Saturday, May 13, 2017

FinchOwl Pocket SP #3: Splatoon


6... or 7... Maybe 8 months in the making! There's a mention of October and we're still calling the Switch "NX". Shoot, anyway, Chao, Geen, Nightmare Bruce, and Finchiekins talk about Splatoon in this one! 

The incredible cover art is by Nightmare Bruce (Jeremy Hobbs). Check out his blog, Ribbon Black. He made several versions for me which I'll be displaying in a future blog entry.


Monday, September 5, 2016

FinchOwl Pocket SP #2: Animal Crossing

FinchOwl Pocket SP #2

There's a second episode! Join Piyo, Chao, and Finchiekins as we discuss REAL LIFE because ANIMAL CROSSING IS REAL because ISABELLE IS REAL.

ISABEELLLLLLLE...


Wednesday, July 27, 2016

FinchOwl Pocket SP #1: Bravely Default



FinchOwl Pocket SP #1

Join Finchiekins, ChaoofNee and Thief Silver as we discuss Bravely Default in the first podcast episode of FinchOwl Pocket SP! 

the SP stands for "Special Podcast"

just kidding, this site has been FinchOwl Pocket SP for years but now it stands for "Special Podcast".



Sunday, May 8, 2016

Greetings from 1984

The designer for the box of 8Bit Music Power seems to have gotten more than a bit of inspiration from the original Famicom Pinball. The font, layout, color, even the sides make reference to the 1984 Famicom release. I read elsewhere that the box was smaller than other Famicom releases but that isn't so! As you can see, it's the exact size of the very early releases through early 1984 that didn't have the plastic sheet inside to protect the cartridges!



Even the circuitboard-like brackets, the identification letters, the white band, and the kanji for "instruction manual" are retained! The kana for "Eight-bit Music Power" is also convincingly similar to "Family Computer" along the top of the manual.

left side

top

bottom

It seems like it's very intentional too, as while a few other 1984 Famicom releases featured the outlined text names and images with rounded corners on top, Pinball was the only title with a yellow box. Compared to a later 1984 release, Urban Champion, you can see how much different the layout was, both on the manual and the box. The box for Urban Champion is a bit bigger as well. It's neat that the Famicom boxes weren't confined to a single size, but i love the smaller boxes of the early Famicom releases. They're so cute and compact. 


Unfortunately, the back of the box and the cartridge itself were a bit different, but it was nice they kept the visual references for everything else. I'm sure the Nintendo-specific Famicom cartridge mold isn't exactly obtainable and the yellow plastic that Nintendo loved to use probably isn't easy to source. It makes me wonder how difficult it would be to find some yellow cartridges that were overproduced and give them a new life by swapping the guts.





All in all, it's a very cool reference to a game that was released nearly 32 years to the date, Pinball on February 2nd, 1984 and 8Bit Music Power late January 2016. I'm curious if it was in reverence of an early game programmed by Satoru Iwata or if Famicom Pinball was just a favorite of the producer.

If you're not aware what 8Bit Music Power is, it's an album with music by various Japanese chiptune artists released in the incredibly novel format of an actual Famicom cartridge, produced by RIKI. You can turn the various sound channels off and on, which makes for a great learning experience as well. A friend of mine picked it up for me in Japan, which was super nice of him and especially cool since i'd canceled my copy earlier!
Nintendo Life has a nice write-up if you're interested:

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Limited Appeal: UNLIMITED Saga (Square Enix, PS2, 2003)

Like with other forms of media, people throw around the title “the worst game ever” or even an "awful game" too easily. I don’t like Kingdom Hearts. While I’m clearly in the minority among gamers, I just think it’s a bad retelling of Disney stories combined with awful anime children. Buuuut, calling it the worst thing ever is unfair. It clearly has some merit as a game. A lot of care went into producing it and a lot of people like, even love the series. While I can run my mouth about how much I don’t like it, calling it “a terrible game” ignores the time and craft that went into producing the games, even if I don't like them. It also ignores the waves upon waves of lazy cash-in games that are just garbage. They’re made without care, without skill, they’re made only to get some idiot to pay a buck. The people that made these games and that market these games know they're not good. People may like them, but they'll never invest any emotion into them. They're just a thing to pass the time. These are bad games.

