosen successor is awakened and able to use them right.

Centuries and many descendants later Koichi emerges with the most potential. He is chosen to use the remains of the hidden Tower of Babel to either rule the world, or help it. This was a trend in '70s shonen where the protagonist can either choose to be good or evil without being pushed into one or the other, and they always end up choosing good as if it is the natural choice. This is summed up best in Mazinger Z's tagline of choosing to be God or the Devil. Because this is an adventure story meant to connect with the average male Koichi chooses to save the world and heads out into it on his journey to see how bad things might be out there. He soon meets up with a psychic named Yomi who offers to help him rule the world, or be destroyed. Babel II turns him down and that is where the story begins.

What follows is 12 volumes of a cat and mouse game between Babel II and Yomi over the fate of the world. Yomi might be a powerful psychic, but he also has secrets of his own, and an army of devious superspies, soldiers, cyborgs, and psychics at his beck and call. This means there is a lot of infiltration into hidden bases, supernatural battles, and strange new phenomena to investigate when Yomi vanishes from the scene.

In other words, it's action packed.

The series isn't perfect. Babel and Yomi's battles escalate three separate times to similar climaxes with similar results leading to bit of repetition in the plot at times. This was mostly because the series was unexpectedly popular and Yokoyama kept giving the audience more of what they asked for. It ran long for a series of its time. But it is easy to get over due to how exciting the series gets and remains throughout.

Unfortunately, it's never been licensed and no one has fully translated the series so it is pretty well unknown in the west. It's a shame, because Babel II is a classic and along with Mazinger Z is a series that should be in print over here. It should have a higher influence than it does in the west, but those are the breaks.

What is more well known over here is the OVA adaption by JC Staff from 1992. This was a four episode series that uses the manga as the basis for set up, but changes just about everything else. It's the most popular version of the story overseas, even though it's not the only one that exists.

There were multiple adaptions of Babel II over the years. Toei did a 39 episode adaption back in the '70s. A condensed 13 episode version was made in 2001, too. But somehow it is the original OVA that made the biggest splash over here when Streamline put it out back in the day. This might be because of how they changed the '70s pulp appeal of the original to an early '90s pulp appeal that anime enjoyed and how big the medium was beginning to get in the beginning of the decade.

This is apparent in the bits they changed from the manga.

First we are introduced to the existence of psychics and Yomi before Koichi even becomes Babel II. Koichi is given a choice to join his organization or die. Here he meets a girl named Juju who becomes his love interest and bridge between the normal world and the world of the psychics that steadily begins to muddy as Babel II learns of his own destiny.

The psychic battles are given more prominence in the OVA over the servants, normal soldiers, and cyborgs. Psychic powers were big in late 80s early 90s Japan because of Akira and the animators really wanted to show that off. This means the superspy stuff from the manga was ejected for more battles instead. But the change in focus works to make the story fit into four episodes.

The climax of the last episode is topped with a kiss before the two leads must go their separate ways for various reasons, but we are left to believe they will meet again. Contrasted with most OVAs from the time period or most western entertainment, this is unusual. Usually the ending is bittersweet at best or nihilistic at worst, but here the heroes win and the deal is sealed with a kiss. He might miss his girl, but he will see her again, and in the meantime it is time to rebuild what has been destroyed. The '90s edge didn't stain this series as much as you might expect. That might be because they respected the sort of thing Yokoyama created.

In fact, Babel II shows the difference between a lot of things that have changed since. The '70s manga was perfectly in line with both western and eastern tastes in storytelling from tropes and pure action. When contrasted with the '90s OVA it shows how much each of us has diverged since. The Japanese still had it. We lost it.

Just think: how many western stories from the '90s do you know that ends with the main character winning and kissing and getting the girl? How many end with the hero better for his victory without some kind of asterisk next to his win? How many '90s stories even have pure white hats as main characters and pure black hats as villains? By decade's end your list of examples will have been whittled away to a handful. By the '00s there would be none.

In the end, however, Babel II is an example of how such a basic premise can lead to such wildly different ideas and interpretations without having to be bland remakes or adaptions. Babel II is one of my favorite manga as well as being one of my favorite OVA series, both showing Yokoyama's ideas in such vastly different ways yet keeping the beating pulp heart alive and pumping at the same time. This happened because that tradition was preserved and still exists to this day.

We can learn from this, and I have learned a lot from Babel II.

Now please excuse me while I wait for Seven Seas to finally announce they have licensed the manga, hopefully with Mazinger Z at the same time. Maybe Discotek will license the original anime and the 2001 adaption at the same time? I can dream. Until then I suppose I'll just watch the OVA yet again.

That's fine with me, Babel II is a great experience no matter how one gets to see it.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Earthbound: One of the Best Video Games Ever Made

Already I can see one of two reactions to those reading the title of this post. The first is to flee from the horrible hipster gushing you are about to read, and the second is an eye-roll about another overpraised Super NES game. I implore you to stop. This post is not what you think.

Before I get thrown into the tired hipster crowd, there are a few things you should know. Unlike those jumping on the bandwagon for this game, I was actually there when it came out. I rented it with a friend, and even got it for my birthday not long after. I've been a supporter of this game since the very beginning.

There is no revisionism here from those who hated it when it came out and now love it (I've met such characters) or smirking eggheads who are obsessed with being different from the crowd. This is coming from someone who has been into this game since it came out and who doesn't like it for quirky hipster glorification and/or cheap nostalgia. That's right, I was one of ten people who knew who Ness was in the N64 Super Smash Bros. when I unlocked him. And yes, he is still who I mainly use to this day.

With that out of the way, let me tell you why Earthbound is so good. The post for this game is deserved.

