LTDW - The Companions: Martha Jones and Donna Noble

Welcome, one and all, to the second part of my Doctor Who bloganza. Yesterday, I talked a little bit about the Doctor's return to television and his first companion, Rose Tyler. Today's blog is going to cover his second and third modern companions, Freema Agyeman's Martha Jones and Catherine Tate's Donna Noble. It should be noted that while Martha Jones would join the cast full-time first, Donna Noble would make an earlier appearance between the second and third seasons for a Christmas special, making her technically the second companion to... you know what? I don't particularly care. I'm calling Martha Jones the Doctor's second companion and Donna Noble the third. If you have a problem with that, know that I understand the technicalities and don't give a hoot.

The Doctor's companions tend to serve multiple roles, often all at the same time. They can be love interests, friends, or allies, but most of all, they have existed in the modern series to be his anchor and often his conscience. Rose Tyler served as both a love interest and as a mender of his broken spirit after he destroyed two entire races of beings, including his own. Both Martha Jones and Donna Noble served very specific roles for David Tennant's Doctor, with varying degrees of success.

Martha Jones

We're first introduced to Martha Jones after the Doctor has left behind Rose Tyler in an alternate universe and the events of the horrible Christmas special that followed (more on that in Donna Noble's section). She's a nurse, studying to be a doctor, who encounters the Doctor first in the street and then in the hospital in which she works. This episode, Smith and Jones, does its job functionally well, setting up Martha Jones as a family woman, exasperated by her siblings and parents, but with strong ties to them nonetheless. It also sets up her infatuation with the Doctor, as at one point he kisses her firmly to transfer some of his DNA in order to fool an alien race. Her infatuation is, of course, one-sided, as the Doctor is still grieving over Rose and hardly seems to notice Martha until she finally asserts herself at the end of their run.

Unfortunately, that's about as much character development as we get with Martha Jones. She serves primarily as a rebound companion for the lost Rose Tyler, although being black, the character's story arcs also allow for the possibility to explore racial issues of the past, present, and future. Unfortunately, Doctor Who, being still a family show (more or less), never quite takes advantage of those opportunities, instead opting to display the past with rose-colored glasses, showing people of color in prominent roles in society and blatantly disregarding the travesties and moral crimes of the past (as seen in the earliest parts of the tepid Shakespeare Code). It's meant in earnest, meaning to portray equality in all people, but it genuinely feels like it's trivializing centuries of racism and equality issues by glossing over the topic.

But Doctor Who is meant for entertainment, and so we should turn to a study of whether or not the Martha Jones chapter of the Doctor Who series entertains. Unfortunately, while Freema Agyeman's performance is fine, her character just never quite sparks. As mentioned, her character development peters out, leaving her as a lovestruck companion who will never see her love returned, as the Doctor by and large ignores her feelings. There could have been some room to play with this, perhaps with some resentment and jealousy on Martha's part, but again, it never goes anywhere, leading to a limp resolution of her character and several halfhearted attempts to give her a happy ending in future episodes.

It's sort of fitting then that she would ultimately wind up with Rose Tyler's ex-boyfriend Mickey of all people. Both characters loved someone they couldn't have, were ultimately wasted by the show's writers, and never amounted to more than footnotes in the Doctor's long history of companions. Given just a bit more effort and balls by the producers, Martha Jones could have really shined as an entertaining character as well as serving as a glimpse into history's uglier side and our triumphs over racism and bigotry. Instead, she was, at best, a way station for the Doctor. Sad.

That said, Freema Agyeman's performance is terrific, given what little room she has to explore the role. Her run features some of the better one-off episodes in the whole of the series, and one of the best mid-season two-parters in Human Nature, in which the Doctor wipes his own mind and creates a human backstory for himself in order to hide from a warmongering family of aliens. The two-parter is notable mostly for Tennant's performance, but Agyeman's heartache over watching the Doctor fall in love with someone else is palpable, and she plays the role perfectly. Also of note are The Lazarus Experiment, where Martha's love and frustration with her family is put on full display alongside a great Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde villain and the two-parter The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords, which puts Martha front and center as she finally comes into her own. Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords also features the greatest modern Who villain to date in David Simm's The Master. The episodes also feature a thinly veiled story about slavery and rising up against oppression, easily the best sociopolitical episodes of the modern Who universe.

Donna Noble

I dreaded writing this section. I can't bring myself to care for the characterization of Donna Noble, but her episodes are deeply critical parts of the Doctor Who lore, and feature some of the best writing of the series to date.

Much of my irritation with the character can best be summed up by her introduction in the stunningly dreadful The Runaway Bride. Technically, her character made her first appearance in the last moments of the second season, but she wouldn't get to know who she was until that Christmas special. Donna Noble is introduced as a screeching, loudmouthed, braying jackass of a character, barely able to speak a sentence without shrieking or shouting. It really, really didn't help matters much that the villain, some sort of arachnid thing looking to give birth to thousands of little spiderlings, was even more brash and annoying than Donna Noble, not so much acting as just bellowing lines and making funny faces at the camera.

Thankfully, the writers took a sabbatical from Donna Noble for an entire season, opting instead to make Martha Jones the Doctor's full-time companion first. It was a smart move, because had they continued with Donna in that direction, I'd have quit on the show. I've no question of that in my mind.

When Donna Noble returned for the surprisingly smart and funny Partners in Crime, it became evident we were stuck with her, even if just for the short term. This is where the show really lost me the first time through, when I became more of a sporadic watcher than the Doctor Who binging maniac I am today. Donna Noble became sort of an emotionally polar character, alternating from terrific moments of seriousness and occasional spats of wit to a shrieking, breathless, buffonish caricature. The wildly uneven characterization is, in part, due to Catherine Tate's own comedic background, but having watched her run on The Office, I know she's better than Donna Noble.

It's too bad that the more dramatic moments are outshadowed by Tate's annoyingly aggressive loudmouthedness. The character is honestly well-written and deserves applause for her outstanding and incredibly sad conclusion (well, sort of). While the majority of her one-off episodes can be written off, she has some outstanding moments and particular episodes, easily among the series' best. Her overarching story plot is crucial to the Who universe, and she winds up actually feeling like an important character in the great scheme of things as opposed to a trivial one, like Martha Jones. The idea that her fate has been decided, that every psychic or knowledgeable person knows she's coming to a tragic end, it transcends the awkward half of the characterization and focuses the attention of the viewer on the dramatic side of things, which is where Tate shines.

Ultimately, I guess you could say that Donna Noble herself served mostly as a catalyst to get the Doctor and Rose Tyler back together, but doing so dismisses what's great and awful about her character. Take, for example, The Fires of Pompeii. This would have been a thoroughly awful episode of Doctor Who, featuring absurdly overacting psychics (including, oddly enough, Karen Gillen, who would portray a later Whopanion) and a dreadful, overly "oh my God!" performance from Tate for most of the first two acts. But then... then things get serious. The episode's villains are a race of fire-rock creatures stranded on Earth and sheltering under Vesuvius. The Doctor and Donna manage to make it to the center of the creatures' lair, where they realize, in one of the series' most haunting moments, that the creatures are actually hatling Vesuvius from erupting, but will take over the entire planet. Therefore, the Doctor and Donna must choose to blow up Vesuvius, causing the destruction of Pompeii and costing tens of thousands of people their lives at the expense of saving the world. The Doctor lays his hand on the trigger, and Donna Noble, in easily her most powerful moment, lays her hand on top of his and pushes down. Their anguish, their choice, and the consequences thereafter define Donna Noble as being much more than the awful, screeching thing of the first half of the episode.