Unlimited Saga is an especially maligned entry in a series full of games that are often too obtuse for most people. Nearly every western review labels Unlimited as terrible and it’s a frequently mentioned title on “worst of” lists. While it’s not an easy game to get into, Kawazu had a vision for this obfuscated mess of a game, and while Kawazu leans strongly towards a design philosophy of “don’t explain anything and hide important elements” which happens to be very unpopular in modern games (modern in this case meaning “after 1985”), he’s been around long enough that I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt of knowing exactly what he wants. Unlimited Saga, more than any game, is “what Kawazu wants”, and in some corners of the internet, you’ll find a small but loving group of people that really like Unlimited Saga. I’d even say Unlimited Saga is a really good game that appeals to a really limited (ha ha) audience.
While I don’t think it’s completely fair for it to be given the title of the “worst RPG ever”, I can understand some of the frustration. I can’t think of how it could’ve been marketed better, it’s a game that’ll appeal to an extremely niche audience, but it really doesn't help that Square Enix did a terrible job of documenting the game, especially for the North American audience.

I’m not going to go too much into it, but here’s the gist of it: Unlimited Saga strips away the sprawling towns, fields, and dungeons common to big-budget RPGs and leaves the player with a game piece on a small board. Opening chests, avoiding traps, and fighting enemies all rely on a spinner. In battles, it determines if you make a regular hit or a special attack, on the board, something as simple as a treasure chest could mean a lot of trouble for one of your party members depending on how many traps it has attached to it. Besides that, there are a lot of rules having to do with weapons, armor, and stats, and most of them are unexplained, some are even completely hidden from the player. Even the character you pick has a lot to do with how difficult your quest is, and even something so crucial as that is left unexplained. A few characters ease you into the game, but woe unto thee who picks the cute chipmunk-thing Armic without fully understanding exactly how the game works.

When I first played this game in 2003, I picked Laura, the 30-year old pirate lady, who was still nearly 10 years from my age. Oh Laura, how nice it was to just turn 30. I enjoyed her quest for 40 or so hours, and even without knowing the little details behind the veil, I reached the very last boss of her quest who proceeded to murdered every single character in my party. This happened many times before I finally gave up. This is a common experience in a SaGa game, though usually it happens much earlier. Laura’s quest isn’t difficult, but defeating the last boss requires that the player knows the ins and outs of the system and knows how to craft some critically important items. At some point the player is locked behind a wall of no return. If you get that far and don’t have a save before that point, you’re screwed. I didn’t have a save before that point…
But here we are a little over 10 years later. Most importantly, people have figured this game out. Biggy Lets Play videos on YouTube (starting here) are an invaluable source for anyone willing to take up the challenge, and especially for anyone wanting to actually complete a route, double especially for anyone wanting to have fun with Unlimited Saga. This time, I sat down, watched the videos, and decided that Ventus would be a little better of a first character for the game. For the most part, he is. His quest is easy to follow, and allows the player to wade carefully into the game, venturing deeper and deeper into uncharted territory before advancing to the real meat. Occasionally you’ll trigger a required quest. While they can be a little difficult, you can reload your save and take them on when you're more confident about the outcome.

Unlimited Saga isn’t always super difficult, but it can be a nerve-wracking experience. It tends to drop the player into a dungeon with a small party, limited items, and no means of escape besides a reset or game over. This can be awful if you’ve bumped around for an hour or two in some of the longer dungeons. You’ll whittle down your weapon stock point by precious point (weapons have a limited number of uses before they break), you’ll use up precious life point by precious life point (which is the game’s REAL indication of HP, and it’s always low), but usually, if you know what you’re doing, you’ll make it to the end before things get too uncomfortable. In the later areas you’ll feel the limits rushing in much faster. Unlimited Saga isn’t kind, and it isn't fair, but it's only cruel when it thinks you're up to it (or when you started with the wrong character).