Earthbound, known as Mother 2 in Japan, is an RPG series by Japanese novelist Shigesato Itoi. That's not a combo you see too often, not even in the west where you would figure it would be common. He came to Nintendo in the late '80s about wanting to create a unique game series of his own. Inspired by Dragon Quest he made an RPG set in a modern pseudo-American setting which he called Mother for the NES. It was a hit in Japan.

The first game is pretty rough when it comes to difficulty balancing, but as a whole it is a fun experience and very different for the time. But we never got it when it first came out, though we almost did. Nintendo finally released this game over here as Earthbound Beginnings a few years ago for the Wii U Virtual Console. That was a trip.

But with the coming of the Super Nintendo, he wanted another shot to do it better. Mother 2, or Earthbound as the US version was named, took the same concept of the original but revamped everything with a brand new story and cast of characters.

Both games involve a quest to find an alien out to destroy the world, and a coming of age story of a young teenager growing as he experiences this quest. He does this by confronting the burgeoning evil in the world influenced by the same alien that spans both games. Along the way our party tangles with gang members, zombies, dinosaurs, monsters, and disturbing nightmare fuel, as they explore the world and become heroes.

Mother 2 was a huge hit in Japan and is still regarded as one of the best SNES games to this day. Over here there were a long string of problems preventing Earthbound from taking off from RPGs still not being mainstream, to a terrible ad campaign, to giving it a premium price (packing in the Player's Guide was not the best idea), and saddling it with a weird cover. None of this did the game any favors. Until Super Smash Bros. came out four years later with Ness as one of the playable characters, Earthbound had become nearly forgotten by those overseas.

But it shouldn't have been. It is, in fact, a great game.

"Who is that?" they said.
Earthbound is a Japanese RPG which means it features turn-based combat, but that is about all it has in common with other combat systems at the time. It has some twists. The battle system is simple, but there's a bit more to it. The small things make the difference.

The battle system is turn-based but it has a wrinkle to the proceedings. When an enemy attacks you for say 20 damage, your HP bar rolls back in real-time from where it currently is and down the 20 points to where it is destined to go. This means if you win the battle before the damage counts down you can save HP. At the same time if you get a critical hit in battle that will lead to death you can either heal up in time to save yourself or finish off the enemy before it reaches 0 and you can negate death. This cushion gives you enough time to play around, but also adds a sense of urgency to the system.

At the same time, there are no random battles. Every enemy is seen on screen before you battle them. This also means that you can approach them from behind for sneak attacks or dodge them on the normal map. Also, if your stats are high enough you can one shot enemies for free experience.

It's the simple things that make it stand out.

This sense of being a bit different from the norm of the 16-bit generation also extends to the story. It's basic for the time, but what it does is add interesting aspects to it. And it doesn't need tragic backstories or over the top busy designs to do it.

You start the game as a normal teenage boy (His name is Ness, but you can call him whatever you wish) who wakes up in the middle of the night after a meteorite hits the nearby mountain. He heads out there and runs into some friends who help him reach the ruins where someone from the future arrives and tells him that a great evil is coming. This is an alien being known as Giygas who has come from a distant world and has grown into a terrifying creature. Four destined teenagers are to go out into the world and stop this monster from winning, as the prophecy says.

They go out to record the eight melodies taken from eight natural landmarks throughout the world. This begins a quest into this weird and wild world that Itoi has dreamed up with strange humor, a heartfelt love of the idiosyncrasies of '90s modern life and the importance of family and friends, and a constant and deadly serious battle between good and evil threaded throughout it all. It's a tricky balance, but Earthbound pulls it off.

Ness also is one of the few in the world with psychic abilities known as PSI. Two of his other party members do as well, but they all have different abilities to do with the power. His powers are used as a sort of a branching between the supernatural fantasy aspects of the story and the environments with the natural beauty of the world and how important both are together. In this he discovers both the good and bad things in the world. There he learns just what he really is fighting for. Ness's conflict is essentially between the good in everything vs Giygas being the bad in everything.

This leads to a large scale battle both exterior and interior in his journey. And for a small spoiler, the key to winning the final battle involves praying.

As for how this game achieved a cult following instead of success, well there are a few reasons as stated above.

Console RPGs didn't take off in a big way until Final Fantasy VII. Few RPGs were hits at the time aside from the random Square title or Phantasy Star, and an overpriced game like this packaged with a guide and over-sized box wouldn't entice them further. 1995 was not a prime RPG year for the charts.

The advertising campaign was also abysmal. It tried to capitalize on '90s gross out humor for its advertising which isn't really much in tone with the game. They could have done so much more for it, but Nintendo had more on their plates--such as the upcoming Nintendo 64. Pushing a goofy RPG such as this just wasn't in the cards.

The game was also ahead of its time. This might be hard to imagine in a world where "modern" settings are about 85% of all game settings, but it was not common at the time. The humor is not very in your face for the time period either, but it still has a distinct late '80s and early '90s feel with much warmth and cleverness, and the threat is not ironically detached from the rest.

At the same time the game stayed locked to the SNES in North America until the Wii U's virtual console put it out again well over a decade later. This allowed it to foster a reputation as an underrated classic that only the cool kids got to play and dumb old Nintendo forgot about. And some people are instantly turned off by the "cult" label due to those who attach themselves to it. 

But it wasn't all bad. Just like most cult hits it was bolstered by a base attached to its quality that ended up boosting its reputation in the process. And now it's the hipster game to go to.

However, it wasn't always this way. Earthbound is just a great game that came out at the wrong time and in the wrong way. Its success in its home country shows just that much. It is still one of the most popular games in Japan to this day.

If you enjoy RPGs, especially from the golden age of Japanese ones, then Earthbound is well worth trying. It adds and refines a lot of the genre's quirks to a peak experience you won't get anywhere else even today, and considering this was on the SNES (one of the best video game consoles ever made) that says a lot. Be sure to give this a go.

