Thoughts on Open-World RPGs and the D&D Lineage

Open-world RPGs have never really been my thing, though it’s less about genre preference and more about circumstances. I was never much of a PC gamer when RPGs like Baldur’s Gate were around, and by the time similar games (such as The Elder Scrolls series) emerged on more powerful console hardware, I didn’t have any of those systems. But from a distance, I find the branching paths of Western RPGs and Japanese RPGs to be such a wonderful story of diverging Dungeons & Dragons lineages—namely how the former has taken more from the customization and self-insertion aspects of tabletop roleplaying in contrast to the latter and how the latter has went on to emphasize the narrative and storytelling components by way of old Western computer RPGs such as Wizardry.

It might be my ignorance and unfamiliarity at work, but I see expansive open-world RPGs as putting less emphasis on defining strong characters through which a story unfolds. More often than not, my impression is that they are about putting the player in the driver’s seat and trying to convey a virtual environment where they can do “whatever they want” within the boundaries of a game’s programming. Even if they have set things to do and accomplish, these games are meant to feel like your story.

That being said, plenty of JRPGs have user insert characters, including Dragon Quest and Pokemon have audience insert protagonists, and the latter even allows for heavier aesthetic customization now. However, I do feel that there is a more defined sense of a default look and feel to these generic JRPG player characters, and the result is that they also end up feeling like someone you’re observing from a distance—like you’re in a dream seeing yourself from a third-person perspective.  For me, personally, I’ve traditionally preferred that direction.

Of course, I’m making certain assumptions and generalizations when I define Western RPGs as more expansive and open-world, as even those words can change meaning and significance depending on what players are used to and how they perceive the importance of those qualities. For example, it’s interesting to me that the prevailing online opinion on Pokemon Black & White has changed so drastically in the ten years since its debut. 

Back when it first launched, the games were criticized as being too easy and hand-holdy—you always knew exactly where to go next. This was a far cry from the original Pokemon Red & Blue generation-1 games, which gave far fewer explanations and kind of left a lot of things ambiguous. But now, Black & White are touted as being one of the gold standards of Pokemon, and its descendants inferior for their perceived lack of strong and focused storytelling. Red & Blue, in turn, are seen as cumbersome relics that don’t do enough to guide players. It comes down to a generational divide, but even within the specific realm of Pokemon—hardly what you’d call a premiere example of open-world gameplay—this debate about the two Dungeons & Dragons lineages takes place.

I feel that the success of expansive open-world RPGs on an individual level comes down to whether or not the inevitably less defined bits of narrative that are a consequence of heavy personal customization and gameplay systems that encourage defining “your” story as opposed to following someone else’s. Both it and the JRPG style are capable of capturing people’s imaginations, but it’s what we want to do with our captive imaginations that highlights our differences.

This post is sponsored by Ogiue Maniax patron Johnny Trovato. You can request topics through the Patreon or by tipping $30 via ko-fi.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons as Rorschach Test

Animal Crossing: New Horizons arrived just in time to explode in popularity. With so many people staying home due to COVID-19 and in need of some respite, the series’s laid-back atmosphere might just be what the doctor ordered. I know because more than a few of my friends and loved ones have been playing it, some long-time veterans of the franchise and others absolute newbies. After a while, seeing the people I know derive such enjoyment out of it, I had to see firsthand what the fuss was all about.

I wouldn’t quite call Animal Crossing: New Horizons a personality test, but I find that it does reflect something of what’s going on in each of us. There are goals you can progress towards, and there are achievements that can net you bonuses, but the game is largely without any demands. You could do everything or you could just do the bare minimum. You gradually shape your space according to however you feel, with some harmless elements of luck and the mellow atmosphere preventing it from being something like a SimCity. Seeing my island slowly come together and comparing it with others’, I can see how we express ourselves through the game’s quirks.

Animal Crossing is clearly not for everyone, and I can think of two categories of players who might regret getting the game. The first is anyone who needs there to be a distinction between winners and losers. While there are areas in which you can potentially compete—fishing events, the size of your collection, how much money you have, etc;—they’re largely arbitrary and there’s no judge keeping score. You really have to go out of your way to make it about competition, because there’s nothing that inherently says one person’s stuff is better than another’s.

The second category is anyone who would feel anxiety over accomplishing all the million little tasks and activities the game offers. It’s possible that, rather than being a calming, almost meditative experience, Animal Crossing: New Horizons becomes a source of stress. If you feel bad about ignoring things you could be doing, and you feel like you avoided guilt rather than achieved satisfaction by accomplishing them, then playing this might be a bad idea.

