The Game is Afoot—ID: Invaded

Sometimes I watch an anime where I think, “Man, that would make one hell of a video game.” Id: Invaded is one such title. It’s a kind of Inception meets Minority Report, where the main character’s ability to jump into a serial killer’s vague subconscious sets up the story as a series of “puzzles” that bring a different flavor to the idea of a “psychological profile.”

The basic premise of ID: Invaded is that an advanced form of technology allows the police in Japan to pick up psychic traces of a serial killer’s mind, and to send someone in to try and figure out the culprit’s identity. This task is given to Narihisago Akihito, who enters these “id wells” and transforms into an alternate persona known as the brilliant detective Sakaido. The major caveats of this process are that entering these mindscapes means you do not have memories of your real self, losing your life inside feels as bad as actual death, and you cannot retain what you’ve experienced in between sessions. It’s up to the officers on the outside to process the information they receive from Narihisago, and to make moves in reality. Underlying all this is Narihisago’s own traumatic past and the ways he attempts to atone by working through this bizarre system.

What got me hooked onto ID: Invaded is that the mystery is not just the identity of a given serial killer, but trying to figure out how their mind works from within without any direct signs as to who they are. The limitations of the system, as described above, are like a crueler version of a Rogue-like, where you don’t just lose all your material progress but the things you learned in the previous session. I also like that it involves having two tracks working side by side: the “subconscious game-like world” and the world of flesh-and-blood detectives. The character of Hondomachi, a young rookie on force, grows in interesting ways as she increasingly toes the line between the two realms.

But fantastical elements or not, a mystery series comes down to how well it sticks the landing. I In the case of ID: Invaded, I think it does adequately but there are some downsides. For one, I think the series escalates a little too quickly from one storyline to the next, and the big case that defines the later episodes makes it hard to imagine what could top it in the potential sequel that seems to be implied by the end. Also, the second half starts to break some of the rules established in the first half as another way to show how the stakes have gotten higher, but it stymies that excellent puzzle game-like quality established early on. The rules of detective fiction aren’t iron-clad, and I wouldn’t mind it down the road, but it just feels like it came too soon.

Still, the characters, the basic conception, and the overall story of ID: Invaded are excellent. I’d love to see more; I just don’t quite know how they’re going to keep the “boundaries” intact enough to let the logical limitations presented by the narrative shine through stronger than before.

The Perfect Storm of Virtual Youtubers

As the days go by, I increasingly find myself looking into the world of Virtual Youtubers. I watch the clips and highlights that go around, and I sometimes tune into the live streams of my favorites. I wouldn’t consider myself a devotee of the whole concept, but I’m entertained. I know I’m not alone, as the increasing success of VTubers is a sight to behold—Gawr Gura, one of the first members of the Hololive agency’s push into English-language streaming, hit one million subscribers in just a little over a month and has since surpassed two million.

The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that the success of Virtual Youtubers shouldn’t come as a surprise. They’re in many ways a perfect storm of things that appeal to people on the internet, bringing together different groups who tend towards obsession and converging them onto this amalgam of elements.

The first group is weebs. I generally avoid the term, preferring things like “anime and manga fans,” but I feel that its usage is accurate here—it’s not just about being into the media but being into that strain of Japanese pop culture. With few exceptions, Virtual Youtubers go for that anime aesthetic, recruiting famous artists and character designers to create these avatars. In a sense, they’re anime characters come to life, and that gives them a certain charm and universality that comes with being less realistic in terms of appearance. And while VTubers now exist across the world, they’re firmly rooted in that anime/manga/light novel realm, and expectations derive from the tropes found there. 

The second group is gamers. While streaming has had some presence on the internet for decades now, gaming has become one of its absolute pillars. Between the transformation of Justin.tv into Twitch, the prevalence of esports, the enduring popularity of Youtube channels like Game Grumps, and the rise of speedrunning as a spectator activity, there’s no denying the draw. Live streaming your play session is just an easy and reliable way to connect with potential fans, and while streamers usually need some kind of physical or personal charisma to get things going, the sleek designs of VTubers help bridge that gap.

The third group is idol fans. While it’s like every one of them eventually gets their own original songs, what attracts people to idols is that they feel somehow distant yet accessible, and Virtual Youtubers greatly exaggerate both sides of the fantasy by their very nature. The use of character avatars means there’s no mistaking their visual appearances for being the “real” individuals, but that also means being able to project onto them an idealized version. At the same time, unlike Hatsune Miku, they’re real people interacting from behind the curtain. Depending on what level of performativity vs. seeming authenticity a viewer wants, or popularity vs. obscurity (what’s more exciting than seeing your favorite personality grow from small-time to wild success?) there’s probably a VTuber for them. What’s more, the concept of superchats on YouTube allows fans to get instant gratification by giving money to have their messages read and acknowledged.

