Compared to many of my friends over the years, I’ve barely grazed the surface of RPGs. I remember in high school listening to my friends debate Kefka vs. Sephiroth, then going online and seeing my internet acquaintances gush over Lunar: Silver Star Story. My experience with RPGs is but a fraction of others, but in my limited exposure I do have my favorites.

Honorable Mention 1:  Dragon Warrior

Dragon Warrior (aka Dragon Quest), one of the granddaddies of Japanese RPGs, does not hold up particularly well. It’s a pretty long and tedious game where most of your time is spent walking around leveling up. However, the first time that you see the Dragonlord reveal his true self, and the entire fight with his dragon form, is such a memorable experience for me. What stands out, and is kind of hard to convey in videos, is that whenever the Dragonlord attacked the screen would freeze temporarily (instead of shake as it normally would), making it feel as if his attacks were different and more powerful compared to his minions. You might notice that most of my subsequent entries have something to do with how much I like boss fights.

Honorable Mention 2: Pokemon

In actuality, Pokemon as a whole is one of my favorite game franchises ever. From the thrill of discovery to the depth of competitive battling, it’s been a part of me for a long time. However, in a way I think it overshadows other RPGs because of its prominence, so I’m leaving it off this list.

Final Fantasy IV (Final Fantasy II)

In terms of SNES RPGs, I find that Final Fantasy VI gets much more praise, but I find that my heart lies closer to Final Fantasy IV. The two moments that I think really define the game for me are when Cecil becomes a Paladin, and the final battle against Zeromus. The thing I love about Cecil as Paladin is the way that his transformation is reflected in the gameplay. When Cecil is a Dark Knight, his special technique is to shoot a destructive wave of energy, but when he’s a Paladin he runs to cover his allies and take the damage instead. As for Zeromus, while his appearance in the plot is kind of dumb as a last-minute final boss, the actual battle is wonderfully intense. You have to constantly keep pace with Zeromus’s devastating attacks while music very much befitting a final battle plays. I could actually just fight Zeromus over and over and be happy.

Fire Emblem GBA (aka Fire Emblem: Blazing Sword)

My early experience with Fire Emblem is something I assume to be fairly common. I first learned about the series through Super Smash Bros. Melee, and then got to play a game for the first time with the Game Boy Advance release—the first Fire Emblem game released in the US. I’d heard stories about how unforgiving the series and its infamous permanent deaths were, and while the game was noticeably difficult, it was the satisfaction of seeing my characters successfully take down army after army, and seeing their stories as they interact with each other, which makes it one of my favorites. By the time you reach the end and Lyn, Eliwood, and Hector are in command of their legendary weapons, it makes you feel as if you’ve earned all of this power through your hard work.

Lufia and the Fortress Doom/Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals

Known as the Estopolis series in Japan, Lufia and Lufia II are pretty by-the-numbers RPGs, but I find them to be so incredibly charming and impactful. In The Fortress of Doom, your very first battle takes place in the distant past, when you and your fully decked out team have to fight the biggest baddies in the world, the Sinistrals. After your victory, you move to the present and control the descendant of the hero Maxim (whom you had just been controlling in that climactic battle moments ago), as well as a mysterious girl named Lufia. Seeing the story come full circle as you learn about what happened in the decades between then and now is immensely satisfying. Lufia II is a more refined game and a prequel which goes more in depth about the life and times of Maxim, but it’s the combined package that make them forever memorable.

Dragon Quest VIII

In terms of just standard RPGs that don’t really mess with the formula, Dragon Quest VIII is one of the most refined games I’ve ever played. It never feels like a slog, and the narrative twists are small but powerful. What stands out to me above all else (aside from Jessica Albert <3) is a way a major plot point is hidden throughout your playthrough in a simple and subtle mechanic. When you fight the first boss, it shoots a wave of cursed energy at your party. While one character gets hit by it pretty regularly, it appears to keep missing the hero. It’s an easy detail to forget as you play through the game, but when you learn that he’s literally immune to curses because *SPOILERS*, it really speaks to how clever the game is.