As for me, I’m trying to make my island into an incongruous mix of relaxing good times and abstract horrors. Either way, my villagers look like they’re having a good time.

Beastars and the Fight Against Behavioral Absolutism

Exploring the tension of anthropomorphic animal society from the perspective of high school students, Itagaki Paru’s Beastars can at times feel like it’s encouraging a very dangerous view of the world. In a world where carnivores and herbivores co-exist peacefully and eating your fellow animal is illegal, the constant pressure faced by the timid wolf protagonist, Legoshi, for not embracing his violent, meat-eating ancestral nature seems to bleed into sexist alpha/beta nonsense territory. Yet, by the end of a first anime season filled with tumultuous and shocking developments, the message I took away was something far different and more nuanced than a simple animalistic nature vs. civilization dichotomy.

Warning: Beastars spoilers ahead

Legoshi is portrayed as shunning the spotlight. Although he’s in the drama club, Legoshi works as a meek behind-the-scenes stagehand, leaving the attention to others such as the club’s star actor, Louis the red deer. But what Louis notices is that Legoshi is clearly stronger and potentially more intimidating than he lets on. As a gray wolf, he possesses might that no herbivore can hope to match, and it incenses Louis that Legoshi can be such a pushover. When Louis gets hurt and a shuffling of roles causes Legoshi to appear in a play, a tiger clubmate named Bill tries to bring out Legoshi’s dormant ferocity.

However, Legoshi is afraid of his own carnivorous side. Not only was his good friend, Tem the alpaca, eaten by a carnivore, but Legoshi himself comes dangerously close to succumbing to his lupine instincts and devouring a female dwarf bunny named Haru—a girl he later develops strong feelings for. Legoshi does not want to be that kind of animal, which is why he looks up to Louis, who accomplishes things through grace and diplomacy. Even so, there’s no denying that Legoshi would be incredibly powerful if only he let himself be. 

Part of what holds Legoshi back is a society that discourages carnivores from exerting dominance through force. Meals for them are made with high protein content, e.g. eggs, as a way to sate hunger, but the appeal of real flesh can be overwhelmingly difficult to endure. Throughout the series, Legoshi struggles to fight that desire for meat, which then blends in odd ways with his love/lust for Haru, further complicating things in his heart.

Towards the end of the series, Haru gets kidnapped by an organized crime group—a cadre of lions called the Shishigumi—with the intent to eat her. Having discovered previously that Louis is seeing Haru (though what Legoshi doesn’t know is that Haru is extremely promiscuous as a way for her to have some control over her life), Legoshi tries to bring Louis along. However, Louis declines, having already learned about the kidnapping and being told that he must stay quiet if he is to accomplish his goal of rising to the top of society and being able to effect widespread change. Legoshi storms the Shishigumi base without the red deer, and by fully tapping into his violent side, is able to rescue Haru. 

At first, the lesson seems to be that Legoshi finally set aside his false persona of timidity for what was truly inside, but what happens afterwards communicates what I found to be the most important takeaway from Beastars: when it comes to instinct vs. reason, there is no universal answer.

Having saved Haru, Legoshi and her end up at a love hotel prepared to take their relationship to a physical level. Legoshi confesses that he was the one who tried to eat her, and Haru says she always suspected it was him but was still drawn towards Legoshi. However, just as they are on the verge of consummating their relationship, Legoshi’s mouth moves uncontrollably as if he’s going to eat her, and Haru’s body moves, as if on its own, to be eaten by him. Built into their genetics is a relationship of predator and prey, and sex between them isn’t “supposed” to happen. Even so, they’re genuinely in love with each other and they want to make it work, which means denying what their DNA is screaming at them to do. If Legoshi wants his heart’s desire, reason must prevail over instinct.

The underlying message I take away from Beastars is that the question of whether to follow or rebel against one’s animalistic nature is not an all-or-nothing proposition. There are times when it can be of great benefit, but other times when it can be a mistake or lead to disastrous outcomes. Moreover, whether or not doing so is a right choice will vary from individual to individual. Legoshi is not Louis. Legoshi is not Haru. They can naturally accomplish things he cannot and vice versa, but they’re also all capable of going out of their inherent comfort zones to do even more. It is the moderation of both reason and instinct relative to each other that allows us to flourish.

