The short answer is, I don’t know.
The closest thing YouTube has given me to a long answer is: “This account has been suspended due to multiple or severe violations of YouTube’s policy against spam, gaming, misleading content, or other Terms of Service violations.”
That doesn’t sound like an accurate description of anything I’ve ever used YouTube’s services for.
My history with YouTube is pretty benign. For a couple years after signing up a YouTube account, I didn’t use it for anything but managing subscriptions and favorites. Then I bought a cheap USB screen capture dongle thing and, to test it out, uploaded a silly video of some dancing dogs from Suikoden. Maybe a year or so after that, just to prove to a guy on Talking Time that I could do it, I recorded myself beating Ring Man in Mega Man IV without any weapons and without getting hit. And then, since I had a microphone laying around, I recorded myself talking over Mega Man III. Then I did a couple more games, included an obscure Game Boy title called Shantae. That one got watched by the game’s creators, who linked up my YouTube channel on their blog and gave me more subscribers than I ever imagined I could get.
It’s been a lot of fun. Making and uploading Let’s Play videos has been the most rewarding hobby I’ve ever had. I’ve had lots of webpages and blogs and indie game projects and forums and things, but I had never had a real audience, and that made all the difference to me. It’s a good feeling knowing that a thousand people like some thing you made.
Let’s Plays exist in a kind of murky legal space. Nobody’s really sure whether they are covered under Fair Use, largely because nobody’s ever challenged them in court. I believe nobody has ever challenged them because, from the game company’s point of view, an LP series is at worst a harmless derivative work, and at best free advertising. That being said, it’s still possible that a game company could come along and slap an LP with a copyright claim. This is something we just sort of live with, just like people who write fan fiction or make unofficial sequels or remakes. In fan communities, authors or companies that actively hunt down fan works are considered draconian.
Since there’s no official set of rules to making LPs while staying within the bounds of copyright law, I’ve always adhered to a few unofficial ones:
- Never LP a game that isn’t at least one year old. Putting up complete gameplay videos of brand new games has always seemed tacky to me, Fair Use or no. This is why I let my blind run of Mega Man 10 chill on my hard drive for a year before uploading it. I have a blind run of Journey chilling right now for the same reason.
- Keep the videos family friendly. Vulgar videos are more likely to be flagged, and besides, I liked the thought of little kids enjoying my videos along with their gamer parents. (I know of at least one case where this has happened, and it made me feel all warm and squishy inside.)
- If a video was ever flagged or removed, do not contest it. No matter what, I had to remember that I was uploading copyrighted material, and that the copyright holder had every right to remove that material if they so chose. Lots of YouTubers just re-upload the video (sometimes to the same account!), which struck me as petty and stupid.
I never held any illusions that these things would protect me forever, but there are a lot of LPers on YouTube who skirt the copyright lines a lot more dangerously than I ever did. Never once, though, have I had a video flagged or removed for copyright reasons. I’ve received a few copyright notices, little automated responses from YouTube saying “Hey, this might be a problem, but it might not, so don’t worry about it for now.” I think I accumulated three of these over 700+ videos.
These notices, by the way, are not the same as “strikes”. When your account receives a strike, that means that a copyright holder has filed a complaint against your content and the content was pulled. Three of these, and the account is terminated permanently. This has never happened to any of my videos. If it had, I would have removed every video from that LP series, as well as every LP series of a game by that company. And then I might have taken a six-month-long hiatus from uploading new series, since that’s how long it takes for a strike to go away.
The truth is I don’t know why the account was terminated. YouTube didn’t offer any warning or explanation. There are several appeal forms at various parts on the YouTube site — and I found a couple more doing research into people whose accounts were similarly banned. I filled all these out to the best of my ability. Some of the articles and conversations my research turned up implied that I could wait forever for a response and never get one. Others say their accounts were reinstated after various periods of time. I have no idea where on that line my situation falls. A couple of these resources mentioned writing an open letter to YouTube to plead your case, so that’s what I’m doing now.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think my termination had anything to do with copyright violations. I had a screwy moment logging into Google early today saying there had been “suspicious activity” on my account. I immediately verified my account using my cell phone, changed the password, and purged a couple of websites linked to my Google login that I no longer use. It wasn’t until I tried refreshing my YouTube window that I was informed my account was gone. It’s possible my account became compromised somehow.
