This Pokemon Rabbit Hole is Dark and I Don't See a Way Out

Is this not the most incredible thing

Everyone is talking about Pokemon right now. With the incredible popularity of the Twitch Plays Pokemon stream, Pokemon has definitely been on the brain. And for good reason, too. It's a beautiful thing, watching 50,000-100,000 people all trying to make progress in an eighteen-year-old game that is ostensibly for kids. I mean, the stories are incredible, the fan art is hysterical, and even some of the streams inspired by Twitch Plays Pokemon are fucking brilliant. They've been playing for over eleven days straight now, and have six of the gym badges. They managed to beat several parts of the game that were deemed "impossible" by fans, while seemingly trivial things had them hung up for days at a time. Simple things you wouldn't normally care about became incredible trials. Every trip to the PC was a nail-biting experience that could have (and has, on several occasions) ended with the release of their best Pokemon. The whole thing was an inspired idea, and I plan to keep following it even when it's popularity dies down (something that is bound to happen soon if they don't figure out which fucking direction to go next.) All this inspired me to pick my copy of Pokemon X back up and sink in a few more hours.

And then everything changed.

But I will never stop judging them.

While casually strolling around with Pokemon that were clearly too OP for anything in this game to stand up to, I decided it was time to give the "Battle Maison" a shot. The Battle Maison is a post-game feature that allows you to pit your team against a series of computer opponents, with a catch. Every single Pokemon is evened out to level 50 upon entering, and the "switch whenever you KO an opponent's Pokemon" mechanic is no longer present. It's like battling online, something I've always been too terrified to do, but against an idiot AI who is incapable of judging you.

It's a feature that's been in the games for a very long time, but it's always been something I've ignored in favor of the grind to level 100. But I had been stomping face in Pokemon X, and was looking for a new type of challenge to satisfy me. I walked in, ready to steamroll the competition as usual, when a funny thing happened. I lost. I lost over and over and over. I got wrecked. My Pokemon that could almost take on the entire Elite Four singlehandedly could barely get a hit in. I was getting fucking worked by this shitty AI, and I had to find out why.

This thirst for knowledge led me to some interesting discoveries about things I had previously not been capable of giving a shit about. Did you know that speed is vital in Pokemon battles, to the point where entire matches are decided almost entirely by that one stat? Did you also know that no matter how well you train a pokemon, unless it was born or bred lucky, it will never, ever have the best stats it can have? Did you know that the stat-boosting moves are actually incredibly important and shouldn't be totally ignored?

These were all things I discovered in about fifteen minutes of searching. There's an entire world of competitive Pokemoning out there, just under your nose. And it's crazy. In my search, I stumbled upon Youtube rants by a guy sporting a Typhlosion hoodie about how a certain website's rules were stupid and not the rules people should follow, complete with a sea of comments arguing strongly for or against either side and 50,000+ views. I read about different "tiers" of Pokemon, and learned about all sorts of crazy Pokemon terms I had never heard of like "Phazer" and "Revenge Killer." I came across a hyper-religious and ultra conservative website that also dabbles in competitive Pokemon guides. It looks like it fell out of 1999. There's an entire page devoted to "Scripture in Pokemon" that I'm too afraid to look at. I also found myself deep in year-old forum threads, reading the darkest shit about breeding a Pokemon with it's own parents to get perfect stats.

You know what's sadder than all of that, though? I started breeding a perfect Pokemon anyway. I sifted through some scary parts of the internet, and lost enough pride along the way to follow its advice. After god knows how many hours of breeding, I now have a perfect 5IV Alakazam with the Magic Guard ability holding a Life Orb, with 252SPA/252SPE/8HP for its EVs. If that sentence made no sense to you, be grateful. You still have your Pokemon innocence. It's lonely in this Pokemon rabbit hole.

Not a lot of light makes it down here.

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My (Very) Personal Experience With Katawa Shoujo

A little while back, I finished a game called Katawa Shoujo. The game is a free, open source visual novel developed by a small team called 4 Leaf Studios. The team came together to make this single game, and nothing else. It's a story about a boy who develops a severe heart condition and is transferred to a school for students with disabilities. The story centers on how he comes to terms with his own condition, and how he deals with his own personal feelings about other students' issues. The game sparked controversy over it's name, received praise for the respect it showed toward the topic, and was met with dismissive head shaking from people who would never touch it. I guess it was pretty easy to dismiss, though. A passing glance makes it come off as some sort of "cripple-fetish" game.

