AnimEVO Online and My Return to Mahjong

It’s been about a year since I last written anything related to mahjong, and much longer since I last played on a regular basis. However, now that AnimEVO Online is planning to include Mahjong Soul, a free-to-play internet-based riichi mahjong game featuring anime-style characters. I’ve decided to enter the Mahjong Soul tournament on August 8th.

This means dusting off the old metaphorical mahjong gloves and diving straight into the game I loved (and loved to hate)—only on a relatively unfamiliar platform in Mahjong Soul. Fortunately, there is no “pay to win” here, but mahjong is arguably already enough of an inherent gacha-esque gamble, that I’m not sure anyone would benefit from that. Also, it’s available to play on browsers and on its own app, so there’s a nice convenience factor.

Because I’m just starting out in Mahjong Soul, I’m in the lowest-level rooms, and it’s a stark reminder that riichi mahjong becomes a very different game as you go up against better and better players. Against absolute beginners, as well as those coming in from other forms of mahjong (I’m looking at you, MCR players), the tendency to go for extremely aggressive hands with little regard for defense makes for big crazy swings that are difficult to account for. Against more internet-oriented players who specialize in calculating the odds and knowing the mathematics of mahjong, you can go a bit slower, but this puts you at a disadvantage against the “occult” players who rely on sense, intuition, and deception.

Playing against newbies is somewhat similar to playing Smash Bros. Ultimate online, where the inconsistent environment throws in an element of randomness and chaos that changes how you play the game. There are certain things that you know should work, but lag makes a mess of that notion. In riichi mahjong, three opponents blindly aiming for toitoi (all triplets) simply changes what’s considered optimal play. And one must not forget that mahjong has a heavy luck element, so even the best-laid plans can go awry.

According to my old riichi mahjong panel co-host, Dave, it takes a long time to get out of the lower-level bronze and silver rooms in Mahjong Soul—you simply have to grind it out, no matter your skill level. A part of me worries that I might end up being too accustomed to dealing with low-level play, and thus ill-prepared for the real monsters inevitably entering the tournament. However, as stated above, different degrees of players can drastically alter how a game of mahjong looks, and remembering what it’s like to fight in the Pon Palace can be valuable. Perhaps, in this environment, being able to quickly assess your opponents’ skill levels will be of paramount importance.

For all of you readers who still get hit by that mahjong bug, I hope to see you online. You can register for free at smash.gg.

Refreshing Noodles: Min Min in Smash Bros. Ultimate

A lot has happened in the Smash Bros. community over the past two weeks, with multiple instances of sexual abuse and assault among its competitive scene coming to light. This is a serious problem, and its exposure is ultimately for the better, especially for the victims and those who would have been potential victims.

This has also overshadowed some of the happier Smash news—namely the reveal of Min Min as the new DLC character—so I want to focus on that. Hopefully, we can embrace the good without looking away in willful ignorance as to what needs to change.

Min Min

When an ARMS character was announced as DLC for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate two months ago, the online reaction felt less than enthusiastic. Although ARMS is a fairly successful Switch game, the previous DLC pack had hardcore fans craving for more outlandish choices in the vein of Hero and Banjo-Kazooie. Amazingly, I think the developers and Nintendo have managed to turn opinion around with their reveal of Min Min as the winner, and it’s thanks to a combination of factors. 

First, ARMS just has fantastic character designs that ooze personality, and Min Min is one of its best. Second, she brings a unique fighting style that gives players something new and different to try out. Third, she happens to be associated with the Etika, the gaming Youtuber who tragically died by suicide almost one year ago. All three worked together to make a perfect storm.

Character Design

Min Min looks cool when she probably should look ridiculous. She is a ramen shop owner with noodles for hair, a ramen bowl hat, a dragon for an arm, a somewhat stereotypical Chinese outfit, and she does kung fu. Yet, somehow, it all works together. She comes across as fun and lighthearted, yet serious and strong. Her martial arts animations are impressive, and they lend her a lot of flavor.

The trailer itself also did a great job of conveying her personality. As the other ARMS fighters battle to obtain a coveted Smash Bros. invitational letter, Min Min is at her shop watching Captain Falcon and Kirby eat ramen. It’s only after Captain Falcon has completely finished his bowl with utter satisfaction that Min Min leaves to fight for the Smash spot. This shows how important her restaurant and customers are to her, that she would on some level prioritize them over what is arguably the ultimate prize. Min Min just comes across as charming and powerful in the best ways, even to those who have zero familiarity with ARMS.