I’m also aware that it’s YouTube’s policy to “ban first, ask questions later”. There are lots of complaints of innocent folks getting their accounts banned because of users falsely flagging their videos. If, say, a bunch of people went through my Mega Man videos and flagged them inappropriate for hate speech or pornography, YouTube’s robots would ban the account automatically. This doesn’t strike me as particularly likely, though, because it would require me to have some really malicious enemies… and quite frankly I’m not that interesting.
It’s also been pointed out that last week I uploaded a video with no purpose other than to plug a friend’s Kickstarter project, and that might run up against one of YouTube’s meaningful content terms. I don’t think this is very likely either, though, because that video stayed up until this point without incident, and if it had been in violation I would think the violation would be minor enough to merit a strike rather than immediate termination. But, again, I have no way of knowing.
My message to YouTube: Please re-instate my account as soon as possible. If the termination was a mistake, please correct it and you will have my gratitude. If it was in response to a copyright claim, please inform me which video is the offender so I can remove it and all the ones related to it. If the account cannot be reinstated, at least tell me what went wrong.
I have never made a dime from uploading Let’s Play videos; it is a hobby, pure and simple. I have received many offers from dubious “gaming networks” who wanted to monetize my videos, but I have ignored them all. Part of your mission statement is to give people a platform to showcase their skills and talents. Well, my skills and talents begin and end at playing video games and being capable of witty banter. That may sound strange but about a thousand people seemed to really enjoy it. It brightened their lives and it brightened mine too. I would like to keep doing it.
My message to my subscribers: I don’t know what this all means for the future of my Let’s Plays. If my account is not reinstate then my oldest stuff, like Shantae and Secret of Evermore, is simply gone forever. As for the rest of the stuff, it may or may not appear on another video site at a future date. As for the current series, Shiren and Risky’s Revenge, I will try and make it a priority to make them available, if possible.
If you have the means, please try and politely let YouTube know that you would like to see my account reinstated. There is no way I know of to contact YouTube directly via e-mail or the website, but you can spread the word about my ban and why you’d like to see it lifted by hitting your social media of choice and pointing people to this blog post. Better yet, you can upload a video to YouTube with an open letter of your own. If nothing else, the show of solidarity will do me good!
Above all, I want to thank everyone who watched and enjoyed my videos. I never wanted anything from you guys except your eyeballs, and I really loved having the chance to entertain so many people for so long by doing the silly kind of stuff I’ve been doing on my own since I was a kid. I know I have done a lot to entertain folks, and to introduce them to games they wouldn’t have played, and to help them experience games they didn’t want to play, and to teach them something about gaming history as I understand it.
Thank you for reading, and fingers crossed that this whole thing blows over quickly.
The rules of the Final Fantasy V Four Job Fiesta are simple: each time one of the four crystals gives you a new set of jobs, you randomly pick one to keep. One job from each crystal: that’s it. You can mix and match however you like, but you can only use abilities from those four jobs, and you have to have one of each in your party at all times.
I’d been following the Fun Club thread at Talking Time, but I wasn’t going to participate. After all, I’m already neck-deep in a Final Fantasy Tactics challenge run, and I wasn’t looking to do an FF5 replay anytime soon. But then Theatrhythm came out, which made me want to replay every FF game ever, so I figured why not.
(You’re supposed to use some Twitter shenanigans to get your job picks, but I didn’t feel like re-activating my Twitter thing, so I just used good ol’ random.org.)
My Wind Crystal job was Thief, which almost scared me off the challenge right then and there. Thieves are pretty weak, and I’d have to use a party full of them until the Water Crystal, which didn’t sound like much fun. Their attacks are weak, and the first town doesn’t even sell Daggers, so I would have to do the Ship Graveyard virtually unequipped. On the plus side, innate Vigilance meant I’d never have to worry about back attacks!