It's such a shame, then, that the breathless, loud side of Donna Noble is the one we're stuck with for the bulk of the run, because honestly, she had a chance to become the greatest companion of the Doctor in the modern era. But there's only so much bellowing I can take, and eventually, it becomes immensely gratifying to see the Doctor finally leave her behind with her family.

For the best Donna Noble moments, you'd have to pick and choose very carefully among the bulk of her episodes, and even then, I'd recommend you keep the mute button handy. For the best overall (and evenly keeled) Donna Noble episodes, check out Planet of the Ood, Silence in the Library, and Forest of the Dead. All three are Doctor Who classics. And despite its Tate-isms, I'm also fond of Turn Left, an episode that barely even features the Doctor at all, as Donna experiences what life would have been like if she hadn't met the Doctor. It's a strong character study, if not exactly the most entertaining of episodes.

Special Companion - Wilfred Mott

I hemmed and hawed about including Wilfred under Donna's section, as he's not actually a true companion to the Doctor, but rather a recurring character throughout Donna Noble's arc. He's Donna's grandfather, a simple man who dreams of the stars and loves his granddaughter dearly, often acting as a buffer between Donna and her vicious mother.

For reasons I don't want to spoil here, it becomes clear that Wilfred is instrumental in the Tenth Doctor's fate, as Tennant's Doctor continues to bump into him, even without Donna Noble around (as seen in the Titanic Christmas episode and Tennant's sendoff episode The End of Time).

I bring up Wilfred because of the tremendous performance of Bernard Cribbins, particularly when it came to the End of Time episodes. There's a small scene between Cribbins and Tennant in a diner, wherein they discuss the Doctor's impending death and Donna Noble's lost memories that stands as the best moment in the entire show. The dialogue between Cribbins and Tennant is heartbreaking and best shown, not told. Tennant breaking down is the definition of the Doctor, his sadness and exhaustion showing through the cracks in the Doctor's facade. Check it out for yourself, though be warned, it does contain some pretty major spoilers for Donna:

Wilfred becomes absolutely crucial to the emotional sendoff of David Tennant as the Doctor, and it couldn't have worked without such a powerhouse of an actor behind it. The last twenty minutes' of Tennant's run as the Doctor owes as much to Cribbins' excellent work as it does to Tennant's own skills as an actor. It's a beautiful swan song, full of tragedy, sorrow, and a little bit of redemption for the darker turns the Doctor had taken.

And that's about it for today. Tomorrow, we'll delve into some shaky territory as I talk about the good and bad of Amy Pond and Rory, the Doctor's next two companions. I'm going to need to gauge the length of that blog before I decide, but it might also include a bit on River Song, the eleventh Doctor's love interest and one of the serie's best characters. See you then.

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Let's Talk Doctor Who, Part 1 - The Companions: Rose Tyler

This year's been a bit odd for me in terms of games. I've certainly been playing them, as evidenced by my incredibly original and charming What I've Played in '14 list, but nothing's yet grabbed me in terms of games I really want to talk about. But for my long-time readers who have been vociferously clamoring for (in my head, at least) a return of Sparky's Update, here's three months for you. Bravely Default was a mess of really great ideas and classic PS1-era feel with a lot of piss-poor execution. Batman Arkham Origins is just more Arkham City (which is a pretty darned good thing, if you ask me, but it's dull to talk about). Telltale continues to pump out great games that I love dearly. News of Civilization: Beyond Earth turns me on to eleven. I'm kind of meh about Borderlands 2.5, which I know I'll play the shit out of, but would much rather see the resources devoted to a full-on sequel.

And that's really about it. Three months of games in a few sentences. I've been trying to think of some intelligent opinion pieces or articles to write like fellow bloggers @gamer_152, @chaser324, or @dankempster, but most of my writing these days is devoted to putting together a short story collection or to the ephemeral novels I keep braying about to no one in particular. I reckon I'm pretty excited to lay my hands on a PS4 at some point, maybe as soon as next spring, but honestly, there just hasn't been anything that's grabbed me yet, so I'm content to play last year's leftovers and revisit games like Civ V and Skyrim in the interim.

That huge and mostly unnecessary wordy intro aside, I thought I'd start devoting blogs to other media I'm enthralled with, particularly books and television. I don't watch many movies these days, but expect to see some of those occasionally covered too. What I'd like to start with is a blog about a show I'm admittedly geeky about - Doctor Who, for those who can't bother reading blog titles but have somehow waded through this much horseshit.

I think I've been a fan of Doctor Who since about 2006 or so, when I was making money hand over fist and could afford to upgrade my stupidly priced satellite to include BBC America. Middle class thuggin' and bumpin', ya'll. I caught the premiere (over herein the States, anyways) of the revamped series, and found it in its early days to be a corny, silly show which I just couldn't stay away from. I watched the first season fairly regularly, but throughout the years, I'd only catch sporadic episodes until I could catch up on all of them through Netflix and BBC America (which became my addiction when I first started watching Top Gear in about 2011 or so, despite the endless Graham Norton ads. PS - fuck you, Graham Norton).

By now, though, I think I've watched just about every episode and special of the modern Doctor Who at least once. I tend to favor the bigger, more serious arcs and stories, and I used to put my mind on autopilot through most of the one-offs and just about the entirety of the Donna Noble era. Lately, though, I've been making an effort to go through each episode with an open mind, a task that's been a lot of fun with only the minor annoyance or two. Again - see Donna Noble. OK, that's a bit unfair, and you'll see why in a few.

My love for Doctor Who has really grown and changed throughout the years, from finding it a bit too hokey to realizing that its absurdities help anchor it down, in a way. I hope to impart some of my reasons behind these thoughts into this and future blogs. I think this will likely end up being a three-parter, with the first focusing on the modern Doctor's companions. Future blogs will talk about the incarnations of the Doctor themselves - obviously, again, this will be in reference to the modern Doctor, since I have little experience with the old Doctor Who episodes (but will endeavor to watch those as well) - with the last blog I have planned being a bit of a potpourri of thoughts and nonsense.

So... whew. With all that, let's get on with it. Warning - there will be MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD. Read at your own risk.

Rose Tyler

Played by the lovely and talented Billie Piper (who you might also know from Secret Diary of a Call Girl, and if you're like me, you might regularly confuse her for the female lead in Coupling), Rose Tyler had to be the anchor for the audience of the modern Doctor Who. Audiences (and myself) weren't going to follow the exploits of some simpering damsel in distress, and thankfully, Rose Tyler was never displayed in that light, save for her beginning.

The series starts with its second-most ridiculous Whollains in the Plastic Men. Only the Pig Men seem more absurd (and cheap) in their design, and like the Pig Men, the Plastic Men were only featured for a brief moment. Billie Piper did an excellent job here of creating as much tension and fear as she could with the material she and Christopher Eccleston were given, and the damsel in distress facade didn't take long to disappear, as she became instrumental in aiding the Doctor and saving the day by the end of the very first episode.

Piper and Eccleston couldn't have been more opposite in nature. Make no mistake - both are quite talented actors, but Piper always seemed quite believable, even in the most ridiculous of moments - and in Doctor Who, there are plenty. Eccleston, who we'll get into later in a future blog, never quite matched Piper pound for pound in terms of his comfort with the role and his surroundings, and therefore, the first season suffered a bit. Rose Tyler and the Doctor's relationship, fairly awkward at first, never quite felt right until the inimitable and truly awesome David Tennant took over.