Artistry in Manga and Anime, and What’s Lost in “Translation”

Every so often, I come across someone on Twitter who talks about how they love anime but don’t really mess with manga. To them, manga is inherently inferior to anime, or at the very east, doesn’t give them the full multimedia package that anime offers—animation, music, voices, etc. Of course, people are free to enjoy what they want however they want it, but a part of me can’t help but feel a little frustrated that manga, as a mode of creative expression, is not reaching them. They can appreciate the artistry of anime but not the artistry of manga. 

“Artistry” is a very loose term and it can mean a million different things. Moreover, you’ll likely find people arguing that certain styles are better than others, and that certain creators are more imaginative and skilled than others. When I use the word “artistry” here, I’m thinking from a very broad sense, where it means how something is portrayed as opposed to what is being portrayed. Two titles could wind up portraying the same thing—a blond guy throwing a punch, for example—but the execution could create two very different experiences. 

Years ago, I wrote a couple of blog articles: one on decompression in comics, and another on its opposite, compression. One of the big takeaways is how the page as a whole is typically used in manga, where the panels and visual elements are geared towards a very smooth and continuous experience that allows the eyes to quickly move from one panel to the next. There are many different avenues of manga artistry, but this is the one that sticks out to me most because it’s a form of creative direction where time and space seem to transition seamlessly. But even given the history of comics in Japan, this is something that had to develop over time, and there’s no one right way to make the pages “flow.” It’s not as fundamentally intuitive as treating a comic like a picture book playing out one panel at a time, and I have to wonder if maybe that extra step needed to engage with manga is a step too far. Without it, perhaps manga really does seem like a lesser version of anime. That engagement has to be learned on some level.

In a sense, the difference between anime and manga is a less pronounced version of the separation between film and books. Anime and film engage more senses, and they progress without the viewer needing to actively move them along. Manga and books are focused mostly on the visual (on a basic level), and the story does not continue unless the reader actively chooses to move it forward. While anime and manga are closely tied in the sense that they often draw from the same stylistic trends and adaptations from one to the other are incredibly common, this difference in how one engages the medium seems to be too large a disparity for some. If I could help it, I would want to take someone who only reads manga and help them appreciate anime, as well as vice versa. If that were possible, then I would do what I could to help people appreciate the artistry of these creative endeavors.

This post is sponsored by Ogiue Maniax patron Johnny Trovato. You can request topics through the Patreon or by tipping $30 via ko-fi.

The House in Fata Morgana and Full House: The Inherent Limits of “Pure” Translations

There has been a long history of English-language localizations doing their best to hide the fact that Japanese media is from, well, Japan. Old dubs of Gigantor and Astro Boy would have characters reading the “international newspaper.” Satoshi in Pokemon became Ash Ketchum, and onigiri became donuts, popcorn balls, and even photoshopped sandwiches. Phoenix Wright is suddenly practicing law in California, and a car with the steering wheel on the right side was “imported.” There’s enough that’s gone on over the years that fan skepticism towards translation can be justified, but more recently, there’s been a growing trend of negative criticism about the work of translators, accusing them of overly politicizing a work or introducing “Western” ideas that interfere with the “purity” of the original Japanese work. There are a lot of factors that go into this debate, and not always with the sincerest of intentions, but I’m going to elaborate on how (as the cliché goes) translation is more art than science, and why there’s an inherent limit to such purity arguments.

First things first: I do want to lay down that bad translations can exist. It’s subjective on some level, but I do believe that there is such a thing as a localization taken too far. One example I often think about is the English dub of Ojamajo Doremi, known as Magical Do-Re-Mi. Changing the names is one thing, but that version of the beloved magical girl series would inject extra dialogue and voice-overs to such an extent, often without any basis in the original, that it changed how the anime felt as a whole. At the time, it was an outdated philosophy on children’s cartoons transplanted onto a children’s anime. Another example is in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, where Ike’s line, “I fight for my friends,” sounds hilarious in English, especially with the monotone delivery, but that cheesiness is not in the Japanese. The original s closer to “I merely fight for those I must protect,” which changes the contours of what’s being conveyed.

However, there is a large spectrum when it comes to translation and localization. Translation cannot and will not ever be a 1:1 transfer, not even for two very closely related languages such as English and Dutch, let alone English and Japanese. There are cultural differences, disparities in lived experiences, and gaps in what might be considered “common knowledge, before you even get to the mechanics of languages themselves differing greatly.