On a somewhat negative note, as if you needed any more, Unlimited is a repetitive game. The meat of the game consists of hop-hop-fight-hop-fight with rare breaks for struggling with chests. It has towns, but they consist of few buildings and menu-based exploration. In a perfect world, there would be a portable version, or even a mobile version. Repetition just works better on a mobile system. Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, even Persona 3 benefit from a pick-up-and-play format where you’re not tethered to a television. It’d be so much nicer to close a lid or put the system in sleep mode and come back when you feel like it. We don’t live with that reality, though, and Unlimited Saga is so stingy with its saves.

With games like Etrian Odyssey, Monster Hunter, and Dark Souls gaining popularity despite a steep learning curve and factors that would seem to go against a broader appeal, you’d think there would be more people really getting into Unlimited Saga. There’s also the matter of the recent Guild 01 game Crimson Shroud. People enjoyed Crimson Shroud, and while Unlimited doesn’t have Matsuno, it’s more like a fully realized version of what Crimson Shroud was trying to do than anything else. I think people who truly enjoyed Crimson Shroud for its minimal almost pen-and-paper interpretation of an rpg would enjoy Unlimited. However, Unlimited is a much longer, much more involved game, and Crimson Shroud works well partly because it's not too long. Maybe it was too early to be the “Dark Souls of SaGa”, or maybe it’s just a lot less interesting to most people than the other games. And then there’s the possibility that it *ahem* isactuallyabadgame, and that I enjoy bad games that are interesting more than good games that aren’t. Part of the interest is not knowing everything that’s going on, and like most SaGa games, Unlimited Saga will NEVER. EVER. Let you know everything that’s going on. It’s a little like a Yoko Taro game in that way, though Yoko Taro’s trickery is with emotion, while Kawazu’s is with story and gameplay. I think my perfect game would be a Yoko Taro story in a Akitoshi Kawazu game. You’ll never know what’s going on or what it’s going on, but you sure will be affected by it! Together they could make the most despised game that will be loved by a small but adoring audience that includes myself. Too bad economy doesn’t work on what I want.
In a way, Unlimited Saga feels like a game that’s not so much unfinished, as a game where some ideas were thrown around and barely pasted into place before they had to rush to release. The cut scenes and music are SO nice, but the character portraits and even the small bits of art meant to portray the environments have a feel of concept art. Was the budget cut way short, or was this just Kawazu being as Kawazu as possible? The game actually works more often than it doesn’t, so someone had some idea of what was going on.

I think I’m about halfway through Ventus’s quest, and I’m enjoying it enough to keep going. I’ll probably tackle Judie’s next, since it’s supposed to be kind of easy and short, and then if I feel like it, I’ll brush up on some exploits and try Laura’s quest again. And this time… I’LL BEAT IT! There’s a lot of saga in Unlimited Saga. If i alternated between Unlimited, Frontier, Romancing, the GB/DS SaGas.... 
i might finish a single quest in my entire lifetime

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Animation of Masaaki Yuasa

*Note: This post was originally created for my Art History class. I wrote the entire thing before I realized I was supposed to talk about the relation to older artwork, so if it seems like that was shoe-horned in, that's why! I was hoping to get some discussion in class but no one wanted to talk about arty anime with me. 

