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Apparently it's been a while since I last actually wrote a regular blog post for the last, having not done so since I posted my Catherine review and corresponding thoughts on it. I had meant to do something similar with the Yakuza 4 review that I posted last month in which I discussed my appreciation of the game's frankness towards certain social issues facing Japan today, although naturally that didn't pan out, despite it being mostly complete. There was also another scrapped blog post inspired by my time playing the harsh, but still greatly enjoyable Bangai-O HD. That was another post that actually was completed, but was ultimately scrapped because I came to the realization that I was being seriously pretentious, even by my own standards. I'd love to just give that game a regular review and there's a chance that it still might happen, but that game also gives me serious self-esteem issues and it's doubtful I'd complete it enough to my satisfaction particularly soon. This blog will probably address a lot of those main points I originally wrote about the game in that other post anyway, but this time in tandem with a bunch of other stuff. I have no idea how long this is going to turn out, but if my reviewing antics are any indicator, we might be here for a while. Regardless, onward and upward!
General Life RamblingsThe biggest culprit with regards to my absence from this blog has been, as always, university life. There was a fair amount going on this past semester and while I can't say it's all even over entirely, it's nice to at least shelve a lot of it for the time being and just bask in summer vacation. As is probably inevitable because of my study habits, I tend to accumulate a pretty serious case of burnout by the time each school year is over. It's not that I usually hate what I study, far from it, but just that keeping pace tends to take its toll on me after a while. I'm really passionate about my Japanese studies and plan to see them through to the end, should such a thing ever even really be feasible, but when I'm putting in enough hours devoted to that subject alone that it's like a part-time job, I know I'm eventually just going to want to halt progress for a little while and take a breather. It's good for my sanity and since I make sure to still speak and write it in my daily life, usually I don't have any horrible regression before picking it back up for my annual summertime review.
That's a good thing, since I can't particularly afford to go backwards all that much this year in particular. As I've mentioned a bunch of times in my own status updates on here, I'm going back to Japan this August for at least the duration of this next school year. Although I don't look forward to the visa paperwork I have to fill out soon, this is good news for a bunch of reasons. Going back naturally means that I have the chance to actually go and apply my studies in the real world, which, for somebody who plans to make Japanese their livelihood, is a critical thing. I'm making plans to go live with a family who will be kind enough to host me for the school year and put up with my antics while hopefully helping me get the boost in colloquial Japanese that I desperately want. But equally important to me is that this is just an opportunity for me to be back there. Japan is certainly not a place without its problems, as sites like the excellent Japan Subculture Research Center will point out, and as somebody who's actually going to be a resident there for at least a little while, I imagine that will become vividly clear to me again. But after everything that happened during and in the wake of the March 11 disasters, I've been feeling a much stronger pull to return to Japan and see what's become of it and its people. Naturally, it's not as though every place in the country is in dire straits, but I felt frustrated that all I could do during the disasters was watch them unfold on NHK World. I have good friends who live over there, both native and foreign, and I wanted nothing more than to physically be there for solidarity. Those sentiments are why I'm going to make an effort to visit areas like Sendai and see at least a little of what happened to them for myself. Japan might have dropped off the news radar because nothing new has happened, but at the very least, I want to remind myself that the recovery process from the earthquake and tsunami is hardly over. Hopefully when I'm on breaks from school this coming year, I'll be able to help out with reconstruction efforts, too.
Regardless, going back abroad in general should make for a nice change of pace for me. I've always tried to avoid living the tourist life whenever I go overseas for an extended period of time and this upcoming study abroad program should make for a good extension of that. In addition to the homestay that I'll hopefully get to participate in, the fact that I'm switching from Tokyo to somewhere else just a little bit smaller by comparison will be nice. Tokyo's enormity is certainly admirable and makes the city a fun one to roam around in, but it's also easy to feel lonely in it when you're just one anonymous face in a herd of 20 million. People tend to be a lot less approachable there and when they do go up to a random foreigner like me, it tends to be because they want to practice their English. Getting away from that sort of coldness, something even natives feel is noticeable about Tokyo, and instead heading for a region that tends to be more friendly will be a good way to get a different take on perspectives about Japanese life and whatnot. That, and having grown up in Colorado, I tend to be more comfortable in areas that are lively, but without being excessively bustling. I'm a city-slicker, but I'm most content when there's still ways to easily get away from the hectic lifestyle that can often entail. It looks like where I'm going will have that happy medium and I very much so look forward to have a recontextualized life in Japan knowing that.
Having said that, it's not as though I expect to disappear from this site while I'm back in Japan. On the contrary, if my Japan-related posts and lists from my last trip are any indication, I'll probably end up going on weird adventures again that end up being heavily skewed towards video games again. Not only is there another Super Potato near my new hometown that I'll be certainly paying a visit to, but I'll probably be indulging some more in Japan's arcade culture, something which I was very happy to see was still thriving when I was last there. Maybe I'll even finally get around to starting that Neo Geo collection I keep talking about, money issues notwithstanding. Of course, a lot of day trips I take will also have nothing to do with games at all and there are some other areas in addition to Sendai I feel that I need to visit, but being the gamer that I am, I have a knack for still letting video games enter the equation when I'm overseas, so I won't deny that they'll play their part when I'm in Japan again. I also just might attempt to drop by Tokyo Game Show this September just so I can witness that particular brand of madness myself. We'll see! Expect lots of photos on here related to my game findings once I'm back there.
