Thursday, November 28, 2019

The Real Super Robot ~ A Review of Armored Trooper VOTOMs

As anyone who knows anime knows, there are two kinds of mecha series. First there were the originals, the super robots, then there were those created with Mobile Suit Gundam, the real robots. The former were pulp heroes that went on adventures to stop the villains while the latter were based on soldiers fighting in wars. Different approaches and aims allowed for very different legacies. The two never really crossed over since super robots relied on special, sometimes mystical, mecha, while real robots were just used as tools like a tank or a rocket launcher. With a distinction like that they never could really intersect despite their common origin.

The question was: how can you connect the heart of super robot series with real robot seriousness to create a unified whole? Can they ever connect? It turns out they can. The answer is Armored Trooper VOTOMS, spearheaded by the dream team at Sunrise, headed by Ryousuke Takahashi during the Golden Age of anime in the '80s.

Takahashi's career, like Yoshiyuki Tomino's, can be traced back to Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Productions. He worked on classic anime such as Princess Knight, Dororo, and Wandering Sun, and his proper directorial debut was in the 1979 Cyborg 009 anime. Needless to say, he knew how to make series with fantastical action.

In 1981, he was co-director with Takeyuki Kanda (Vifram, Metal Hunter Dragonar, Armor Hunter Mellowlink, Mobile Suit Gundam: 08th MS Team) on Fang of the Sun Dougram which was Sunrise's first big post-Gundam hit, running 75 episodes. Hopefully I can talk about Kanda in a future post seeing as how he died so young, but while he was alive he was up there with Tomino and Takahashi in talent. After Dougram, Takahashi had enough clout to create Armored Trooper VOTOMs in 1983, and it would prove to be his most enduring work.

Takahashi did this by turning the clock back on the genre and more or less created a super robot show in a real robot framework. While mecha was drifting away from heroes and villains, and mysticism and fantasy, towards more moral ambiguity of war, VOTOMs was about navigating a universe wrecked by villains and finding the truth in places ruled by falsities. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Since Dougram was based on guerrilla warfare and Gundam was based on WWII, Takahashi wanted to create a series based on Vietnam and the feelings such a war could inspire. But it doesn't work as you might think. It's not like any Vietnam you or I might know of aside from visual nods to popular works such as Apocalypse Now or soldiers fighting a war seemingly without end or a point. In fact, there is a point to this war, though it is not revealed late into the series. But there is more to it than superficial similarities.

The original name of the mecha were even called BOTTOMs, as the mecha were meant to be seen as the opposite of Gundams--they are trash, bottom of the barrel, just as the soldiers are treated. This isn't the only parallel to Vietnam, however.

Instead Takahashi also took the existential questions such a war could leave on someone caught in the middle of it. What were they fighting for? What's the point to it all? How can I make something of this? Is there more to me than this? And he translated it into a story about the quest for Truth.

This is a story about a different kind of war. This is a war for truth in a universe that has forgotten it.

The Opening

Two star systems, Gilgamesh and Balarant, have been at war for one hundred years. Chirico Cuvie is a grunt soldier piloting a scopedog mecha, a ramshackle piece of junk mostly used for cannon fodder. Those who pilot these mechs do not have long life expectancy. However, Chirico has lived long being smarter than smartest and tougher than the toughest. He is so good he was a member of the legendary Red Shoulder unit.

However, this has come at a cost. Chirico has no more home world, no family, and nothing tying him to this universe any longer. The only thing he has left is fighting, but it is slowly eating away at him. Chirico's blank slate nature of a perfect soldier is one that causes most of his internal strife in the series, and is one of the reasons he tries to go it alone so often. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Chirico is chosen for a special mission behind enemy lines to retrieve a special package. But the enemy turns out to be their own soldiers and the package appears to be a beautiful woman imprisoned in a tube. Before he can ask any questions, he is betrayed by his comrades and the base is blown to hell, sending him into his own.

He awakens a prisoner and is tortured as a traitor. His whole life is turned upside down. After a daring escape he ends up alone drifting in space with only one thought on his mind, and that is to find out the truth behind everything going on. He needs to find that woman and get the answers he needs to finally understand his purpose in all this.

The series is divided into four arcs across its 52 episodes. Each arc on Chirico's journey is designated by the planet he is on and runs 12-13 episodes, give or take an episode. The first is the cyberpunk dystopia of Woodo, then the depths of jungle world Kummen, followed by the desert chase of the dead planet Sunsa, and ending with the ancient God Planet Quent where the mysteries are unraveled. Going into each of them would entail spoilers, but the difference in mood and setting should be obvious to anyone.

Every one of the four arcs represents a different stage of his quest. Woodo represents his rock bottom fall, Kummen represents him facing his past self, Sunsa represents him shedding the weight holding him down, and Quent represents him finally embracing who Chirico Cuvie is.

But despite this, it never gets bogged down. VOTOMs remains an adventure series through and through.

VOTOMs is essentially a pulp story at heart and Chirico is the stoic lead you want for such a tale. He gets up when he's knocked down, his destiny is changed by the appearance of a mysterious woman, and he overcomes tremendous odds despite the losses he continually suffers. And suffer he does. Chirico is now Gary Stu: he has to earn every victory he gets.

Takahashi can make Tomino look like a chump when it comes to darkness. Many people die in just about every episode and sometimes out of nowhere. The themes of death, injustice, and alienation, are all over this series at almost every moment. Most people are out for themselves, at least at first, with little regard to what chaos their bad decisions may affect others. Trust is not given, it's earned. Even the mecha were so poorly designed and maintained for mass production that those piloting them can be easily killed and cause collateral damage with their destruction. By all accounts, this series should be a miserable and hopeless slog.