Earthbound is more than worth your time: it is one of the best games ever made.

An Effective Opening

Thursday, 18 July 2019

A Place for Everything

Stories exist to because writers need to write them and readers want to read them. We write them because we want you to read them and you read them because you want us to write them. It's a simple relationship, but it means everything.

Those who have written a story knows how important it is to put everything in order to please the reader, and everyone who enjoys a good story knows how important it is for the writer to create it for them. But that's just life. Everything connects in some way we don't always see.

I say this because the most important thing a story can be is natural. It reflects that idea of everything connecting in a cogent way. And this might seen odd to say when writers of genre fiction write weird fiction, but it's true.

This is because weirdness is natural.

I'm not referring to oddball deviants or bad philosophers who proclaim their disturbed way of life sacred and Average Joes jokes, but that the universe itself is a particularly strange place if you think about it even a tiny bit. It appeared out of nothing with fully formed rules and plans, planets and stars and black holes abound, and even the Earth itself is strange among all that mess! And of all the creatures crawling on the planet, humans are the only ones that can build Gothic cathedrals, submarines, castles, and giant robots. That's weird, and for good reason.

Normality is weird.

One of the aspects of postmodern criticism and art that has disappointed is how it has taken out the weird, and therefore the beauty along the way. There's nothing weird about the grotesque or the profane: that's base and simple. Corpses are common. Ugliness is easy. It's a warped view of the natural taken and glorified to obscene levels. There's no wonder there.

These artists have removed imagination in exchange for what they consider realism, and they wear it as a badge. They want a reaction, and nothing more. "Realism" is rarely ever even real in these works which makes them feel doubly false.

People as a rule want to be taken higher. You can't blame them for that. It's built into them at a deep level. We are made for more.

As it was once put:

When God had filled the earth with life
And blessed it, to increase,
Then cattle dwelt with creeping things,
And lion with lamb, at peace.

He gave them vast, untrodden lands,
With plants to be their food;
Then God saw all that he had made
And found it very good.

Praise God the Father of all life,
His Son and Spirit blest,
By whom creation lives and moves,
In whom it comes to rest.

We want to be happy not because we are deluded, but because we know deep down that there is much to be happy for. This is why stories of good triumphing over evil, or where good is exulted, or where evil is shown for the muck that it is, comprise of just about the entirety of all great literature. It's universal: it goes down beyond our bones to our souls.

This is why there are fewer feelings greater for a writer than when they are given kudos or just criticism for a story by readers, and when they are writing and things fall just into place.

I have said before that I don't fall on either side of the "pantser" and "plotter" divide when it comes to being a writer. I have done both. The reason is because stories are a form of discovery: we're not really writing them but discovering and sharing what we find with you. I can sit down and bang out an outline and have the story go sideways on me because of a random wrinkle I never considered. I can start a story from scratch then need to outline it because something isn't flowing right. Sometimes things go great with both approaches all the way through. Writing is odd sometimes. It just works out that way.

But when everything falls into place and you get a complete piece there is nothing more satisfying to a writer. I wish I could describe it, but the feeling that you have cleaned a window into a higher reality that others can also use is something amazing. I write stories because I want people to connect with them so we can share this feeling together.

That's what they're for. We're all in this together, after all.

I'm writing this on the day that 33 people were murdered (edit: 34) and 36 were injured at Kyoto Animation in Japan. Please spare some of your prayers and best thoughts to those attacked for merely doing their job. The animation industry in Japan is grueling enough, and these people took this job regardless of that knowledge. They merely wanted to create things to make people happy.

I'm not the biggest fan of what anime watchers call "KyoAni" though I don't deny the great work they have done and have enjoyed some of it. I pray the one responsible is given a just punishment for his crimes and the families left behind by the tragedies will recover. Those who died deserve better than being murdered for trying to entertain people. Here's hoping that they are better off now.

Sometimes it is worrying to wonder if our sense of balance in reality has been lost. Those who create art are not gods or high priests, we are just doing what we were made to do. It's just a job. Nothing a writer or artist can do deserves what happened in this situation: art is not a weapon. It is food for the soul. I admit I have less sympathy for artists who attempt to use their talent wrong and cause strife and discord, but that is not what happened here. KyoAni is as tame and unoffensive as it can get. Entertainers won't save your souls. We're just here to make your day a little better and to get by with everyone else.

Because, as I said, we're all in this together. We can dislike modern art and how it is misused, or detest those who make it, but we still have to live with each other. That's why we're here.

Everything connects and leads into other things. Our choices matter a lot, regardless of how you might be told otherwise, and as a writer I can tell you that a single decision can sometimes mean the difference between a sold piece of consumer art or a scrapped idea buried in the bin. So take care that we work together and don't lose sight of what we are, what we can do, and what we are destined for.

Normality is weird, but weird still as a formula. The universe is weird, and it has patterns. Ugliness is base, and exists only to pervert what already exists. That includes those who would hurt those who have no greater goal than trying to make them smile for half an hour out of their day. That is the epitome of a warped perspective and having a disordered mind. Celebrate beauty and chase it with all the love you have, and it will work out somehow. It might not be in a way you expected, but not that's the way it goes.

We can't always see where we're going, but we are going somewhere.

So please spare an extra prayer and pondering a moment over those who lost their lives and consider just what we're here to do, and not do.

The thing about hitting rock bottom is that there's only one way to go from there. Now it's time to look up again.