Really, that entire first season in retrospect falls on Billie Piper's shoulders, and she carried the load admirably. She's the audience's first (modern) window into the bizarre and delightful universe of Doctor Who, and she nailed it. She experiences the joys of travel, the thrill of the mysterious Doctor, the pain of the great losses he and his companions must suffer through, and a growing sense of attraction, all within a handful of episodes, all while reeling from the alienness of it all. As silly as the show might be, the role of a Doctor's companion requires a huge amount of range from its actors and actresses. Watching Billie Piper now, she grows and adapts to the role, making it her own, while Eccleston continually tried to fit a square peg into a round hole with pure brute force - mostly successfully, but still... polar opposites.

With the still-mysterious leaving of Eccleston from the show after its first season (I'd kill to know the story behind that, as I think a second season might have done his Doctor a world of good), that meant the Doctor needed a regeneration, which led to the fulfillment of the Bad Wolf storyline. The first of Rose Tyler's major stories, it saw her become a deus ex machina by absorbing the energy of the TARDIS into herself, destroying a Dalek threat and helping resurrect a sometime companion to the Doctor by the name of Jack Harkness (still a personal favorite of mine). Eccleston's Doctor reabsorbs the energy back into himself and then the TARDIS, effectively ending his life and causing him to regenerate into a tall, skinny, ridiculously charming version of himself that remains my personal favorite of all the Doctors to date.

Almost from the get-go, Billie Piper and David Tennant didn't have so much a spark as they did a forest fire. Their on-screen chemistry is terrific, their story arcs full of tragedy and a wounded hope. Their run also greatly benefitted from some of the show's best strings of episodes, including The Girl in the Fireplace, a tale about Madame de Pompadour that is, to me, one of the best one-off episodes in the entirety of the show; the dark Impossible Planet and Satan's Pit, in which Doctor Who comes deliciously close to real horror; and the tragic end of their run in Army of Ghosts and Doomsday, two terrifically emotional episodes for Piper and Tennant (as well as for me) which end in the tearing of the fellowship between the two, leaving Rose stranded in an alternate universe while Tennant's Doctor soldiers on, heartbroken and beginning to show hints of the self-loathing and sadness that eventually made his run as Doctor Who so remarkable and personal.

Rose came back in a series of mysterious visions to Donna Noble in the fourth season, leading to the ridiculously satisfying reunion of the Doctor and Rose Tyler in a pair of episodes meant to send off Tennant's Doctor's companions with a bang. It's hard to argue with the logic of putting the Doctor and Tyler back together, as it doesn't diminish the sadness of their parting in any way (it's actually a human version of the Doctor who gets to walk away with Rose, while the real Doctor slips away in his Tardis). That wasn't the end of Rose Tyler, either, but she wouldn't be seen for several more seasons.

All in all, Rose Tyler is easily my favorite of the Doctor's companions (with the caveat that I really, really look forward to seeing where the show goes with Jenna Coleman's Clara, who had the most intriguing beginning to all the companions I've seen). Billie Piper brought a magnetism to the role and it's stupidly hard not to get attached to the character. While her early relationship stuff with Mickey is questionable, once her relationship solidifies with the Doctor and Mickey is given strong material of his own, Rose easily becomes one of the most relatable, most human characters of them all. It doesn't hurt that the second season of the show is far and away the most evenly written of the series.

For the best Rose Tyler episodes, I strongly recommend checking out Dalek (S1), The Girl in the Fireplace (S2), Impossible Planet/Satan's Pit (S2), Army of Ghosts/Doomsday (S2 - Army of Ghosts is a weaker episode, but its culmination in Doomsday is tremendous), and The Stolen Earth/Journey's End (again, the first episode isn't quite as good as the latter). Feel free to argue with me in the comments below or post your own favorite Rose Tyler moments and episodes.

Whew. I fully intended on this being a complete look at ALL the Doctor's companions, but I think that's enough for one day. I'll look at the next companion - Freema Agyeman's woefully underwritten Martha Jones. See you then.

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Sparky's Briefs - TV questions

Heya gang. Due to the awesome low cost of my recliner and my even more awesome parents chipping in, I was able to buy this Vizio TV today. I have some basic questions for all of you, and since this is my first HDTV, these are going to be kind of dumb.

First, I'm going to want to hook up my PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, PS2, and satellite box to this thing. I reckon I can hook up my PS3, 360, and satellite via HDMI cables. Am I correct on this point? I know I'm going to need an HDMI splitter, so do you folks have any recommendations, particularly with an eye towards buying either a PS4 or an Xbox One sometime in the future? Does the satellite box require anything special to hook up to an HDTV? It's about a four year old receiver.

Second, are there any special things I should know about HDMI cables in general for gaming? Any particular brands I should buy or avoid? My setup still isn't ideal, as I will continue to have my TV on a desk while the consoles and satellite sit on a chest next to it, so the cables will need to be lengthy.

Finally, I should be able to hook up my PS2 and Wii somehow with those yellow/white/red cables,, right? I mean, it won't take some sort of other kind of device?

Thanks for putting up with my dumbass self.

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Sparky's Update - The Hot Sauce Boss, Recliners, and AC IV

Holy mother of God.

Fellow mod @mb and I have been discussing hot sauce off and on for several months now, and he very generously offered recently to mail me a bottle of sriracha and Hoy Fong garlic chili sauce. I got the package today, courtesy of Momma Sparky (it's severely icy out and I don't drive, so... yeah, grown ass man getting his mail delivered to him by his mom. Laugh all you want).

First off, I've gotta say, I'm super impressed with the way it was shipped to me. As someone who has had a few objects sent to me broken via Amazon or other marketplaces, this was master class shipping. The two bottles of hot sauce inside had tape around their seals, were bubble wrapped, and placed in a delicate field of packing peanuts, which I again confused for circus peanuts and had to stop eating halfway through the box in order to visit a local hospital. Packing peanuts, you will forever be my downfall! Seriously, it's nice to see the care put into this package, even in something so simple as the shipping materials. Awesome stuff.

For those of you living in the sticks like me, sriracha is this mythical hot sauce of which I hear lots about but never get a chance to try, since local supermarkets carry very limited, very generic forms of hot sauce (here in town, you can only find tobasco, Tapatio, and Cholula). I've been on a quest to try new hot sauces and hot sauce spreads, and it's been a riot, but up until now, sriracha has eluded me. Now, I'd never heard of the Hoy Fong garlic chili sauce, but MB offered to throw it in and mentioned it was really good stuff, so like the greedy, hungry monkey I am, I jumped on the chance to try some.

First up was the garlic chili sauce. I was super curious about it, since garlic's by far my favorite seasoning for just about anything - soups, meat, chili, you name it and I probably load it with garlic. Well, not cereal, because I'm not a fucking monster. Be reasonable. Anyways, let me set the scene for you. There, on my vaguely yellow-cream cheap countertop, scarred from many battles with knives, forks, sporks, and overly hot mugs of tea, sat the bottles of sriracha and garlic chili sauce. Between them, a box of generic brand saltines, a baggie of shortbread cookies from Costco (seriously, Costco Christmas cookies are the fucking best, no joke), and a small cup full of cottage cheese. These were to be my palate cleansers. I'd thought about using the hot sauces on quesadillas, but MB warned me that cooking with sriracha could lead to some pretty horrific (and hilarious) results. Since I didn't want to fumigate my apartment, I decided to just go ahead and man up. Out came... the tablespoon.

Why not a teaspoon? Simple. I'm not a nancy, you nancy.

I lifted the garlic chili sauce to my nose. If my nostrils could purr, they most certainly would have. My stomach gurgled in anticipation - or possibly from SARs. I have no way of really knowing. I dipped the spoon into the waiting vat of garlic chili goodness, and lifted it to my mouth, noticing not for the first time a little bit of drool hanging from the corner of my mouth. By that point, I'm sure there was a little puddle on my shirt from all the salivating. Into the Grander Canyon that is my mouth went the spoon, and I fell in love pretty much immediately. You know Her? This was like that, except with hot sauce and no douchey Joaquin Phoenix in sight.

