Operating on Different Scales: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 37

An electrifying performance dazzles the audience in this chapter of Hashikko Ensemble.

Summary

Hot off another victory, the Chorus Appreciation Society moves on to the semifinals of the school’s Cultural Festival music competition. This time, having experienced some kind of epiphany, Kousei reacts to Shion with a powerful blush, leading everyone to respond with a mix of confusion and curiosity. A heart-to-heart of sorts with Yukina helps him see what he wants, and at the moment, it’s to sing with Shion.

While the remaining groups are impressive in their own right, the Society’s fierce rendition of the song “Etupirka” bowls everyone over. However, Jin’s mom fails to see this performance too, as she and Yumerun are stuck in traffic.

Yukina’s Maturity and Kousei

After Kousei heads outside by himself, Yukina comes up to him and drops some heavy statements in a surprisingly casual way by discussing a possible future with Kousei, including who would work and how many kids they would have (two or three!). Kousei doesn’t seem bothered in any way by this conversation, though his response is “Right now, I’m having plenty of fun singing with her”—a rejection, at leat for the time being.

This whole conversation is full of unexpected words and responses, and while I don’t know if “realistic” is the right word, the dialogue between Kousei and Yukina has a kind of depth and dimensionality to it because of how they seem to be thinking about the concept of time relative to their wants and desires. Kousei essentially has a choice between the rough-and-tumble girl who’s more like him or the classy girl who’s his complete opposite, and his feelings about it are rooted in the possibility of stepping into a world he long thought cut off from him due to his upbringing. But Yukina takes the long view, and appears to be thinking, “Even though Kousei’s all about the cute girl now, there’s always a chance he’ll come back around eventually.” I find Yukina’s particular brand of maturity interesting, like she’s somewhere between Saki and Keiko in Genshiken.

Kousei’s “Right now” is an interesting choice of words. What I think it implies is that, rather than being about love and seeing oneself with someone for a long time, it’s about Kousei figuring out his emotions in the moment. Does he value the ability to connect with Shion through song more than the inherent mutual understanding he shares with Yukina? The way Shion seems to instantly know what Kousei has on his mind when he hesitates to communicate what he wants out of her piano-playing for the next song, it speaks to a potential deeper connection through music. But whether that bond goes beyond music is something I’m looking forward to seeing.

ETUPIRKA! ETUPIRKA! ETUPIRKA!

Just like in the last chapter, we have an amazingly drawn scene of a Chorus Appreciation Society performance. What stands out to me about their “Etupirka” is that even if you don’t know what the song actually sounds like, Kio’s artwork conveys its sheer intensity. It’s not just the trembling line effects throughout the performance, but the way the characters are drawn with such dynamism even while they’re standing still, as well as the choice to use that initial extreme angle to depict Shion’s piano-playing (as seen in the top image) makes it seem like the ground is trembling. It borders on a more exaggerated representation that one might find in an action-packed shounen manga that uses music as its gimmick the way Yakitate!! Japan and Food Wars: Shokugeki no Soma approach food.

(And if you want to hear a performance of “Etupirka,” it’s in the “Songs” section below.)

Hanyama’s “Tone Deafness” Isn’t

At one point, the subject of Hanyama’s inability to sing on-key comes up, and Jin reveals that what everyone assumed to be a case of being tone deaf is actually something else entirely. He recounts having tested Hanyama, and it turns out that the guy unconsciously sings on a scale different from the traditional Western music scales due to his family running a Buddhist temple. Instead, Hanyama sings according to what the Japanese calll junpachi gyakuroku (“upward eight, lower six”) or sanpun son’eki ho, which is also known as the Chinese 12-tone musical scale—which coincidentally is also the same as Pythagorean tuning. It results in the kind of music you get from Buddhist chants (shoumyou) and Japanese imperial court music (gagaku).

If this is all Greek to you, you’re not alone. Akira in the manga is completely baffled by everything Jin says, and so am I. But the gist of it—as much as I can understand, anyway—is that Hanyama has internalized that particular understanding of music, and it makes his attempts to sing more conventional popular songs go awry. Even if I don’t fully grasp everything, I find that pretty fascinating, and I’m glad Hashikko Ensemble goes into it, however briefly.

Songs

Half Monks: “Guts Daze!!” by Ulfuls. This is the song in a flashback to Hanyama’s singing in the competition while they’re explaining the quirks of his musical sense.