But it's not.

The universe Takahashi constructs is intriguing, Chirico is one of the most active protagonists you will ever see, and despite how dark things might feel things never feel hopeless. Good deeds are rewarded, and goodness is never lost in a sea of grey morality. Each distinct arc also keeps the story fresh and adds new characters to follow along with our mains, and we get to see them on journeys of their own. The characters he meets are all affected by his drive and honesty and also begin to change themselves, and not always for the worst.

However, the reason to watch this series is for Chirico Cuvie. His paranoia in a universe ravaged by war and corruption, his persistence in the face of despair, his constant attempts to do the right thing and seek the truth even when his experience tries to guide him otherwise, and his inner struggle, is what will keep you watching. It's a quest Chirico goes on to find meaning and hope in a universe that has given up on it that makes the series compelling. There is more to everything than you might think.

It also helps that the character and mecha designs, the voice acting, the direction, and music, are all top shelf, as well. Takahashi is nothing if not well aware of how to structure a 24 minute adventure series as he makes sure to end every episode after a climax that leaves the watcher with their mouth agape and the current problem solved (with exceptions) as Chirico's quest continues to the next stage. I'm not sure at what point anime directors forgot this sort of thing outside of those like Shinichiro Watanabe and Satoshi Nishimura, but it is invaluable for those of us who like our stories with less flab.

The main weakness of the series would be the actual animation. Just like Xabungle which I reviewed before, early '80s TV animation was not the best in fluidity. Maiden Japan's transfer is also more or less just the old DVDs dumped onto Bluray, so you won't see much improvement here. It's the designs and the direction that carry the animation to the finish line. The Bluray also has some ghosting in certain scenes, though it otherwise looks fine. There also is a recap episode after every arc, so if you're watching this all in a row it might get old.

Aside from that, there isn't much to complain about.

The difference between a super robot and real robot show isn't just in the way the mecha are treated, but in how the pilots are and how the conflicts work. In super robot the pilots are as valuable as the mecha and the reason they are able to perform the feats they are. As pulp heroes, it's about good and evil and two-fisted justice. Those powered by Justice are given the righteousness to succeed and conquer evil.

In real robot the drive of the pilot doesn't usually make a difference outside of their skill level. Chirico constantly surpasses his limits even when the odds are against him, because he has to. In situations where those like him will die, he somehow comes up on top, and that is only because he needs to.

VOTOMs is a series about a super robot pilot in a real robot universe. The only thing holding him back from being on the level of a Koji Kabuto or a Cyborg Guy is the lack of a super robot to house his skills and abilities. This tends to be the opposite of series such as Gundam where the Gundam pilots have all the edges. In VOTOMs there is even a subplot about super pilots, but nothing about super robots. Takahashi knew what he was doing.

This strange combination of existential dread and fighting for Justice in a universe gone mad is what makes VOTOMs so unique. The journey Chirico goes on is an adventure of high stakes and big action, but also of quiet moments in a universe torn to pieces by Real War. In other words VOTOMs is both super robot and real robot, and neither of them, at the same time. What it's about is an ex-soldier who becomes a hero and a wanderer who finds his place; a man who finds love, and a superman who becomes human.

In my opinion, this is what makes Ryosuke Takahashi's mecha series so different from most anyone else's. His adventure stories featuring much death and carnage in a world that should be bleak, and quite often are, but retain a small speck of pulp-sized hope that keeps you engaged in the journey up to the end. There is always hope.

He also could turn around and write Ronin Warriors and help produce GaoGaiGar, showing his love for heroes and the good. Moral ambiguity takes a backseat to Justice and love. At his heart he knows heroism and that's what he does best. If Blue Comet SPT Layzner is ever licensed (fingers crossed) then I will be sure to point out how he hit the mark there, too, but suffice to say that at his peak there was no one else like him. And for a lot of reasons, Armored Trooper VOTOMs is his iconic series and it is what he will always be known and remembered for. There is certainly no shame in that.

In a world where we have forgotten the important questions we should be asking and just what a hero really is, it is good to see a series that has its heart in the right place, and its reach meeting its grasp. You will never see another anime like VOTOMs.

In my humble opinion, Armored Trooper VOTOMs is a classic and should be seen by everyone with any interest in the genre, especially those who enjoy action adventure and mecha. There is nothing like it, and there never will be again. It is one of the best in the genre, and remains so decades after it has ended.

A classic will always be a classic.

The Ending

My own work is also action packed! You can't do much weirder than an Isekai with superheroes, lizard men, and sword fighting. I do it all in Gemini Warrior!

Find it Here!

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Soldier Blade: One of the Best Video Games Ever Made

It's been awhile since I made a post like this, but it's about due. In the spirit of Brand Zero, I'm going to go old school and talk about a dead series that no one will ever revive due to the genre being abandoned long ago. At the same time, I hope to show just what we miss out when destroying the foundation from underneath your feet.

This post is about a little game named Soldier Blade, a forgotten classic on a now forgotten system. This is in a climate where classic gaming is currently being whitewashed away by certain AAA companies attempting to reframe the 32-bit generation as the first console generation. No doubt if Nintendo weren't still around they would do it successfully and certain gamers would allow them to do it.

But I digress.

The reason I've chosen Soldier Blade is because it is one of the best shmups ever made, but explaining why is a bit tough due to the genre's heavy use of gameplay to leverage itself over flash and presentation. To understand these days why the genre was beloved you have to wipe gimmicky "Bullet Hell" games from your head and put your mindset back to when games began and the genre's beginnings. Because shooters have fallen quite a bit from where they began and are near extinct these days.

