OGIUE MANIAX

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Three-Card Monte: A Melee vs. Smash 4 Analogy

When reading comments from devoted fans of Super Smash Bros. Melee, certain aspects touted as strengths are things I can appreciate as well. Just like theme, I can enjoy the dexterity, devotion, game sense, and speed required to compete in high-level Melee. However, what I find complicates matters is that elements of the game that would be normally be considered a matter of taste are argued as “objective strengths” by its most ardent supporters.

As a result, I’ve wondered why Melee fans love their game to this extent, and why it might appear to them be strictly better to the extent that such a view would be presumed to be “unbiased.” Why do some argue that a game like Smash 4, with a slower-paced neutral but a higher emphasis on more traditional “footsies,” is a disappointment? Why is the idea that a game that emphasizes reads above all else, especially physical skill, is argued to be a simpler and thus less competitive endeavor?

There are two key points that I see come up repeatedly. First is the idea that, because Melee has fewer neutral interactions per game than its sequels, Smash Bros. Brawl and Smash Bros. for Wii U, this means each neutral interaction matters more. When it’s pointed out that having more resets to neutral means having to predict the opponent more often, this is considered a knock against other games because their neutrals are “less complex.” This then extends to everything else. The punish game is deeper because it has some sort of goldilocks level of just enough control on the part of the opponent being combo’d, but not so much that they can reset to neutral easily. In short, arguments in favor of Melee often come down to the idea the game has more to do at any given moment and is faster, and is therefore better.

After some thinking, an analogy occurred to me. Imagine that you’re playing two different games of “guess the right card.” The first one is Three-Card Monte. The dealer shows you the three cards in advance, tells you that you get to play five times, and your goal is to find the ace of spades. Then the dealer starts to move the cards around, shuffling them and employing various forms of sleight of hand to trick you into picking the wrong one.

In the second version of the game, the dealer simply presents you with three cards face down, and again, you have to find the ace of spades. No shuffling, no movement, just “you have a one in three chance of guessing the right card.” However, instead of playing only five times, you get to play 20 times.

In the case of the first example, Three-Card Monte, the fact that there is a process by which the player is allowed to observe the dealer rearrange his card implies that, if a player is observant enough, they can completely circumvent the need to guess. If their eyes can correctly follow the movement of the ace of spades, even through all the tricks, then they will win 100% of the time. Though trying to figure out the dealer’s decision-making quirks can help, and if you’re not fast enough then the game pretty much becomes somewhat “random,” there is a kind of physical/technical ideal that a player can potentially reach that guarantees a path to a right answer. This, I think, is the appeal of Smash Bros. Melee to many of its diehard fans. That is not to say that it requires no thinking or prediction, but the possibility that one can always pick the right choice if one is fast enough and sharp enough, makes it feel like the sky’s the limit when it comes to competition.

This is where I think many Melee fans start to lose sight as to how “simpler” games can go about still prioritizing certain factors that a game that “has everything” might not necessarily be able to achieve. Going back to the second example, the “face-down, guess the card” version, it can appear as if the game just has less to do. After all, the “only” thing you’re doing is making 1-in-3 guesses, and there are no extra layers of interaction such as trying to see through the dealer’s chicanery. But the fact that there is no upper ideal of being able to see “through the game” means something. Even if there are fewer avenues for improvement, the very fact that your ability to dissect the dealer’s decision-making based on past turns changes the dynamic of what skills and abilities are prioritized by the game, especially when one is given more chances to win. With 20 tries instead of five, the player must rely on their ability to pick up on any tendencies the dealer might possess. They also must understand that, no matter how far they’ve read into the dealer’s mind, there’s also a chance they might be wrong. In other words, your main tools are the ability to make reads, and your ability to make decisions even knowing that in some cases you will inevitably be wrong.

This isn’t to say that the Three-Card Monte approach is bad, or that it isn’t something games should strive for (if they choose to go in that direction). Neither Melee nor Smash 4 actually fall into the two extremes listed above. Both games require some degree of physical skill, and both require at least a certain amount of getting into the opponent’s head. Because Melee has that Three-Card Monte appeal, where a sense of uncertainty in one’s decisions can be washed away with enough technical prowess (at least up to a certain point), it encourages the active building of physical skill that can make training feel more directly rewarding. In the end, it’s not a matter of which game has “more”, but rather how the values of gameplay and competition emphasized in each game attract players differently.