Electrical First-Years A Capella Group: “Racing into the Night” by YOASOBI

This is noted as being a Vocaloid song performed using six voices. While there’s no available equivalent online, there are Vocaloid covers of this song.

Wind Instrument Club: “The Galaxy Express 999” by Godiego

Chorus Appreciation Society: “Etupirka” composed by Hirose Ryouhei

Final Thoughts

Though we only got brief glimpses of them this chapter, I quite enjoyed the presence of both Akira and Jin’s mom. I’m still entertained by Akira’s mom and her delight over her son having friends, and I’m further anticipating the arrival of Jin’s mom at the school. I do get the feeling nothing Jin does will impress her, and I wonder if Yumerun will have any role to play in terms of bridging their strained mother-son relationship.

Also, Volume 6 of Hashikko Ensemble comes out next month! I wonder what store-exclusive bonuses we’ll get this time.

That’s Ruff, Buddy—Nichijou: My Ordinary Life

A review of the comedy manga Nichijou: My Ordinary Life by Arawi Keiichi has been long overdue. I’ve referenced the series off and on since 2011 when the anime debuted, but it’s only in the past year that I finally completed my Nichijou manga collection. Thus, while it’s a few years later than I would’ve preferred, I’m here to lay down my final verdict:

It’s so goddamn funny. 

Well, that took a load off. Until next time!

In all seriousness, reading through all of Nichijou had me laughing uncontrollably on multiple occasions, interspersed between joyful chuckles and lip-puckering smiles. Plenty of anime and manga are wacky, subdued, over-the-top, subversive, and heartful, but rarely do they find themselves packaged in such a perfect package. The main joke of the series is its title—the series is indeed the exploration of the everyday lives of its characters, but their personalities, experiences, and interactions are simultaneously so mundane and bizarre that they play with your expectations at all turns. When you expect them to go zany, you’re hit with a reality check. When you expect something subtle, they might deliver something so hyper-subtle that it loops back around to absurd. 

The core characters of Nichijou come in two groups. The first is a trio of high school friends: the energetic but somewhat dim Yuuko, the powerful closet fujoshi Mio, and the intelligent master troll Mai. The second is a robot named Nano who wishes to have the conspicuous wind-up key removed from her back so she can better pass for a normal girl, and her creator, a child genius called “Professor” who is as immature as she is brilliant. In both cases, the bonds between these characters are equal parts caring support and mind-bending frustration, and it only gets more extreme in both respects as the series continues.

About the closest thing that comes to mind in terms of humor is actually the old webcomic Perry Bible Fellowship in the way that both series are capable of delivering humor and anti-humor with laser-like precision, and you don’t necessarily know which one you’re going to get. One big difference with Nichijou is that it tries to build a fairly consistent world for its comedy to build upon, and this only gets more elaborate as the series goes on. Three of my favorite examples are as follows:

  1. There’s a dog who shows up whenever someone is in a sorry situation whose only purpose is to lay its paw on the hapless individual as a show of pity. At some point during the series, it’s revealed that the dog doesn’t show up out of nowhere—it has an owner who is always extremely confused whenever his pet seems to suddenly start running away with a sense of purpose. 
  1. Mio’s sister, Yoshino, and Mai are both known for their pranks. For most of the series, they don’t really interact, and their forms of humor are similar yet different—Yoshino’s trolling is all about teasing, whereas Mai’s is about defying expectations. Their jokes sometimes cross paths, such as when an attempt to share sides for lunch results in a “Sucks to be you!” sign in Mio’s bentou, and Mai reveals her bentou container to have nothing more than a pre-packaged energy jelly drink (which she then starts to squeeze onto Yuuko’s rice). When Yoshino and Mai finally interact for an extended period, it’s like a glorious clash of the titans.
  1. One of the side characters in the story invents a fake sport named go/soccer so he can start a club and slack off in its clubroom. However, he later discovers that go/soccer actually exists (thanks to a new student who was his middle school’s MVP), and that one of the high school’s teachers was a champion back in his youth. But rather than go/soccer being something in the vein of chess boxing—a combination sport that involves taking alternating rounds between the chess and boxing—go/soccer is completely inscrutable in every facet imaginable, like a serious version of Calvinball from Calvin & Hobbes.

