Saturday Summaries 2018-12-01: Back to the Feature Edition

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Now that Giant Bomb is finishing up for the year - we might have one more week of regular features in early December depending on when GOTY recording wraps up and when it rolls out, but I don't see them starting anything new until January - I wanted to take the time to see how their ongoing features have been getting on and what they might look like when they come back.

Alexy QuestThis is, bar none, my favorite of 2018's new features. The "Vinny plus Guest" road trip LPs have been some of my favorites in the past, especially Vinny's "help" with Brad's Demon's Souls run, and Alex makes for a great sardonic neophyte to the galaxy of one of my favorite RPG(ish) franchises. Best of all, the few downsides to this feature - piss-poor inventory management, levelling, and infrequent vendor visits - are streamlined to the point of obsolescence in the sequels, so Alex can just enjoy the story and characters and us vicariously along with him.
GolDanEyeI'd be curious to see how this feature pans out in the future. There were concerns early on with the Facility level that Dan wouldn't have the chops or the game would be too outmoded for a 00 Agent run to be feasible, but he then disproved the doubters with the next episode and the huge amount of progress he made (though there were a few lucky breaks, very entertaining in their own right). I have full faith now that Dan will pull it off, and can't wait to see how it all transpires.
Blue Bombin'While I doubt Alex will delve into the various sub-series of Mega Man - though I'd give anything to see him take on Mega Man Legends - I think Mega Man 7 is at least in the cards. Having played through it myself semi-recently, I'm curious to see how he gets on with the game's strange difficulty swings: it's hard to begin with, gets way easier when you have access to the shop and its cheap E-Tanks, then gets ridiculously hard again for the final boss. Something to look forward to, at any rate.
Beast in the EastI suspect GBEast might never come back to Yakuza for another feature, given how many of them have been playing Kiwami 1 and 2 (and Yakuza 6) in their own time. I hold out some hope that they return to Kamurocho in some fashion eventually, but I've always got the Yakuza 0 playthrough to watch once I've played the game myself sometime next year.
Steal My SunshineIt might need a new name, but I badly want 2017's best feature to return with a different Mario game. While I like the pass n' play with the gambling side-line format for Super Mario Galaxy or even SM64, my hope is that they figure out an equally compelling "antagonistic co-op" equivalent for one of the series's many four-player games, like New Super Mario Bros. U or Super Mario 3D World. It's my number one wishlist item for Giant Bomb East in 2019.
This Is The RunThere's a number of Contra games left that Vinny and Dan could take on, but I liked the change of pace that Soulcalibur offered and I'm wondering if there are other avenues for this feature. Like having four-player games that include Abby and Alex such as Left 4 Dead, or more genteel offerings like Overcooked. I do love seeing GB play together, and it seems like playing cooperatively towards the same goal generates more entertaining arguments than competitive multiplayer ever could.
Fuzion Frenzy FrenzyDid Giant Bomb East conveniently forget there was a sequel? Chop chop, duders.
Ranking of FightersGBWest's major feature will continue on in the same fashion it always has, I suspect. I had some silly ideas about highlighting the best characters last time I did one of these "state of the union" rundowns of the site's features, but my new suggestion is to start breaking up the list into tiers, while still maintaining the numbered entries format. So, for instance, games #1-#15 in the table right now might be "A-tier", and the next batch as "B-tier" and so on. This would be more in line with how fighter games and their characters are generally ranked by the FGC, and will also create a handy short-hand for whenever they need to add something. "This feels B-tier" lets them start in that particular section of their ever-growing list, at which point they can then hum-and-haw about where exactly in that tier it falls. Jan could also have some fun re-rendering the list to have more ostentatious calligraphy fonts for the higher tiers and 8-point Comic Sans for those languishing at the bottom.
Breaking BradI wonder if Celeste's B-sides will be enough to finally break Shoemaker? I couldn't make a dent in any of them after the first world's, and having seen what the later B-sides look like it feels like a single screen might take a whole episode.
The Real PlayStation ClassicFinally, I'd like for GBWest to take a leaf from my own playbook by coming up with a hypothetical "better" list of games for the disappointing PlayStation Classic. Each episode could feature two (or more) PS1 games from Ben, Jeff, Brad, Jason, or Jan's backgrounds - the "hosts" changing each week - and they have to make a valid case while demonstrating the game for why it deserves to be on Sony's mini-console more than, say, Rainbow Six or Battle Arena Toshinden 1. GBWest's biggest strength is in its coverage of older games, between Demo Derby, Game Tapes, The Old Games Show, and Jeff's own expansive retro-gaming streams - and I think a feature like this could draw out the best of that without going back so far to exclude the millennials on staff.