One of the ground zero examples at the moment is a game called The House in Fata Morgana, and the epicenter of that debate is the translation of the word tsundere. In Japanese, it’s a slang word that’s been borne out of anime and manga fandom to describe characters who go from essentially hating someone to falling in love with them, or someone who acts like they hate someone but is secretly in love. Meanness and maybe even a bit of slapstick violence often come part in parcel. More importantly to this particular example, however, it’s become a celebrated trope. Tsundere girls are popular both because the inherent emotional conflict is powerful, but it can also have a fetishistic element. In Fata Morgana, the choice was to translate tsundere as “fragile male ego” because, as the translator explains at length, the use of the word tsundere is sarcastic here, referring more to the other character’s abusiveness. It’s not the only answer she could have arrived at, but it ultimately results in a translation that gets across not so much the nitty gritty of what’s being said in Japanese, but rather the essence and the intent behind those words. Yet, because the word tsundere has solidified in fandom, it’s seen by critics as a kind of “pure” concept that needs to be preserved.

One option was to just keep the word tsundere, but to do so would be to assume that every person playing the game would already be familiar with the word. Moreover, no amount of more direct translations could succinctly convey the fact that it is indeed a stock phrase. This, I think, is where a lot of the criticism falls short, because it presumes that one’s own experience with a work trumps everyone else’s. I think back to the Anime World Order review of Dog Soldier, where the translator, Neil Nadelman, explains that he translated instant ramen as “instant noodle soup” because ramen was not ubiquitous enough at the time to just make sense off the cuff. Times have changed, but they haven’t changed enough for tsundere to be common parlance.

One thing that might help people championing the “purity” of translation is to think about the process in the opposite direction, from English to Japanese. Plenty of English-language films and TV shows get imported and adapted, and there are challenges on the other end to localizing those works. I once wrote about how Gone with the Wind has had multiple interpretations of the iconic “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” which don’t break it down word by word but rather try to communicate the curtness and rudeness of Rhett Butler’s dismissive attitude at the end. To translate that more literally would make it lose some of the impact of Rhett’s brevity.

In that post, I also discussed the challenge of giving particular personal pronouns and honorifics usage to characters from English to Japanese. If it were a so-called “pure” translation, there wouldn’t be any such distinctions, but this would be jarring to a Japanese audience, where those elements are woven into the fabric of both language and society. Since then, I’ve come across some interesting examples. First, is the Deadpool movies. Second, is the old sitcom Full House.

In Japanese, Deadpool refers to himself with the unique personal pronounce ore-chan, where ore is a very masculine and impolite way to say “I,” and chan is an honorific that usually is reserved for young children, girls, small animals, and the like. A rough equivalent in English would be “little ol’ me,” but it’s not used in the same way. The Japanese subtitles for Deadpool try to capture his character through his pronoun usage, interpreting and localizing his speech for the audience. 

Similarly, while in the original English-language Full House, many characters refer to Jesse Katsopolis as “Uncle Jesse,” they give the youngest daughter, Michelle Tanner, a unique way of referring to her uncle in Japanese: oi-tan, or a babyish pronunciation of oji-chan (uncle). Neither Deadpool nor Michelle’s phrasings are  “literally translated” into Japanese, but are rather localized based on the characters themselves—who they are, how they act, etc. In this sense, it’s not so different from The House in Fata Morgana and the use of “fragile male ego” because it’s trying to communicate more about who is speaking to whom.

I think the point that needs to be absolutely understood is that there is always, always some compromise when it comes to translating from one language to another. The question, then, is what are acceptable sacrifices in order to get something across most faithfully, given cultures, circumstances, and even mediums. For example, a novel (or indeed visual novel) has more space to give an explanation about some cultural aspect that would fly by in anime subtitles or a manga word balloon, but does the act of throwing in a long explanation shift the work or interrupt the flow of dialogue? Different readers have different priorities, and different translators have to interpret the original works through their own lenses. It’s why multiple translations of the same works exist. 

What I see in the purity arguments of Japanese media fandom is a desire to be rewarded for one’s specialized knowledge, and it’s the perspective of those who revel in being as hardcore as possible. As someone who has devoted decades of energy to anime and manga fandom, as well as thinking about how translations function, I can relate. The unfortunate thing is that it turns experiencing these works into a kind of measuring contest to see who knows more and who has the “real” access to Japanese culture, which is in a certain sense the opposite of what translation is there to do: make something accessible.

The White Fear of Mediocrity

For the past couple of years, I’ve been listening over and over to the song  “Deacon Blues” by Steely Dan. Despite being from the 70s, it was only a recent discovery for me, and the only prior exposure I had to Steely Dan was though the JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure character of the same name. 