One last thing worth talking about is how the manga compares to the anime that introduced so many (including myself) to Nichijou. There are the more obvious things: the manga continues past where the anime left off, and some of the jokes in the anime come from another series by the author: Helvetica Standard. The most major change, however, comes from the fact that the Nichijou anime was done by Kyoto Animation, whose excellent animation is gorgeous and polished in just about every scene. Ironically, that can sometimes work against the humor of the series, and this can be seen in moments of the manga where the slightly crude art style makes the same joke three times funnier. That being said, I hope that KyoAni can someday come back to animate the rest, despite the tragic setback they’ve faced.

Nichijou: My Ordinary Life is only 10 volumes long, and it’s so very worth reading. I know I’m extremely late in getting this review out, and that it might be a distant memory for many anime and manga fans, but for those who have yet to discover this magnificent gut-busting manga, there’s a real gem waiting. 

A Beam Rifle in Precure?! Z Gundam’s Iconic Sound Effect

Mobile Suit Z Gundam is a classic anime series, a successful sequel and a template for other 80s robot anime. One aspect of it that really sticks in my mind but is less talked about is the sound design. In particular, the sound of beam rifles in Z Gundam is rather iconic, as it’s noticeably different compared to every Gundam anime before and after.

I basically never hear that distinct Z Gundam beam rifle sound anywhere else (that’s not just featuring the Z Gundam itself), with one big exception: the fighting magical girl franchise Precure.

I can’t recall exactly when I first heard the use of the Z Gundam beam rifle sound in Precure—I think it might have been in Kira Kira Precure a la Mode—but ever since then, I can’t help noticing it. In Episode 32 of Healin’ Good Precure, the monster of the week makes pretty much that exact sound when firing a blast of energy (see 17:43 in the link).

It’s so strange to me. Of all the places for the beam rifle to show up, why Precure? There’s no studio connection (as Gundam is from Sunrise and Precure is from Toei Animation), so they’re not necessarily working from the same stock library. You won’t even find the sound in other mecha series—though maybe hearing it in a giant robot anime would bring up too many comparisons? I wonder if the sheer genre distance between the two allows Precure to use the SFX? Or could there be some Gundam fans in charge of sound production at Toei who like to incorporate the beam rifle into episodes. For that matter, I think I’ve even heard the classic Newtype flash on occasion while watching Precure.

More broadly, this all makes me want to know why the Z Gundam beam rifle sound just never really went anywhere beyond that one series. Personally, I think it has a great tone that sounds like a powerful yet precise weapon. Perhaps it was too iconic for its own good, but I guess for now, it’ll live on in the battles of modern anime’s most prominent transforming heroines.

Epsilon-Eagle (Alien Soldier) for Super Smash Bros.

Today’s a Nintendo Direct, so why not get excited with some Smash Bros. Ultimate character speculation?!

Treasure is a great video company that has a reputation for making games that cater to a more hardcore audience looking for difficult yet rewarding gameplay. As fond as I am of Treasure, however, I only recently got to learn about what is arguably their most difficult title ever: Alien Soldier. A largely one-man labor of love, it’s basically a gigantic boss rush, and as someone who adores boss fights, it’s in many ways the perfect game for me. It’s also mindbendingly unforgiving on a level that is all but unmatched—a combination of difficult controls and giant enemies designed to exploit the awkwardness that results from cumbersome movement. It’s fun, but cruel.

The peculiar nature of Alien Soldier’s gameplay kind of reminds me of the precision required to play Smash Bros. Melee at a high level. That thought then led to the obvious one: what if Epsilon-Eagle, the protagonist of Alien Soldier, was in a Smash Bros. game? Granted, there’s nothing that would automatically make him more deserving than even other Treasure heroes like Red and Blue from Gunstar Heroes, Marina Liteyears in Mischief Makers, or Serena in Guardian Heroes—except maybe that hardcore legend status. Still, I want to entertain the notion.

The key thing about translating Epison-Eagle to Smash Bros. is that the character’s game philosophy stands in philosophical opposition to the Kirby franchise. Where Kirby is all about gentle, beginner-friendly learning curves, Alien Soldier is punishing to the unfamiliar. Everything about controlling Epsilon-Eagle is supposed to feel like a chore at first. He should have awkward acceleration while running, jumps that are kind of a pain in the ass for the user, and weapons that both have limited ammo and get worse the more you use them. He should also be feared at low percents thanks to the ridiculous might of Phoenix Force.