Pokemon Sun & Moon: Why Ash Ketchum’s Design Was Updated…Again

In 2010, the Pokemon anime decided to spice things up a bit by modifying its character designs. More than a simple change of wardrobe, the denizens of the Pokemon TV world had changes to their faces and hair, and the result was an Ash with green eyes. With the release of Pokemon Sun & Moon, the characters have transformed once more, and this time it’s even more drastic than before. While it’s not like Ash is seven feet tall with a goatee now, it looks noticeably different compared to his adventures in the Kalos region. With such a major change, the inevitable question is “why?”

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Fortunately, I just so happen to have answered this question the last time around, and it turns out that the answer applies just as well, if not better.

At the time when green-eyed Ash was revealed, I wrote a post explaining how this was a clear attempt at making the characters in the Pokemon anime match more closely with the character designs of the games. The main artist for Pokemon has always been Ken Sugimori, and while the designs of the anime characters were based on his work back in the mid to late 90s, he’s continued to refine his art style over the years. If you look at Ash and other characters in Sun & Moon, they veer even closer to Sugimori’s current aesthetic. Characters appear rounder and softer, and the way their eyes are drawn have that distinct Sugimori look. This is probably most evident in the new Alola region characters, such as Lillie.

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Anime Character Design

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Game Character Design

That explains a good chunk of why Ash’s adventures in Not-Hawaii look so far-removed from past generations of the anime, but another significant one is that a simpler art style means being easier to animate. That’s not to say that the old Pokemon anime styles were especially complex, but being softer and more simplified in this way means the animators can put more effort into making things move well instead of making sure each character has all of their necessary details.

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Aikatsu! and the Challenges of Protagonist Succession

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Years of watching sequels has made one thing clear to me: it can be remarkably difficult to properly pass the torch from one protagonist to the next. For every Love Live! Sunshine!! that presents a cast with its own individuality, there’s a Saved by the Bell: The New Class, which, like so many in the graveyard of failed follow-ups, tries too hard to imitate the formula of the predecessor. In this respect, Aikatsu! takes on one hell of a challenge, not only taking the focus off of original heroine Hoshimiya Ichigo and re-centering it on newer star Oozora Akari, but actually keeping Ichigo and the rest of the old guard around.

The risk that comes with keeping the older characters around is that they might very well make the newer characters feel less worthwhile. In a post comparing the manga Genshiken to the series Kyuukyoku Choujin R, Japanese blogger tamagomago talks about how, while both series are about generations of college students, in the latter’s case the older characters stuck around to the extent that they overshadowed the younger ones. In Gundam SEED Destiny, protagonist Shinn Asuka ended up taking a backseat to the original Gundam SEED hero, Kira Yamato, to the extent that the opening changed to reflect this. Perhaps this is why the 800 lb. girls’ show gorilla known as Precure switches to a completely disconnected world with every new series more often than not.

To my pleasant surprise, I find that Aikatsu! does a fine job of re-focusing itself to highlight Akari as its new protagonist, with Ichigo passing into the role of support character in a manner that diminishes neither character.

It is necessary that I point out the following: for the sake of this post, I did not watch through the second year-long stretch of Aikatsu!, and thus cannot comment on how the actual transition from Ichigo to Akari went. All I know is that Akari was introduced partway through, and that, sort of like in the world of pro wrestling, she was gradually elevated to take center stage. By the time the third season starts up, Akari seems just different enough from Ichigo that it somewhat resembles the relationship and character contrast between Jotaro, the hero of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 3 and his Part 4 successor, Josuke. Like Jotaro, Ichigo even as an inexperienced individual feels like a powerhouse of sorts, a rock-climbing, tree-chopping force of nature. Akari, in turn, is more unsteady but brimming with life, akin to Josuke. She’s very much her own character, which is also the case for all of the newer cast.

Ichigo’s substantial role change into supportive mentor also has me thinking about the aura that emanates from characters who were ex-protagonists. Often, when a work no longer revolves around them, these former main characters gain a kind of stature or legendary status that elevates them above even the most prime moments of their time in the spotlight. Think of how the arrival of Cure Black and Cure White is generally considered a high-impact moment in the Precure crossover films, or how the arrival the original Red Ranger in the Power Rangers special Forever Red has the others standing in awe. Think of Goldberg at Survivor Series 2016. Ichigo is more or less the same character.

From my prior experience, Aikatsu! had been a consistently strong and entertaining series, so it’s not too much of a surprise that later parts of the anime manage are similarly high in quality. Akari’s a worthy successor thus far, and I’m curious as to how she and her friends will transform and perhaps someday become mentors themselves.