I quickly learned that Thieves had another advantage I’d always overlooked: the !Flee command enables you to skip random encounters. Whatever else happened, if the going ever got too rough, I could always just make a beeline for a save point or dungeon exit to regroup. This boiled the game down (mostly) to a series of boss fight challenges, which sounded a lot more manageable to me.
The first boss is the mean-looking lobster dude in the canal. Not much I could do here but attack, and use Potions where necessary. Fortunately, that’s about all it takes to kill it.
A couple of Daggers dropped off the Skeletons here, so I was able to get my damage output somewhere respectable.
I wasn’t expecting to have difficulty with Siren. Partway through the fight she turns undead, and I figured, hey, I can just chuck a Phoenix Down or an Elixir at her. This is where my ignorance of FF5 began to shine through, because apparently that trick doesn’t work in this game. (Or, at least, it doesn’t work 100% of the time.) I managed to skate through the fight on my Daggers, but it was touch-and-go for a couple rounds.
Magissa and Forza
I had to lose this fight twice before I came up with a workable strategy. Magissa is not a big deal; she uses attack magic, but nothing some quick Potions can’t stay on top of. The trouble begins when she summons her boyfriend Forza, whose powerful physical attacks can one-shot a Thief on the front line. This meant I had to switch everyone to the back row once Forza showed up, which enabled me to survive but slashed my attack power in half. Magissa is nearly dead by this point in the fight, but Forza has lots of HP. The fight became a war of attrition; as long as I had Potions he could never beat me, but once I ran out it was all over. That ended up happening, and I had to run back to town to restock. After many rounds of 20-damage hits, though, he finally went down and I got on with my life.
Judicious use of !Flee allowed me to get my Elven Mantle without any trouble.
Oh good, it’s just the Forza fight again, except with more HPs! Fortunately, I had been dutifully !Stealing from each new monster in a hungry grab for resources, and discovered the Wyverns in Walse Tower yeild Mythril Knives. Four of these brought my damage output to the next level, and Garula wasn’t much of an issue.
I was pretty stoked to get my Water Crystal job, because I was getting a bit tired of the Attack/Potion/Attack/Potion/!Flee routine. Alas, my desire for deeper strategy was destined to go unfulfilled: my new job was Berserker. This meant that all White, Black, Time and Summon magic would be forever denied to me. It also meant I’d have to figure out a way to get through several already-pretty-tough boss fights without anything but physical attacks and Potions. Eventually I’d be able to give my Berserker the Artful Dodger ability to increase his Speed, but someone would have to master Thief first, and that was still a way’s off.
!Steal proved its worth over and over again here, providing an easy and endless source of Ethers and Hi-Potions. One of the treasure chests is a Moonring Blade, which would allow one of my Thieves to hit from the back row at no penalty.
This boss has three forms, and each form has different properties. I never bothered to learn what they were, though, because normally you just summon Shiva to end the fight before it starts. I didn’t have that luxury this time, though, so I had to do some figuring.
The three forms are Man, Tornado and Hand. The boss mainly attacks by countering damage, so if you need a breather you can just lay off and focus on healing. (Or, rather, you could as long as you don’t have a goddamn Berserker on the team.) The Hand’s counter is most deadly; it casts Fira on one of your guys, which at this level is pretty much a OHKO. The Tornado’s counter is to cast Fira on itself, healing lots of HPs. The Man counters by using Blaze, which hits the whole group, but can be somewhat easily healed.
The boss’s weakness is its limited MP. By laying off the Hand, but hitting the Tornado as much as possible, I was able to get it to Fira itself dry. All I had to worry about then was Blaze, which is a free spell, but by that point the tide was in my favor. Hurrah!