Seriously, Ho Fong garlic chili sauce is pretty fucking amazing. It's hot, but it's not so hot that it overpowers the taste of the garlic or the chilis, both of which blend together surprisingly well. You'd expect one to dominate the other, but the two flavors seemed to almost alternate, taking turns making my tastebuds the happiest... things on Earth. There wasn't much of an aftertaste either, which is pretty awesome. The last new bottle of hot sauce I tried before this had a horrendous burnt wood taste to it that made me immediately chuck the bottle out. It was well and truly awful. But this, this left a mild taste of chili and garlic in my mouth, with neither causing any sort of residual stinging or loss of taste. For something with a little bit of a kick, that's neat.

Then came cottage cheese, cookies, and a couple of crackers. I'm not going to bore you with those details, except to say BUY ALL THE COSTCO COOKIES. They came in a red tin with no discernible label. Trust me, dudebro, best decision you'll make outside of double wrapping it with that girl with the mouth sores.

Then came time for the sriracha. This was a much bigger bottle, roughly the size of a one liter pop. This was it, the main event, the title fight, the showdown between the immovable fat guy and the unstoppable, seemingly impossible-to-find hot sauce. Someone had to come out on top. I hefted the bottle in one hand and looked at the spoon in my other. I sneered at the spoon, tossed it into the sink, and twisted the end of the bottle open. I aimed it at the back of my mouth hole, and gave it a hefty squeeze.

Nothing. Of course I'd forgotten to take out the little paper-plastic doohickey to open it up. So, yeah, I did that really quick. Round one, sriracha's bottle top - 1, Sparky - 0.

Round two, fight!

I aimed it at the back of my mouth hole (again), and gave it a hefty squeeze (again). This time, glorious hot sauce hit the ol' taste buds, and my mind was a-whirl. Sriracha isn't easily described in basic culinary words, and since I don't know any fancy ones, you'll have to excuse my poor vocabulary here. It only has a mild bit of the taste of ordinary hot sauce - I still can taste some chiles (I forget offhand if chili or chile is the accepted Americanized version - thoughts? I don't think it matters), but they're subdued, in the background. What I did notice - and this is the part that's hard to explain - was a mild... hmmm... sweet smokiness? Smoky isn't the right word here, but it's the closest I can come to describing it. It's a tender, garlicky taste, almost like a spicy broth of sorts. Combine that with the taste of chili, and it's pretty damn good. I can imagine this is the sort of sauce that will see a lot of play on a lot of different meats in my cooking - I'm particularly curious how it will taste as a dipping sauce for chicken as well as a topping for hamburgers, but I've also got this distinct feeling it will go well with elk bratwursts, which I'm excited to try at some point.

So which do I prefer? That's kind of a silly question, since they're both good, but I can't help but think that I liked the garlic chili sauce just a touch better. The sriracha is terrific, that's for damned sure, but the garlic chili sauce nails the combination of heat and flavor that I like so much without leaving me sweating or tasting nothing but the hot sauce. It's something I'm definitely going to stock up on if I see it. It seems like it will go well on a lot of things, but I'm particularly excited to try it on my Tex-Mex foods. I'm practically drooling at the thought of cooking it into some quesadillas or grilled burritos. I must say, both knock my previous contenders of top hot sauce out of contention, though I still quite like both 7 Mares and Zaaschila.

So once again, thanks, MB. This was a ridiculously cool thing for you to do, and my taste buds are in debt to you.

I Own a Recliner!

...and that's pretty much it. Oh, details? Well, as I mentioned in my last blog, one of my planned purchases for the year was to buy a recliner. I had expected it to take a few months, but after I posted an ISO in my local Facebook garage sale/used items page, I was tipped off to a person selling a mildly used recliner for $50. I didn't expect it to be in such great shape, but it is. Mind you, it's a little small, and truth be told, it's not the comfiest recliner in the world, but it's a thousand times better than my old computer chair. I played six or so hours of games yesterday, just sort of basking in its awesomeness - all without any of the pain I've come to associate with sitting in a computer chair for a fraction of that time.

Speaking of games...

Assassin's Creed IV - Some Brief Thoughts

I want to save most of this for a review. But after playing ACIV almost to its end, I've gotta say that I wish I'd played it further before adding it to my Top Ten of 2013 list. It doesn't really hurt anything to be on there, as the story and characters are good enough to merit a mention. But there are a couple of late game missions that are well and truly awful. I never want to have to follow another bureaucrat at a distance again - seriously, fuck that. As awesome as the naval missions are, the tedium of the eavesdropping and foloowing missions drag down the experience so badly that at several points, I thought about giving up on the game. Hopefully, Ubisoft takes its user feedback to heart and actually manages to change up the fundamental gameplay enough to allow for new, more interesting types of on-land missions. Time will tell.

I really, really hate how much some of the ship upgrades cost in terms of cloth and wood. That shit gets ridiculous and tedious fast. Dropping the zeros on some of that shit would have gone a long ways towards lessening my teeth grinding throughout the end part of the game. A quick-find for Templar Hunts would have been super useful too. Oh hey, how about a tool you could buy with in-game currency that allows you to target the nearest object or side quest of your desire instantly? That'd be kind of neat.

If you measure stories by the acceptable Hero's Journey method, the "resurrection" point of ACIV is quite terrific. I'm not going to spoil anything here, but Edward Kenway is a perfectly decent character and that point in the game brought him nearly as high in my esteem as Ezio's outing in Revelations (yes, I claim Brotherhood is still the best game in the series, but I liked Ezio's characterization better in Revelations).

Anyways, I enjoyed most of what the game had to offer, but it's still distinctly stuck in the usual mire of AC problems. At least it's not as straight up annoyingly messy as ACIII was.

And that's it for this week, folks! How's your new year going? Catching up on any terrific games?

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Sparky's Update - New Year's Resolutions for 2014

As I prepare to drop trou and wave my king-sized derriere in the general vicinity of 2013, I'm reading up on a few blogs and GOTY lists I've missed out on from the bajillionty users I follow here on Dat Giant Bomb Dot Com. Amongst them was a blog by @mento (the freshmaker, if you were unaware) reflecting on his gaming resolutions from last year as well as a few resolutions for this coming year. If you haven't read it, go there now and read it. Seriously, why the fuck would you be reading my dross ahead of his? GO NOW.

In any case, I thought I'd follow suit and lay out some general resolutions for this coming year. I managed to do well with one of my non-gaming resolutions from last year, which was to feel physically better. I haven't exactly lost weight, but I'm on a good exercise plan, I'm working out each day, and while it feels like I've been sick or injured throughout most of 2013, I feel better in general than I did this time last year. So first and foremost is my resolution to continue that trend - keep working out, eat healthier, keep active. Pretty simple stuff.

Now, on to the stuff you really (don't) care about. Gaming resolutions, moa fucka!

Play Down My Steam ListIt'd be pretty foolhardy for me to say "play more Steam games than I buy," because let's face it, that's just not usually in the cards. That said, I'd really like to cut down the list as much as I can. Will this finally be the year I play through a Total War game? Will I finally finish up all those little adventure games I've bought through the years (Kaptain Brawe, I'm glaring in your general bland direction)? Time will tell. I'm not going to be totally pissed about screwing this one up, particularly if I find more great indie adventure games this year. But I really wouldn't mind finally pulling the trigger on the numerous games I've had sitting in my library for years. We'll see.