But it’s a timeless song that has me revisit it on a regular basis and to think about its messages. Its first-person narrative about a guy in the suburbs who dreams of a nightlife of playing saxophone, getting drunk on Scotch whiskey, and dying in a car accident indicates an unease I find reflective of the song’s very specific context: a distinctly white, male, and suburban fear of mediocrity. What strikes me most is that this fear still clearly exists today, and it bleeds heavily into American culture. Whether it’s drug abuse in suburban communities to escape the everyday drudgery or people turning to games to exercise their power fantasies, the general mood of “Deacon Blues” persists.

I’m not white and I’ve never lived in the suburbs, so I can’t directly relate to the malaise and yearning described in “Deacon Blues.” From my perspective growing up in the US, the suburbs were more of a distant dream for hard-working parents to strive for—even if I myself was never a fan of that vision. So as an outsider with respect to white suburban culture (or lack thereof), what I see is a community where people can be in so privileged a position that it creates certain unique challenges which strike at the core of how people define themselves and their success. Fear of mediocrity assumes there’s a safety net that keeps one from falling through the cracks, which is not a luxury everyone has. 

Just consider that the white suburban fear of a boring, mind-numbing existence resulting from limited success would be a mere pipe dream for many people of lesser means and fewer opportunities. There’s a saying about how black people don’t go camping because it’s just white people spending lots of money to pretend they’re poor–it’s not that different from what’s being said in “Deacon Blues.” The narrator there is glamorizing a life of pain and struggle because it’s something he can’t have while in his comfortable, repetitive life. 

This is not to minimize the effect of suburbs on the psyche–there’s evidence that their strangely sterile construction and layout does affect people negatively. Nor am I trying to trivialize the cultural circumstances that make being a minority in the US a challenge. But I think people in the suburbs (or indeed similar situations) often want something to fight against as a way to stave off a rutterless sense of direction. It leaves many vulnerable to manipulation, as they’re convinced that their “purpose” is to loyally fight for some terrible and often xenophobic cause.

I actually think the general dimensions of these feelings of inadequacy are not exclusive to white American culture. In Japan, for example, the presence of hikikomori (chronic shut-ins) and the recent popularity of isekai (parallel world) fiction both seem to suggest a society where people often feel powerless and directionless. Hikikomori generally have the luxury of being cared for by relatives in a way that makes them seem coddled, but a fear of what lies outside is all too real. Isekai fiction tends to be very heavy on male power fantasy, but it’s a particular kind of fantasy tied to one’s gaming and nerd knowledge. It speaks to a desire to have one’s time and effort validated. There’s even a similarity when it comes to each country’s fight with recession, and the way that both the “lost generation” of Japan and the millennials of the US were forced to notice that the seemingly endless prosperity of their parents’ generation was abused to the point of near-failure.

However, one difference is that the American suburban mood is ultimately tied to a failure to reconcile the American dream’s inherent contradictions within a capitalist society where success and failure are supposed to say something about one’s character. The fear of mediocrity creeps in, taunting minds with notions of “What if I could’ve been more?” And it’ll continue to haunt the suburbs for as long as they remain dull and discouraging towards expression.

Between Mister Rogers and Transformers is Precure

I had the opportunity to watch the Mister Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and one of the topics it discusses is the origins of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a kind of counter-programming to the fast-paced “bombardment” that was (and continues to be) a staple of children’s television. Mister Rogers was meant to slow things down, and give kids a quieter and more contemplative half hour for them to learn and grow. Fred Rogers’ decades-long show took on an important challenge, but there’s the seed of doubt about its efficacy on people like myself, who remember their young childhood TV experience more along the lines of action-packed cartoons like Transformers or GI Joe. How do you reconcile the allure of such shows with the noble cause of trying to help kids learn to be better people? 

Especially in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a trend of including public service messages in those merchandise-shilling action shows—”Knowing is half the battle!” as GI Joe would say—but they would often come across as unbelievably hokey or even disingenuous. Going from watching GI Joe’s forces blow up an enemy Cobra base, to seeing kids learn how to install a smoke detector—it never felt right.

I began to think about if there were any children’s series out there that integrates a nice balance between satisfying action and good advice to children, and one answer popped into my head immediately: Precure. More than a few magical girl shows carry a strong sense of positivity and wonder—in fact, I once referred to 2001’s Princess Comet as being distinctly Mister Rogers-esque—but they often don’t hit that pleasure zone that comes with watching heroes vanquish villains the way Precure does. After all, its origins are built on “a magical girl show from the director of Dragon Ball Z, and while its staff has changed numerous times, it still more or less maintains that legacy. But when you also look at the various heroines throughout Precure, they serve as confident and inspiring role models for young viewers in ways that almost betray the heavy consumerism that it also engenders.