Super Robot Wars R

Does this count? In any case, it’s my first Super Robot Wars game, and the one that introduced me to so many cool and interesting giant robot anime. Getting to see in detail the various attacks and quirks of classics such as Zambot 3, Voltes V, and Gear Fighter Dendoh was such a big step in my further appreciation of the giant robot genre. Fun fact: my Japanese was still really rudimentary at the time, so it took me 65% of my entire play-through to figure out how to dodge. Ha ha ha.

So those are my favorite RPGs. I think it’s kind of an eclectic yet somehow boring list, but it’s straight from the heart.

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As much as I love μ’s, the main group from the original Love Live!, I dig their anime rivals A-RISE (especiallyt their leader Kira Tsubasa) just as much. The reigning champions of the Love Live! school idol tournament, they represent the top of the pyramid, and their music in contrast to μ’s is techno/dance-heavy, with a high-budget sense of professionalism.

In episode 6 and 7 of Love Live! Sunshine!!, we’re introduced to Saint Snow, a duo whose slick dance moves and techno-style music are the first sign that the girls of Aqours have a lot of catching up to do. Given their similarities to A-RISE, I’ve come to wonder if that style of music has come to represent the “adversary” in the franchise.

It’s clear why A-RISE was placed in that position. Initially, μ’s are the underdogs, and A-RISE with their super ritzy high school and position as top idols are there to contrast with the homegrown, down-to-earth feel of the heroines of the story. Saint Snow, though they also hit some stumbling blocks, carry a similar contrast to the rural Numazu area that Aqours comes from.

There’s also a contrast in motivation that seems to come with this style of music. In episode 12, when Saint Snow meets up with Aqours once more, it’s clear that Saint Snow see being school idols as a competition. They want to stand on top and see what the view is like from the summit. This is presented not as a wrong way to approach being school idols, but exists in contrast to Aqours who are in it more for the experience, even if ostensibly they’re doing it to save their school. Similarly, in The School Idol Movie, Tsubasa from A-RISE expresses her ambition to continue being an idol even after she graduates, whereas Honoka is implied to not quite follow that path.

Is there any possibility that the “rival” sound will become associated with the central characters of Love Live!? Or will it at best always be relegated to subgroups within the main cast, such as BiBi and songs such as Cutie Panther?

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kiznaiver-spread

Human communication and the overt expression of emotion/trauma: when it comes to anime writer Okada Mari, many of her works explore these two thmes. Just this past spring, two of her shows—Kiznaiver and The Lost Village—did so in spades, but I found myself comparing the former to another, lesser-known title of Okada’s, titled M3: The Dark Metal.

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In a previous discussion of M3: The Dark Metal as a guest on the Veef Show podcast, I mentioned that the show felt like two conflicting forces were at work, the more down-to-earth directorial style of Satou Jun’ichi clashing with the high melodrama of Okada. The ultimate message of M3: The Dark Metal is that being able to see straight into people’s minds won’t necessarily solve problems of communication (and might even create new ones), and that we as people should do our best to connect with each other using the tools and senses we have already. It thus provides a counterargument to a notion most famously found in Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Kiznaiver takes a similar angle, forcibly connecting its characters through a bond of pain; when one gets hurt, it gets evenly distributed to the rest of them. Ostensibly a way to help people learn to empathize, the story reveals that it ironically did the opposite in early cases. Like M3: The Dark Metal, the characters realize that they need to learn to communicate as they are, though in the case of Kiznaiver the bonding mechanism ultimately helps more than hurts. Another similarity exists between the characters Heita (M3) and Hisomu (Kiznaiver), the sadisme of the former contrastng with the masochism of the latter.

The big difference between the two series is visual flair. M3 is plainly animated, and takes place in a world of monsters and giant robots. Most of it is dark and brooding. Kiznaiver is bright and colorful, and filled to the brim with the dynamic facial expressions, sleek character designs, and overall frenetic aesthetic of Studio Trigger. In this respect, Kiznaiver does a much better job of meshing with Okada’s writing style, though I do hope to see her try and write another giant robot anime.

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doremi-flags

In 2010, I found what would become one of my favorite anime ever. Ojamajo Doremi, at one point brought to the US as Magical Doremi, is a magical girl series targeted at young children, but with such great character development and genuine respect for children’s intelligence that it is easily one of the strongest works of fiction I’ve ever seen, let alone anime or kids’ material.