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’re interested in submitting topics for the blog, or just like my writing and want to support Ogiue Maniax, check out my Patreon.

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Days of Future Past: Star Ocean EX

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Star Ocean is one of those longstanding RPG game series that I know next to nothing about. I’m aware that it’s been around a while, and that it just got a new iteration this past year. So, when I was requested through Patreon to write about the 2001 anime Star Ocean EX, I had to come at it as a total novice. I didn’t know where it fit into the franchise, if it was a prequel, sequel, alternate universe, or whatever. However, because of when it came out, I find Star Ocean EX to be a historical artifact of sorts, a slice of anime and Japanese pop culture history at the time. Thus far, I’ve only watched five episodes, so my view of the show isn’t complete, but I still have some thoughts I want to share.

Overview and Basic Thoughts

Star Ocean EX is the story of Claude C. Kenny (the blond above), a young space officer and son of his ship’s captain. Self-conscious about the possibility of being viewed as being there only because of nepotism, Claude constantly tries to prove that he’s his own man. While investigating some ruins, he’s transported to another world where magic, rather than science, rules the day.

While the show looks pretty dire in terms of animation in budget, I can get behind the story. Its basic premise of a boy from a futuristic world ending up on a more fantasy-style planet has instant appeal in terms of setting the stage for interesting contrasts. The initial conflict between Claude and his father is also understandable on both sides. Claude wants to leave no doubts, especially from himself, that he’s his own man. His father is stoic and stern, but cares for his son deeply. I do wonder whether I would have picked up on both characters’ feelings had I watched this 15 years ago, or if I would have found both aggravating.

An Anime of Older Tropes

The character designs are straight out of the late 1990s/early 2000s aesthetics, but even if you ignore that element the characters’ personalities also shout “turn of the 21st century,” similar to many of the original characters in Super Robot Wars such as Ryune. While fathers being distant (both figuratively and literally) is a tradition in Japanese pop culture media like anime and games, there’s something about Claude in particular that rings especially true in a post-Evangelion period. While it’s clear that his relationship with his father is nothing like Shinji and Gendou’s combines aura of dysfunction, the chip Claude carries on his shoulder, as well as his dad’s inability to communicate his love and concern for Claude speak to that in a rough way.

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With the other two important characters Claude meets early on, I get a similar vibe of “archetypes from a past era.” Celina Jules is a seductive-looking treasure hunter who visually seems like a mix of Belldandy and Urd from Oh My Goddess! Rena Lanford (the other character in the first screenshot) is a young blue-haired healer who exists somewhere in the vein of Azmaria from Chrono Crusade (manga: 1998-2004), and Index from A Certain Magical Index (light novel: 2004-2010). Those characters aren’t that far off time-wise from Rena and Star Ocean EX, but her particular brand of gentle demeanor crossed with spunk fades away with every passing year.

The Frontier of Digital

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The other aspect of Star Ocean EX that really caught my attention was its animation style. The series came out right when full digital animation in Japan was becoming a thing, and it shows. It’s often really rough, with characters behaving like cardboard cutouts sliding about a little too smoothly. There’s also a feeling of clunkiness in terms of getting used to digital tools, which often means that the art itself looks unrefined. That all being said, I can forgive many of these gaffes, because being smack dab in the middle of a transitional period isn’t easy. A lot of what has defined anime aesthetic in days past is how creators make the most out of low budgets, and seeing the staff try to make the most of what they have is rather intriguing. For example, when Celina uses her fire spells, they apply a digital blur effect that’s meant to be the haze created by the heat of flames, but it sort of just ends up making things hard to see.

Overall

The old reputation of anime and manga based on video games is that it’s a pantheon of terribleness, but Star Ocean EX holds up fairly well. It’s not exactly a lost gem, but it is a product of its time, and at the very least a fun show to observe in that respect in addition to its actual narrative.

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’re interested in submitting topics for the blog, or just like my writing and want to support Ogiue Maniax, check out my Patreon.

My Favorite RPGs

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

Honorable Mention 1:  Dragon Warrior

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

Honorable Mention 2: Pokemon

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

Final Fantasy IV (Final Fantasy II)

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

Fire Emblem GBA (aka Fire Emblem: Blazing Sword)

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

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

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

Dragon Quest VIII

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

Super Robot Wars R

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

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

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’re interested in submitting topics for the blog, or just like my writing and want to support Ogiue Maniax, check out my Patreon.

The Smash 4 Tier List, and the Chaos of Viability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a beautiful place to be.

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Game Design: Patches, Iterative Design, and Basketball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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