Don't Buy a PS4 or Xbox OneThis seems a little odd, but I have other purchases I need to prioritize this year. First up is buying a big comfy recliner. I've been using the same computer chair for my console gaming for years now, and it's seriously starting to hurt. I've gotta buy something a bit more padded and made for longer sessions. This will probably happen in February or March, depending on how much I can scrimp and save in the next two months.

Second up is a new TV. My parents generously offered to buy me a new one this last year and I didn't take them up on it. I'm kicking myself for that now, but I had the best of intentions in declining it. Guilt is a motherfucker. Anyways, Ihis one will happen come next Black Friday, unless I find a spectacular deal before then.

Finish Off My Console To Be Played List... AgainOne of the biggest surprises for me this year was finishing off my on-disc to-be-played list. Sure, I had a couple of packaged games in Twilight Princess and Xenoblade, but I have/had no intention of playing those. For a brief, shining moment somewhere between Xillia and GTAV, I managed to not have any on-disc games that I hadn't played. It was a really good feeling.

Now, Black Friday and a couple of busy weeks turned that on its ear. I'd like to whittle the list down to nothing again, as well as start playing out all the countless PS1 RPGs I've bought on PSN. I'm probably not going to be able to finish all my digital console purchases, but I'd like to make a big of a dent as I can.

I'd also like to see a few games to (further) completion, including playing the other half of Tales of Xillia, more Disgaea D2, possibly finishing off Rainbow Moon, and seeing if I can't finally get through the end of Joe Danger. I'm also planning to revisit some PS2 classic RPGs in order to do some reviews (I've decided that the RPG Retrospective is better suited as reviews rather than a blog feature).

And finally...

Blog and Review GamesI seriously dropped off in terms of writing here on Gee Bee, and I'd like to do better in 2014. I'd like to do more opinions and themes in blogs and leave the thoughts on games to actual reviews. We'll see how that goes. I'd also like to start up some kind of a new series, but I'm not sure as to what quite yet.

And that's it for this one, folks. Have a great New Year. Thank you all for reading and your continual support. In the aforementioned blog Mento wrote, he included a list of terrific bloggers and content providers here on the site. If you haven't subscribed to those users already, please do. There's a great amount of content being provided here by the community.

Finally, let's play out this fucking horrible year in style.

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The Sparkiest Buzzsaw Awards of 2013

Welcome, one and all, to this year's installment of the newly redubbed Sparkiest Buzzsaw Awards, wherein I assign a bunch of games and non-game stuff (and things, can't forget the things) random and not-so-random arbitrary awards that absolutely no one cares about. Who will win the not-at-all coveted Best Use of Chinchillas? How about the even-less-desirable Sparky's Choice of Hot Sauce? Throw some tires up on your corrugated tin roof, because there's a Sparky tornado of love comin' through your trailer park heart!

In prior years, I awarded rewarding awards towards all the games I've played throughout the year. Since I'm slowly sobering up (2 1/2 hours free of sparkling grape juice!) and I'm no longer certifiably clinically insane (take THAT, Judge McPherson!), I've decided to throw that out the window and just give out awards to whatever I feel like. OCD - way to be!

If you're looking for my favorite games I played this year, go look in my lists. I'm not going to regurgitate that nonsense here.

Three! Two! One! HAPPY AWARDS EVERYBODY!

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Best iOS Games I Played This Year

5. Worms 3

There's not much new to Worms 3, and it strips out a lot of the features in Worms Reloaded, but it's still incredibly solid, stable Worms gameplay on the iPad. The controls are pretty great too.

4. Clash of Clans

Terrific basic strategy elements and a basic upgrading system make Clash of Clans one of the easiest recommendations for the iPad.

3. Simpsons Tapped Out

A metric ton of updates and some pretty funny writing help this one stand out, despite the tepid game structure. The introduction of some mini-games would go a long ways towards keeping me coming back to this one.

2. Clumsy Ninja

Some neat ragdoll physics meet a trainable ninja in this oddball game, and I love it. You drag, push, throw, and drop a caroonish ninja around, and as you do so, he becomes more and more skilled. It sounds kind of stupid on paper, but in action, it's ridiculously cool. Can't wait to see where this one goes.

1. Bloons TD 5

Without question, this is my favorite game on the iPad. I love tower defense when I have lots of various options and levels to play with, and Bloons has both in spades. It's shockingly well supported too, dropping in tons of levels and gameplay modes without charging a dime beyond the initial purchase. This is small gaming done right.

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Best Use of Not Bruce Campbell

Poker Night at the Inventory 2: Even Pokerier

You can't have a game with Ash Williams and not get my attention. Combine that game with Glados, Sam (of Sam and Max fame, not Happy Days), the greatest living voice actor in Patrick Warburton, and Claptrap, and you've got a pretty interesting cast of characters. Oh, and Steve from Borderlands. Hey-o!

But most notably - and bizarre - was the not-Bruce Campbell version of Ash, from the Evil Dead. Most of the other characters had a small tangential reason for being there (a new season of Venture Bros. was starting up, thus Brock Samson - I'm assuming the Ninja Turtles were busy that week). There was nothing explicitly awful about the not-Bruce Campbell's voice work, but it felt a little limp without Our Be-Chinned Leader behind the wheel. Still, it was excellent to see the character in something, and there was even a Chuck Finley joke for all ten of us who watched Burn Notice.

Sadly, Not Brisco County Jr. has not been confirmed for Poker Night 3. Damn.

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The Most Depressing Dipshit Move By a Dipshit Who Gave Me Hope For Old-School Adventure Games Award

Paul Trowe Showing Porn to a Kid

Long-time readers might remember me getting really excited about Replay Games. They acquired the license to Leisure Suit Larry, one of my very favorite adventure game series, and as an added bonus, they hired on Al Lowe, the creator of LSL.

Well, Leisure Suit Larry Reloaded came and went (insert your own joke there). It was a mostly unremarkable remake of a game that honestly didn't stand up well to modern adventure games - or even other games in its own proper series. That was okay, because it sold fairly well and it was the basis for (hopefully) more Al Lowe games. Then... silence.

It was revealed in December that Al Lowe left Replay Games due to Paul Trowe's conviction of showing pornographic material to a minor. Replay Games still has the LSL license, and Al Lowe has made it clear that he won't be a part of their company.

In short, fuck you, Paul Trowe.

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Best Character of the Year - and Generation!

Drippy - Ni no Kuni

I mentioned this in my GOTY 2013 list, but I really do think Drippy's the best new character of this generation. His lines are well written, he's well designed, and the voice actor knocks it out of the park. He's a lovable little sidekick, given tons of memorable moments, and I refuse to believe he's not the best new character of 2013, GB staffers be damned!

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Best Shooter-Ass-Shooter

Halo 4

It's probably a bit weird that I played Halo 4 this year and it somehow didn't wind up making my Best of the Year list. It's not that I thought Halo 4 was a bad game, but it definitely felt like a last little gasp of cash-in air before 343 moved on to the next generation of Halo games. Gone were the big open single-player environments in favor of humdrum corridor-esque shooting. Gone were the interesting, well designed multiplayer levels in favor of multiplayer generica. It sure looked pretty, though, and that central story between MC Mixmaster Cheeef (that's his DJ name) and Ms. "holy hell, do I feel uncomfortable looking at a processor with bewbs" Cortana is pretty darned decent. I'm still excited about Halo games. Just not that excited.

Oh, that reminds me...