I ran the Karnak escape sequence twice. On a normal game you have no problem getting all the treasure (Elixirs, mostly) in the time limit, but there was no way my team would manage it. Fortunately, failing my first attempt gave me enough insight to breeze through my second. I pocketed lots of gil, and a Ribbon, and another Elven Mantle, and a Main Gauche (which, surprisingly, was an upgrade from whatever axe my Berserker was using). In addition, you can !Steal Mage Mashers from the wizard guys in here, which means the whole team got an upgrade.
I could see this fight going bad, but it didn’t. Attack until gg.
At this point the game awards you with three of the Fire Crystal jobs, and I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Should I roll for my third job now, or wait until I had all five became available? The benefit to rolling now was a 3/5 chance of increased abilities for the next dungeon. However, I decided to tough it out with what I had.
The same strategy that worked against the Liquid Flame worked again here, with this addition: my Mage Mashers were able to inflict Silence, thus removing Fira from Ifrit’s spell list. I still had to contend with Blaze, but he wasted too many rounds, and I outlasted him.
This guy, on the other hand, this total speed bump nothing guy from any “normal” FF5 playthrough, was a nightmare and a half. Byblos is a prime example of a few really annoying traits coming together to make an almost unkillable boss. The first complication is, he counters physical hits with Protect. So the fight stretches out twice as long as it needs too, right out of the gate.
Most of his attacks are status ailments, which weaken you a bit but can’t actually win the fight for him. His physicals were harsh on my front-row Thieves, but I had farmed up lots of Hi-Potions, so this wasn’t an issue. The issue was Wind Slash, which took a huge bite out of my entire party. With three Thieves working overtime issuing Hi-Potions I could recover from this, but it was going to take a lot of Hi-Potions. I went in with about twenty, and that wasn’t enough, so I went back and farmed up twenty more. Even a team of Slow’d L1 heroes (which is what I had, thanks to his constant use of Web and Dischord) can win this fight, 28 damage at a time if need be, as long as the Hi-Potions hold.
They held, but Byblos had one last trick up his sleeve: at low HP, he starts countering physicals with Drain instead of Protect. This heals him for about 200, and a Berserker with a Main Gauche who hasn’t been hit by Dischord can land 170 on a critical. Running him out of MP didn’t seem to be an option. All I could really do was hope my Berserker landed a couple good hits in a row which either didn’t trigger Drain, or otherwise hope for Drain to miss.
One of my Berserkers got Dischord’d, lowering his damage output to 40 or so. There’s no cure for this other than to just kill the Berserker so he doesn’t get in your way. Too bad.
My next increase in power level wasn’t going to be until someone learned Artful Dodger, which would have taken so much powerleveling that the stat increases probably would have won me the fight. Fortunately it didn’t come to that, and after my third 20-minute battle against Byblos I finally won. This is where someone comes along to tell me of an amazing strategy I missed, or some way for Thieves to deal Fire damage, or whatever. But that won’t harsh my mood; I’d successfully worked through my first real struggle of the game, and was looking forward to the next.
As it happens, the next struggle almost caused me to give up. The Sandworm continuously pops out of one of three holes, and if you hit an empty hole instead of a worm you get nailed with Gravity. Berserkers, of course, don’t discriminate between targets, which meant eating a lot of Gravity. The only way to avoid this was to enter the fight with my Berserker dead.
That left the Sandworm’s main attack, Quicksand. This deals damage to the whole party and inflicts Sap, so your HP slowly drains away for the rest of the fight. This isn’t a problem if you have Hi-Potions, but I was running low, and the plot had conspired to deny me access to my Hi-Potion farming grounds temporarily. The only other place to get them was from a rare monster in the library that doesn’t appear until you’ve killed several lesser monsters.
What was holding me back was a simple mental block. See, right near the desert are giant bird creatures you can steal Elixirs from. Spamming Elixirs in an early game boss fight just didn’t seem right, so for some reason my brain didn’t make the connection right away. But that’s what I had to do to win. (Of course, after spending thirty minutes farming up Elixirs one of the Talking Time guys stepped up with a hot tip abut stealing Hi-Potions from Ramuh, so I spent a few minutes doing that too.)