Now, I knew next to none of that when I picked it up. The game came and went at the start of 2012, two years before I stumbled upon its existence. Any conversation that had been had about it was over and done with, and I wasn't going to find it. I honestly can't even remember what pointed me in its direction, let alone what got me to download it and start it up.

The cure for loneliness.

I think that I've just been in a slump lately. Well, scratch that. I know that I've been in a slump lately. I've been cramming anime and video games into my skull in a desperate attempt to push everything else out of it. I assume that when I downloaded Katawa Shoujo, it was just supposed to be more crap that could keep me from having to be myself for a while. I wanted nothing more than to slip into the head of another person and stay there, and a "dating sim" seemed to be exactly what I was looking for.

I started it up with very little context, outside of a slightly dismissive attitude towards the visual novel genre in general. I had low expectations. This was a light and easy way to pull myself out of my life for a little while. Nothing more. It was shameful to be playing something like this, but I wasn't going to tell anyone. It would be a game I played, and then moved on from forever.

The game opened with quite a bit of text. In fact, that's kind of all there is to Katawa Shoujo. It surprised me how much I already enjoyed the writing, though. It's probably terrible, and I probably just have bad taste in writing, but I don't give a shit. I liked it. It was a guilty pleasure, anyways. Enjoying it didn't matter in the long run, so I could just let myself enjoy it.

I followed along, reading every single word, skimming over nothing. If I was going to pretend to be someone else, I wasn't going to half-ass it, goddammit. The first girl they introduced was not to my liking. At all. The girl was incredibly pushy and very forward, and as a low-conflict individual (read: antisocial) I wanted nothing to do with it. Then I saw a girl wander out of the classroom, avoiding eye contact at all cost. That piqued my curiosity. A character who doesn't want to be there. I figured that would probably be the path I would follow, but the game didn't want me to get there quite yet.

After a bit, I encountered my first real scene with said character. Her name was Hanako. Upon actually looking at her, it was obvious that she had some sort of severe scarring on her face. I had an idea of what the cause was. I had been there myself.

[I'm going to give a bit of a content warning here, the next paragraph is going to be a bit fucked up.]

You see, when I was very young, I was involved in an accident. A container of gasoline had been absentmindedly placed near the water heater in my home in the ghetto neighborhood where I lived. I was little. I didn't know what it was. I got into it. The next thing I know, I was in pain. My feet hurt. The room was red. I remember screaming at the top of my lungs. I remember pounding on the door. I remember running to the other end of the tiny room in a futile attempt to make the pain stop. I don't remember getting out of there. My mother pulled me from the flames and ran next door with me to call 911. I was apparently in shock. I asked my neighbor if I could watch cartoons, standing on horrifying, bloody legs. I don't remember that. I do remember being on an ambulance and asking the paramedic if I was riding on a firetruck. He told me yes, because that's what I wanted to hear. I was happy about that.

I had received third-degree burns on 17% of my body. I am a burn victim. The memories I just described to you are the earliest things I can remember. I have severe scarring on the lower half of my right leg, scarring on the tops of my thighs from the skingraft operation, and scarring in a few other places, too.

I'm one of the lucky ones who can hide the scars, but Hanako was not. She lived with the leering and staring her entire life. I only suffered that until I became smart enough to wear long pants instead of shorts (which admittedly, took me until seventh grade.) I used to just rock the scars, until I started getting ridiculed. Elementary school kids don't have a line. They're either going to make fun of you, or they're not. They don't care if it's wrong or right. They have an underdeveloped sense of morality. I get that. I forgave them a long time ago. That sort of thing stays with you though.

Later in the game, Hanako opens up to you a little bit about the accident she was in. Her house had burned down, and her family with it. Her mother's sacrifice was the only reason she was still alive. She never goes into a lot of detail, and she only ever brings it up because she feels bad for finding out about your own disability.