While I never really reviewed the series beyond the first season, my verdict on the sequels more or less amount to “more or less just as good,” so I didn’t feel it necessary to say the same thing four times. Now that I’ve finished Ojamajo Doremi Dokkaan!, which concludes the original series (there’s an OVA that takes place in Seasons 3 and 4, as well as canon light novel sequels featuring the cast in high school), it gives me a chance to rwhat eflect on I think makes this series so special, but now within the context of having followed the cast over 200+ episodes.

Doremi follows a group of young girls who become witch apprentices, and with their newfound abilities they use their magic to help others out. What makes this series remarkable from the very beginning is that they often cast magic in order to solve people’s problems for them, but rather utilize it in a way that lets people help themselves. Unlike the current Toei magical girl franchise, Precure, each season of Doremi is a direct continuation of the previoust, so we follow the girls from third to sixth grade. Doremi and the others meet a ton of characters and encounter a vast number challenges, so it’s easy to assume that all of the events would kind of blend together in one’s memories. However, the biggest testament to how strong Doremi is in general that the series is filled with characters both major and minor that create lasting impacts.

In the second season, Ojamajo Doremi # (pronounced “Sharp”), where Doremi has to take care of a magical witch baby named Hana. As a 4th grader in elementary school, Doremi cannot handle actually taking care of a baby, and Hana makes her life a living hell. However, when Doremi runs to her mom for comfort because she can’t stand being reprimanded for messing up, her mom instead of offering her a hug actually slaps her. While this might seem harsh, Doremi’s mom is trying to get a message across: while Doremi’s feelings might be hurt for making a mistake, Hana is a baby and utterly helpless. If Doremi isn’t there for her, she could die. Right at this point, the series teaches a valuable lesson: being a mother is no small responsibility, and it’s not to be taken lightly.

doremi-kayokopast

In the third season, Motto! Ojamajo Doremi, Doremi meets a girl named Kayoko, who loves to read but has a deep fear of attending school. The show successfully portrays Kayoko’s fear as something convincingly terrifying to her, and perfectly understandable: at some point, the pressure she felt from both herself not being able to keep up and the perception of her classmates’ seeming disappointment in her became too much. What’s more, in the episode that introduces Kayoko, the show initially creates the expectation that Doremi has solved her problem already, only for her to turn away at the last second. It’s not until a number of episodes later that she’s able to overcome this psychological turmoil and go to school, and then another few before she can even attend class (as opposed to study in the nurse’s office). What’s more, it’s also with the help of another minor character (who also undergoes a good deal of growth) that Kayoko finally recovers.

Then in Dokkaan!, many of the episodes explore the life of a former Queen of the Witch World. Though at first they seem to show individual happy memories from her time in the Human World, gradually they build up to a significant plot point: if the girls truly want to become witches, they must be aware that it might forever divorce them from being unable to fully empathize with their families, friends, and other humans. Life spans, ways of thinking, everything changes.

doremi-kayoko

So when the final episode of Dokkaan! features many of the characters Doremi helped coming back to help her, I found it rather amazing that I could remember so many of them. It made me aware that, though they appeared countless in number, they each stood out in their own ways. Each of their stories were so special, so filled with emotions and the rewards of having been able to work through their problems with Doremi’s help, that they both individually and collectively speak to how tremendously strong Doremi is as a while.

Doremi creates an incredibly robust world from just the simple wish fulfillment concept of girls gaining magic powers, and does so without veering into either coddling over-optimism or grim pessimism. The franchise is mostly full of positive energy but will temper it with an awareness of the doubts and worries that children possess, and is not afraid to show them that life isn’t without is challenges. Whether people are young, old, famous, nobodies, from foreign countries, or right next door, everyone has a story and their own circumstances to work through, and Doremi encourages us to help however we can.

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4brtierlist2

Smashboards recently released its second ever Smash Bros. for Wii U tier list, which comes after a string of big summer tournaments. With movements throughout the rankings both big and small, Tier List 2.0 notably features the inclusion of Corrin and Bayonetta (both of whom were previously absent), and the dramatic rise of both Mewtwo and Marth thanks to a slew of patches as well as advancement in their development by the players themselves. It’s also worth mentioning Mega Man would find himself in high tier. As a character that has been rated both well and poorly throughout the game’s life, it’s quite interesting that Mega Man has barely had any direct buffs.