As an action game, few are as tight, as responsive, or as colorful as this one is. There's a reason it still remains a favorite of genre fans of this near-30-year-old-game to this day. And that's unlikely to ever change.

Soldier Blade came more or less at the peak of the genre, in the early 90s, before video games abandoned their roots in arcade challenge and goals for cinematic experiences. It is pure gameplay, meant for that rental store, or that dying breed of gamer who needs to master levels and accumulate high scores. You have to go back to a certain time and a specific mindset. You have remember when games were about gaming first above presentation or flash. In many ways this game represents its era on top of also being excellent in its own right.

Soldier Blade was released in 1992 for the popular PC Engine in Japan, and the nearly forgotten TurboGrafx-16 in the West. Despite how it might look and sound, it was not released for the CD attachment games such as Ys were given. This was done on the original hardware before any revisions. It's a bit hard to imagine, but the TG16 was a much better and impressive system than gamers were lead to believe.

The game was also the last in a series that ended on this system. Well, it was technically the last. There were other games, but they were more remix than sequel. Before we go on, let me talk about the Star Soldier series a bit.

Star Soldier was a competent shooter that came out back in the mid-'80s on the MSX and the NES. It was Hudson's attempt to try to take on the almighty Compile, creator of classics such as The Guardian Legend, GunNac, Blazing Lazers, Musha, Spriggan, and Zanac x Zanac. If you don't those then you really, really, should. At the time they were one of the kings of the genre, up there with Capcom, Konami, and IREM.

But Hudson was more of a platformer-type developer at the time with Adventure Island, Bonk, and even Bomberman under their belts. Shooters weren't their thing, despite the genre being so big at the time. So their first two attempts with Star Soldier and a few years later with Super Star Solider, were merely decent.

They did offer a Caravan feature for their games, as score hunting was big back in the Golden Age of gaming. In case you don't know what a Caravan Mode is, I should explain. In an exclusive level, the player has 2 or 5 minutes (depending on the mode selected) to attack enemies, gain power-ups, and defeat bosses, to rack up the highest score possible. As can be deducted, such a mode can be addictive among a group of gamers. There is also a score attack mode on top of the time limit ones which adds yet another layer of replayability. And this doesn't even have anything to do with the main game.

However, in 1991, they finally nailed it with the Japan-exclusive (and mis-titled) third entry Final Soldier. A game that understood shmups had appeal beyond shooting waves of erratic-patterned enemies with sparse or no background elements at all. They had finally made it up there with the best of the best. They realized the genre is about level design, creative art, and weapon management, just as much as pattern recognition and quick reflexes. This is, after all, a video game, and not just a pachinko machine.

But in 1992 they put out a game which pushed their system to the limits with Soldier Blade, technically the final game in the series. This is, in my humble opinion, one of the Top Ten best Shooters ever made.

I say it was technically the last in the series, because there was the also excellent Star Parodier released in the same year which was a (natch) parody of its own series. Plus there was an N64 game and Caravan-only Wii release years later, but none of these really were new entries that pushed the series forward. They were just basic shooter releases, not as in-depth as the proper games in the series were.

So what exactly makes Soldier Blade so good? If you just think of shoot 'em ups as mindless games of pattern recognition then you're missing the point (as well as describing every genre in a reductive way) though I think it is something that was lost when Bullet Hell became the standard. When people think Shoot 'em up today they typically don't think of games like Soldier Blade anymore, and that's a shame.

To begin with, the controls are rock solid. There's no slipperiness to be found. Should you die then you have no one else to blame but your own weakness. This is good because of the different enemy patterns and types that meld together which require good reaction time to deal with properly. The enemy patterns are never overwhelming and offer enough variety to keep you on your toes through the game's rather lengthy 7 stages and one Caravan stage. But that's only part of what makes Soldier Blade so good. The patterns and enemy design would be enough to make it top tier, but there's more beyond that.

One thing I don't like about Bullet Hell shooters is that they feel like they exchange level design difficulty with purely dodging enemy fire instead. It makes the games less visually interesting to play, and cuts down on immersion. You could make the aesthetic a blank white background and little would actually change.

For example, in Soldier Blade you have to weave in between nigh-indestructible fleets, meteor showers, tight structures, and large enemies in between their fire. In other words, the level design and the enemies work together against you to emphasize that feeling of lone soldier against the world. It's more than just dodging bullets. In this way it's not unlike a vertical Contra or Metal Slug game without a jump button.

In Bullet Hell shooters there isn't really any level design beyond dimmed backgrounds (so you can see the bullets) and waves of one or two colors to keep track of from enemies that might as well be floating guns. The levels are also much shorter to compensate for this repetitive experience. It's not as interesting a formula as the classic shooters had, and it may be why they became niche almost immediately after they began.

Soldier Blade isn't like that, and, in my opinion, neither are the best games in the genre. It's a classic shmup through and through that relies on every part of the genre to be great. This is what allows it to stand the test of time.

Every level of the game tells a story that could be its own tale in a Fred Saberhagen collection. It does this without cutscenes or dialogue boxes. Events happen around the player and in the background to show a new scenario in the alien attack on every level that is as cool to see as it is to play. You get the impression that you've been thrown right into the middle of a larger story. As an example, I suggest watching the video below.

Operation 4 (Ignore the sound issues, the game doesn't have those)

That's about this time I realized Soldier Blade was something special. And this is but one of the levels in the game.

Another thing you might have noticed in the video is the lack of one-hit deaths at certain points. This is because of how the power-up system works. This is a bit different than previous games in the series, and might be my favorite of any shooter short of a Compile joint. Though I bet even they wish they could have made a system this clear and sharp.