Hanako is a girl who has a very difficult time being in public. She prefers to be by herself, or with her only friend, a blind girl named Lilly. A girl who can't see the scars. Of course Hanako would drift towards her. Hanako can't deal with most people talking to her. Often, it freaks her out so much that she leaves the room in a hurry. She has very severe social anxiety. I watched Hanako's insane reaction to any kind of social situation and understood immediately. No one had ever interacted with her in a normal way her entire life. She was always being leered at, and uncomfortable silences followed her everywhere. I've been there. People start a conversation, notice the disfigurement, and in an attempt to save face they look away awkwardly. It's something I've seen countless times. It's a perfectly normal reaction, too. I can't expect anyone not to do that. Hell, I'm positive that I'd do it too, if I was in their shoes. Understanding it doesn't keep it from fucking with the way I interact with people, though.

I don't want to get into too much of what happens later in the story, but I connected with Hanako on a level that I wasn't prepared for. I escape uncomfortable social situations at the first sign of danger, and bring awkward silences with me everywhere. I frequently turn down social invitations because going out makes me tense. I have anxiety attacks. I never thought that Katawa Shoujo would not only address that, but address it well. I connected with the relationship she had with the main character, too. They were feeding each other's bad habits to the point where things got out of control. I've definitely been in a relationship like that. In fact, it ending was the cause of the depression that got me playing this game in the first place. Funny how that works out.

I just wanted to share how this game hit incredibly close to home for me. It touched on a subject that no other media I've experienced has managed to do effectively. I've never encountered a "scarred" character that isn't either brooding, angry, or the goddamn villain. Katawa Shoujo showed how scars leave other scars beneath the surface, without going into bullshit, whiny angst. There's never a point where Hanako spouts out a monologue about how bad it sucks, or how much it hurts inside. She's just got her issues, like everyone else does, and she's trying to live with them.

Just like me.

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Pokemon and on and on and on

A major event in my personal life led to me being home for the holidays this year. It was nice to spend some time with the family, seeing as I hadn't seen them for a quite some time prior to this event. With me being home for the first time in a while, my mom and stepfather spent quite a bit on me.

I came out of it with a record player (which is awesome, by the way) and a brand new copy of Pokemon X for my 3DS. My younger brother opened up some Minecraft-related shwag along with the companion game, Pokemon Y. He was pretty excited about it, while my interest was mostly a nostalgia-based curiosity.

Ah, the days of my youth... Like the scent of a fresh lemon, you see.

See, I've played the Pokemon games on and off since the first ones, but the last one to really grab me was Gold version. I sunk an inordinate amount of time into that game, along with the first ones, and I fucking loved every second of it. I have a soft spot in my heart for Pokemon, I just haven't been able to feel it much since then.

That's where Pokemon X comes in. This game has totally grabbed me, and I can't exactly put my finger on why. Maybe it's the significantly faster character movement, or the new graphical style. Maybe it has something to do with the relatively small number of new Pokemon in this title, leading to less uninspired crap. Maybe it's the new type addition, completely messing with the age-old type chart in a way they haven't done since Gold/Silver.

Those all seem like relatively minor changes though, right? I'm not quite sure how this game has managed to get its hooks into me so deep. I've sunk 105 hours into it since Christmas. That's completely insane.

Well, my inability to understand my love for it aside, the game is fucking great, and it's definitely the best one the series has offered in a long time. If you have a passing interest or curiosity about Pokemon, I'd say you should definitely pick this one up.

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Tall Tales

Recently, I borrowed a copy of Tales of the Abyss from my younger brother, and am enjoying the hell out of it, though not as much as I enjoyed my personal favorite of the series, Tales of Symphonia. I wish it had a bit more of the character interaction in it that made me so close to all those characters in the Gamecube game, though Legendia and Vesparia (the other games in the franchise I've played to completion, Phantasia was either too dated or too bad to finish, and I just haven't managed to get my hands on any others) also lacked this. This stuff really fleshed out your place in the world, and made you feel like you yourself had an impact on the way the party interacted with each other (though most of these choices didn't have a REAL significant impact.) Though I do think the general story is better than any of the other games in the series, and I like Guy and Jade a lot, too.

EDIT (After finishing Abyss):

You see this!? Look, it's got Lloyd and Collette! And it totally hates them!