While Japanese 2D animation is sometimes described as meticulously produced or groundbreaking, such as in the case of many of Studio Ghibli’s films or the films of the late Satoshi Kon, it’s not often that the animation from the larger companies and well-known producers can be described as experimental. An animated series or movie may still reflect a single creator’s drawing style, but most companies and producers with a budget aim for a glossy perfect look. Examples include the wacky cartoonish looks of long-running One Piece or the softer look that can be described as more typically anime-style of the film and series AnoHana. Budgets often hold animated films and especially longer animated series back from the look they strive for. Even so, it’s generally easy to distinguish what can be considered "anime", the popular term used to describe Japanese animation and what doesn't. This isn’t always the case, though, as some series intentionally go for a more stylized look that falls outside of typical anime, such as Production I.G.’s Windy Tales, while still maintaining a look that can be associated with anime. This look, with its bright, flat colors with lack of shading and it's simplified and highly stylized shapes bares a resemblance to images from Japanese printmaking, such as the woodblock prints of Hokusai. While modern, western conventions such as linear perspective are used, taken frame by frame the influence can be seen in some of these less traditional animated films. An example of this can be seen below in a frame of Windy Tales when compared to Hokusai's Landscape.



From Windy Tales Ep. 1: Kaze Neko (Wind Cat), 2004, Directed by Junji Nishimura. Animated Film, produced by Production I.G., Tokyo, Japan



Landscape, c. 1835,  Katsuhita Hokusai. Woodblock Print, ink on paper. Musée Guimet, Paris, France

One artist that has gained some popularity outside of Japan for his similar recognizable art style in animation is Masaaki Yuasa. Yuasa has directed many animated series, and even got his start on the highly stylized Crayon Shin-chan (Clingerman). Although his work doesn’t stick entirely to one style or another, his vibrant use of color, wild, flatly-colored simplified characters and backgrounds, and a variety of techniques that result in melting scenery, exaggerated motions, and visuals that emphasize emotion over accurate depiction, are all hallmarks of Masaaki Yuasa’s work. Though he undoubtably gets some inspiration from Japanese printmaking, his sources are far and wide, from American to European animation, such as René Laloux's Fantastic Planet (Clingerman).



From Chibi Maruko-chan: My Favorite Songs, 1992, Key Animation by Masaaki Yuasa. Animated Film, produced by Nippon Animation, Tokyo, Japan.

One of Yuasa’s greatest works is Kaiba, a tale about a mysterious boy who adventures across planets. It’s somewhat of a reversal of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince and the classic anime series, Galaxy Express 999 (GE999). Instead of traveling farther and farther from home, as in The Little Prince and GE999, the titular Kaiba wakes up not knowing where or who he is, and instead is trying to seek out both his identity and his origin. Along the way, Kaiba meets many strange characters, discovers who he is, and like in The Little Prince and GE999 learns many lessons along the way. The abstract representation of the characters pushes both the messages and emotion. Kaiba deals with loss, betrayal and redemption of what seem to be the most despicable humans, the importance of every life form, and topics as far spread as the questioning one’s own sexuality and even deeper into what makes the self. Kaiba's art style also takes inspiration from an earlier Japanese source, most resembling the art from manga and animation produced by Osamu Tezuka, often considered one of the founders of modern Japanese manga and animation.


From Kaiba Episode 3: Chroniko's Boots, 2008, Directed by Masaaki Yuasa. Animated Film, produced by Madhouse, Tokyo, Japan.



From Kaiba Episode 1: Chroniko's Boots, 2008, Directed by Masaaki Yuasa. Animated Film, produced by Madhouse, Tokyo, Japan.

Tatami Galaxy involves a character, only known as Watashi, literally “I”, joining his college’s clubs with the goal of finding a girlfriend. Despite the mundane premise, the story takes an interesting turn when time turns back and the character repeats a short period of life in each of the 11 episodes, each time joining a different club. While it isn’t uncommon for anime or entertainment in general to involve a faceless, average character so that the audience can relate, Tatami Galaxy’s main character is more interesting in his lack of identity because he gains his personality from each of the clubs he attends and with the help of a devilish character named “Ozu”. Over the course of the series, the unnamed main character joins a cycling club, joins a cult, and joins what appears to be a normal reading club, but actually turns into a scavenger hunt for an 8th year student. All of these clubs serve to define the identity of this unnamed character. All throughout, Ozu’s relationship with the main character is both a motivator and an antagonist, pushing the character forward as well as playing tricks on the character whenever possible. While Ozu usually gets the character into trouble, Ozu is just as likely to get him out of trouble. Perhaps due to its unquestionably Japanese setting, Tatami Galaxy is the work by Yuasa that most closely resembles Japanese artwork outside of anime and manga.