Min Min is also the first playable Chinese character in Smash Bros. history, giving her a unique factor. Because she speaks Mandarin Chinese in the trailer, I was curious as to who her actor is. It turns out the voice behind Min Min is Takutsu Haruna, a Japanese performer who studies Chinese as a hobby. I appreciate the fact that they chose someone who has put in that much effort, even if all she’s saying is, “I love ramen!”

Fighting Style

Min Min might very well become the bane of online play with her long reach and dual-arm game mechanic. Zoners and projectile specialists are the bane of many Smash players, and it seems like Min Min is only adding fuel to the fire. But Sakurai’s video demonstration makes her look more exciting than one might have expected, notably because she controls differently from pretty much every Smash character before her. Whereas most characters have a clear delineation between their normal “A-button” moves and their special “B-button moves,” for Min Min, they control her left and right ARMS respectively. Moreover, she can move while her attacks are coming out. Thus, she’s able to deliver long-range one-two combinations at a player’s chosen timing or send them in different directions to cover a wider area. 

The closest comparable character is Mega Man, who’s able to move and attack in a similar way thanks to his pellets, but even that doesn’t fully prepare players for the Min Min experience. Just from using her for a few days, it feels like you’re playing a completely different game—my fingers stop knowing what to do with other characters when I try to switch back. She’s someone who will take time and dedication to use at even a functional level, which also means she’s offering something you won’t find in other characters. It’s unclear as to how strong she actually is, but it will take time to figure out regardless.

As an aside, while not related to ARMS, this left-right setup could also be the perfect way to add a Tekken character to the roster. Heihachi is probably out given the Mii costume they just announced, but who knows? Maybe we’ll get Kazuya MIshima or Jin Kazama instead.

Etika’s Legacy

The late Etika was one of the most visible figures in online Smash fandom, and was probably the very face of “Smash reaction videos” thanks to his genuine passion towards character reveals. While he would invite controversy constantly, it became sadly clear in the end that he suffered from mental illness, and every one of his fans wishes that things turned out differently.

Etika also happened to be a big fan of Min Min, though not always for the purest of reasons, as his LEGS t-shirt above makes clear. Regardless, when Min Min was first shown in that trailer, those who followed and knew Etika probably all had the same thought: the man would have loved this. It’s even possible to imagine how he would have reacted—with an expressiveness few can ever match.

In the End, Nothing’s Wrong with First-Party Characters

Min Min’s announcement had it all: a strong character aesthetic that can make new fans instantly, a showcase of interesting gameplay brought by her, and an online presence that goes beyond the familiar borders of Nintendo in the form of Etika. What’s just as important is that it showed how you don’t need an off-the-wall unpredictable pick to create excitement and hype. “An ARMS character” is something probably anyone could have predicted, but what they perhaps couldn’t account for is having the whole package executed so well. My hope, however futile it might be, is that fans can appreciate the characters that are coming, even if it’s not necessarily the ones they want. They might be able to win us over, just like Min Min.

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.

A Villain’s Redemption: Pokemon Masters Finally Hits an Interesting Story

Pokémon Masters continues to be a curious mobile game. It never had the ultra-mainstream appeal of its cousin Pokémon Go, and its focus on established human characters over the marketable critters themselves basically implies that the game’s target audience are already loyal Pokémon fans. Up until recently, that fanservice didn’t go much beyond seeing your favorite gym leaders and heroes interact with one another more extensively, but the Ho-oh event from last month takes it a step further by redeeming one of Pokémon’s antagonists.

The story involves Ethan and Silver, protagonist and rival of Pokemon Gold, Silver, and Crystal, looking for the legendary Pokemon Ho-oh. At this point, Ethan and Silver are no longer enemies but loosely working together. Ho-oh is said to appear to humans who are pure of heart, which Silver believes disqualifies him from becoming its partner. After all, his history is one of doing terrible things to his Pokemon, being cruel and nasty to other people, and being the son of Team Rocket boss Giovanni. However, Lance appears and explains that he has seen genuine change in Silver—a transformation clearly reflected in SIlver’s bond with his Sneasel. Ultimately, Silver proves himself worthy by choosing to save his allies instead of trying to catch Ho-oh, and the legendary Pokemon rewards him by joining his side.