Your guns start at the base level, then rise with every pick-up to three levels with a max of 3. Every time you're hit it lowers your power back to zero and then a quick death with the next hit. At the same time, collecting a power up also gives you aspecial screen-clearing weapon that changes depending on the color you stack. Certain levels and enemies are easier to take down depending on which power-up you wield, so choose what works for you in every given scenario. This means there is a lot more strategy to tackling levels than you would think for a shmup.

You also have a tiny mecha buddy following you around every level. It shadows your movement and copies your weapons. At the same time it is also invincible, so if you play smart you can use it to block bullets from the enemy. Aim it right and you can be an unstoppable force.

There is a lot here for such a simple system. Every trip through the game is a different experience due to this.

It also means multiple ways of racking up that high score to beat your buddies in Caravan mode. This adds much replay value for both modes, and a good crutch for new players to learn the game at the same time. It is an ingenious touch to game that was already one of the best games on its system.

The soundtrack is . . . well, you can hear it for yourself above. It's upbeat, fast-paced, and intense, the exact sort of thing you want to hear when shooting alien scum. The TG16 sound-chip was one of the best even at the time, and this game shows it off. Even for a shoot 'em up soundtrack in the Golden Age of the genre it is genius.

As you can surmise, there isn't one piece of this game that isn't the best of its genre. I could go on, but why bother?

I think by now you're beginning to see just what makes Soldier Blade such a classic, and why after 30 years it still is thought highly by those who still remember what a good genre the shoot 'em up is. Long before cinematic experiences turned shooters into joyless, plodding, D-grade movies, it was about gameplay first and aesthetic built on that. Here you can go on a journey to save the world from the alien menace, and look stylish doing it.

What more could you ask for?

But watching videos only gives part of the experience. This is a game that should be played. Unfortunately, much like the genre itself, it has mostly been forgotten thanks to revisionism. The arcade roots of gaming have been severed and have left the medium floundering in its futile attempt to be terrible movies instead.

Soldier Blade is also not that easy to get a hold of. The original TurboGrafx version is expensive, as is the system it came on, and it has only been re-released on the Wii and Wii-U Virtual Console as well as the PS3 store digitally. It should be more easily available, but it's just not, like most of the genre isn't. And the devaluing of the shoot 'em up genre over the years by difficulty-hating game journalists hasn't helped it stay visible. Over the years they've done more damage to classic gaming than anyone else.

If it isn't one complaining about a game with incredible replay value costing more the $5 while praising $60 one-time movie experiences as A-okay, they are reviewing these games from a modern perspective and harping on complaints no one involved with the creation of said game could know at the time. That isn't how reviewing classic material should work.

All I'm saying is, don't trust game journalists to review classic games. They aren't equipped for it, at all. They also don't want gaming to be like this anymore, which is why the medium has been allowed to fall so far from where it began.

Unfortunately, classics in gaming tend to fly under the radar all the time due to such behavior. Shmups have suffered the worst from this revisionism due to the medium's hatred of its arcade origin points. Shoot 'em ups are as arcade as you can get: unforgiving, fast, and yet gives the player multiple ways to assess any of the challenges it offers without hand-holding. It is pure video gaming, and that isn't allowed anymore.

In Current Year, we expect differently. Old thing bad!

But that's it for that.

I'm just going to leave you with this. Soldier Blade is one of the best video games, not just shooters, ever made. It does everything games were made to do, and it is stylish and inventive when doing so. You can't ask for more. This is what you play video games for.

Hopefully, that should be enough to tell you that this is a game well worth seeking out. Video games rarely get more fun than Soldier Blade, even to this day.

And that's why it's a classic.

I'm working on fun stories of my own. Gemini Warrior is pure adventure, and that's just the way I like it. I'm sure you do, too!

Find it Here!

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Johnny's Little Monster

Mediums are not any more inherently political than they are religious. One of the most tiresome arguments involving art this decade has centered on that claim. You've probably been hearing that your medium of choice is inherently *Insert political position here* constantly despite creators of said medium not being involved in said movement, not knowing anything about said movement, or actively believing the opposite of said movement.

This charge has been bandied about this entire decade without a semblance of irony by those who get their personalities from political pamphlets. What this actually is is an attempt at revisionism in order for modern day cultists to justify their media worship as if they are partaking in a revolution from the safety of their living rooms.

Take punk music, for instance. No one else will these days. No musical style embodies this ridiculous revisionist philosophy better. What it started at back in the '70s is not what it is today.

How often have you heard this genre is inherently political which means ham-fisted lyrics and bland angry sounds are excusable and should be genre standard? Popularity is also verboten, as hatred of major corporations is embedded in the genre's DNA. These are rules everyone knows.

You might even find a member of a major '90s band telling you that to play said music you cannot have certain political leanings. This from a member of a band who got big writing songs about Valium and losers named Bob, by the way. A Johnny-come-lately is now telling you the origin of the genre he is cashing in on. But what he's saying is based on revisionist history. He says this so he can cash in without "selling out" even though he already did.

The truth, as always, tells a different story from the cultist poseur version. Punk was not created as a political movement. It was co-opted by political wingnuts and poseurs in the '80s to push their views. And even then it remained a fringe part of the genre until the 2000s when 9/11 meant it was okay to attack anyone with different political views and to signal that you march in lockstep with the Good Guy Party. Because nothing says rebellious and punk than posing with millionaire politicians on the Late Show. But I'm getting off track. The '70s were not like this, for the most part.