Talking about some returning features, I've been working on new entries for a few of my own:

  • The Indie Game of the Week was Celeste, which is another inauspicious case of me playing a game I was fairly sure I wasn't going to like too much just because it has such a glowing reputation (though I don't think that policy will ever extend to anything above $10). Honestly, Celeste is great. Great look, great music, great controls, great story. It's just when it decides to get rough with you that the good times suddenly come to an end, as they always must in "masocore" platformers. Per contra (and per Contra), there are people who like to get their nuts (or equivalents) bashed in by absurdly hard video games, and to them I wish all the joy in the world.
  • The alternating Tuesday slot had us check out our penultimate pair of games for SNES Classic Mk. II in Episode XXIV: Quintet-sential. As the name might suggest, I processed the remaining two non-sequel Quintet games for the SNES, and perhaps the two overall best: Terranigma and Illusion of Gaia. Both belong to the Soul Blazer trilogy, both offer stories with immense scopes as the hero works to piece back together a broken world, both have some fantastic action-RPG gameplay that's light in complexity but never too easy, and both have visuals and music to die for. It's no surprise that both ended up with seriously high ratings from the P.O.G.S. system (and that's calculated via pure objective science, so you know it's legit).
  • We also have the third part of my Jazztronauts journal, starting with Heist the Ninth. I'm workshopping some alternative blogging structures for this feature going forward now that I've adequately explained how the rules work. Something more akin to a data rundown for each map - number of shards, types of props, and so on - with a section for sarcastic notes on anything weird and wonderful I find. I still love the game's aesthetic, writing, and scavenger hunt gameplay, but discovering bizarre Gmod maps and trying to work my backwards to figure out why they were made remains the highlight. Hopefully I'm passing on some of that joy of discovery with this feature.


TV: American Gods (Season 1)

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I have tremendous respect for Neil Gaiman, and I'm glad that TV has finally reached that point where his truly bizarre properties can have their time in the adaptation sun thanks to intelligent showrunners who know where the heart and soul of their source material lies. American Gods, Gaiman's 2001 deified road trip novel that gives itself over to frequent non-sequitur vignettes about ancient gods surviving in America with most of their old powers stripped away due to a lack of belief, seemed like such a hard nut for either the TV and movie industry to crack. It took Hannibal's Bryan Fuller and Logan's Michael Green to really do right by the text, taking the Benioff/Weiss course of smartly emphasing and de-emphasizing the arcs and characters that work best for a show format while ensuring that the original creator - Gaiman - was always nearby and happy to sign off on the changes.

The plot of season one, which I hear covers about a quarter of the novel, concerns the taciturn ex-convict Shadow Moon and his impulsive decision to join forces with the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday. Shadow at first believes Wednesday to be a veteran con artist in the market for a bodyguard/partner, but the longer he spends time with him the more he realizes that the world he knew is not quite the reality. Wednesday's prepping for a war, you see, and his enemies are the new gods that have supplanted the old in the mass public: media, the internet, and ongoing globalization. The show also spends a good while, sometimes the entire episode, on developing side-characters that may have greater significance later: those like Bilquis, the Biblical Queen of Sheba, who has a bad habit of devouring her worshippers mid-coitus; or Czernobog, the Czech "black god" made most famous by the Night on Bald Mountain segment of Fantasia, who is fond of killing anything living with his hammer and played with snarling glee by Swedish national treasure Peter Stormare.

It's worth noting that every cast member in this show is phenomenal and perfectly cast. Half manage to inject their divine characters with the gravitas and mystique they deserve, while the more human members of the story are adroitly discombobulated by the new way of things and are learning to adjust on the fly. Shadow's wife Laura Moon, the sudden death of whom prompts him to jump in with Wednesday's schemes now that he has nothing left to lose, is this perpetually-bored, not particularly faithful, and suicidally-inclined walking corpse even before her violent demise, and is played with an insouciant charm by the wonderful Emily Browning. She's just one actor in a stellar ensemble, many of whom I'd never seen in anything before. Ian McShane will always be Lovejoy to the British public, but this is another star turn for him as the disguised Odin (which I think the reveal of which was meant to be a surprise, but not to anyone who knows who "Wednesday" is named after and certainly not after his ravens show up).

Anyway, there was some bad news concerning cast and crew changes for the second season - I'll be sad to see Gillian Anderson leave, as the chameleonic new goddess Media - but I have faith (so to speak) that the new season will be every bit as good as the first with the foundations already set. The big question for me is whether or not I'll fold and buy the novel and read ahead. I did it with Game of Thrones and have been sorely tempted to do the same for The Expanse. I guess I'll see whether my curiosity or my apathy for reading wins out.