As an aside, the new cover artist for Heroes Unleashed has been working out well with Silver Empire and Gemini Warrior is very close to release. I will be sure to let you know when it does. And those on my mailing list, be aware that I will start it anew when it does. I unfortunately fell off long before I should have on it. But that's in the past. Now we're in the present, and things are about to get a whole lot more interesting.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Why the Sun Burns ~ A Review of Graham Greene's "Brighton Rock"

"People change," she said.
"Oh, no they don't. Look at me. I've never changed. It's like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you'll still read Brighton. That's human nature."
This post is very different from the usual blog fare, mostly because I just came back from a trip and that I'm getting my daily word count whipped back into shape. It's going good! So for now I wanted to talk about a book I read recently, slightly different from the usual pulp material I go over here. However it's not as different as you might think. This is about Graham Greene's Brighton Rock from 1938.

For those not in the know, Graham Greene was one of the most well known writers of the 20th century. He wrote many books, plays, and scripts for film noir, including the legendary movie The Third Man which is regarded as a classic. He wrote from the 1930s up to the 80s before his death in the early 90s. So he doesn't need any introduction here.

What probably isn't well known is that he was also a Catholic, though admittedly not a very good one, particularly later in life. His depression certainly didn't help, but neither did cheating on his wife throughout his life on top of it. He would later call himself a Catholic agnostic, and if you read his works you would understand the philosophical battles are what he is about, whether in his pulp thrillers or his literary output. He was a man of contradictions. But one book bridged that gap of extremes admirably and that book is the subject of this post, 1938's Brighton Rock.

It might be a surprise to readers of this blog, but I do like literary fiction. But I enjoy a very specific kind of literary fiction: ones that deal with the eternal and the knife edge between life and death. It's the same as a pulp tale of white hat versus black hat except the sides are above the players who scrambling to understand which they belong to. It's a different angle, but one that never gets old.

This is why I've greatly enjoyed Dostoevsky's The Idiot, Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, Shusaku Endo's Silence, and Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood. They are all tales of good and evil and deal with bigger themes beyond the usual literary fiction trope of nothing happening while things go on. They are about what matters, just as pulp stories are.

Of course, I also like tales of two-fisted action and clear stakes to entertain the reader as well as the above. To me, these two sides of the fiction coin are pretty similar. They both offer the same thing: praising the good and rejecting the evil, and understanding the distinction between the two, even though they do it in different ways.

Brighton Rock is a sequel to the writer's earlier thriller A Gun For Sale, but only tangentially. An event that occurred in that book is the reason the main character is in the position he is in by the this story's start. You don't need to read it to understand this one, but it is to be mentioned.

The story stars a seventeen year old gangster named Pinkie Brown who has just seized control of his gang. At the book's start he is hunting down a man named Charles Hale who betrayed them. Charles meets a woman named Ida Arnold who he connects with, but the two soon separate and Charles is killed by Pinkie afterwards. The report on Charles' death seems strange to Ida so she begins investigating on a lark and an intuition and ends up badgering Pinkie throughout the story even without any evidence about his guilt or knowledge about his person. At the same time Pinkie courts a young waitress named Rose in an attempt to marry her so she can't testify against him since she unknowingly can bust his alibi. The three and their motivations clash throughout the story. As the novel goes on everything begins to unravel until the truth wins out at the end. Everyone gets what they wanted, in a way.

What makes this story work are the characters. They are a extremely different from each other, but vital for the story to go the way it does.

Pinkie is the main character, and he is a villain, through and through. He has no warmth in his heart, no humor, no love, and deliberately chooses to be that way. He wants to be damned. There are several points of the book where small acts of grace such as a friend turning up alive who was thought to be dead are outright rejected by Pinkie who lashes out in vicious ways. He is given chance after chance and rejects them all.

His obsession with being a man informed by a dead gangster causes him to routinely champion the wrong things, from turning on potential allies to threatening those who have nothing to offer him to rejecting offers that would aid him. By the end of the book his soul is stretched so thin that there is little left beyond a husk of what was once a smart young man who could be so much more, but refuses to be.

Greene only ever calls Pinkie "the Boy" throughout the narration and only uses "Pinkie" when being spoken to in dialogue to emphasize the state of his mind. Pinkie has rejected humanity for his own private version of success, and has no chance to become anything more than a mere child. This is despite his countless chances to do so.

The other main character is Rose, who could be seen as the real counterpart to Pinkie. She loves him, not for any schoolgirl reason, but because she thinks she is damned and therefore perfect for him. They are a match, and if they were smarter about it they could work, but they aren't and they don't. Rose knows this, but refuses to admit it. There is no hope for them, but at least they can burn together. Or so she believes.

You see, both Pinkie and Rose are Catholics, but Pinkie only believes in Hell and damnation as an inevitability and can't even picture a Heaven or mercy in the slightest. Rose believes in both but can''t see herself being redeemed and thinks she's destined for Hell. She goes to Mass and he hasn't gone in forever, and they both believe it's all true. His religion is a shell of the real thing morphed to suit his crafted personality, and hers is a young girl's misunderstanding of the nature of Hell and salvation.

This difference in their outlook is what makes Rose more sympathetic as the frail girl struggling to get by. By the end of the story we learn why she thought she should be damned and why her misguided thoughts had very nearly given her that wish. At the same time she vows to start anew with hope for the future with a new understanding of how the world is. Perhaps anyone can be saved, if they want it. In my opinion, she is the real protagonist of the story. She is only held back by her naivety of the way things are.

Finally, there is Ida Arnold. She is supposed to be the "detective" character, but she isn't really. Ida is a hedonist, to put it bluntly. She is just about every New Age, chubby, middle-aged, cat lady, secularist, stereotype you can think of. She's a know-it-all, loose, loud, and surprisingly clueless. If Pinkie wasn't in this story she would be the most unlikable character--and there are gangsters in this work. Ida is only interesting for how Greene uses her as a place of unexpected grace and deliverance in the plot over the others in it. Otherwise her obliviousness around younger characters can get irritating.