In Alien Soldier, Phoenix Force is an extremely powerful dashing attack that does a ton of damage, is invincible, and hurts the user. In Smash, it would be like a combination of Charizard’s Flare Blitz and Banjo-Kazooie’s Wonderwing on steroids, albeit with an even more serious downside than Wonderwing’s limited ammo. Much like Link’s sword projectile, Phoenix Force would only be available when Epsilon-Eagle is under a certain amount of damage (let’s say 0-25%). The recoil from Phoenix Force would itself inflict 26% damage on the user (while dealing 50% to the opponent), meaning that unless you heal, there’s no way to use it again.

The catch here is that Epsilon-Eagle would be the only character in Smash who can heal by parrying attacks, somewhat akin to a “Just Defend” from Garou: Mark of the Wolves. In Alien Soldier, there is a move called “Counter-Force” that effectively acts as a parry, but which also creates health drops to collect. In Smash, having parry bring down the damage percentage would be a rough replication of that. It also makes the character good at dealing with projectiles (aside from Epsilon-Eagle also being a ranged character) and overly safe and predictable gameplay, as you wouldn’t want to accidentally give him back enough health to gain access to Phoenix Force.

In terms of special moves, Phoenix Force would be the side-special. While it’s executed as “down + jump” in Alien Eagle, I think it would be okay to at least give players the luxury of more intuitive directional controls. When Phoenix Force isn’t usable, the attack would simply be Zero Teleport, a horizontally traveling no-damage invincible dash reminiscent of Fox Illusion mixed with a bit of Pichu’s Agility. While it would indeed be impossible to hit, it would also travel the exact same distance and direction every time, limiting how much it can be abused. 

Neutral special would be Shot, i.e. firing your currently selected projectile weapon (Buster Force, Flame Force, Lancer Force, etc). Up-special would be Hover, which like in Alien Soldier, freezes you in place in the air. In Smash, it would be more for temporary midair stalling to mess with the opponent’s timing, but this would also mean Epsilon-Eagle’s recovery is highly reliant on Zero Teleport. Down-special would be Weapon Select, and much like Min Min’s Arms Change would cycle through different projectiles to use for the neutral special. Special + Shield would switch him between stationary shooting and running-and-gunning modes, giving him the ability to do both a moving shot a la Mega Man/Min Min or the ability to change direction of fire while standing still, but not both at the same time. It’s another intentional execution barrier in Alien Solder, and it would be here as well.

As for normal attacks and throws, they would have to be mostly made up from whole cloth, with a few perhaps utilizing ammo, akin to how Robin’s can deplete his Wind or Fire tomes depending on what version of jab he throws out. Something cool and spacey would be nice, but the important thing would be to not have him utterly hosed by reflectors. 

A character like Epsilon-Eagle should probably be high-tier or top-tier to justify his absurdity, but having someone so finicky could likely land him in mid-tier or worse. Moreover, the sheer strength of Phoenix Force would be tricky to balance, as even the slightest tweaks to it could result in a busted and aggravating character to use or fight against (or both at the same time!). Even so, wouldn’t it be amazing to see Epsilon-Eagle be up two stocks through clever gameplay, and then devastate the opponent’s last stock with a well-timed Phoenix Force? 

God Mars and the Legacy of BL Fan Shipping

There are two success stories to tell about the 1981 giant robot anime Six God Combination God Mars. The first is about a combining giant robot that was better as a toy than as an animated figure in motion: toy sales were strong enough to extend the series beyond its first year, but the awkward stiffness of the titular God Mars itself is something of a running gag (as seen in the YouTube comments here). The second, and I think the one that should get more attention among English-speaking anime fans, is about the tremendous influence of God Mars on Japan’s female anime fandom and doujinshi scene. In a time when pairing same-sex characters from your favorite series was not yet the full-on cottage industry it is today, God Mars was a cornerstone title alongside Captain Tsubasa.

I personally came to know about God Mars twenty years ago, although knowledge about the two aspects of the series came at different times. It was a collection of giant robot anime openings around 2001 that introduced me to the show and its impressive-looking mecha, but it was actually 2004’s Genshiken Official Data Book (of all things) that first brought to my attention God Mars’s popularity with women. Years later at Otakon 2010, voice actor Mitsuya Yuji mentioned among his most popular roles a character from God Mars named Marg. Now, I have the entire series on physical media thanks to Discotek (with 25 episodes up for free on TMS’s Youtube channel), and I’ve finally come to understand what made God Mars one of the granddaddies of fandom pairing in Japan.

Simply put, it’s Marg. Once you know about him, it becomes crystal clear why a female fandom around God Mars developed.