The fourth group, and there’s plenty of overlap with the other three, is those who are into celebrities. This is a more vague and generalized group, but it’s the same energy that fuels people to follow the goings-on of their favorite movie stars and singers.

A weeb might love all things anime-adjacent but dismiss Western-style game aesthetics. A fan of first-person shooters might love watching anything and everything related to their favorite games but think anime stuff looks weird as hell. But then a Virtual Youtuber who looks like an anime character come-to-life might play Apex Legends, and so now the weebs get their real-life anime girl and the Western-focused gamers get to connect to her through their favorite game. At the same time, even if she isn’t particularly good at what she’s playing, that gives her a kind of element of relatability that an idol fan might be drawn to. And even if someone isn’t an idol fan, seeing someone suffer through a game has an established history of bringing in eyeballs. The crossover appeal is hard to deny.

Thus, when the VTubers branch into areas other than gaming, they can bring all those different groups together. It’s why they can karaoke Japanese, English, and even German songs, all to praise and fanfare. When they do something completely out of the realm of entertainment, like cook, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary even if the results can range from bizarre to horrifying. The fact that their fans don’t just come from one place also gives the VTubers the flexibility to try new things and see what sticks. Non-virtual streamers who get popular because of one game can sometimes have a hard time playing others because they might not get the viewer counts they normally would, but what makes people want to see Virtual Youtubers goes beyond specific games or titles. 

I think the concept of the VTuber allows it a certain degree of freedom that flesh-and-blood streamers do not. By virtue of their virtual natures (pun intended), they invite viewers into a kind of alternate reality. From there, the ability to take that anime character identity and apply it to various domains or interests means that even activities that normally might not appeal to a person can suddenly seem interesting. It’s a lot like how manga can make certain topics more appealing to those who are unfamiliar, but with Virtual Youtubers you get both the slice-of-life hobbyism and the gutsy competition at the same time. And unlike in manga, the wins and losses are real—even if everything is ultimately made up and the points don’t matter.

Wellness for the Self, Wellness for the World: Healin’ Good Precure

Healin’ Good Precure might be either one of the best-timed anime ever or one of the worst. With themes of environmentalism, medicine, and even personal wellbeing, the anime began in February 2020 right as the threat COVID-19 was starting to increase. As a result, the series lost about a month’s worth of episodes (ending at 45 instead of around 50), and the pandemic only further increased the importance of its message. As it came back from the production delay, I myself wondered if the series would change anything to directly address COVID-19, like facemask equipment or social distancing beams.

The answer, it turns out, is “not really.” In hindsight, however, this might not be such a bad thing. Although often fairly simplistic in its messaging, Healin’ Good Precure focuses less on harsh and gritty truths, and more on the idea of trying to take care of both people and the planet together, with a few surprisingly insightful gems along the way that I hope the kids watching take to heart.

The premise: Hanadera Nodoka is a kind and gentle middle school girl who, not long ago, was hospitalized with an unknown illness. Having finally recovered and now moved to Sukoyaka City with her parents, she looks forward to doing all the things a healthy person does, but her life changes when she encounters a magical rabbit. The rabbit, named Rabirin, is one of three “healing animal” trainees who have escaped from the Byo-gens, virus-like invaders whose goal is to “undermine” everything they infect. Bonding with Rabirin to protect the healing animal princess Rate, Nodoka becomes Cure Grace, one of the legendary warriors known as Precure. Soon, she’s joined by other girls at her school who also bond with healing animals, and they fight to treat the Earth’s maladies.

In terms of overall cohesive storytelling, Healin’ Good is not one of the strongest Precure entries. It takes a mostly episodic approach with major narrative developments at mostly abrupt and expected intervals, and some of those developments are actually kind of bizarre if you think too hard about them—like something that could be read as a pregnancy metaphor but probably isn’t supposed to be. 

That said, the series sports some impressively expressive animation, and the fights often feel like the characters have some real heft to them—not always the case in Precure. The main cast of characters are also interesting, relatable, and inspiring enough to make the watching experience enjoyable overall. The contrasts between the three main Cures—Nodoka, Chiyu, and Hinata—mean that each girl has their own challenges they need to face and overcome, though the amount of attention paid to each of them can feel weirdly lopsided. More episodes seem to be devoted to Chiyu’s more ambitious goals of becoming a competition high-jumper and family innkeeper, though I don’t know if that’s just a result of losing those five or so episodes to the production delay.