She knows right is right, and wrong is wrong, even though she is very much a hedonist who makes bad decision in her own life, but she doesn't know why of everything and can't even explain it. She lectures Rose for being naive, even though she is far more naive than she is despite the age difference. For instance, a big gangster threatens Pinkie sends men after his guys and viciously attacks them, but Ida doesn't know this and thinks the gangster is an upstanding and right man. Despite this she can nail when someone isn't acting right or is hiding something from her. This is more or less Ida's character. She is frequently right, but not for the reasons she think she is and can miss the forest for the trees. She doesn't even understand it herself.

Ida ends up in the right place at the right time seemingly at random, through her connections and goofy larks. This puts her in places she wouldn't otherwise have any reason to be. It's her boisterous and warm personality that contrasts with Pinkie's cold one that leads her to push back against him even though they don't know each other at all. By the end of the story the preceding events begin to rub off on her and leads her to making the first good decision for her own life she made the entire story. Perhaps she actually has grown through the events.

These three are almost as direct opposites of each other as can be, but they all drive the plot perfectly. The triumvirate of clashing ideals is what makes the story interesting beyond the scam plotline. Whenever one of the three is on page you will pay attention as they all have much charisma around them that makes you want to see what they will do next. I was also partial to the charactersof  the gangsters such as Spicer, Dallow, and Cubit, who all represent sides of Pinkie he simply doesn't have, and yet are all he has left.

Greene contrasts the beauty and ugliness of the (then) modern world through the eyes of both religious and secular and how they are both two sides of a certain denarius. What might be ugly or beautiful for another might only look that way because the full picture isn't being seen. The wrong thing is glorified over and over by characters in this novel while the right thing is avoided as a vampire dodges the sun. This never turns out well for those involved. The moral order of the universe is held up, as it should in all good fiction.

Brighton Rock is about the importance of grace and the acceptance of reality, both religious and secular. It is about growth. Those who deny reality are doomed to destruction as their souls shrivel to nothing as they attempt to escape into themselves. You can't change, or grow, as long as you refuse to accept Truth. At the end you either pick a side or you will be thrown into one, and it won't always be the better option.

It's a short book, as it should be, clocking in a good bit under 300 pages, and very little space is wasted with flowery prose. This isn't a book that would come out of Oldpub today, and it isn't just because of length.

The prose is lean and sharp like a pulp novel, though the action is not on the surface. Everything ripples under the water. However, there is a giant knife fight between gangsters that explodes out of nowhere in the middle of the book which is terrifying, and yet leads to one beautiful moment of grace that seals the fates of our characters. It's a perfect scene that leads to another perfect scene. The action in litfic is always about the consequences of decisions, and the battle between God and Satan as the ultimate white and black hat is where the real action sits in this piece.

Once you see Brighton Rock as what it is: a spiritual battle between mortal sin and repentance, it is engrossing all the way until the final moments. As far as litfic goes, this was pretty much my ideal example. It surpassed my expectations despite reading about its reputation for so long.

I can't convince you to give this a try if you don't enjoy film noir, spiritual battles, or litfic, but I can recommend it wholeheartedly all the same. There isn't really any other book out there like this, not even by Greene.

But I enjoyed this one immensely and will stand by it as a work worth reading. Brighton Rock is not like anything else you will read today, especially from the dinosaur publishing world.

If this is your sort of thing be sure to seek it out.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

My Appendix N: Odds & Ends

I'm getting ready to go out of town for a few days so I don't have the time to do the book version of this series of posts, so I will instead focus on what I might have missed out along the way. Unfortunately, this means a shorter post than the others, but if you want something else to indulge in you can always check out the podcast I do with one of my friends Cannon Cruisers. There we discuss lesser known movies during the silver age of cinema, the 1980s.

In fact, that is just as good a place to start as any. Those who saw my TV and cinema list and have listened to an episode or two of Cannon Cruisers knows I'm not very infatuated with the way things are right now in the visual arts.

I'm not a fan of how alienating much of cinematography is. Shaky cam seeks to disconnect the audience from the action on screen using a fig leaf explanation of it being "more engrossing" when it is not. The obsession with desaturated colors and grays makes looking at a modern movie or TV show the equivalent of watching a reality drained of life and hope. Even video games have begun to follow this trend, making a dark game like DOOM look like a carnival fun-house in comparison.

1980s to early 90s cinema might not have been the best on a quality perspective, but on a presentation level it is hard to argue it wasn't a peak. Practical effects, big bold colors, inventive ideas though not always with the best execution, and a general respect for the audience, are all things that add to the whole. That became lost as the years went on.

This inspires much of what I write and hope to capture that feeling and mood, even in stories as dark as some of mine can get. I want that connection, and not the frayed one that exists in the modern world. I might not always succeed, but that is what I aim for.

It's not so much a nostalgia thing as I grew up hating the 80s like many of the edgy idiots of the 90s, but as time has passed I know where my bread is buttered. I know what works, and what doesn't.

And speaking of what doesn't work, one topic I didn't cover in this series was comic books, and that is because I have a very complicated relationship with the dying medium.

I have the controversial opinion that the animated TV shows that came out all outdid the comic runs for the simple reason that they had endings. The comic companies milking the same characters and villains for decades, declaring death and therefore consequences a non-issue turned me off of them. As much as I liked the Death & Return of Superman story at the time, it was an ending. There is no way around that realization. There was nowhere to go after that, and the audience agreed.

There is a reason manga has overtaken comics and why bande dessinee still has a lucrative industry in its homeland while the comic industry is flatlining and refusing to make any changes to better itself. They know how to build stories and when they need to end. Every story needs an ending.