Translation WorkThis will be a much shorter aside before I move on to actually discussing games properly, but I wanted to mention that I recently finished up another translation project that I'm hoping to post here soon. Unlike the last time I did something like this, I actually did all of the Photoshop work myself. The project itself is a translation of a short story written by the late Osamu Tezuka, a manga author who is best known for works such as Astro Boy, Black Jack, which is a personal favorite of mine, and if you're a little older, Kimba the White Lion. He created over 700 original works in all during his lifetime. With a number that huge, a few things are bound to have flown under the radar, even for someone as famous as him, so I deliberately tackled something that wasn't even well-known in Japan, as well as to just better get to know one of my favorite authors in general. The basic premise is a bit strange, consisting of a love story between a boy and the spirit of a cactus that he falls in love with. There's a lot more to it, although suffice it to say that it's certainly meant to be strange, but for good reason, as the story itself demonstrates. Honestly, after staring at every page repeatedly for both translation and Photoshop purposes, I have no desire to read it ever again, but judging from the reception I got when formally presenting it for a class, people were interested in it, so I'll be putting it up here relatively soon, once I get around to touching up a few blemishes. I hope you all enjoy it, although I'm curious what the reaction to it will be in general. We'll see soon enough.
Video games, video games, video games!The fact that it's taken me this long to even get around to discussing actual video games is why I probably won't even throw this blog into the off-topic forum, but that doesn't matter, since there's a lot to discuss when it comes to recent video games I've been playing. As is usually the case after reviewing a game that I get pretty heavily invested in like Yakuza 4, a lot of my game-playing time as of late has been devoted to me just mindlessly playing a lot of little things in spurts. It's not often that I go and commit myself to another game immediately after finishing one, since I usually have no idea what I want to prioritize. Eventually I figure out whether I want something new or if I should tackle something on my ever-growing to-do list, but in the meantime, I just play whatever randomly catches my fancy and see what sticks. This went on for about a month, due in no small part to studying for finals. However, since finals ended about a week and a half ago, I've found myself absorbed with Bangai-O HD and 999, two vastly different games, both in terms of mechanics and what they actually prioritize in the first place. The contrasts they provide in playing them back-to-back has gotten me to think a lot about what I want enjoy from games and as such, I now want to take the rest of this entry now to outline my thoughts about each game individually.
We'll start off with Bangai-O HD, since that's the first game in the pair I started playing. Bangai-O HD, for those haven't been paying attention to the ludicrous trailers that D3 released, is essentially a dual joystick action game in which you pilot a mech that can shoot off a lot missiles when under a lot enemy fire. It's a hectic game that actually still has a lot of focus on puzzle design due to how you have to use your weapons in tandem with the level designs and the end result is a really fun, ridiculous, and satisfying game, even if it's designed to be harsh and frustrating. Like the other entries in the Bangai-O series, HD was developed by Treasure, the development team you probably know better for their work on Ikaruga, Guardian Heroes, and Gunstar Heroes, all of which have long since been considered classics by many gamers. Treasure is a studio I've long since loved and respected because of the gameplay development philosophies and overall ethic. I'll probably never get around to actually ever finishing all of their games since, like Bangai-O HD, a lot of them are notoriously difficult, but I still greatly enjoy a lot of their games because they're just games. There's no overt, pretentious context that attempts to really justify why you're shooting off a thousand missiles simultaneously in Bangai-O or why your ship changes color in Ikaruga; it's just there because it's a game and deserves to be enjoyed based on the merits of pure gameplay. It's an approach that we haven't seen much of since the 90s thanks to a greater, if generally half-hearted, emphasis on incorporating narratives into games as a means of immersion, but Treasure's philosophy of building games that are entirely about gameplay and nothing else whatsoever still works. Games are enjoyed to varying extents based on the rules, conditions, constraints, and abilities that are imposed onto players and granted to them; the more gratifying all of those things are in tandem, the better a game is thought to be. Even as a lot of game developers try to spread their wings and give their games greater narrative depth, there's still something to be said for games that eschew that in favor of just being a game, since that's what games always were in the beginning and still ultimately are at their core.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that Treasure games are an antithesis to the obsession with games as an art form. This is a good thing. While I enjoy a lot of games that people say are art ( even if their own developers say they aren't), I first started playing games when the Sega Genesis was still a major console. The games I enjoyed then were ones that I liked entirely because I thought they were fun. I enjoyed them as games and nothing greater than that because that was all they ever strove to be. As I've gotten older, I've appreciated it when games managed to be thoughtful without skimping on good gameplay, often becoming my modern favorites these days, but sometimes it gets tiresome to hear developers try to make their games have some sort of greater importance than just being a great game. Modern Warfare games are enjoyed in part because people enjoy its (relatively?) realistic settings, Braid is liked because of its philosophical statements, and so on. It's important that games push those sorts of boundaries, but I feel it shouldn't be every game's duty to try and assign that sort of arbitrary context and justification, since otherwise players and developers might lose sight of what makes a game a game in the first place. It's not something that I think will ever come true completely, but when you see certain games overemphasizing its supposed storytelling greatness and forgetting how to make something good and fun out of it, it's something that I think is worth worrying about.