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Worst Multiplayer Experience Not Related to Technical Glitchery of the Year

Halo 4

Now, I know what you're thinking. "LOLZ, Halo is fer da kidz and newbieassnewbs. U suck Sproky." First, go back to second grade English and pretend like your school can afford to teach you grammar and spelling. Second, I've honestly had my best multiplayer experiences with Halo 3 and Reach this generation - which basically puts them in the running for best multiplayer experiences of all time, since the only other game I ever really played online before the 360 was Battlefield 1942. I loved driving Warthogs in Halo 3 for good reason - I was the fucking KING of Warthog driving. I may have only racked up a couple of kills personally, but if you were a gunner in my Warthog, you'd make the first or second spot, guaranteed. A good driver is easy to find, but a good driver that knows the best routes to keep you steady and level for maximized killing fun and doesn't care about being top dawg? Now that's a rarity.

Halo Reach was still fun, particularly in its non-deathmatch modes. But you could feel the community start to crumble. With Halo 4, any goodwill I had towards the series' evaporated within my first hour of playing it. I've never heard so many vile shitbags in my life, not to mention the complete lack of anything approaching teamwork. Seriously, it was bad enough that I played for precisely one week's worth of games before putting Halo 4 into a deep, dark corner of my living room, never to see the light of day again.

In short, fuck you, Halo 4 community.

Runner-Up: GTA V.

Just let it go, Rockstar. Let it go.

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Best Multiplayer I Actually Bothered With in 2013

Tie: Far Cry 3 and Syndicate

Both games featured pretty terrific co-op experiences. Syndicate gets the slight edge here due to its awesome unlocks and general badassery, while Far Cry 3 gets a nod because I had actual friends playing it this year. Hey, it makes a difference. Both games deserve a golf clap.

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Worst Game I Played in 2013

Surgeon Simulator

The controls sucked so damn bad that it rendered any hilarity completely null and void. Just an awful game, through and through.

Runners-Up: 30 Flights of Loving, DLC Quest

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Worst Experience with a Game That Still Managed to Ninja Its Way Into My Top 10

GTA V

While GTA V might be a technical masterpiece, frankly, it sucks big floppy donkey dick in certain spots. The minimap is unforgivably atrocious. The writing is miniscule. Design decisions, such as incredibly glitchy and flawed garages meant to be more realistic than a list of cars you've stolen or own, rob the game of the fun found in other open-world games like Saints Row or Sleeping Dogs. An early mission involving you chasing a man on a motorcycle nearly led me to sell the game right then and there, and had it not been for the option to skip quests, I would have, without question. I'd say that the mission design feels like it's stuck in the early 2000's, except that we have irrefutable proof in games like San Andreas that even back then the mission design kicked GTA V's up and down the floor.

I'm absolutely serious when I say this - GTA V was only a hair's breadth away from being my worst game of 2013. And honestly, I'm still not sure it doesn't deserve it. Rockstar, I hope you remember at some point your games are supposed to be fun. You can tack on all the pretensions you want, but it doesn't change the fact that the core of your game needs to entertain the player first.

Runner-Up: AC IV (go to hell, eavesdropping missions)

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I Want to Hug the Developers Award

Wadjet Eye for the Blackwell Games

I bought the Wadjet Eye very much on a whim. I've been hugely surprised and pleased at how much I adore the Blackwell series. They're very basic point-and-click games that seem to grow more and more lovable with each game. They've infused each game with a love of old-school adventure games, modernized the formula a little bit, and done a great job of doing a lot with just a little. We need more bite-sized adventure games like this. Thanks for giving me just a little taste of my childhood love of adventure games again, Wadjet!

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Best Hawt Saaaaauce, 2013

Zaaschila Chipotle Hot Sauce

@mb and I were locked in a bitter debate earlier this year over the inclusion of Taco Bell hot sauce in his hot sauce poll. I said it was tasty, he told me I could cram it up my ass. Well, okay - by "bitter debate," I mean we said about ten words in total to each other about it, and I believe the "cram it up your ass" comment was actually probably from the lady down the street when I asked her on a date. In any case, he inspired me to buy a shit ton of hot sauce from a Wal-Mart sixty miles away and give each of them a go. Turns out, he was right - there are tons of better hot sauces on the market. So far, my favorite hands down is Zaaschila's Chipotle Hot Sauce Spread, which barely counts as hot sauce, but is so damned good I'm including it anyways.

Throw this stuff in your next quesadilla with some black bean and corn salso on the side. Your stomach will nut itself.

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Best Hot Cocoa, 2013

Tim Horton's

Holy shitballs, I want it in me so bad. Please sell it again for decent prices, Amazon!

By the way, always prepare your hot cocoa this way - add three to four teaspoons to the bottom of a mug, add a teaspoon or two of dry creamer, and pour boiling hot water over it. Don't use milk - as weird as it sounds, dry creamer tastes better in cocoa.

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Best Tea, 2013

Lipton's Black Pearl

While I continue on my quest to get Lipton's Honey and Lemon tea back in stores, in the meantime, i have this. It's a simple black tea, but like many of Lipton's pyramid brand teas, it seems a little bit tastier than the regular stuff. If you like fruit teas, their Bavarian Wild Berry is fantastic too.

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Best Coffee, 2013

None

Coffee. Blech.

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Best Book, 2013

The Republic of Thieves

This was an easy one. Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastard books are intelligent, fun fantasy reads that continue to amaze me. This one focuses a little more on the wizards of the world, which is a bit of a shame since they're almost boring in their all-powerfulness. But it's still a ridiculous amount of fun to read about two of my favorite modern day duos taking on thievery, politics, and lovey-dovey stuff. If you haven't read any of Lynch's work, go read Lies of Locke Lamora post-haste.

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Best Dog Breed, 2013

Pug

Duh.

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Handsomest, Humblest, and Most Dashing Moderator of 2013

Yours Truly

Damn, I look good in sweats and a dirty t-shirt.

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And that's it! Join me next year as I try to find the answers to life, love, happiness, and where I left my boxers. Until next time, this is Sparky Buzzsaw saying, "No! Don't touch that!"

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Sparky's Update - Thanksgiving

Heya folks, and welcome to a brief Thanksgiving-ish Sparky's Update, where everyone's a jive turkey and you can get your berries cranned any time. I have no idea what that even means, so let's move on, shall we?

I haven't been doing very much in terms of interesting gaming tidbits lately. I've mostly been revisiting Skyrim and playing far too much Borderlands 2, which I keep thinking I've finished with and end up revisiting a day or two later. I've been diving deeper and deeper into Disgaea D2's postgame content, which is still really decent, despite the lack of diversity or interesting new bonus characters. And finally, I've been inching my way forward in Radiant Historia, which is just as good as everyone has claimed, but my tolerance for long bouts with my 3DS is starting to suffer as my hands HATE holding the damn thing for more than a half hour at a time. Ergonomics, Nintendo. Look it up.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, even you non-American types!

iPad Corner

-Go try Lazy Ninja. It's free. Yes, it's kind of a simple physics based game. But damned if it isn't addictive. It's a basic Furby-meets-an-RPG experience, wherein you have basic limited touch controls over an unskilled ninja as he becomes... well... skilled. How you do this is the hilarious and addicting part. In order to improve his balance, you throw him through a basketball hoop. Sharpening his reflexes has you throwing watermelons at him. It's a riot.

The Rest

-Scott Lynch's Republic of Thieves is pretty damned good so far. I'm about halfway through and it holds up as well as his prior two Locke Lamora novels. For those unfamiliar, the Locke Lamora novels follow the thieving Gentlemen Bastards in a gritty fantasy setting. The leads are charming as hell and the dialogue crackles. I cannot recommend them enough, even to readers who don't normally go for fantasy novels.