Having now finished Abyss, I really enjoyed it. I don't think it surpasses Symphonia, but that may just be because the time in my life that I played Symphonia was during my personal "Golden Age" of gaming. I like the overall story a lot better than Symphonia, better than Vesperia, (judging by my inability to remember most of the major plot points,) and better than Legendia, although the characters in all three of those are significantly better than any of the characters in Abyss. Symphonia had Genis, Raine, Zelos, Kratos, and Sheena (as far as good characters go, I like Lloyd, but the internet doesn't agree with me there, and I HATE Collette) but I guess it's not fair to ignore Dawn of the New World. They turn the likable characters of Symphonia into a mess of shitty motivations with their horrible stab at fan-service. That game makes me wish it wasn't canon. I mean, is it? Whatever. It's not canon to me.

Anyway, Legendia has Senel, Chloe, Will, Norma, Jay, and Moses (the strongest cast in my opinion, but then again, the character quests flesh them out a lot more than the other games do, and again I'm purposely leaving out Shirly, she's just... bad.) While Vesperia has Yuri, Flynn, Estelle, and Raven. Yuri is probably the strongest character on this list as his murders are some of the most interesting things a character has done in the Tales games I've played. "Great" characters in Abyss seem limited to Jade and Guy, and even though the relationship between Tear and Luke is interesting, the characters themselves are not.

Though the characters in the game were weaker, the overall story resonated with me a lot more than the story in the other games did. And the battle system here is by far the best in any Tales game I've played. The FoF changes make the usually somewhat monotonous button-mashy combat into something much more interesting. Rather than just repeating a combo you've mapped out that works well over and over, you have to actually respond to changes in the battlefield, and pay attention to your surroundings. Also, the enemies seem to hit much harder in general in Abyss, requiring you to be more attentive and actually control your healer a bit more than the other games, which I think is a good thing.

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Man, Crimson Shroud is Awesome.

Seriously, I wasn't expecting a whole lot out of it, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. As someone with no real knowledge of Yasumi Matsuno's previous work, and no particular affection for tabletob games, this really doesn't seem to be targeted at me. However, the excellent writing and the complex-but-not-too-complex battle system made for a great game. The battles, while long, are engaging and challenging. They can get challenging to the point of being frustrating, but it's pretty satisfying to beat difficult bosses. The only real complaint I have is a small part in chapter two where you are unable to move on without grinding for a specific item. The game completely fails to tell you it's even necessary.

Also, the new game + ups the level of gear and the difficulty, extending the length of the short, eight-dollar adventure. I hope more people play this game though, it would be cool to talk about it with more people, or maybe see more of the interesting world Matsuno created.

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Paper Mario: Sticker Star

Having finished Sticker Star, I'm kind of disappointed. I mean, It was fun for the most part. The writing is still great, I just wish there was MORE of it. Most of the best stuff is buried in the Sticker Museum (the optional sticker collection sidequest.) The RPG mechanics should have been deeper too. I understand where the developers were coming from, but the original Paper Mario and Thousand Year Door were both such amazing games, and the Paper Mario games are so few and far between. This is one case where sticking to the old formula would have been a good idea. I understand why people think Nintendo games are getting stale, but stripping out the best parts of a franchise is not the way to mix it up. It'd be like if a Zelda game lost the dungeon exploring, or if a mainline Mario game went for a more realistic tone. Keep the best stuff, the stuff people love about the franchise, and replace the rest.

This part here. This is the part that sucks.

I realize it's not that simple. I just wish I could see another Paper Mario game with great companions, INTERESTING puzzles, and a reason to actually want to engage in battles. Sticker Star drops the companions in favor of a (relatively quiet) helper. Kertsi is there to give you hints, but they're always vague, and when they do get specific, they don't change after you've gotten past the point she's referring to. Without the companions, the game also can't base puzzles around their abilities. Instead, the game asks you to solve puzzles by placing certain stickers in certain places. Most of the time, it's fairly intuitive, but on occasion, you're just throwing random objects at a wall and seeing what sticks (see what I did there?) And when it doesn't work, it drops off the page and out of your inventory. If you want it again, you either have to backtrack to where you first found it, or pay huge amounts of coins. These puzzles just aren't interesting. They're barely puzzles at all, honestly. Each one is a single-step process, and none of them require any out-of-the-box thinking.

I still had fun with it, I just feel like this entry in the series is lacking in most of the things I enjoy about the franchise. I'm not asking for a rehash, I just don't think the changes they made benefited the experience. I enjoyed Super Paper Mario even though it was such a huge departure. It still felt like a Paper Mario game somehow. This game kind of... doesn't. It was decent in it's own way, but too much has been stripped away from it.

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