Punk exists because hardcore conservative and Catholic Johnny Ramone listened to a Led Zeppelin song one too many times. He was disappointed in the modern state of rock music going up its rear with "progressive" nonsense and helped found a band to combat it. The Ramones deliberately wrote ridiculous and short, punchy songs to call back to when rock music was at its most popular and normie friendly, and were constantly trying to get a hit and achieve mega-fame while doing this. This is literally the exact opposite of what the genre became by the 2000s, and what the poseurs insist that it is. That's simply wrong.

All that other stuff was added later by poseurs who will now tell you the correct way the scene should be, and if you don't like it you're not one of them. So much for originality and the rebellious spirit!

Johnny Ramone created a new, sharper musical style devoid of pretension meant solely for entertainment and connecting directly with the audience. He built this monster which tore at the foundations of pompous overblown rock music meant to return it to its roots. That is until his monster was taken by political wonks to be used as a weapon against people who thought like him. This is how you ended up with the bloated mess that became Post-Punk, a musical style completely missing the point of the original and as ridiculous as early 70s prog was. Johnny's monster ended up eating him and the genre he created.

This is what happens when poseurs seize control. They always end up subverting the original intent of their obsession then telling the audience they are wrong for wanting it the way it used to be. Punk is exactly like this, and that's why it's dead.

Punk didn't start as anything it is now, and it is also irrelevant and dead due to the obsessive cultish behavior and choking of the scene to abide by strict guidelines that it didn't have when it began. Oh, and ignoring actual corporate interference and totalitarianism because they have the correct political alignment. The music is offensive, but only in acceptable ways! They can't even follow their own rules. Punk deserves to be dead.

In the 90s, what Punk there was really wasn't political at all outside of a handful of bands. The most popular styles were usually either pop punk (a misnomer for bands that ape The Ramones' original sound) and third wave ska revival, a subgenre that was mainly about goofy sophomoric humor and relationship woes, not unlike The Ramones, The Dictators, or New York Dolls. It was about as mainstream as the genre had been since the '70s and that is why it became popular again. They weren't political, they were fun, and this is why the genre got attention again after spending the '80s in closets.

One band from this era that quite nearly broke out was a band named Goldfinger. They epitomize much of what this period of music in the '90s was like, so I am going to use them as an example going forward. The era was known as the last time rock was relevant and there is a reason for that.

Goldfinger formed in 1994 and were almost popular overnight. They put out a major label self-titled record in 1996 and had a hit right out of the gate with Here in Your Bedroom. The four members formed the core of the sound that ran the gamut of late-20th century rock from punk to ska to alternative to pop to hard rock. Their songs spanned from goofy songs about showers to rants about LA to tracks about that special someone. Basically the album epitomizes what was expected and what listeners liked at the time.

The first album is still looked at as one of the best of the decade from genre fans and isn't too out of step with the spirit of the genre Johnny Ramone imagined. Coming at the height of the alternative boom in 1996 definitely helped with that. Things were looking up.

This was band on the rise, and they deserved it.

You've probably heard this one

Through 1997 and their even better follow-up, Hang-Ups, Goldfinger's song-craft grew stronger and they even put out one of the best known songs of the '90s in Superman. If you've played Tony Hawk Pro Skater then you've heard this one. All this from keeping it simple and delivering what the audience came to them for. They were getting even better and the audience was loving them for it. This is how things were supposed to work.

However, you might have noticed the year mentioned above. 1997 was not a good year in pop culture, and things only deteriorated from there in the wider culture. Everything that came next was a step down from what came before. Goldfinger was no exception to this rule.

It was with their third album, Stomping Ground, that things began to shift. Their bassist had left and their sound changed, for the worse. Released in 2000, after being recorded in 1999, Stomping Ground was an album that sounded like the year it was made: a loud album of only punk and hard rock tunes, ejecting their ska and pop sides entirely and focusing on lyrics that are way more standard and less interesting than the previous two albums. Very safe and straightforward. Outside of a handful of songs, including their well-known cover of 99 Red Balloons, it is also way less fun than the first two records.

Despite this, Stomping Ground is just a good album that came after two great ones. It's not bad, and in fact is worth the listen for genre fans. There isn't much of a misstep here aside from dumping half the appeal of their sound for chasing the mainstream dragon of early 2000s post-grunge bland rock. The album would have been twice as good if the lesser tracks were ejected for more songs like Disorder or I Need To Know from the previous album. This absence of a part of their sound just makes it far more dated than the first two albums are despite how '90s those were. It might be because '90s Punk has more character than 2000s Punk does. The same could be said of the overall culture, too.

But this is nothing. The problem is what came next. In case you forgot, September 11th, 2001, changed the entire western world. Overnight nothing was the same as it was before and we've still not recovered from it. Art was no exception to this.

9/11 destroyed a lot of bands. Things changed almost instantly from bland, inoffensive late '90s hard rock on the radio to whiny, soppy political screeds tearing into those who thought differently than the writer. Rock music became insufferable and went up its own rear tearing groups apart and spitting in faces for daring not to think like they did. This new climate of arrogant whining made rock bands far more preachy, sonically shallow, full of themselves, and just plain hateful. Rock music in the 00s was not pleasant to listen to, and it still isn't today.

I do wonder if the reason Millennials think everything has to be political is because they grew up in this climate unlike Generation Y and older who remember how different things were pre-9/11 and in the '90s. Yes, you can have art that isn't political propaganda--you just haven't had it n near two decades. Despite losing their guitarist after Stomping Ground, Goldfinger did not escape this detestable climate.