-I'm within a few discs of finishing The Wire. It was all I could do not to pull the trigger and buy the whole series when it was on sale on Amazon earlier this week for $80. It's so damned good. I think I'll be finishing up with the on-disc part of my Netflix subscription once I've finished it and caught up on Boardwalk Empire.

-I had really mixed feelings about the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, but overall, I liked it. I almost wish there had been a whole season or mini-series devoted to John Hurt's character, but oh well. Nice to see Tennant, too bad Eccleston has some sort of stick up his ass about that show, and a shame none of the other surviving Doctors were featured. If anyone wishes to discuss this one further, I suspect we ought to do it via a PM so we don't risk spoiling anything.

And that's about it. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, and even if you're not an American, I hope you take a few minutes this week to contemplate and be grateful for those in your life who you love and cherish, and more importantly, who love and cherish you. And seriously, get a pecan pie. Or three.

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Sparky's Update - Disgaea D2, Wolf Among Us

Well... shit.

Sometime between writing my last blog post on introducing new players to Disgaea and now, I've tried to post two seperate blogs detailing Geo Blocks, Geo Panels, the fun of the Item World, and how you can learn different skills and traits throughout the last few Disgaea games.

Obviously, neither of those worked. I'm in the bad habit of rarely copying or pasting my blogs from elsewhere, preferring to shoot straight from the hip and info dump right here on Giant Bomb dot com. I also started to write something in the middle of the 48-hour livestream, but I was running on fumes myself (not from playing games but because my sleep patterns are crap), and abandoned it halfway through.

I think at some point I'll try to draw up a definitive how-to guide for Disgaea, probably specifically for D2, but honestly, right now, the idea just sort of bums me out. If you want to know more about the games or how to play them, always feel free to hit me up or talk to the great Disgaea community we have here. In the meantime, let's discuss that particular gem, shall we? We shall.

Slow Burn, Big Payoff

I'll freely admit, I wasn't terribly impressed with D2's story or characters. Laharl was pretty great in the first Disgaea, but there's something kind of meandering and off about Disgaea D2's main story thrust. It lacks a good central villain, never really settles into any of the story elements it introduces, and, in general, feels pretty lackluster all the way through. The old characters aren't given any decent material, the new characters are bland retreads of Disgaea archetypes, and there's a bizarre number of idol wannabes. Yes, as in music idols. I don't get it.

But there's a whole lot to like about Disgaea D2 once you get past the main storyline - and for new players, there's even more to like before the story. D2 does a far better job of introducing new players to the basic mechanics of the game, giving much better explanations of geo panels, geo blocks, and the combo system than in prior games. While the descriptions of the various stats and bonuses leave something to be desired, there are plenty of NPC characters with reasonably detailed guides as to the basics of these things - and by now, there are a few really great FAQs and Youtube guides on a lot of the intricacies of Disgaea's deeper mechanics, which is delightfully something you really don't have to worry about with D2.

I say that because the post-game content is refreshingly accessible. You'll be eased into a few fun scenarios that introduce new party members, as well as the easiest (to date) Cave of Ordeals, which are post-game missions designed to help you level up. There are plenty of new characters to nab (and a great selection of them, too, though Disgaea 3 seems fairly conspicuous by its absence).

Even the Item World, probably the most intimidating and confusing aspect of Disgaea, is designed to be much more accessible and fun. Players are now given control of a ship right from the start, giving them a safe haven for their characters to stand or a place to throw those irritating Invincible and Mighty Enemy geo blocks. It makes a world of difference, and it makes deeper exploration of the Item World much more fun.

The best new mechanic of the game is the Cheat Shop, which is accessible fairly early on. You used to have to adjust Disgaea's enemy difficulty by going through the Assembly, which would mean having to pass a bill every time you wanted to increase or decrease the difficulty of the enemies. This was time-consuming and a little boring. Now, in the Cheat Shop, you can adjust enemy difficulty at any time, free of cost or hassle. It sounds like a minor change, but it's a friggin' godsend. The cheat shop also allows you to tinker with the percentages of experience, mana, and gold you receive in battles. Cheat poitns are earned by doing post-game content, giving you even more of an incentive to rip through everything the game has to offer.

There are numerous other small changes as well. They've taken a "back to basics" approach to learning skills by allowing each character to have apprentices. When the master learns a skill, so does the apprentice (unless it's a story character-specific skill). Both receive additional bonsues to their weapon masteries. This system makes it remarkably easy to teach all your characters healing and magic spells, essential to some of the late game content.

Another great change is the new ability to bribe the Assembly with money. By the time you finish the game and start delving deep into the Item World, you'll be earning tons of money by selling off unwanted equipment, leaving you with disposable cash and no real place to spend it. That's where this comes in handy. It does kind of negate the other systems of the Assembly such as forcing a bill through combat or bribing them with items, but it expedites the system and makes it pretty easy to get anything done.

So... that's it, really. If you can get through the lousy story, there's an amazing amount to love here. NIS really needs to take a few years and change up its visuals and introduce some new character models, but as it stands right now, I can't recommend this game enough. I'm not sure I like it quite as much as Disgaea 4, but it's so close to a tie that it's negligible.

The Awesome Among Us

Ignore the fairy tale trappings and go play The Wolf Among Us. It's less a game than a graphic adventure, and that's perfectly fine because the story is effin' terrific. It's bloody, visceral pulp, and I can't wait to see more of it. It doesn't hurt that the game looks frickin' gorgeous and runs much smoother than Walking Dead. And the music? Nails it. Same goes with the voice acting - these people brought their A-game.

I can't think of any particular fault to it, save that if you're looking for a game-ass game, this isn't it. But if you're looking for a story, this is the sort-of-game for you.

The iPad Corner

I was addicted to Beach Buggy Blitz for all of about two or three hours. I suppose for a free game, that's not too bad, but it's a shame the game never really becomes anything more than what it starts as. It's essentially an endless runner disguised as a point-to-point racer, with your usual options to buy boosts, powerups, and upgrades. If the controls had become a little more tight with added upgrades, I'd probably still be singing this one's praises. But everything feels far too slidey, and the ridiculous jump in upgrade costs amounts to a big sigh of disappointment. Still, though, for an hour's worth of entertainment, this one's not bad.

The Rest

-I wish Resonance focused more on one protagonist at a time, rather than requiring the awkward back-and-forth puzzle solving of switching between characters. The mechanics are underdeveloped, leaving me often frustrated at the "stay/follow" basic command and the general lack of fun in its puzzle solving. It's a shame, because there's a decent story in here somewhere, but I just can't get past the irritating gameplay to really see its value.

-Who's ready for some Black Friday vidya game sales, huh?!?

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Sparky's Update - An Introduction to Disgaea for New Players

Heya folks, and welcome to a special edition of Sparky's Update! I'm guts deep in the middle of a brand new Disgaea game (the so-far-spectacular Disgaea D2), but I thought atter this week's positive feeedback to the idea of a new Disgaea blog series, I'd take some time to introduce some of you to what Disgaea is and how you can dip your toes into its universe.

What follows here isn't necessarily specific to Disgaea D2, but some of the intimate details might not apply to all the Disgaea games. That said, we're just going to be talking about its very basic mechanics in order to acclimate you slowly into the world, so the guide should serve as a basic primer for all Disgaea games.

What is Disgaea?

At its very core, Disgaea is a strategy role playing game, not entirely dissimilar to something like Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre/Ogre Battle. It has a very anime-esque atmosphere, with a definite Japanese sense of humor and aesthetic.

Story battles take place on a predetermined grid. Enemies are placed in specific locations, as is your "base," or the square where your characters come out from. In each battle, you can have ten characters on the field at any time. If one dies, then that character cap goes down by one.