As for what comics did inspire me well I quite liked 90s Superboy. It was about a 100 issue run starting with the cocky kid beginning his superhero career and ending as he joins the Teen Titans and decides to grow up. It more or less covers a complete arc. It's not the best series, but I always liked the character and he did get an ending before DC did what the industry always does and went and screwed him up later.

The one comic line that could have changed much if it wasn't for being bought by DC and didn't have internal problems was Cliffhanger.

Cliffhanger was a line of action adventure comics from the late 90s. They wanted to create epic stories with original characters, and complete stories with endings, before making something new afterwards. It was exactly what the industry needed.

It launched with three series. Crimson, a vampire story about potential Armageddon, had a full 24 issue run and an ending. The creative team then went on to do Out There, a Lovecraft-style story that also had an ending. This group did right by the brand.

The second series was Danger Girl, a Bond-inspired spy romp with hot women and plenty of action. This had production issues due to J. Scott Campbell's health, but the story eventually concluded and several more mini-series were made afterwards. It also managed to have a video game.

The last series featuring comic superstar of the time Joe Mad was called Battle Chasers, a fantasy quest that never even got to see double digit issue numbers because the team could not reliably produce product. This was very common at the time, and it ended up hurting many in the industry later. Battle Chasers missing so many deadlines and never really starting the story led to Danger Girl and Crimson carrying most of the weight, and when Danger Girl had production issues itself it was up to Crimson alone, which never suffered a delay, to float the whole line. This caused trust issues with the audience.

By the time Crimson ended the line had been bought by DC with Wildstorm and it got shuffled to the backburner. There were a few other mini-series from creators, including at least one other long series that never got finished, but DC strangled Cliffhanger to death. And that was it. There was never another line like Cliffhanger again. For 20 years the industry suffered a slow death of endless reboots and no new ideas.

Now the industry is on its death bed, and no one can write anything without putting in their divisive identity politics and fracturing what little audience remains.

But the aims of the line was an inspiration to me. I didn't like some of western comics' worst traits and enjoyed someone aspiring to change things for the better to build something. I maintain that had the line went off without a hitch, and had DC stayed away, it would have been a gamechanger for the industry. It is what was needed. As it is now I might be the only person who remembers this line and is inspired by it. You certainly wouldn't see any of those series made today, for various reasons.

But that's enough of that dying industry. I have another thing to mention.

I forgot one movie in a previous post that inspired me quite a bit. When I was younger I watched this all the time, and the soundtrack stuck to me like glue to this day. Despite clearly having a Star Wars inspiration, I enjoyed this far more. It had memorable lines, engaging characters, and top notch action. Of course, I'm referring to the Transformers animated movie.

This movie was called, by one hack internet reviewer, a cheap toy commercial made to cynically kill off old toys so kids would buy new ones. Said hot dog loving critic must have missed the reason the franchise exists in the first place. But what do you expect when you can only look at everything with a cynical eye?

The movie shows that an actual war between robots would end with robots dying, as would be expected. The series avoided such things. Though the Transformers are "More Than Meets the Eye" as they have a life force called a Spark meaning that death is permanent and there are stakes. At least aside from one death that has a specific parallel later in the series, but I digress. Because of groups like ACT as a kid you would never be able to see anyone die as a consequence to violence in cartoons. Here you did. The first fifteen minutes does more to establish tension and stakes than any other kid show from the era.

Now imagine if ACT hadn't been in the way?

I'm not going to say it is perfect, but if you can show me a boy who grew up at the time who watched and didn't like this then I'm going to call you a liar. I would doubt there are few who didn't find this inspiring back in the day. It also paved the way for anime acceptance since its crisp direction and visceral action is the exact sort of thing the medium was known for. This is the sort of thing animation was made for.

It's a shame that outside of Beast Wars the franchise has never managed to reach that height again. Which reminds me to mention that series for those who have never seen it. The CG is dated, but the storytelling is not. Outside the animated movie it is the best thing in the franchise. But I could go on forever. That animated movie remains an inspiration for me and I'm betting anyone who grew up with it.

There are many other things I could list as an inspiration that I missed earlier, but then I would be here forever. The important thing is that what brings us together and appeals to our shared values, hopes, and dreams is what should be highlighted and celebrated. That's what I try to do.

I'm certain that in the future it will return again. We can't remain in this bad spot forever. Hopefully I will be a part of it.

Until then let us celebrate what brings us together, instead of what pulls us apart. Isn't this the time of year for that, after all? I would say so.

Have a good one! You've earned it.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

My Appendix N: Video Games

Have some tunes for this post.

We are the first generations to consider video games important influence in storytelling. Particularly those in Gen Y who grew up during the biggest shift in the medium stretching from the release of Nintendo's NES and DOS PC gaming up to the release of Sega's Dreamcast and Sony's PlayStation 2. The reach is quite great and the most the medium has changed before or since.

Since my generation spans being born from about 1980 to 1990, it means all of us came of age when Nintendo was still a cultural force (which it has been off and on since) being that the NES burst onto the scene in 1985 and were kings in the scene until around the release of the Gamecube in 2001. At the same time Sega and the Genesis and its attachments, the arcades, the coming of the PlayStation, and PC gaming's meteoric rise, were all at their peak through the same time period.

If you can find me someone born in the '80s in the west and was not somehow influenced by video games they are probably either lying or were sheltered in a way that would make the moral majority weep with envy. You knew about video games back then. They were mainstream more than they are now.

A lot is made due of the Boomers and their parents' quest to ban and destroy video games, but much of it is overblown. They had never seen such a medium and as such they made bad calls. It happens. What we don't have an excuse for are members of Gen X and Y currently in charge who grew up with video games trying desperately to destroy them as if they don't know better. As such I won't be covering the tired "banning vidya" arguments since we are far worse at it then our parents and grandparents were, and we have no excuse for it. I'm not going to be throwing stones.