There’s something about mobile games in general where I can’t really get into their narratives because of how they’re locked behind tedious gameplay requirements. Pokémon Masters is no exception in terms of feeling a bit like a chore, but I think the payoff was rewarding because of how nice Silver’s story ends up being. The original Gold, Silver, and Crystal games (as well as the Heart Gold and Soul Silver remakes) do show that Silver has started to turn a new leaf, but the result was left somewhat ambiguous. What Pokemon Masters does, though its canonicity is unclear, is to give Silver a satisfying conclusion to his journey from villain to well-meaning rival. It’s the first time that Pokémon Masters has presented a story with actual stakes, and it works to really humanize Silver. This has resulted in what I consider the peak of the mobile game currently, and one of the highlights of Pokémon as a whole.

Wishing for Hope, Reaching to Help

I’m grateful to be in a position where I am mentally and emotionally well, even in this pandemic. It’s easy for me to assume that fear and concern over COVID-19 is what’s on people’s minds, but the recent deaths of so many people and figures in my social and fandom spheres just has me hyper-aware of the challenges many face that are likely exacerbated by current circumstances. 

In the world of anime, Zac Bertschy of Anime News Network died in his apartment on May 21, 2020. In wrestling, Shad Gaspard died at age 39 after helping save his son from a rip current on May 17. Another wrestler, Hana Kimura was 22 when she died by suicide on May 23 after online harassment due to her appearance on the reality show Terrace House. And while this isn’t recent, it’s been almost a year since the suicide of gaming youtuber Etika, who was 29. Death may be unpredictable and inevitable, but the fact that they all left so young makes me shake my head in disbelief.

I wasn’t close to any of the people I mentioned, so my perspective is not as a friend or peer, or even necessarily as a fan or follower. Yet, I feel something: sadness, anger, frustration, or maybe something else I can’t describe. In the case of Hana Kimura, I kept saying to myself, “I really need to check out Stardom because she seems like a star,” and now all I’ll have is past videos to reference. It makes me want to reach out to my friends, and those I’ve lost contact with over the years. It’s easy to just assume that the last image you had of them is roughly how they are today, but time passes and people face challenges both internal and external. I always worry about overstepping my boundaries or thinking I’m closer to someone than I actually am, and maybe I just need to find the tiny ounce of courage to get over that and maybe, just maybe, help someone turn away from a bad decision. 

I used to frequent a chat room that was named after the anime Maria-sama ga Miteru (aka Maria Watches Over Us). A few years since I last visited, I decided to stop by, and the chat topic included a person’s name: “So-and-so ga Miteru.” It turns out they had passed away. A couple more years passed, and I visited again. This time, more names had been added to the topic. It feels like I blinked, and more of the people I knew had vanished. As far as I know, none of those deaths were due to suicide, but they stung nevertheless. And while I never really interacted with them on any deeply personal level, it made my infrequent visits feel like “too little, too late.” When it’s related to physical health, there’s only so much any of us can do. When it’s not, it hits differently. 

I hope we can connect to our fellow human beings, those we love and even those with whom we have the barest connection, so that we can help lift up one another. If you’re feeling like life isn’t worth living, reach out to suicide prevention for professional help. If you’re hurting and just need someone to listen, feel free to even leave a comment below or contact me on Twitter

Remember: you’re worth something.

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.

Kunio-kun and Double Dragon for Super Smash Bros.

As Smash Bros. Ultimate increasingly becomes a celebration of gaming history on a wider scale, I want more and more to see every video game genre represented in its character roster. Just like how Cloud and Hero represent RPGs, or how Ryu, Ken, and Terry are the poster boys for fighting games, I’d like to see someone represent the beat ’em up genre. In that respect, there are only two possible franchises that I think deserve this honor: Kunio-kun and Double Dragon.

Kunio-kun is the granddaddy of beat ’em ups, starting with the very first game in the genre’s history: Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun. Featuring the brash yet noble delinquent Kunio-kun, it would set the template for the entire genre—full range of movement, enemies on all sides, clever attacks, weapons, etc. It would later influence gaming further though sequels and spin-offs such as River City Ransom

The original Double Dragon arcade game was basically designed on the Kunio-kun engine except with more international appeal. Instead of the specifically Japanese context of gakuran-wearing yankii, it’s about two Chinese-American kung fu brothers named Billy and Jimmy Lee. Which one would be better for Smash comes down to that difference—do you want the very Japanese and explosive Kunio, or do you want the Lee brothers and their global recognition?