Consider Cure Yell in Hugtto! Precure, who’s all about giving support to those both looking for their dreams and those pursuing them. Or how Cure Flora in Go! Princess Precure overcomes a major problem by realizing that the power to change and improve comes from within. Or how Cure Heart in Doki Doki Precure! reaches for the stars in everything she attempts. These heroines are only the tip of the iceberg, as many individual episodes also try to speak to the concerns and worries of children, and how to deal with the complicated and confusing emotions they experience growing up.

I think this is why I am, and likely always will be, a fan of Precure. Its creators know the power of being a GI Joe, but it also knows the value of being a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Striking that middle ground can come at a price—a muddled message, perhaps—but attempting that alchemy is valuable in a world where ideals and cynicism alike clash with each other on a daily basis.

Shields or No Shields? Platform Fighters and the Question of Defense

As a long-time fan of Super Smash Bros., I’ve been curious about the recent expansion of the “platform fighter” subgenre, especially in indie gaming. Over the past six years or so, more and more titles have been developed that follow the basic Smash formula. I’ve mostly watched tournament matches to try and get a sense of what each game is about, but more recently I’ve been able to try some out. Playing them made me aware of an odd trend: a lot of these games do not have shielding or anything akin to blocking as a sustained stationary defensive option.

The five indie platform fighters I’ve paid attention to are Rivals of Aether, Brawlout, Brawlhalla, Slap City, and Icons Combat Arena (which is being succeeded by Vortex Rising). Of these titles, only the last two have Smash shielding. The first three have, at most, workarounds. Rivals of Aether has parrying, Brawlout has a spot dodge and a Guilty Gear-esque burst system, and Brawlhalla has a spot dodge.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with removing shields from a game, but the decision stands out because of how fundamental blocking is to fighting games as a whole. It’s one thing to have weak shields like in Smash Bros. Melee or Smash Bros. Ultimate, but it’s another to eschew the mechanic wholesale—doing so removes the classic rock-paper-scissors balance of blocks > attacks > throws > blocks. Indeed, while Brawlout technically has grabs, they don’t really function all that differently from striking attacks. The fact that the posterboy for Brawlout, Paco, is a wrestler becomes largely a matter of aesthetics.

The big question is simply, why remove the most basic defensive technique there is? After all, while there are clear similarities between these Smash-inspired games, they’re also not necessarily going for the same exact gameplay. Moreover, as different as the actual Smash titles are, they all have shields. 

The answer, it seems, is to try and capture that ineffable quality called “hype” while keeping players from being overwhelmed by complexity.

In the case of Rivals of Aether, its creator describes the lack of shield as a product of both practical limitation and creative decision-making:

Grabs and Shields were removed from Rivals to decrease defensive options and to reduce animation scope by removing throws.

The aggressive focus on Rival’s engine reflects my style as a player. I gravitate toward rushdown and so does RoA’s middleground.

The RoA fans themselves seem to love this, arguing that it emphasizes aggressive gameplay, making things more thrilling overall. Meanwhile, the official Brawlout website has this to say:

Rather than slow-paced defensive battles, Brawlout goes all-out with the lightning-fast aerobatics which platform fighters are famous for.

By focusing on aggressive mechanics, new players will be able to easily nail impressive combos while not feeling overwhelmed by friends who’ve had a bit more practice.

Brawlhalla doesn’t have any specific mission statements, but its free-to-play nature and its overall mechanics also hew in this direction.

Generally speaking, strong defenses frustrate those eager to be rewarded for offense, and that goes double for less experienced players and viewers. Even titles with crazy combos and pressure like Dragonball FighterZ have people getting salty about players who “spam block.” But there’s also the specific context of when many of these platform fighters began development: during the rise and fall of Smash 4. A frequent criticism of the Wii U entry was that shields were too strong, and discouraged the kind of high-pace aggression Melee is known for. Ultimate itself responded to this feedback by weakening shields in certain ways. The shield-less indie games essentially took it one step further. 

It’s also notable that these games, as much as they want to emphasize an almost Melee-esque speed, also try to make competitive-level play more accessible than Melee—a desire to, as the old saying goes, be easy to learn and difficult to master. Brawlout, RoA, and Brawlhalla all try to streamline Smash and especially Melee mechanics to remove some of the execution barrier, whether that’s removing the need for “smash attacks” (Brawlhalla) or simplifying wavedashing (RoA).