Still, the fact that it was a topic at all shows how big video games became in such a short period of time. From being pure time wasters in the '70s with simplistic fare such as Pong to more involved products such as River Raid or Pitfall! it was by the '80s when they hit their stride. By the end of the '90s they would be unstoppable.

Blazing Lazers
Of course I was influenced by video games. I had an NES before I can even remember and played the original Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt constantly as a kid. I remember the Console Wars (the only good one) between Nintendo's SNES and Sega's Genesis, and I remember entering high school around the time 3D graphics were all the rage and everyone was bragging about them. I graduated not long after Sega left the console business and the arcades were beginning their slow death. To say they didn't have an effect on me would be to lie.

Video games were a way to live out adventures and experience sights and directly interact with them. It was different than watching a movie because you could influence what happened. It was different than playing around with your friends because they couldn't change the rules on you. It was different than reading a book because you could all enjoy it together at the same time. As a result they really weren't like anything else. To join in, all you had to do was pick up a controller and push the buttons.

If you want some examples of my favorite games you can click the "Video Game" tag at the bottom of this post. I've written about a bunch of my favorites here. So instead I would like to go over some genres that made the difference.

There are many to go through, but I'm going to start with the obvious one. The first is the platformer.

Really coming into its own with Activision's Pitfall!, starting with Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. for the NES (and a pack-in for the console) the genre blasted into prominence where it stayed for 3 full console generations. That was before publishers decided to ditch it, not knowing the highest selling game of the first HD generation would be a 2D platformer from a series that originated on the NES. They're still trying to kill their roots, but the platformer survives regardless. It is one of the most important genres in gaming.

Rocket Knight Adventures
The reason it became a sensation is because of a simple premise and understandable goals. In a platformer the player is tasked with going from a starting point to an end point and dodging every obstacle in their way to reach it. This is as straightforward an idea as you can get, making it perfect for action gaming and the basis for much to come.

Platformers aren't far away from Shoot 'em Ups ("Shmups") and in fact are linked by a subgenre called Run n' Gun which features elements of both. For the best example of this you can look to Konami's Contra series.

Inspired by 80s action movies such as the Predator and Rambo series, Contra was one of the series that really helped the fledgling shooter genre find its feet beyond spaceships. It's also a a great example of mixing genres, and perhaps one of my favorite series in gaming. You only take one hit to die, but you fight waves of enemies who are the same as well as giant bosses who make you feel small and helpless. Getting through a Contra game in one life is quite an achievement and rewarding.

But that is just one many series.

The NES was home to some of the best platformers ever made from the aforementioned Contra to Nintendo's own, and still running series, such as Super Mario, Kirby, and Metroid, but there were plenty of arcade-style games in other genres such as Jackal, Gun.Smoke, and GUN*NAC, not to mention the licensed games that were great from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to Disney's Capcom games, to even obscure properties such as Little Nemo, or Yo Noid! featuring the old pizza mascot, the NES had just about everything. Never trust anyone who has bad things to say about the NES, they have missed out on much and have a dark heart. That's not even going into overlooked gems such as Rockin' Kats, Gimmick!, or The Lone Ranger many missed out on.

Double Dragon II: The Revenge
What I should also bring up are arcades. Never trust anyone born between 1970 and 2000 that has never had a favorite arcade game. Particularly up to 2003 or so when the consoles caught up tech-wise, arcades were considered the peak of video games and in many ways the loss of them and their influence has changed the medium for the worse. Games are not the same today.

There was a community aspect to arcades since you both had to wait in line for them and since anyone could drop in to challenge you or work with you it could lead to developing new relationships. Couch co-op at home isn't like this, and certainly neither is online multiplayer. There is something strange in meeting someone you've never met and achieving a goal alongside them.

Because of the fact that the publishers wanted you there in the arcades, the best way to do that was to make the games difficult. You had to keep coming back to beat the games. This is why difficulty is synonymous with with video games and why those who seek to eject it from the medium are missing the point of the hobby. You're meant to stick with it and get better. Why else would you keep playing it?

As for some of the best arcade games, well, there is so much you could mention. From Shmups such as Detana!! TwinBee, Gradius, and Fantasy Zone, to shooters like Gunforce 2, Sunset Riders, and Rolling Thunder, to racers such as OutRun, Hydro Thunder, and Initial D, to fighters such as Garou: Mark of the Wolves, Mortal Kombat, and Street Fighter II, there was more than plenty to play. Genres such as rail shooters mostly died with the arcade as series such as Virtua Cop, House of the Dead, and Time Crisis, have since fallen into obscurity despite how big they were at the time and how many gameplay possibilities they could still offer. I haven't even gone into hidden gems such Elevator Action Returns, The Cliffhanger: Edward Randy, and Boogie Wings.

But my all time favorite arcade genre was the beat 'em up. Capcom and Konami were the clear winners in the genre, though Data East would randomly throw out a bizarre title and Sega had a few of their own such as Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder. Heck, even the guys behind R-Type, Irem, made Undercover Cops and Ninja Baseball Bat-Man. But Capcom and Konami were easily the best at the genre.

Metamorphic Force
Capcom made their mark with the original Final Fight in 1989, taking the Double Dragon formula of buddies taking on the world and simplifying it while making it faster. They released many great games in the genre up to 1997's criminally under-looked Battle Circuit which had a full on shop and upgrade system, complicated combos, and varied level design. The genre had come a long way before it was unceremoniously abandoned for 3D. Thankfully Capcom has at least recently released a brawler collection featuring some of their best non-licensed work from mech action Armored Warriors and the aforementioned Final Fight all the way up to Battle Circuit. If you're never experienced the genre before, this is a place to start.