From Tatami Galaxy, 2010, Directed by Masaaki Yuasa. Animated Film, produced by Madhouse, Tokyo, Japan.



 From Tatami Galaxy, 2010, Directed by Masaaki Yuasa. Animated Film, produced by Madhouse, Tokyo, Japan.

The appropriately named Kick-Heart was the product of a successful crowd-funding project fulfilled through the site Kickstarter. Though only 13 minutes in length and crudely animated, it manages to still tell an endearing tale with captivating characters. Kick-Heart is a love story between the down and out wrestler Masked Man M and the upcoming superstar Lady S. While Masked Man M, the stage name of Romeo Maki, struggles to keep an orphanage afloat, he wins a match he’s supposed to throw and finds himself without the funds he needs to repair and rebuild. While the story is almost cliché in its structure, the rough animation is a large part of why it’s so interesting and surprising. It takes the viewer off guard and makes one want to see how these events play out, even if they know what the end result will be. Perhaps due to its low budget, Kick-Heart takes on a rough and messy look, but instead of looking cheap, it becomes more personal, resembling Yuasa's own storyboard drawings.



From Kick-Heart, 2013, Directed by Masaaki Yuasa. Animated Film, produced by Production I.G., Tokyo, Japan.



From Kick-Heart, 2013, Directed by Masaaki Yuasa. Animated Film, produced by Production I.G., Tokyo, Japan.

One of the most interesting themes that runs through Yuasa’s work is that of the loss of identity. In Kaiba, the memories of every character are contained within small chips that are easily and frequently lost or destroyed. The upside is if their memory is saved, the owner can still live after their body is destroyed. The chips may also be transferred to different bodies, as happens to the character Kaiba. He occupies the body of a boy, then a stuffed animal, and later a girl. The girl's body once belonged to Chroniko, who Kaiba shares a brief encounter with. While developing a friendship, Chroniko's existence is cut short when her memory is extracted and destroyed. Kaiba shares a friendship and romantic relationship with Popo, a girl who similarly inhabits different bodies. While her main body is female, she inhabits the body of a male while unknowingly traveling with Kaiba in the body of Chroniko. To complicate things, both characters have distorted memories so that they don’t understand their true relationship.
The lack of identity in the example of Tatami Galaxy’s main character is that he never has one. He’s just entering college and has no goals except to get a girlfriend. The only definition to his character comes from the clubs he attends and the characters around him. At one point his sexual drive is represented as an overly rambunctious cowboy, and it’s clear that the cowboy has more personality than the main character who’s trying to repress him.
The identity of Romeo Maki is obscured as well throughout Kick-Heart, both as Masked Man M and as his unmasked identity. While Romeo Maki, he has a line drawn through his eyes in every scene, so that the viewer never sees his entire face. In addition, he’s presented as somewhat of a nameless loser in the wrestling world. While he has talent, he’s forced to throw his matches so that he never rises up through the ranks and becomes famous until the end, where he gains fame because of his spectacular performance in a losing match. Even then his unmasked visage is so bruised and swollen that it’s impossible for anyone to know who he is.
Masaaki Yuasa’s work has become more popular in the west recently, but some of his older work is more obscure. Kaiba still hasn’t had an official release in the United States, although it’s not impossible to find the Australian region 4 dvd if you have a region-free player. Luckily, Tatami Galaxy is available for free, streaming on Hulu, but it’s a little more difficult to find Kick-Heart. It was airing on Cartoon Network periodically, but I can’t find any streaming sources. A few places are selling the blu-ray disk, but for 13 minutes at $15, I hesitate to recommend it unless you’re already a fan of Yuasa’s work. More recently, he directed and storyboarded the episode of the Cartoon Network series Adventure Time titled “Food Chain” and his most recent series, Ping Pong is available for free streaming on Hulu, under the search name "Ping Pong: The Animation". If you’re into animation, even if you’re not into typical anime, I recommend taking a look. His work ventures into PG-13 territory, so watch first if you’re watching with kids. You can get a small taste of what his animation is like from the opening of Kick-Heart, here.