However, it’s impossible to fully solve the “problem” of strong defense, blocking mechanic or no. Turtlers always seem to find a way, especially when their opponents want to attack without much forethought. Even Brawlhalla, with its flimsy spot dodge, has seen players frustrated by defensive styles. For example, one asked how to fight passive/defensive players, while another understood how to beat spot dodge (bait it out and punish), but hated playing passively.  

There’s another aspect to consider. Smash Bros. shield is a signature aspect of the franchise, and for a long time, it was unique among fighting games. A barrier that successfully guards against nearly everything at first, it shrinks over time, leaving the user more exposed and more prone to getting stunned into a dizzy state (shield breaking) . It’s one way to introduce weaknesses into blocking, which traditional fighting games usually go about through the concept of high/low mix-ups. But perhaps, because the Smash shield is so iconic, the games that do incorporate it seem even more like “clones.” An alternative form of blocking that’s simple and reasonably effective could be the answer to set future platform fighters further apart. In this respect, some games have been trying their own renditions of shielding. Vortex Rising is implementing one-way shields that are inherently vulnerable to cross-up attacks (i.e. attacks that can land behind your opponent where they aren’t protected), while a newcomer to the platform fighter genre, Slayers for Hire, is going for something more akin to a Street Fighter IV-style “focus attack” (for Smash players, that would be Ryu and Ken’s down special).

The shield-less platform fighters have thus far sought to discourage stationary defense and encourage more active movement, and the players who have gravitated towards these games have found them to be enjoyable. But I have to wonder if aggression can truly be considered as such if there isn’t enough to oppose it. In other words, is rushdown truly rushdown if there isn’t an equally strong defense it needs to crack? Whatever the answer may be, having games that remove blocking entirely may bring about interesting results.

Their Problem is Our Problem: The Promised Neverland, “Coronavirus,” and the Systems that Force Inequality

WARNING: THE PROMISED NEVERLAND MANGA SPOILERS

In Chapter 172 of The Promised Neverland, there’s a collage that’s rather conspicuous, given the actual pandemic hitting the world at this moment. As the heroine Emma is confronting an enemy leader about how differences in positions are the root of conflict, one of the images has a wall with the word “coronavirus” graffitied on it. 

Up to this point, it’s been established that the main characters live in an alternate dimension from the regular human world, but there haven’t been direct calls to the reality in which we, the readers, live. I think this “coronavirus” page is a direct message from the creators of The Promised Neverland, Shirai Kaiu and Demizu Ponsuka, and what that message says is: “The ideas conveyed in this manga are not meant to be taken as mere vague abstractions about generally making the world a better place, but as very real criticisms of society.”

When The Promised Neverland first began, it was an interesting manga about a cat-and-mouse game and a battle of wits in a dystopian setting. Originally, the focus was on escaping an orphanage designed to turn children into food. Then, it was about surviving against the demons on the outside. Over time, however, the series has revealed a greater world where the real evil of the series is not scary human-eating monsters but how the corrosive desire to hold onto power at the expense of the greater good. 

In order to survive, some children strive to become mothers—essentially overseers of the human farms, but also chattel themselves due to being the literal suppliers of the chain through giving birth. Mothers are told that the best among them can become a “grandmother,” supervising all the mothers, making them compete desperately too. It’s even revealed that the demons themselves have an oppressive class hierarchy. Eating human meat is what has allowed them to gain a high level of intelligence, but a steady diet is necessary because otherwise they’ll revert back to beasts. The rulers of their world get access to the best meat, and can thus maintain their already massive advantage. Moreover, there turns out to have been a way to permanently prevent the demons from losing their intellect, but the ruling class purposely and violently obscured that information to keep the masses dependent on those in charge. In other words, everything about society in The Promised Neverland is premised around pitting the lower classes against one another to distract from the intentional systemic issues imposed by those in power.

How does that apply to our own world? “The top 1% hold 99% of the wealth” is about how massive inequality concentrates all the power in a select few who inevitably enrich themselves at the expense of others. In regards to keeping the lower classes at one another’s throats, US president Lyndon B. Johnson famously said, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” Writer and lecturer Douglas Rushkoff even wrote an article in 2018 about how some of the ultra-rich are preparing for the apocalypse by figuring out how to save themselves while still wondering if it would be necessary to lock down their guards’ food supplies to force loyalty.  And now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing how the very same types are retreating further into their massive safety nets, leaving those with less to struggle. It’s crystal clear to me that there’s a similar sentiment at work fueling the overt criticism of the disparity in power and resources in The Promised Neverland