Another factor to its credit is that I think Healin’ Good has not only some of the least annoying mascots ever, but they’re also some of the best support characters Precure has ever seen. Rabirin, along with her companions Pegitan and Nyatoran, act as both foils and complements to their human partners, and their desire to get stronger in order to keep the Earth from experiencing a fate similar to their own world feels genuine. Moreover, Rate gets a surprising amount of development that’s actually welcome rather than overshadowing the Cures.

While the series takes a fairly kid-gloves approach to the challenges it presents (not surprising from a kids’ show), there are aspects of Healin’ Good that I think are meant to teach the young viewers to face up to a world that’s increasingly headed towards multiple disasters both potential and real. When the Byo-gens infect an area of the city, failing to stop the infection only makes the monsters stronger. In this, I can see a metaphor for climate change and the need to slow it down as soon as possible, because while keeping the Earth from warming up to the point of substantial environmental change is a monumental task, it’s a lot easier than trying to bring the Earth back from that point. Additionally, all the doctor imagery strewn throughout Healin’ Good, from parents’ professions to the idea of “treating’ the planet to even the girls’ transformation lab coats might encourage more girls to go into pursuing careers in medicine and fight the sexism that pervades medical schools in Japan. In that sense, I think it builds on some of the positive messages found in its immediate predecessor, Hugtto! Precure.

It’s also notable that those very same kid gloves start to come off towards the end. There is a moment late in the anime where Nodoka is faced with the dilemma of trying to help an injured enemy who is responsible for much of her pain. But where many past stories would make its heroine some kind of saint, Healin’ Good emphasizes the need for self care, and that there is no requirement to lend a hand to someone who has harmed you, especially if you only end up feeling more hurt as a result. In other words, kindness is not a resource that should be exploited, and girls should not be expected to sacrifice their well-being because they’re supposed to be “caring.” Similarly, the environmental message calls out the complicity of humanity by the end, though is ultimately positive, as expected.

As much as I would have found it interesting, I realize now that Healin’ Good Precure did not need to tackle COVID-19 head-on. Face masks are already commonly accepted in Japan, so there’s no need to encourage people to wear them. The infection rate, although a real concern, is not nearly as bad in Japan as it is in other parts of the world (especially the good ol’ US of A). And as for not emphasizing social distancing, the series was probably created with the hope and expectation that we’ll eventually be able to return to some semblance of our former life, and that kids should be able to see what normal social interaction looks like.

Instead, we have a Precure anime that aimed to tackle some of the biggest issues facing the world through an approachable lens of the familiar magical girl tropes. Although the final product doesn’t have the riveting and finely tuned narratives of some of its predecessors, that’s not the only measure of an anime’s success—and no, I don’t mean toy sales. What Heain’ Good Precure has in spades is ambition to make improve society by encouraging a positive and humanitarian spirit in its audience. The world thirty years from now will hopefully be a better place.

Sun Guts: Ogiue Maniax Status Update for March 2021

Here we are: roughly a year since coronavirus basically forced the world to change course. I seriously could not have imagined all that has happened since, and it feels like ten years have passed in the span of one. I’m losing my grip on time a bit, but this makes me wonder if doing these monthly blog updates actually helps in some way. I can see the days and weeks go by.

In happier news, the Blocker Corps IV Machine Blaster crowdfund to digitally archive the series was successful! I talked about it in a post to drum up support, and it actually didn’t make it until literally the 11th hour by crossing the finish line with only 11 minutes left in the all-or-nothing campaign. It’s not going to be on anyone’s list of best anime ever, but knowing I helped to keep an anime alive makes me feel good.

After all, I know what it’s like to have the support of others. Thank you to March’s Patreon sponsors:

General:

Ko Ransom

Diogo Prado

Alex

Sue Hopkins fans:

Serxeid

Hato Kenjirou fans:

Elizabeth

Yajima Mirei fans:

Machi-Kurada

Blog highlights from February:

God Mars and the Legacy of BL Fan Shipping

A look at the giant robot anime that is foundational to the fujoshi fandom in Japan. Gundam Wing before Gundam Wing, you might say.

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

My long overdue review of one of the funniest manga ever.

Otakon Needs Our Help

My favorite anime convention might not survive another year due to the Coronavirus. Consider supporting them!

Hashikko Ensemble

Chapter 37 has the most intense musical performance yet.

Closing

The 2021 New York International Children’s Film Festival starts this Friday! Unlike previous years, it’s a virtual festival this time around, and the $40 two-week all-acesss pass is an incredibly good deal. If you live in the US, it might be worth checking out.

Also, how about that Pyra and Mythra in Smash Bros. Ultimate, huh? I’m thinking about writing something in regards to fanservice in character designs, hopefully providing a nuanced perspective.

Stay safe, get vaccinated. I wish you good health.

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.

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.  

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.