However, my favorite beat 'em ups in the arcade were probably made by Konami. Their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games were great (The SNES version of Turtles in Time is better, however) but my favorites from them are a bit more obscure. They did some licensed work including the only good The Simpsons game to date, to Bucky O'Hare (developed by guys who would go on to form Treasure), to Cowboys of Moo Mesa, and yet in other genres such as shooters, but their forgotten original work is the Crime Fighters trilogy and it is their best.

The original Crime Fighters is a busted, cheesy game with a draining health mechanic that needs quarter munching to raise. The game has some good music, but it's otherwise forgettable. However, the follow-up, Crime Fighters 2: Vendetta, might be the best in the genre ever made. Essentially a Cannon Film movie starring Hulk Hogan and his musclebound pals, they are a neighborhood gang of good guys who have a woman taken from them and they fight through enemy territory to take her back. The sprites are big and lively, the weapons and levels are inventive, and the difficulty is actually manageable. That this has never been re-released is a crime itself. Then we come to the third game Violent Storm.

Violent Storm
Violent Storm was Konami's final beat 'em up, coming out in 1993, and it might be their best. It takes pieces of everything of the time from the obvious Fist of the North Star-style post-apocalyptic setting to Final Fight's more popular two button fighting controls, to the large and expressive sprite work, but it added its own twists.

Violent Storm's world is both post-apocalyptic yet features Utopian societies bubbled up all over that present more questions than they answer. It has Final Fight's two button controls, yet is far deeper than Final Fight, with smoother controls and more plentiful moves that require digging to find. The giant sprites are some of the best ever made with many hidden inside levels and used for one-off jokes. The soundtrack is the best in the genre, and if you've heard some of the soundtracks in this genre you know that is a bold claim. From cheesy synth rock, to '50s rock n roll, to groovy early '90s hip hop, to surf, to atmospheric beats, it goes all over the map. As far as I'm concerned the genre never got better than this which might be why it was abandoned not long later.

The Crime Fighters trilogy highlights the evolution of the genre perfectly, and two of them are some of the best in the genre. It is great stuff.

Suffice to say there were a lot in the arcades back then. Much of it is still worth playing today. If only more companies were more interested in preserving the past and making them more available many would understand that. The fact that one can't legally purchase Violent Storm and hasn't been able to in over 25 years is ridiculous.

But as influential as the arcades were I would say the ultimate peak was the 16-bit generation of consoles. I am talking about the Super Nintendo, the Sega Genesis, and (technically) the Turbografx-16/PC Engine. If one wants to include PC games that came up during this era (because there are a lot of them), portables such as the Game Boy and Game Gear, and the aforementioned arcade games they can do so. Heck, even through in the Neo Geo. But I'm referring mainly to the consoles that really perfect what the 8-bit systems put out.

Should one every question how competition could ever make anything better, I don't think you have to go any further than the 16-bit system wars. Nintendo's system had a slower CPU so it required games that took advantage of its superior graphical and sound capabilities. Sega's system was faster but weaker in most other aspects, so it used that speed to create different sorts of games. Both console as a result featured vastly different games, but both had fantastic libraries. The PC Engine was more of a bridge between 8 and 16 bit, but its CD technology allowed it to have a unique approach of its own during this war.
To be sure, this is the only console generation where every player had their own tremendous library of games that could go toe to toe with the others and somehow every gamer could still be jealous of the other. Games still had their roots in the arcades, new genres were coming up every day, older ones were getting interesting spins, and the gamers made out like bandits.

It was never that good for us again.

Of course I'm still a gamer today, but even at the time I knew that things changed with the 32-bit generation, and not for the better. For one, it's aged the worst of any console generation. Just about every 3D game from that time needs a remake, and 2D was cast into the trash as if it didn't matter as most of those 2D games look worse than they did on the SNES and Genesis.

It was a downgrade of a generation.

Mega Man X
At the same time the CD format had gone the wrong way from the Turbografx CD being used solely to pack in movie cinematics in a desperate bid to make games respectable by turning them into movies. Even soundtracks began to move away from the excellent Redbook audio from that system to becoming more interested in licensed music and, eventually, wannabe movie scores. It moved away from the strength of the medium.

Nintendo and Sega both shot themselves in the foot with bad hardware choices brought about by hubris over a successful previous generation, so Sony's movie approach started to become more and more accepted and seen as the norm.

And that's why we are where we are today. Games are "respected" now, but they're barely games most of the time. They're glorified movies. Good games used to be common and now they are the minority.

That isn't to say I didn't like any post 16-bit system. The Dreamcast is one of the best systems ever made, with great hardware and software made for it. It was the last Sega system and the last fashioned after arcade gaming. The Nintendo Wii was the best system of its generation with an attempt to actually do something other than mindlessly make graphics prettier and as a result has an excellent library of both big name and lesser known titles, and tons of hidden gems. Both of Nintendo's DS systems were great fun, but their Game Boy Advance was superior, featuring the last stand of 2D gaming and the best library of portable games by far.

But aside from them? Eh, it's dicey.

Ninja Five-O
As for how video games could possibly influence anyone, well, I would say it is because of their aim to allow the player to connect directly with a world beyond their own. There isn't anything like that. That is how they got big to begin with.

For a writer it helps me get that tactile feel of dealing with a high stress situation that hearing a story 
from someone or just reading a book about it just doesn't quite give. It allows that extra bit of connection to the action itself. It also helps the writer understand the value of stakes and effort to achieve a goal.

So yes, video games were a very important part of my life. I grew up with them and don't remember a time I had without them. They have helped me to understand things I might not have otherwise understood and connected me with fantastical worlds and ideas far out of my comfort zone. These are things I never would have imagined without them.

Even though I think the industry right now is in a terrible spot and has been there for a very long time, I cannot deny that it has its place. Video games are here to stay.

Here's hoping we can still say that ten years from now.