The combat is relatively straightforward. Your characters can attack, use special skills, defend, or use items. They can move before or after an attack (but not both). By positioning characters next to each other, you get a chance to perform combo attacks, which deal significantly more damage and generally look cooler.

Levels are listed out in a very basic form - there's no overworld or area to explore outside of your castle or main hub area. Your team of characters is two-fold - those central to the plot, and those you create. The list of characters you can create might seem a bit intimidating at first, but most of the humanoid classes parallel normal fantasy/RPG tropes, such as a mage, healer, monk, warrior, and the like. Since it's really easy to obtain the necessary in-game currencies, create as many characters as you like without worry of screwing something up because you'll always have opportunities later to create more characters or try new things.

Your First Playthrough - What You Should Know

I think what scares most people away from Disgaea is talk of the post-game content, which is incredibly deep. But for your first playthrough in any Disgaea game, what you should know is this - the game, at its core, is very, very simple, and you never have to stray very far from a basic formula to get yourself through your first playthrough.

Here's the biggest not-so-secret secret every new player should know - every level in Disgaea's story missions can be beat with a little grinding. Even better, in your first playthrough, this grind isn't at all taxing. Essentially, for your first playthrough, what I'd recommend doing is getting through the tutorial missions, and then work your way through every level twice with your favorite team of characters. That's it - that's all you need to do to enjoy Disgaea at its most basic level.

The game will introduce some fairly intimidating elements to you early on, particularly the Item World and the Dark Assembly. Let's examine those and I'll show you why they're far less intimidating than you think.

The Dark Assembly

Disgaea has a lot of options you can tinker with through the Dark Assembly. This is essentially the tool you use in-game to create characters, make the game easier or more difficult, and add more items to the weapon/armor/item shops in the game.

For your first playthrough, I'd really only recommend playing around with the options you're comfortable with. As mentioned, creating characters is a breeze, so play with that all you want to. You'll obtain plenty of Mana (the currency used for the Dark Assembly) through battles. Also fairly easy and useful? The Dark Assembly also features a bill that can make more expensive items appear in the shops, which allows you to buy better equipment than what the shops have originally.

When trying to pass bills through the Assembly, you'll have to sit through a "yay" or "nay" session in front of the Assembly itself. Seems complex, I know, but thankfully, it's fairly straightforward. Each bill comes with a certain likelihood of it passing or failing. Now, most simple bills like creating characters don't even need to go through the Assembly, so there's not much to think about there - just create the character, and you're good to go. But when you pass, say, that "more expensive items" bill, you'll have to push it through the Assembly. That process is really easy to understand, if a bit frustrating in its actual practice.

The Assembly is comprised of parties of creatures that either want the bill to pass or fail - think Democrats and Republicans, but with dragons, zombies, and prinnies instead. The most basic bills like "more expensive items" will usually have a favorable likelhiood of passing, so you won't need to do any work. I wouldn't recommend trying to pass any more complicated bills than that on your first playthrough - we'll get into the nitty gritty of the Dark Assembly and how you can pass more complex bills in a future blog. But for your first playthrough, limit yourself to just the essentials - creating characters and making more items appear in your shops.

The Item World

Any item, be it a sword, a piece of equipment, a healing item, or whatever you'd like, can be leveled up in Disgaea. This is done through the Item World, easily the most fascinating and fun part of the Disgaea games once you understand what you're doing.

The Item World is essentially a string of randomized battles wherein your goal on each map is to eliminate all the enemies or get to a certain portal to go to the next level. There's one catch - you can only leave the Item World through the use of an item called an Mr. Gency Exit, or by making it ten levels down. Your item will level up depending on how many levels you've beat, so if you've cleared the first three levels of enemies, your item will level three times.

There's a lot of random stuff that can happen in the Item World and not all of it is pleasant. If you're going to explore the Item World, try to keep an Mr. Gency Exit item on you at all times, and be prepared with a decently powerful team. The cheaper the item was, the easier the Item World will be.

For your first playthrough, it's really up to you how much you use the Item World, but I would only recommend using it when the game leads you there. At least, at first - like I say, it's a riot in the post-game, but we're not concerning ourselves with that right now. Keep in mind to ALWAYS save before you go into the Item World, as you won't have an opportunity to do so until you've left it again.

I'd also recommend during your first playthrough of limiting your Item World trips to equipment and weapons. While you can level up a piece of gum if you want (no, really, you can), there's just very little point to it.

Assorted Basic Tips and Tricks

Treat yourself to new equipment and weapons liberally, but keep a focus on the characters you use the most. I like having a very basic ten man team comprised of a few story characters, two mages, two healers, an archer, and a monk. Every now and again, when created characters reach a certain level, they can choose to reincarnate into the next tier of that class. This will reset their level to one, but it will give them a sprinkling of bonus stat points and some new, more powerful skills. It's entirely up to you to choose whether to reincarnate or not - it will mean a bit more grinding, as you'll want to get those characters back up to speed level-wise, but the bonus stat points do come in handy and the more powerful skills are always a positive thing. It's all dependent on how much grinding you really want to do, but I would at least recommend keeping your mages and healers up to their highest possible class tier.

You can heal yourself in between battles in a shop (it's called a hospital, but it's really just one character standing there) - that should always be your first purchase outside of battle. Always save right atterwards.

Don't bother with building monsters unless you're playing Disgaea D2. Outside of a few story characters, they're by and large completely useless.

Each character class specializes in certain weapons but anyone can use any type of weapon. Try to stick with your character class's specialization, as they'll do more damage with them. This can be viewed from your character's status screen.

I can't really emphasize this enough - if you're having trouble, just grind. Everything in the game can be beat with better characters, weapons, and equipment. There are some ways to cheat the system a bit (in every game to date, there's been a way to abuse level 5-4 in order to power level your characters), so if you find yourself really frustrated with a particular level, look those up on GameFAQs or a similar site. Otherwise, feel free to hit me up and I can help you out.

And that's Disgaea in a nutshell. So far, Disgaea D2 feels like the most accessible of the Disgaea games to date, but you really can't go wrong with any of them. Their stories are fairly disconnected (save for D2 from the original Disgaea, but even Disgaea D2's story is set apart from that one, so you won't need to know the first game in order to enjoy this one). I know they seem intimidating, but if you stick to the basics at first, I guarantee you, they're just as accessible as something like Final Fantasy Tactics. Unless you're like @arbitrarywater and hate the thought of anime-inspired games (and this is VERY anime-inspired, so bear that in mind), give the series a go. If you get as hooked as me, you won't need another gaming drug for a very long time.

In the next blog, I'll discuss slightly more advanced combat mechanics such as the Geo Panels and Geo Blocks. We'll also talk a bit more about the Dark Assembly and how you can pass more complex bills. See ya then.

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Gauging interest for a Disgaea D2 blog series

There likely won't be a regular Sparky's Update this week since I've been crazy busy this last week. However, with Disgaea D2 on its way probably Wednesday or Thursday, I wanted to gauge interest from my regular readers on whether or not they'd like to see a blog series on Disgaea D2 similar to what I did with Disgaea 4. I might just do it anyways, because I'm a crazy bastard and I really feel like the games are criminally undermarketed here in the States, but I wanted to get some input from you folks (and honest input at that, too) on if you'd like to see that sort of thing and what you'd like me to cover. Just the main story? The Item World expeditions? Post-game content? Hit me up. I can't guarantee I'll cover it all (I'm terrible about completing things like the pirate post-game stuff), but I'll definitely cover it if I encounter it or spend time with it.

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