In 2002, Goldfinger put out Open Your Eyes, an album of full of misery, angst, and preachy animal rights politics. The songs continued their downturn from Stomping Ground with the band now solely delivering bland punk with lyrics that sound like a high school kid sitting alone at lunch and painting their nails black while writing into their tear-stained diary pages. The band that wrote Question (seriously look the lyrics up) in 1997 would have laughed the band who wrote Open Your Eyes out of the room. Emo was big at the time, folks, and everyone needed to cash in on it even if it has dated far worse than grunge or ska and had far less interesting songs than either to show for it by decade's end. Times were bad and we all needed to cry about it while we tore into our neighbors. Even in 2002 it felt like the '90s were a whole other world and an entirely different era lost forever. In many ways, they were.

Sales declined, there were no hit singles aside from a modest one on the Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3 soundtrack, and fans had to wait three years for a follow-up. It was clear the album was not what fans needed or hoped for, but being a rock fan in the '00s was like waiting for rain in the desert. Fans were hoping for better from a band who knew better than this and wanted some escapism from this miserable climate.

More than that, Gen Ys at the time instinctively knew that they didn't like the direction pop culture was going in. Perusing surviving message boards from the time will reveal teenagers unhappy at the sudden change in their scene, and they began to walk away. It was going inward, shunning social cohesion for mindless self-indulgence, and becoming much to stern and bitter. This is what had become of Johnny's monster, and now it was happening to those who had initially avoided that trap. Millennials only grew up in this inferior landscape: they missed out on what it had once been. That context is one of the most glaring dividing lines between them and Gen Y that exists. This a tale of two eras separated by tragedy.

This is why one must insist those who grew up in the '90s were not the same as those who grew up in the '00s. They objectively were not. Even without the internet, social media, and phones, this was an entirely different climate than what had come before in the modern world. It might also describe why Millennials are such a sour-faced and angry bunch. This is the joyless world they grew up in. They don't know what they lost, and that what they had was warmed over slop that was not as good as what came before them . Personally speaking, I know I would have hated growing up if all I was left with was what came out in the '00s. It was a very miserable and hopeless time. There is a reason no nostalgia has come out of that decade and ever will.

Music no one makes anymore

In the meantime, fun was absolutely beaten out of the musical landscape just as much as it was in the theater, comics, and on the TV. Even third wave ska bands, traditionally known for picking you up when you were down, began abandoning the style and cashing in on whiny, crybaby emo or injecting extremist politics in their music and chasing away more and more fans at the expense of their former calls for "Unity" and acceptance. If you want to know why ska all but disappeared and there are no more popular bands, this is exactly why. They threw away what drew people to them, and refused to ever course correct.

People get into bands for specific reasons. Once the bands deliberately wade into areas the audience is not interested in and refuse to course correct despite constant warnings, they walk away and they don't come back. Artists and patrons have a mutually beneficial relationship. When we find each other we connect over a specific bond. The artist's job is to honor that bond. In the '00s, it became about massaging artists' egos instead of respecting the audience and if you didn't like it you can go jump in a lake. As can be seen a decade after the fact, it clearly didn't work out well. But they still do it to this day.

In 2005, Goldfinger released Disconnection Notice, easily the most apt title of their career. They ditched their old goofy logo, made the politics more overt, and wrote some of the worst lyrics I've ever read coming from a mainstream rock band. Just look up the lyrics to Iron Fist and try to avoid having your spine sinking into your stomach. The rock also got blander and had less character than ever before becoming even more like every other flat characterless band at the time. In other words, they doubled down on the mistakes from Open Your Eyes and had learned exactly nothing.

But they did try one thing. They put in two ska songs after ignoring the style for two albums straight. I suppose it was safe for an edgy punk band to play unpopular musical styles again without fear of losing radio play. It is very punk to pray to the payola gods that they pass over them. However, one of the songs is ruined due to a PETA activist putting spoken word dialogue during the bridges. A speech that adds nothing to the song, I might add. The band hobbled what could have been a good song by insisting they put in a preaching message from PETA, of all things.

If that isn't an apt example of an artist destroying past goodwill with modern boneheaded arrogance then I haven't seen it. Bringing back part of the sound they abandoned only to absolutely ruin it is par for the course with most bands in the '00s. This is basically what Disconnection Notice was, and it was a failure. As one who was floating around the scene at the time I can say that no one was happy.

This album flopped without a single hit and sent Goldfinger to the minor leagues, but they weren't quite done yet. They still had one more album to close out this miserable decade with, and the last to regain the popularity that was rapidly fading. At this point they had to admit that the fans were right that were going in the wrong direction.

You see, Disconnection Notice, despite having a title similar to Hang-Ups, could not have been any further from where the band started. When they began they were apolitical, had a healthy view on relationships even when they went south, a hope for the future, and were about personal responsibility. At this point in time they were extremist leftists, moped about eras long since lost, whined in abject misery and preached heavy-handed politics to their audience with beyond clunky lyrics. For a band that wrote a song called Spokesman about not wanting to be that guy, they sure didn't have any problems being that guy. They were nothing like they were when they began and both critics and fans knew this, and the band suffered for it. Even they realized that a course correction was the only path they had left to take.

This band was long gone

This was why it took another 3 years for their next album, Hello Destiny. This album was a nail-biter for many at the time. If you were around then you would have caught how hard it was promoted as a return to form for Goldfinger. Many other bands from a decade before were floundering, and this gave hope that maybe there was hope to remember what was lost.

They brought back their guitarist who left after Stomping Ground, they brought back their logo, they reused the alien cover-lady from the first album, and the first songs previewed from it sounded like they could have come from their early days. It looked as if they learned and finally did what they should have done since the '90s closed. We could finally move on from this miserable era. After two whiffs in a row they had finally returned to what had brought them to prominence to begin with. That's what people thought going into Hello Destiny.

And then they heard the album.