The fact that Weekly Shounen Jump comes out with brand new chapters of manga on a regular and consistent basis can be a blessing and a curse, but one advantage of the accelerated pace of a weekly manga magazine is how quickly it can potentially seize upon the relevant events of the day. What that “coronavirus” graffiti communicates is simple: the crises your heroes are facing in The Promised Neverland are not that far from the problems that plague the very reality in which you live. Emma, as the heart of this series, staunchly opposes false dichotomies that lead to zero-sum situations where one group can only “win” by sacrificing another. Perhaps The Promised Neverland wants us all to be allies in this struggle, and to be aware of the real problems that gave way to our current global crisis: racism, social inequality, intentionally massive disparities in wealth and resources, and an economic environment where those in power are encouraged to let the whole world burn if it means keeping their positions.

Love Live! April Fool’s “CYaZALEA☆Kiss”: References and In-Jokes

This year’s April Fool’s brought out one of the best things ever from Love Live!: the “announcement” of a new 80s-style action anime called CYaZALEA☆Kiss

But the Love Live! fandom and the 80s anime fandom generally don’t overlap, so I’m here to explain some of the jokes/references on both sides.

The name itself: “CYaZALEA☆Kiss”

The characters featured in this video are collectively known as Aqours (pronounced “aqua”), and are the heroines of the Love Live! Sunshine!! iteration of the franchise. These nine girls, in turn, are composed of three idol sub-units with their own distinct styles called CYaRon!, AZALEA, and Guilty Kiss. In the “plot” to this video, the three sub-units must join forces, but rather than calling them “Aqours,” their separate group names have just been mashed together.

It’s sort of like if you called the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles “Leodonphalangelo.”

The narration is a spoof on Fist of the North Star

The introduction of a post-apocalyptic backdrop set in the year 20XX is a reference to the opening narration of Fist of the North Star, a violent 80s shounen series about a world-saving martial arts hero who can make bad guys explode with his fists. In the anime, the narrator explains how in the year 199X, the Earth was ravaged by nuclear war, setting the stage for the series. 

On top of that callback, the over-the-top voiceover featured in CYaZALEA☆Kiss is none other than Chiba Shigeru, the actual narrator from Fist of the North Star! Famously, he’s known for getting more and more ridiculous and impassioned over the course of that series, and he brings that very style to this April Fool’s gag:

The general feel of the opening is an homage to Saint Seiya

From the team aspect, to the outfits the girls wear, to even the swooping logo (featuring 80s cel-animation shakiness), the whole CYaZALEA☆Kiss endeavor is largely based around the 80s shounen manga and anime Saint Seiya. Following a group of heroes who gain special armor and cosmic powers based on the constellations, Saint Seiya is famous for pioneering the “armored pretty boys” genre, and was responsible for bringing many female readers to Shounen Jump.

The general art style is also very reminiscent of the aesthetics of Saint Seiya author, Kurumada Masami.

Sentai colors run amok

At the beginning of the opening video, all the girls in CYaZALEA☆Kiss announce their designated colors, similar to what’s often seen in Super Sentai and other tokusatsu works. But whereas those shows typically have six, maybe seven members at most, there are nine in this case. Not only does this cause a jumbled mess of talking-over, but the actual colors named can get very specific.

Chika: Mikan 

Riko: Sakura pink

Kanan: Emerald green

Dia: Red

You: Light blue

Yoshiko: White

Hanamaru: Yellow

Mari: Violet red

Ruby: Pink

These are the actual signature colors of their respective characters in Love Live! Sunshine!! too. If you buy a glow wand (or “light blade,” as they’re officially called), it’ll come with all nine of these colors.

Though perhaps not intentional, it also harkens back to the sentai parody anime Shinesman, which featured a team of red, gray, sepia, salmon pink, and moss green.

The character designer and artist for CYaZALEA☆Kiss is a famous 80s manga artist

While the overall look of this parody is based on Saint Seiya, the actual artist himself is not Kurumada but rather Shimamoto Kazuhiko, creator of Blazing Transfer Student and Aoi Honoo, aka Blue Blazes

Blazing Transfer Student is a ridiculous school fighting manga. Blue Blazes is an exaggerated semi-autobiographical work about Shimamoto’s time in art college, when his classmates included modern anime/manga luminaries such as Anno Hideaki of Evangelion fame. The former received a 1991 OVA by Gainax (the original Evangelion studio), while the latter was adapted into a TV drama in Japan in 2014.

What did you think of CYaZALEA☆Kiss? Did you appreciate it as an 80s anime/manga fan, as a Love Live! fan, or perhaps as both?