Movie: Tron: Legacy (2010)

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I remembered the other day that I never saw the Tron follow-up. Tron has always been something I gave (perhaps undue) reverence towards. It was slow and mostly uneventful, but it felt significant too, you know? Like the next big step in digital effects. I feel like a lot of kids my age were wowed by the neon visual style and in love with the idea that there was a big budget Disney Hollywood movie dedicated to nerdy pursuits like computer programming and video games. It's not a movie I rewatched a lot as I got older, but certain imagery like the UFO catcher claw-shaped Recognizer ships or the lightcycles always stuck with me.

Tron: Legacy attempts to do the same for a new generation, I suspect, though to them it probably rings more like a 1980s nostalgic throwback. An idea of the future from the perspective of someone living in the past; sort of like how the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been dabbling with sci-fi and space as envisioned by Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby in the 1960s and 70s. It picks up from the original about two decades later, with Jeff Bridges's Kevin Flynn having vanished soon after the first movie ended and his company Encom turning into a penny-pinching Apple type. Flynn's son, Sam, has no interest in following his estranged father's work, beyond popping in to play pranks on the company, but is intrigued when Alan Bradley - Flynn's friend, Sam's foster father of sorts, and the likeness for the eponymous program Tron - tells him that he received a page from Flynn's old office in his downtown arcade. Sam gets beamed into the grid the same way his old man did, and then we're off to the lightcycle races.

The cast is uniformly fine, especially Bridges invoking Flynn's Zen-like cool in what feels like a The Dude nod, though there were some weird choices made with ancillary characters. Like Michael Sheen camping it up with a flamboyant night club owner slash underworld informant who is performing some kind of one-man Blocky Horror Pixel Show with his brief screentime. Then there's the nightmare-face antagonist Clu: a program created in the likeness of Kevin Flynn who, having not aged unlike his user doppelganger, was created by digitally de-aging Jeff Bridges with special effects that Hollywood would need to work on for several more years before it would look anything close to natural. Unfortunately, Clu is a significant character with a lot of screentime, so there's no getting past the uncanny valley he sits in every time he pops up to yell about perfection in the system or de-rez some incompetent flunky. Beyond that one sticking point, the visual effects are striking - combining modern CGI with the stark visuals and designs of the old movie, all the while maintaining the blue/orange color scheme - and the Daft Punk soundtrack is a lot of fun.

Ultimately, I think the movie is about as good as the original, which wasn't great but certainly had an aesthetic for the ages. It plods along in some stretches, but has some excellent data disk battles (why people are throwing around what are essentially their ID cards is anyone's guess), a game cast with no real weak links, and an affirmation that Tron and that whole digital world is still cool as hell. You know, in a nerdy computer programmer kind of way.

Game: Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom

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Busy week, so I didn't have too much time for Ni no Kuni II. I am, however, close to the end if the story-related trophies are anything to go by. That doesn't mean I'll be done with the game for a while yet, of course: there's a lot of content to see and do, not least of which is building up my kingdom to its maximum and working my way through an enormous list of side-quests and other objectives like recruiting all the Higgledies, defeating all the tainted monsters, and taking on the Dreamer's Doors procgen dungeons. I get so entranced by side-content in games I don't want to end, even though I've got more 2018 games I want to look into before GOTY season starts in late December (of course, there's no reason I have to commit to completing GOTY before the year's even over, unlike the site).

Ni no Kuni II is this generation's Dark Cloud 2. Effusive praise for sure, but I mean specifically in how it took an excellent and imaginative yet flawed game and produced a sequel that not only addressed those flaws, but somehow improved on the original's vision and innovation. Often, a video game sequel will remedy the flaws of the previous game(s) but feel uninspired, as it's essentially retreading the same material but in a slightly improved fashion. Or, it'll take a wildly divergent route for the sake of remaining fresh and end up seeing plenty of replacement issues with the new format. Ni no Kuni II is the rare case of taking a different route while retaining the core appeal of the first game, adding lots of new content types and a whole new battle system, and all of it works and is amazing. This is Level-5 at their best: nothing too meandering, side-content so varied and multitudinous that it's almost deleterious in its power to distract, and an incredible high-budget presentation that spares no expense between its Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra score and Studio Ghibli animation. If it wasn't unfortunate enough to land in the same year as the next mainline Dragon Quest, it'd easily be the most significant RPG of 2018 in Japan, or anywhere else.

I'll be moving onto a different game this time next week, so my Ni no Kuni II coverage will have been a little less intensive than my frequent Tales of Berseria drop-ins. I feel like I covered all the bases last week and my overall impressions this time, so I'll reiterate: this is easily one of the best games of this year, especially for long-time JRPG fans, and I'm so glad I managed to get around to it before 2018 was through. I've got plenty more JRPGs from 2018 to explore in the years to come - DQXI not least of all, but also Octopath Traveller, Labyrinth of Refrain, Lost Sphear, that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 expansion, and the Switch remaster of The World Ends With You - but they have a high bar to pass.