Hello Destiny is an identity crisis in record form. Half the album is a mixture of genres like the first two albums with goofy lyrics and good relationship material, while the other half is written by a demented political wank who fell off the deep end into a shallow pool and fractured his brain on the fall. You get a brilliant ska song in If I'm Not Right and a wonderful throwback in One More Time, only to have it ruined by an out of place and wildly unfunny anti-Christian screed, a laughably bad anti-media hardcore rant from a band that can't do hardcore, and more animal rights activist doggerel pumped into your ears by the end. It's the sound of a band lost at sea. For every good song there is one of the worst they've ever recorded. Then there is the unfortunate reveal that a guest vocalist on one song was later convicted of sexual assault on minors. As a result instead of a decent EP you get a bad album. A good review from back in the day sums it up here.

This could have been the comeback the band needed, and it almost was. They nearly had it. But the band couldn't resist shoving their unwanted and badly expressed political and social content into the album. At this point it had become their religion, just as it had for too many rock bands at this time. Escapism was gone and dead. Fans wanted Johnny Ramone's punk, the one they got from Goldfinger in the '90s, and were instead getting fed diet Jello Biafra that they didn't want and had nothing to do with why the band got popular to begin with. Goldfinger's third strike had been delivered. They were out. And this has been the story of the entire genre in the '00s, and it is why rock music is irrelevant today.

At that point it became clear to everyone after three whiffs in a row that Goldfinger was unsalvageable and they moved on to greener pastures, what little was left in rock at the time. They would never get over their new found religion, and would keep getting more drunk of it even when they promised to stop hitting the bottle. There's no coincidence that after this album they said they would mostly be touring in the future and barely ever putting out new material. It was obvious to everyone in 2009 that Goldfinger was done.

A decade later the band (now with only one original member left) apparently released a new album, but most of us have long since left that place behind. That trust evaporated, and you just can't go back. The '00s was the decade of decay, and it left no survivors.

Politics can ruin many things, especially the bad and jarring sort at odds with what the audience wants. The audience buys your product to connect with you, so releasing material that goes against said message is inevitably divisive and needlessly arrogant. Johnny Ramone certainly thought so, which is why he strove to avoid putting such messages in his music, and as a result The Ramones still sound out of their era. This is what the genre began as, and what it was meant to be.

This isn't to say you can't put out political product and have an audience with it. It is just that the audience that wants political product is not the same that wants silly songs called 20 Cent Goodbye or My Girlfriend's Shower Sucks. Not everyone wants political propaganda shoved into every orifice of their lives, and there is nothing wrong with that. There wasn't before the '00s ruined the atmosphere of art.

But for at least two decades now there has arisen a class of artist that has rejected escapism for themselves and to any potential audience that won't toe the line they are told to shove off. What this leads to is a fractured and divided landscape of those who don't wish to conform over those who do. You can't base your whole identity on extreme individualism and then get mad when others won't individualize with you. This s why punk and ska are both dead, and why they will never rise again. Not as long as they reject Johnny Ramone's philosophy of entertainment first for their own private monster mutations of what he created.

Even older artists can't help themselves putting their politics above their audience. This is how you get the miserable post-9/11 world we are currently trapped in without any hope in a better future that doesn't involve your enemies crushed under your boot heel. Until we stop this madness don't expect entertainment to get better again anytime soon.

As I write this I wonder if this has more to do with the generational divide of Ys and Millennials that has recently been discussed. Those of Generation Y who were born from 1979 through 1989 came of age during Goldfinger's golden period of musically varied, apolitical, and exciting music, while Millennials grew up in the post-9/11 musical landscape of joyless, bland, and bitter yet opinionated protest rock of Goldfinger. Ys are constantly talking of better times while the time Millennials had were inferior to the ones Ys did. The two eras of the band are vastly different, and both represent each of their times well. But only one of them is listenable today.

While I doubt many of either generation have heard the band, the wider landscape was not much different for both generations. Perhaps this musical shift helps us to see the generational divide in a clearer light. One wanted to unite, the other wants to divide. Those were different times, and those who grew up in each would turn out to be entirely different people with different hopes and dreams for the world and the future. But I digress as the divide is not one to celebrate.

Art is meant to bring us together. If that is an inherently political or religious statement then so be it, but it's true. The longer we focus on what divides us we will never have art worth indulging in again and will instead keep sniping at each other to conform to the other's whims. This only ends with corpses, and if that's what you want then you need to reevaluate why we are where we are as a culture. The future this mindset has led to it one with political pamphlets disguised as entertainment and those who dislike it are branded as heretics and need to be dragged out of the public square. This is not a world with a hopeful future.

I don't know about you, but that's not a world I want to live in. I would much rather hope for bigger and happier things, and one day, when this madness passes, maybe we can write silly songs and have a laugh about this dumpster fire of an era around the campfire. Campfire songs were at least made to unite.

Johnny's Little Monster was meant for more than this. Perhaps its time to finally give the man his due and go back to basics. We have much more to look forward to than misery, and we should act like it. It won't always be this way. Put on a smile and get dancing. I've got a good feeling, and hopefully that will mean something someday.

At the same time I'm working on stories of my own. Should you want weird adventures about heroes and distant planets then check out Gemini Warrior. I'm coming for ya!

Find it Here!

Monday, November 11, 2019


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Day the World Turned YELOW ~ A Review of "Shining Tomorrow Volume 1: Shadow Heart" by Rawle Nyanzi

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I didn't think we'd be back so soon with more mecha, but here we are! Thanks to annoying and absurd power outages recently I've been able to get through a lot more reading than usual. Which is good, since I can now cover this whcih I have wanted to for quite some time.