Either way, the movesets practically write themselves. In fact, one could say that they have too many moves to choose from. 

Kunio not only has his first game, but he’s also one of the stars of River City Ransom (where he was renamed “Alex” for the US) and is Mario-level in terms of dabbling in other genres. He could squat like a delinquent, Acro Circus though the air, punch people on the ground, and throw a ball straight out of Super Dodge Ball.

For Billy and Jimmy, you also have endless options. Do you base them more on their arcade moves or their console appearances? The Cyclone Spin Kick is obvious, but do you go with the arcade animation or the NES one? What about nunchaku from Double Dragon III or the Double Dragon for NES back elbow? What if they based the gameplay on Double Dragon II, where the B button always means “attack left” and the A button always means “attack right?” In terms of Smash, both the Double Dragons and Kunio can be as orthodox or as unusual as possible.

Given that the beat ’em up genre is long past its heyday, and Nintendo’s apparent desire to use Smash Bros. Ultimate as a promotional platform, it might not seem all that likely to see either Kunio or the Lees. However, Arc System Works (creators of BlazBlue and Guilty Gear) have the current rights, and there was a Kunio-kun Spirit Event in Ultimate. So here’s hoping that any of these brawling heroes have a chance to be newcomers.

My Favorite (?) Anime Computer Games

I was asked via Patreon to write about my favorite anime computer games, which should theoretically be an easy proposition. The only problem: I’ve never been much of a PC gamer, and more recently, I haven’t had much access to a Windows PC, where most computer games reside. Thus, the scope narrows from “my favorites” to “the couple I actually played and remember with some fondness.” Hopefully that still counts.

The #1 title that sticks out in my mind is Melty Blood. Though it hasn’t been exclusively a computer game for a very long time, and it’s nowadays known for the running joke that Melty Blood tournaments can (or are forced) to be held anywhere and everywhere, it did start off as a doujin game on PC. I happened to be part of a fighting game forum at the time the game first appeared, and I had recalled a Japanese forum-goer singing high praises for the Tsukihime franchise as a whole. Lo and behold, here was a game that married those two forces—Type Moon and fightmans—together. 

I was never good at the game by any means, but when I think about that very first rendition of Melty Blood, I mostly recall the little humorous touches that faded away over time in favor of a more competitively robust experience. In the first Melty Blood, when Arcueid and CIel clashed with punches, it could set off a sequence that ended with both of them getting cross countered, Ashita no Joe-style. And whereas Mech-Hisui in later iterations has a more conventional forward and back air dash, she originally had a Jet Scrander from Mazinger Z, and she flew at an oddly steep angle when air dashing. It reminds me of the fictional Kujibiki Unbalance fighting game in the Genshiken manga, where the club members talk about how the game adheres so closely to faithfully capturing the characters’ qualities that the balance went right out the window. 

Another game I enjoyed a lot was MegaMari, a fan game that basically took the characters of Touhou and put them into a Mega Man clone. It was more than just a reskin, however, as the game took Mega Man’s famed platforming and added Touhou’s signature bullet hell. Nothing in Mega Man (except perhaps the abusiveness of later entries into the Mega Man X series) could compare to the ridiculous yet beautiful sprays of icicles and swords, and that was in addition to old blue bomber staples like the Quick Man stage instant-kill laser beams. I was never able to complete MegaMari on account of the difficulty, but I appreciated the marrying of two great flavors. It also introduced me to a lot of Touhou characters I didn’t know much about otherwise—Konpaku Youmu, Saigyouji Yuyuko, Reisen Udongein Inaba, and so on.

While my experience with anime computer games is extremely limited, there is one area I wish I could explore more: the Japanese home computers of the 1980s, such as the PC-88 and the PC-98. This is especially because there are a lot of secret shames buried within that time, and it’d be a fun and enlightening experience. Probably the closest I’ll be able to get without jumping through too many hoops is to just get the PC-98-inspired VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action on the Switch. Although that game isn’t made in Japan, it actually got a variety of official art made by Suzuki Kenya (Please tell me, Galko-chan!) for the Japanese release. 

Expect my thoughts on that game in the near future?

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

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.