Marg is not the main character. That honor goes to Myoujin Takeru, a guy with psychic powers who discovers that he is actually an alien named Mars sent from the planet Gishin to destroy Earth. However, Takeru manages to defy the evil Emperor Zul and use the very weapon originally meant to eliminate Earth to instead form God Mars and beat back the Gishin Empire. Along the way, he discovers many truths about his original home world, including that he has a long lost brother—Marg—in Zul’s clutches. The dramas that emerge from their familial relationship include attempts to reunite, the pain of separation, and even the crossing of swords due to various plot contrivances. 

Marg is ridiculously beautiful both inside and out. He has lush locks of long green hair, and eyes that can express the deepest kindness but also the most fervent passion. His voice is gentle yet powerful, and his forlorn communications with Takeru express a longing and desire to see Takeru—unless he’s being brainwashed into being the enemy, of course, at which point his anger is spine-tingling. Whenever Marg shows up, he becomes the most captivating figure on screen.

Given that we’re talking about shipping and coupling, it’s not entirely accurate to pin it all on Marg. The popularity of a series among female fans traditionally hinges on the relationships between characters rather than singular personalities, and Takeru himself is no slouch. Not only does he look like a more handsome version of many a 70s robot protagonist, but he is perhaps the angstiest hero ever to grace a giant robot anime. Sure, Shinji from Evangelion is traumatized and depressed, and Heero Yuy from Gundam W is dark and brooding, but they don’t angst the way Takeru does. Naturally, more often than not, that anguish has something to do with Marg. And yes, they’re brothers by blood. Whether that was an additional awakening for fans in 1981, I’m not sure. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Even before God Mars, there were plenty of good-looking and charismatic secondary characters in mecha anime. Between directors Tomino Yoshiyuki and Nagahama Tadao, they all but cornered the market: Prince Sharkin (Reideen), Garuda (Combattler V), Prince Heinel (Voltes V), Richter (Daimos), and both Char Aznable and Garma Zabi (Gundam). The key difference between these major rivals and Marg is that the latter is so many things in one. He’s an adversary at some times, but at other times he’s basically a damsel in distress.

There is something I need to make clear: Unlike so many later anime, which could be constructed from head to toe with a female audience in mind (or at least pay regular lip service to that side of fandom), God Mars is still built on the foundation of a toy-shilling kids’ anime. It is 65 episodes long, and not every episode is exactly compelling. There’s an unsurprising inconsistency in terms of the show’s quality with respect to storytelling and animation quality. In addition to the notorious stiffness of God Mars the robot, the anime is rife with fights between characters with psychic powers that revolve around dramatic poses in still shots in lieu of actual movement—a style of action scene the book Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga mocks for its laziness. And dashing canon hopes of brotherly love, the series pairs Takeru with a female character, albeit one with a connection to Marg. In other words, back in 1981, fujoshi had to walk uphill both ways to get their BL shipping fix. 

Even so, a girls’ fandom emerged out of God Mars, and plenty of evidence exists that the creators became aware of this audience eventually. The TV series keeps finding ways to bring him back in different forms. A 1982 movie recap of the first 26 or so episodes reduces the screen time of other supporting characters in favor of more Marg, and the poster advertising the film even features him prominently (see above). A later OVA released in 1988—well after God Mars’s heyday—centers around Marg entirely. A look at God Mars merchandise reveals both official and unofficial works where Marg takes up a lot of real estate.

When I was going over my own prior history with God Mars, I omitted one thing: the game Super Robot Wars D for the Gameboy Advance. God Mars is one of the titles included, and in the game, you can manage to not only recruit Marg to your side but also have him pilot an alternate God Mars from that 1988 OVA in which he’s the star. Once together, Takeru and Marg can perform combination attacks like the “Double Final God Mars.” I can’t help but wonder if there were both kinds of God Mars fans working on this game, bringing together the hopes and dreams of those whose lives were changed in some part by God Mars and its two successes.

Eminently Relatable: Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club

In the beginning, there was Love Live! School Idol Project. Then came the sequel, Love Live! Sunshine!! And now, we arrive at the anime adaptation of the third story about a high school club stepping into the world of idol performance for the sake of school spirit, Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club. Well, technically, the fourth project is already underway, but I still want to commit to paper (so to speak) my thoughts on the girls of Nijigasaki.