For the most part, I’m not here to argue placings of characters. If pressed, I’d say the only placings I’m unsure of are Mr. Game & Watch and Charizard.

One thing that this tier list brings to mind is just how balanced Smash 4 is, especially compared to its official predecessors in Smash Bros. Melee and Smash Bros. Brawl. Now, the roster is not perfectly balanced by any means. There are some characters who are clearly better than others. However, there are just as many where their placement is up for debate, and the fact that you’ll have multiple top players disagreeing greatly with the power level of any given character means we have a long way to go in understanding the game fully.

What makes Smash 4 so balanced? While Melee is often touted as the technically more complicated and advanced game because of its strict mechanical curve and plethora of options for constantly threatening the opponent, and I will disagree with anyone who says this makes Melee an inherently better game, the fact that there is no “sky’s the limit” character like Melee Fox or Brawl Meta Knight helps to restrict the possibility of such a dominant character running so roughshod over the weakest characters that you might as well put the controller down. Bad match-ups exist, but you know that Sheik or Diddy Kong are a couple levels below ridiculous.

Moreover, even when you look at some of the characters frequently cited as being terrible, you can often find that they can go toe-to-toe with some of the characters way above them. Take Shulk, who according to the 4BR tier list is the 12th worst character not counting Mii Fighters. Though his flaws are well-known (slow startup on attacks, dependence on Monado Arts that don’t ever fully solve that lackluster frame data), a number of top players on both sides of his match-ups place him as going even with Mewtwo and Cloud, ranked 10th and 2nd respectively. This is just because of how their tools interact, and how their strengths and weaknesses—again, none of which are ever to any utter extreme (no, not even Cloud)—play against each other. If you look at the lesser characters in Melee and Brawl, the best they can hope for is maybe one matchup against a top tier where they don’t get wrecked five ways from Sunday.

Smash 4 is currently seen as having a very volatile competitive scene, as players can be on top of the world one moment and then drown in the early stages of a tournament the next. While some argue that this is a sign of the game being competitively robust while others argue it being a flaw, I think that either argument is too simple and too rooted in whatever individuals value most as “fostering competition.” Rather, I think that a 58-character roster and a balance that’s good enough combines with the fact that not everyone goes to a tournament aiming for 1st to create an interesting formula that leads to volatility.

If everyone was purely dedicated to being the best, they would be pick the characters they believed to be the strongest. As more and more people play these characters and advance their development, the pool of “best characters” would likely narrow. For tournament-goers, it would become more and more necessary to study only a handful of matches to maximize your limited time for practice and study. However, because there are people who want to use their character for reasons other than pure victory, and those characters aren’t abject failures, the top players’ attention is inevitably divided, leading to the greater potential for upsets.

Put differently, imagine a world where everyone maximizes their chances for winning in any given endeavor. Now, let’s say that, one day, a visitor comes whose goal is not to make himself win, but to create as much uncertainty as possible in others. It would end up disrupting the metagame between the original inhabitants, leading to more unpredictable results.

It’s a beautiful place to be.

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The latest great anime isn’t even animated. Thunderbolt Fantasy is a Japanese-Taiwanese co-production that is best described as a puppet show that combines Wuxia martial arts, fantasy anime, and tokusatsu. As someone who doesn’t watch that many martial arts films, isn’t terribly into Super Sentai or Kamen Rider, and was never a big fan of old action-oriented puppet shows like Thunderbirds, it surprises me that this series has actually become my favorite of the season.

I’ve been thinking of Thunderbolt Fantasy as a kind of 2.5D show. It has a lot of the flash and flair of anime, and one might even say the detail-oriented anime-inspired games such as BlazBlue, but of course it’s all intricate puppetry, miniature set design, with a smattering of CG special effects. What strikes me about the series is that the standards by which one judges the quality of a show like this doesn’t quite fit into the criteria of anime or live-action series. It’s not like there’s “animation quality” to consider, or  the idea that the series might be cheaping out during dialogue scenes. Because they’re puppets, it’s not like typical notions of “good acting” necessarily apply either. It ends up falling somewhere along the lines of a tokusatsu show, or perhaps even pro wrestling, where subtleties are conveyed through exaggerated gestures.