That's why I think I've had such a great time playing Bangai-O HD. It's a reversion back to the roots of video games when all there was to love about most games was how they played. It is a completely dumb game that's about giant robots strategically shooting off a ridiculous number of giant missiles everywhere and nothing more, but that's all you need to enjoy it in the first place. Your sense of satisfaction and fulfillment from the game comes from getting good at it and figuring out how to survive a lot of extreme situations each level poses. Getting corned by a bunch of huge ants that will almost certainly kill you, only to come out on top as the underdog Rocky-style with a barrage of missiles elicits dumb smiles and good times all around. It actually has a decent amount of depth to it mechanically, but that's the only part of the game that is deep, per se. The story, unlike even the previous DS game, which already had a sparse amount to begin with, is virtually entirely absent, making your only motivation for playing the game how much you actually like its gameplay. I happened to like it quite a bit and as a result of that, it made me hope that more games like it make a return. Even in an age of so-called "epic games" that younger generations are keen to latch onto, the allure of a gamer's game whose merits are entirely dependent on how fun it is will never disappear. While downloadable games are the space where these sorts of games tend to appear nowadays, I do hope that they more often return to proper retail channels, provided they have enough content to justify it. It'd be a nice reminder of the heritage games are supposed to ultimately uphold at the end of the day.
And all of that was the condensed version of what I originally planned to post about Bangai-O. I didn't expect to still take up that much space, but what's done is done. Let's move on now to 999 for the DS. Those of you who follow my status updates have probably noticed that I have pretty strong opinions about certain parts of that game. Parts of how that game is structured really frustrated me, for example. In order to get the real ending for that game, you are forced to restart the game from scratch at least once. You get the option to skip text that you've already previous read, which is godsend, but it can be incredibly tedious when you have to do those opening segments repeatedly, especially since the only variation you get in the puzzles is if you deliberately choose to go to different rooms than the ones you already visited. As somebody who ended up getting all five of the other endings by sheer accident before finally getting the real one, I'll admit that some of my frustration was self-inflicted, as I tended to make a few wrong dialog choices that kept skewing me the wrong way. However, I do feel that the game isn't the best at even subtly telegraphing what paths and choices you're supposed to take without brute forcing your way through it a couple of times. The way that the game layers key pieces of information on top of itself is your main clue for knowing whether you're on the right track, but by and large, you don't know whether a given choice is going to lead to that without just letting things play out naturally. There's little wiggle room for you missing out on anything and if you do, back to the beginning for you. Before I beat the game, I was of the opinion that this was an interesting experimental device from a narrative standpoint. However, it suffers too much from thinking it's just a visual novel. In forcing, in most cases, multiple endings to be experienced and multiple restarts to subsequently happen, the pluses of having new information to bear in mind for new runs are diminished by the sheer tediousness and repetition that comes from redoing the game yet again. It got to be frustrating to the point where my only real reason for actually finishing the game was to see if it actually could wrap up in a satisfactory way after all that retreading. As a friend put it to me, it's like reading the same book repeatedly just to get a different epilogue. It doesn't work there and nor should it for a game like 999, where your main motivator for playing through it is the narrative playoff.
Surprisingly enough, though, it does work. The game contextualizes those restarts in a brilliant way that immediately convinced that it actually knew it was a game from the start and not just a visual novel on the DS. I won't spoil it since it's still a niche game that people are playing, but that ending does a lot of things right. It not only ties up a lot of loose ends in really creative ways, but it outright changes and recontextualizes how you interpret all of the events leading up to it. The way the game forces those restarts and what it actually means play a critical role in that and it's done to great effect. I haven't seen a game whose ending changes your perspective on how you think about its plot so much since Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, but the game is worth experiencing for that reason alone. The rest of that game is also generally well-written and it smartly incorporates a number of real world concepts that I'd never think would show up in a game. It's not without flaws, but in a medium that is still somewhat starving for intelligent games with narratives that don't pander to anyone, 999's writing is very much so welcome. I'm still of the opinion that the climax and ending could still achieve their intended effects with a reduced number of endings and more streamlined general plot arc, but having seen how it wraps up, I understand and applaud the effort. If I were to write an actual review, it wouldn't be as highly scored as, say, LiK's review that was featured on this very site. A lot of people, I suspect, gave the game really, really flattering review scores because of its writing quality, which is certainly good, but that alone can never make up for the problems it has as a game, those previously-mentioned structural problems being the most notable. Nevertheless, it is a game that comes highly recommended from me for those wanting a good read; it's a smart plot that expects you to keep up without ever leaving you in the dust if something isn't clear, either. 999 is bound to be one of the games people cite when people discuss game writing, as it very well should be.