I began as a Love Live! skeptic of sorts, but the first anime won me over thanks to the sheer presence of its characters. Love Live! Sunshine!! is also a treat, but even though it has elements that help to differentiate it from the original, they still feel built from the same essence. In both cases, while each of the girls that comprise their respective groups all have their own particular charms and personalities, their philosophy is that of group unity and togetherness. In Nijigasaki High School Idol Club, however, the focus is on the characters as solo idols. The first two thirds of the series spend each episode focusing on each character, with a special musical performance highlighting the star of each episode, before bringing everything together leading into the finale. This can even be seen in the fact that they have no formal stage name as a whole. Whereas Love Live! has μ’s (pronounced “Muse”) and Sunshine!! has Aqours (pronounced “Aqua”), these girls are just the “Nijigasaki High School Idol Club.” 

If I had come to this anime as my first Love Live! experience, I probably wouldn’t have thought that this series’ emphasis on individuality as especially notable, but because I’m not new to the franchise, this change of direction stands out all the more. Combined with a different visual style (the character designs come across more “matte” than “glossy”), and Nijigasaki comes across as more of an alternative than a sequel. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the previous Love Live! anime, and I have my favorites among the characters, Koizumi Hanayo chief among them. But when it comes to Nijigasaki, I find myself personally relating on some level to all of them. I’m not certain if it’s by general design (“They should all be relatable!”) or if it’s just my own specific circumstances that lends me to directly empathize with the Nijigasaki girls, but I didn’t quite have the same experience with the previous works. Whether it’s Asaka Karen’s lack of directional sense, Konoe Kanata’s perpetual sleepiness, Tennouji Rina’s struggles with outward expression (it’s why I’m a lot better at writing than speaking), or any number of qualities, it’s like I can find fragments of myself in each character—including the audience insert character, Takasaki Yu, and her desire to find her own dreams. 

For that reason, I also can’t quite decide on a favorite Nijigasaki character, though I lean a bit towards Yuki Setsuna due to her Clark Kent/Superman duality as the student council president and how her love of anime and manga comes out in joyful bursts due to a strict family that looks down on such things as frivolous. It’s been a long time since I was in high school, but I can still remember those feelings.

One of the entertaining aspects of Nijigasaki is that it’s full of references both meta and cultural. The characters of Nijigasaki first emerged via the Love Live! mobile games, and that origin is paid homage throughout the anime. Three of the girls started off as “normal rarity” cards in Love Live! School Idol Festival, and many of their former peers show up in the anime as the school idols of other schools. While a different series would treat these characters as nobodies, Nijigasaki does the opposite. To use pro wrestling lingo, it would be all too easy to bury them and present them as lesser, the anime makes them the established idols of nearby schools that the Nijigasaki club aspires to match. At the end of the series, the event they hold is called “School Idol Festival,” bringing the name of the games they came from to the forefront, only now as a literal festival and not just something that sounds neat. As for non-Love Live!-specific references, their school is literally Tokyo Big Sight (complete with interior architecture that works great for a convention center but is weird to have for a school), and the anime’s Odaiba setting features cameos by the life-size Unicorn Gundam model currently located there. Sunrise, the studio behind Gundam, also does the Love Live! Anime.

Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club brings something new for existing fans of Love Live!, but it’s also a solidly pleasant anime for fans of all stripes. While the original is still closest to my heart, I appreciate what this series does, and I feel the most personally connected to the characters and what makes them tick. I look forward to a second season, especially if a certain Hong Kong–native makes her appearance.

“冇問題”

The “Expert” Design of Modern Beat ’em Ups

“Beat-em-up” video games are relics of the past that manage to still persist to this day mostly as nostalgia trips. Examples include River City Girls (a gender role reversal of River City Ransom) and Streets of Rage 4. In these games, you can see the ways in which developers have tried to update the formulas to current gaming conventions, and it has me thinking about the evolution that the genre has gone through over multiple decades.

Beginning in coin-op arcades, the goal of beat-em-ups was to try to take your money in a war of attrition. They were downright ubiquitous too, with Double Dragon, Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun (adapted in other countries as Renegade), Final FIght, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Sengoku are among the biggest examples from the 1980s to 1990s.  Despite their blatant unfairness, however, there’s just always been something fun about their simplicity. You walk side to side, defeating waves of enemies and overpowered bosses with flashy attacks and however many coins were in your pockets.