As a result, I find that while the fight scenes are intense and entertaining, even entire episodes of characters standing around and talking to each other have much to be impressed by. When the characters are speaking, their mannerisms come out in the puppets’ actions. When they’re fairly stationary, then that invites the opportunity to really admire how amazingly the puppets are designed. The show just has a lot to visually chew on, and that’s on top of charismatic characters, a story that moves at a brisk yet comfortable pace, and interesting lore.

Another aspect of the series I’ve been considering is the idea that Japanese animation has sort of come full circle with Thunderbolt Fantasy. Some of the earliest attempts at Japanese animation were more akin to puppet shows. The late director Ishiguro Noboru (Yamato, Macross) was influenced by Czech puppet shows, while the also-late director Nagahama Tadao had his start in puppet theater as well. However, I’m saying this not just because Thunderbolt Fantasy utilizes puppets, but also because so much of its aesthetics comes from contemporary hyper-stylized anime akin to Madoka Magica or Fate/Zero. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, as the co-production is by Nitro Plus, creators of those two series, as well as Good Smile Company, creators of Nendoroids and Figmas.

The last piece of the puzzle is PILI International Multimedia, the Taiwanese company that actually makes the show. I don’t know nearly enough about them yet, so I don’t want to just spout nonsense. That being said, the making-of episode on Crunchyroll is very insightful, and it makes me want to learn more.

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September is the start of a new, post-Genshiken world.

Though the loss is great, I know I have my patrons to back me up. Thanks to all of you who continue to support me on Patreon:

General:

Johnny Trovato

Ko Ransom

Alex

Diogo Prado

Sasahara Keiko fans:

Kristopher Hostead

Yoshitake Rika fans:

Elliot Page

Hato Kenjirou fans:

Elizabeth

Yajima Mirei fans:

Machi-Kurada

In terms of blog content from this past month, first and foremost is my final chapter review of Genshiken Nidaime. I hope it’s been a great ride for you.

According to last month’s poll, a lot of you would like me to go back and take a look at the original Genshiken as well. I’m eager to oblige, but I probably won’t start for a little while, at least a month or two. In the meantime, I guess I can get my Kio fix with some Spotted Flower.

Other post highlights include an Otakon 2016 convention report, as well as interviews with artist LeSean Thomas and anime studio P.A. Works. The LeSean Thomas interview has been doing extremely well for the blog, and it makes me very aware of how niche the anime audience in comparison to even other nerd subcultures in the US. The last time that happened was when I reported on the Nostalgia Critic and Angry Video Game Nerd appearing in an anime, which got me the most hits in a single day ever.

I also wrote about Yukitheater, sort of. Sadly I couldn’t get the program to work, but if you want a kind of trip back to early 2000s anime fandom but in a modern lens, this virtual theater program might be worth something to you.

The last post I want to mention is one that had been ruminating in my mind for a long time, which is about how characters are rendered attractive or charismatic. Basically, I think that, through visual design and personality and a bunch of other small factors, there are two primary ways by which people become drawn to characters: a magnetic “pull” and a forceful “push.” Am I on the right track? Tell me what you think.

Following up on another point from the previous status update, I’ve begun watching Super Dimensional Cavalry Southern Cross in order to finally update Gattai Girls. Are there any other series you’d like to see me tackle?

Until next time! The second Kizumonogatari movie is showing in October, which is also the month of New York Comic Con. Exciting times.

news_xlarge_charlotte_jokan_karu_cover

So A Study in Charlotte, an American novel about a young female descendant of Sherlock Holmes, is getting a Japanese release, and it has a cover from a manga artist. I’ve written some thoughts about this method of marketing, which you can read here. Namely, can a cover like this influence people’s perception of the contents inside?

When it comes to competitive gaming and eSports, one debate that’s often at the center of developer-player relationships is the decision to either leave a game alone—thus letting the players do what they want with the hope that they will advance the game on their own—or to patch it, essentially modifying the rules for the sake of making it a more enjoyable experience.