Not too long ago a group of Newpub authors looked around and were dismayed at the state of mecha stories in fiction. The West has been banging out the same procedural clunky mecha story, and the East has been caught in post-Evangelion blues and endless Gundam 0079 rehash mode. There hasn't been anything interesting to come from the genre in a good while.

These authors were hoping to change that.

It should be noted that I have interacted quite a bit with the authors in this movement, but it would not change my review regardless. I only review things if I like or dislike them. I do not make passes based on who wrote it. That aside, let's get on with this.

This time I'm going to cover the second prong of the three hit attack known as #AGundam4Us, and it's easily the weirdest one so far. The description should clue you in on that.
Irma wishes to be the perfect girl: chaste, feminine, and generous. But when a giant monster stomps through her hometown, her plans crumbled right along with the stores and apartments. 
In the chaos of acrid smoke and panicked civilians, the private military company Shadow Heart snatched her friend out of the crowd and took her captive. 
Now Irma must pilot the Grand Valkyur, a mechanical titan of steel more powerful than any weapon made by human hands. With a brilliant sword that could cut any matter and gleaming armor that could withstand any weapon, the Valkyur challenges all who dare to fight it. 
But piloting the Valkyur means using violence -- and to Irma, violence is men's work.How can she rescue her friend without betraying the feminine elegance she prides herself on?

What isn't quite stated up front is that this is an alternate history take where the Germany won World War I due to strange happenings. This also allowed things such as superpowers, giant monsters, ninjas, and mecha to exist. The background to the world could fill a book of it's own, but that's not for this one. Instead, get ready for adventure.

Irma has to deal with her friend being kidnapped and a rogue corporation that wishes to flatten parts of the Japanese-controlled America. She soon finds she has Valkyrie blood which means she has powers, and can pilot a giant mecha! It doesn't look like the problems will ever stop piling up. All this, and she just wants to live a normal life, hoping the boy she like will look her way!

What follows are superpower battles, mecha fights, and a whole lotta magic. The cast of characters is pretty big, but it never manages to feel overstuffed or superfluous. The plot briskly moves from plot point to plot point. All this is packed into a 200 page paperback format.

Now the difficult part of discussing this work is that there isn't really anything like it, especially not in the book world. The literary landscape hasn't produced weird action like this since the pulps were around and there isn't any ironic winking for it to fall in with the New Wave inspired crowd. I imagine the best description I can muster is if MTV's Liquid Television decided to co-produce a show with Cartoon Network's Adult Swim in an alternate Japanese-controlled dimension. If you can't imagine that then there are few comparable pieces of work to use. It's a fairly unique idea with a non-Western approach.

I have reviewed Mr. Nyanzi's work before and I described it a late '80s anime OVA, at least in spirit, but it does have that same sort of freewheeling spirit of being able to do whatever you want without the limitations of the mainstream. At the same time it is tight and sharp not even allowing loose ends to slip under the radar. The 200 page length is entirely earned.

In fact volume 1 ends in a way that allows a complete story to unfold and conclude. There's no cliffhanger or mystery aside from what will happen to Irma and this world next. It is standalone, if that's what you prefer.

But what might work against Shining Tomorrow is that it isn't anything like what the West thinks of when they think of mecha stories. This isn't dry, sterile military science fiction with "realistic" stompy mecha. It's also not much like Japan's "real robot" genre, falling somewhere between that and the more traditional super robot area with some kaiju and toku influence. If you don't know what those are then you might feel a bit lost coming into Shining Tomorrow. It isn't very mainstream, even with the East.

This is the sort of thing that would have gotten a black and white indie comic back in the 80s drawn by Larry Hama and hanging on the newsstands before spreading by word of mouth. There isn't anything modern about Shining Tomorrow either, and that works to its strengths and allows it to stand out from the crowd.

The only real fault I can find is that the first few chapters need to introduce a lot, which means not much happens plot-wise as a result. It feels very slice of life at first. However, once it gets going it is relentless until the end.

Mr. Nyanzi infuses magic, high tech, romance, heroics, and manages to create a heroine you want to follow and a villain you want to see lose blending into one exciting adventure. This is the stuff adventure pulp exists for. Whatever he has planned next for this world should be quite interesting.

One thing #AGundam4Us has shown is how much potential there really is for stories with giant robots. From the romantic swashbuckling of Star Knight Saga to the high stakes superhero action of Shining Tomorrow, there is much to be done beyond the same tired tropes the mainstream East and West keep beating out. Of course I still have yet to get to Combat Frame XSeed, but judging on the author's past work it is guaranteed to be a trip worth taking. More on that at a later date.

If the Pulp Revolution, Superversive, and #AGundam4Us have shown us anything, it is how much potential there still is out there for creative and fresh stories beyond the same tired Big Brands. Shining Tomorrow is an example of this new exciting world.

As 2019 quickly comes to a close and the decade's curtain falls it must be said that the Newpub world is only getting more impressive. This simply wasn't something that could be imagined a decade ago, and now it looks as if the '20s will be driven by works such as Shining Tomorrow, offering whole new worlds and approaches to classic storytelling. If this is the future then things are looking bright indeed.

For my last comment I would just like to say that all three #AGundam4Us stories are missing a crucial component to the mecha formula! Where s the rocking theme song to get the audience excited? Singers and songwriters, get out there and show us what you got. Until then we're going to have to make up our own.

Here you go

We need some more of that energy.

As for Shining Tomorrow, I recommend it fully and greatly anticipate what comes next. There is nothing else like it out there. If this is only the first taste, then I am excited for seconds.

You can find Shining Tomorrow here.

At the same time I'm working on works of my own. Should you want more weird adventures about heroes then I've got you covered.

Find it Here!