But home consoles have had beat-em-up games for a long time as well, and the original quarter-munching system could not apply there. Instead, they usually did at least one of two things. The first was to limit how many times you could play in order to make the challenge about being good enough. Streets of Rage, for example, began as a Sega Genesis/Megadrive game, and restricted how many continues you could use. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game did the same, though it could be made more forgiving using a cheat code. The second approach was to adjust the experience to include elements from other genres. From one NES iteration to the next, Double Dragon incorporated things like an experience system, platforming, and recruiting enemy bosses as allies. Kunio-kun’s descendant is River City Ransom, a kind of 50-50 RPG and beat-em-up experience. Ninja Gaiden went from beat-em-up in the arcades to completely switching genres to a notoriously cruel action platformer. As Jeremy Parish points out in his NES Works video series, this was par for the course for many games in their conversion to home play.

For many years, the two variants existed side by side, with the arcades still taking kids’ allowances bit by bit while consoles acted as investments rewarding time spent. Eventually, however, arcades mostly faded away, and their brand of beat-em-ups kind of lost their place. These days, players can still visit the classic beat-em-ups of the past through re-releases on modern consoles and computers, but the lack of quarter feeding makes them an inherently different experience. However, there’s still a lot of love for the genre, especially among those who grew up with it, and there’s been a clear desire to capture the magic in a faithful way while still updating the beat-em-up to include accepted standards of current gaming—like not tossing you all the way back to the first level after you lose.

The result is that many of the beat-em-ups of the last decade really want to emphasize being “skill tests.” Both River City Girls and Streets of Rage 4, for example, take a lot of influence from fighting games—especially the “anime fighter” subgenre. The use of ground bounces, wall bounces, and air juggling makes these games partly an exercise in optimizing combos. 2013’s Dragon’s Crown also leaves plenty of room for combo creativity, and along with River City Girls does bring in RPG aspects that also reflect a more contemporary sensibility. While not the first beat-em-ups to incorporate these elements (that might be Guardian Heroes in 1996), the approach seems to have become a staple of sorts. What’s more, Streets of Rage 4 has bosses that are programmed to avoid attacks through brisk walk speeds (as if to whiff punish), as well as armor frames. Perhaps because fighting games are a closely related genre, the thinking is that it’s easiest to graft on those elements.

There are plenty of pros to adding long combos to beat-em-ups, namely in the realm of rewarding players for dedicating themselves to improving, but I think there is a recurring and significant con of sorts: the loss of the genre’s characteristic simplicity. In a lot of old beat-em-ups, you could probably get away with just doing basic punch combinations constantly, but now, the difficulty of newer games has been cranked up so as to almost require players to do those fancy combos to reliably succeed. In some ways, it reminds me of the direction Mega Man 9 and 10 went, which is to really fine-tune its platforming into combos of sorts. The result is a degree of extra polish that can sometimes feel too slick. 

In the end, trying to add an extra bit of rewarding challenge to beat-em-ups is hardly a bad thing, but I have to wonder if there are other possible ways to make the genre work in this day and age. One thing I’m surprised to have not seen is placing the beat-em-up into the money-draining successor to the arcade in the form of play-to-win mobile games. It would be downright diabolical, and I’m morbidly curious to see what would come out of it.  

Minecraft Steve Is the PC Gaming Mascot of Smash

Throughout the years on this blog, I’ve speculated who would be a proper mascot for Western PC gaming in Smash Bros. As that series has transitioned from being “Nintendo All Stars” to “Video Game All Stars,” I’ve thought about the kinds of characters who could do a field as wide as “gaming on computers” justice. Maybe it could be the Warcraft orc Thrall, who features prominently in the real-time strategy, MMORPG genres, and MOBA genres. Maybe it could be Turrican, who comes from the Commodore 64 and Amiga era. But what I failed to realize—even after I did an analysis!—is that Steve from Minecraft is that Western PC representative. 

Minecraft is currently owned by Microsoft and on nearly every platform available, but as one of only two characters to get his start on computers (the other being Solid Snake and his original MSX debut), Steve 100% counts as a PC gaming mascot. I think the reason it didn’t even occur to me until recently is the sheer degree of Minecraft’s success. It is literally the best selling video game ever, and its presence transcends gaming. Yet, it still has fairly humble origins as a side project for a programmer working at a browser-based game company, to the extent that you might even count Steve as also the first indie gaming rep in Smash Bros. even if it is technically no longer an indie game.