I occasionally see discussions about this go to real sports, but in actuality real sports also have examples of both “iterative designs” and “patches.” In particular, basketball provides a couple of interesting examples.

James Naismith square

The classic example of letting players influence the parameters of a game is dribbling in basketball. When basketball inventor James Naismith first developed the game, players were primarily supposed to pass the ball to move it forward. His students were the ones who started dribbling as a kind of loophole around the rules (they were “passing it to themselves”), and Naismith allowed it. Rather than seeing dribbling as a distortion of how the game should be, it was welcomed and ultimately proved to be a skill that enhances the sport of basketball.

120314_wilt-chamberlain_600

However, decades later a new problem arose. Wilt Chamberlain, One of the greatest athletes ever, Wilt was known for having a critical weakness: he was terrible at free throws. At the time, there was no off-the-ball foul rule, so even if Wilt wasn’t holding the ball at the time, opposing players would chase him down just so that they could foul him. The aforementioned rule was implemented to keep the game from becoming ridiculous. It was decided that watching a bunch of guys run around not actually playing basketball was detrimental to the sport, and while some residual problems still exist, it was also good for the game that just needed another “patch.”

Two different cases of “messing with the rules,” two different solutions. In the case of dribbling, it was welcomed with open arms, but when the optimal strategy was to turn basketball into an absurd game of tag, the rules governing the game were changed to prevent this from developing further.

So, when people talk about how the solution is to leave a game alone and let the players handle it, or that continuous patches and modifications to the game are the key to longevity, remember that neither is inherently right or wrong. It depends on the given situation, the community surrounding the game, and the direction that it would be taken should things either be changed too drastically or ignored entirely. In other words, it’s not wise to let yourself take a polarized philosophy in terms of what makes games, competitive or otherwise, “work.”

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nariagirls

I love the dumb, yet incredibly clever humor of gdgd Fairiesstyle humor. Typically combining incredibly cheap animation with a cleverly absurd dialogue, a splash of improv comedy, and willful ignorance over their own premises, these anime always bring a smile to my face. The team behind gdgd Fairies has since gone on to do a variety of shows in that vein, including one about robot girls trying to discover humor, a Transformers series, one about personified Sega consoles, and now we have come to their most daring (and perhaps low-budget) work: Mahou Shoujo? Naria Girls.

Though technically a background story exists, it really doesn’t matter. Three young girls get magic powers to rescue a far-off magic kingdom, but it just so happens that every monster of the week’s scheme “coincidentally” resembles an improv skit like what you’d find on Whose Line Is It Anyway? It’s the kind of show where the girls transform from their school uniforms… to their school uniforms, with no discernible difference.

Unlike the other series mentioned, which are very simply animated using programs such as Miku Miku Dance and Flash, Naria Girls actually uses motion-capture, directly translating its actresses’ motions onto 3D anime-style models. Motion capture can be a finicky thing, and it can take a lot of careful work to not make character movement appear unnatural or to avoid tiny mistakes that come from trying to automate such a process. Naria Girls does not care. Its use of mocap is very rudimentary and constantly exposes its flaws, but then I think that blatant disregard for what is supposed to be a “professional quality work” is what makes the show kind of charming in the first place.

The other appealing quality of the series, though I must warn that it is paradoxically what makes it difficult to watch as well, is that it takes the improv element of the gdgd Fairies-style show to the extreme. If Seha Girls is one end of the spectrum, where all the jokes are scripted and planned out, then Naria Girls is the opposite. From start to finish through each 8-minute episode, all of the jokes are clearly made up on the spot. If that wasn’t enough, the show was revealed in June for a July broadcast, and they were still auditioning for cast members.

The result is that the show can be funny, but often times isn’t, namely because the actresses themselves are not particularly good at improvising. Even eight minutes is hard to maintain if the comedians themselves aren’t experts at it. However, the Russian Roulette element of watching Naria Girls, where you truly cannot tell if the show will be amusing from one moment to the next, is why I enjoy it. When a joke works, it’s a cause for celebration. When a joke falls so utterly flat that it’s like humor itself has been sucked into a black hole, it somehow comes out the other side still being an interesting artifact.

Naria Girls isn’t as good as its predecessors, but it is its own exciting experiment and adventure. That’s why I’m on board.

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