Works Cited
Clingerman, Neil. "Sakuga pt.13 - Masaaki Yuasa's Super-Cray Anime". Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 31 Oct. 2013. Web. 4 July. 2014.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Dirtiest Diaper: Yoshi's Island DS (Nintendo, Artoon, Nintendo DS, 2006)

I have a confession: I never thought Yoshi's Island was that great. It's lovely and colorful, but those levels are too long and that crying baby... Who came up with that? WHO LOVES CRYING BABIES? It's the worst noise in any game ever.
Back to Yoshi's Island DS. Once upon a time, I thought I liked this game, like a lot. I know there were some bad reviews, and a lot of people claimed it was bad, but I'd played a little bit of it, and I thought it was alright. I should've believed the people who said it was bad.

The first world of Yoshi's Island DS isn't bad at all. The levels are actually fun to traverse, the boss fights are well designed, and the weird non-Yoshi characters are at a minimum. It makes me suspect that parts of this game were developed by one of Nintendo's in-house studios before it was handed off to Artoon. After that first world, the game goes from "good" to "okaaay", and on a steady decline until around the third or fourth stage it's "I'm only playing this so I can reassure myself it's as awful as I think it is."
And it is. The levels have the boring aimless feel of a lot of C-tier Super NES platformers. Most of them are meandering misery and they never seem to end. At some points, the game requires you to switch characters. There might be a vine which only Bonkey Kong (it's Bonkey Kong, we checked) can climb, or maybe a gust of wind only Peach can ride, or maybe a thing that only Mario can outrun. This could've been a cool element, but it's handled clumsily, requiring the player to find a sign and guess which baby will be appropriate for the upcoming section. Some of the levels have different paths for different babies, but by that point I didn't care. I really just wanted to get it over with. To add to the annoyance, any difficulty comes from obnoxiously placed enemies and the tendency for the babies to get stuck behind a platform that you'll never free them from. The best way to stop the AWFUL ENDLESS CRYING is to have Yoshi butt stomp into a bottomless pit. Half of the levels are just that, bottomless pits with some boring floating platforms. Occasionally you think something's down that hole, because it goes on way too far for there not to be a secret. NO. NOTHING'S DOWN THERE EXCEPT YOUR OWN SADNESS. Ugh. I'll give it a little more credit than a fan game, but the terrible level design and a few out of place enemies that look like amateur designs from another 3rd rate GBA developer make it feel like a fan game that's competently made, but only for a quick buck. I'd be much more forgiving if it was actually a terrible fan game, because then it would be someone working hard out of their own love for something rather than a sad game made for a quick buck. Tose isn't (wasn't?) the greatest game studio ever, but after playing through Yoshi's Island DS and few Tose games, including Super Princess Peach, I have a little more respect for them. For a company whose goal is not to have a vision, Tose is adequately creative, and at least they seem to know what they're doing. Artoon ,on the other hand, just stumbled through the goalposts, not really caring as long as they made it to the end.

I hate Yoshi's Island DS more than I've ever hated a game in my life. I hate that I bought it once, I hate that I bought it again after selling it long ago, I hate that I wasted any amount of time with this horrible, joyless game. There are a handful of surprisingly clever boss fights, A HANDFUL, but that doesn't help when the rest of the game stinks like a baby who needs a change. I've changed a diaper or two, and it's more satisfying than anything in this game, because at least the baby won't get stuck in a corner where your only hope of reprieve from the constant "WAH WAH WAH" is jumping into a canyon. This game isn't just a dirty diaper, it's a dumpster full of dirty diapers on the hottest day. There are some bonus levels if you get all the stupid collectibles in every level, but it would be much less painful sticking a paper clip into an electrical socket, or smashing your face into a mirror.