As with every out-of-left-field fighter added to Smash, Steve opens up a world of possibilities in my mind. I want more than ever to just every aspect of video games from its earliest days somehow included. What about edutainment? Ryu, Ken, and Terry cover 2D fighting games, but 3D fighting games are substantially different. Reimu from Touhou could cover doujin games as well as shmups. Mobile and gacha games are such a huge part of the industry now—why not Angry Birds, or Dragalia Lost if they want to keep it in the Nintendo family? Imagine if Great Giana Sisters (which began as a Mario rip-off) made it in. Hell, why not bring in Computer Tennis

I’m aware that there are only three DLC slots left in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and that I’m wishing for the moon. Even so, it feels like we keep getting one ladder rung closer to that impossible dream, and it becomes ever so tempting to keep imagining. I realistically won’t be disappointed to see something less, and I respect all that the developers have accomplished, but nothing will stop me from looking toward the next sequel.

Otakon Needs Our Help

Otakon, the largest American anime convention on the east coast, is in trouble. Due to the ongoing pandemic stifling last year’s event and the nonprofit nature of its parent organization, Otakon is at risk of shutting down for good. In order to fight off this unfortunate possibility, Otakorp is now, for the first time ever, accepting donations online.

I make no effort to hide the fact that Otakon is by far my favorite anime convention. I’ve been an attendee since before I started Ogiue Maniax all the way back in 2007, and I’ve gone as press (and occasionally even a panelist) every year since. Writing con reports and conducting interviews with great Otakon guests have become staples of this blog and my experience as an anime fan. Donating to Otakon has been one of the easiest decisions I ever made.

What I love so much about Otakon is that it never feels as commercialized compared to some of the professionally run anime conventions that are so common these days. I can expect interesting guests from Japan, including those who might not be as well known to the mainstream anime fan, and it’s always a pleasure to pick their brains for industry insight. I also love the fan panel culture that has grown out of Otakon, where every year is full of genuinely enthusiastic presenters, both new and seasoned, who encourage their audience to explore a little further and think a little deeper about anime, manga, and fandom. And it’s also been a great place to connect to many of the fellow fans I’ve met online.

In honor of Otakon and in hopes of it continuing on, I’ve decided to list some of the great interviews I’ve done at the convention over the years. I hope they can at least show you why it’s a cultural touchstone worth saving.

Furuya Toru, the voice of Amuro Ray and Tuxedo Mask (Otakon 2019)

Inoue Kikuko, the voice of Belldandy and Aina Sahalin (Otakon 2019)

Kawamori Shoji, creator of Macross (Otakon 2018)

Furukawa Toshio (Piccolo, Kai Shiden) and Kakinuma Ai (Naru in Sailor Moon) (Otakon 2017)

P.A. Works, the studio behind Shirobako (Otakon 2016)

LeSean Thomas, co-director of The Boondocks and creator of Cannon Buster (Otakon 2016)

Takamatsu Shinji, director of Gundam X and J-Decker (Otakon 2015)

Park Romi (Edward Elric, Loran Cehack) press conference (Otakon 2015)

Seki Tomokazu, the voice of Domon Kasshu (Otakon 2013)

Teleport Them Chocolates: Ogiue Maniax Status Update for February 2021

We are on the other side of a terrifying four years, and I am glad to be here with you. Though we don’t know what the future holds, I feel somewhat optimistic.

However, we still have COVID-19 killing thousands of people a day, so I hope for the safety of you and everyone you hold dear. Also, I hope this is obvious, but please do not attend any anime conventions while we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Seriously, don’t. Stay home, and enjoy anime from the comfort of your TV or computer. The new anime season is in full swing, and Valentine’s Day is around the corner, which means plenty of talk about giri and honmei chocolates.

Thank you to the following Patreon sponsors for their support in the month of February:

General:

Ko Ransom

Diogo Prado

Alex

Sue Hopkins fans:

Serxeid

Hato Kenjirou fans:

Elizabeth

Yajima Mirei fans:

Machi-Kurada

Blog highlights from January:

The “Blocker Corps IV Machine Blaster Crowdfund”: Help Preserve a 45-Year-Old Giant Robot Anime!

Mecha history is anime history, and I’d hate to see this show not get a proper digital preservation.

Chainsaw Man and Women in Refrigerators

A spoiler-heavy look at how one of the hottest current manga tackles a problematic old trope

Rookie Veteran, Veteran Rookie: The Gymnastics Samurai

How does this gymnastics-themed anime handle its “older” protagonist?

Hashikko Ensemble

Chapter 36 is the long-awaited debut of Jin’s mom! Spoilers: She probably got teen pregnant.

Closing

If you’ve got a favorite anime of the season so far, I’m all ears. I’ve been enjoying the return to form that is Show by Rock!! Stars! and the strange and irreverent Back Arrow.