My third job turned out to be Bard, which is like way-bro-awesome, because Bards are sickeningly broken in this game. A quick trip to Istory scored Romeo’s Ballad, which is an all-but-guaranteed multi-target Stop spell, at no MP cost, that works on many bosses. Spamming this song became my bread and butter. The Cray Claw didn’t even get to attack me.
Another tough nut to crack. This fight starts with two small guns throwing Gravity-type attacks at you. These can’t kill you, but the Soul Cannon itself fires off a huge blast every couple of rounds which can. The problem was, the small guns inflict Old, which reduces your stats to basically nothing. Even if I managed to sneak my Berserker through without getting Old’d, I wasn’t doing enough damage to keep up with the constant laser blasts.
Then someone told me where to !Steal a Death Sickle, which was a monumental damage upgrade. This didn’t help with the luck-driven aspect of the fight, but it brought the battle down from insanely difficult to merely somewhat tedious.
For some reason I always remember this boss as giving me no end of grief, but it did absolutely nothing to get in my way this time. No doubt that Death Sickle helped quite a bit.
At this point I got my fourth job (Samurai) and Galuf left the team. I designated him as a Thief, which meant I was locked in to Berserker/Bard/Samurai for the World One Boss Hoedown.
Romeo’s Ballad prevented them from acting at all, heh heh.
I had been dreading this fight the entire game. Without a full-party heal, I had no idea how I was going to survive his Earth Shaker attack, which he uses upon death. The canonical way to survive earthquake attacks is to use Float, but 1) I didn’t have a White Mage and 2) you don’t get that spell until World Two. I was afraid I was just going to have to powerlevel until my Samurai had enough HPs to survive Titan’s final attack.
Luckily, some research revealed a monster called Gaelicat in an early dungeon that casts Float if you Confuse it. Bard to the rescue once again, with the Confuse-causing Alluring Air song. Within minutes we were floating and Titan could no longer reach me.
Neutered by Romeo’s Ballad… which brought me to World Two!
You fight this guy with just Bartz, and Bartz happened to be my Berserker at the time… so I just watched this fight play out. I don’t think you can actually lose it.
And you fight this guy with just Galuf, who was my Thief. I did that so I could start stealing Genji equipment, but apparently he doesn’t carry any during this first fight. Total bummer.
Again with the no Genji equipment. Was my memory playing tricks on me? Residual traces of FF12 clogging up the neurons? Oh well, Samurai and Berserker took care of him pretty quickly.
Every FF game has one undead boss you kill by chucking a Phoenix Down at. This is that boss.
Apparently isn’t immune to KO, because my Berserker proc’d Death off his Death Sickle and won this fight in about eight seconds.
Gilgamesh #3 + Enkidu
Gilgamesh isn’t a problem in this fight, but Enkidu is. You can’t focus on killing Gilgy because Enkidu uses White Wind to heal the both of them. And focusing on Enkidu causes him to start Draining you. Aagh! Shades of Byblos! To make matters worse, Enkidu is in the back row, so physical attacks do half damage to him.
After a painful loss (lots of cutscenes to re-watch) I swapped some equipment around. Giving my Dancing Dagger to my Berserker and hoping for a fortuitous Sword Dance proc turned out to be just the edge I needed; that dealt way more damage than Enkidu could Drain back, letting me win the fight. Oh, and I stole some Genji Gloves, so my memory wasn’t totally stupid.
This is a trick fight no matter what jobs you bring. He spams Comet until someone dies, and then starts dragging the corpse across the map to eat it. As long as he’s in corpse-dragging mode he can’t kill another character, so if you leave one guy dead and then revive him just before he gets snarfed, you can get in a lot of hits. Problem is, with my team’s low damage output, I wasn’t sure I could win before everyone got eaten. I cut it pretty close… in the end, everyone was just a few pixels away.
!Zenigage, followed by !Zenigage. These guys don’t mess around, so I didn’t either.
You can !Steal the Genji Helm from him after he transforms, but other than that it’s the same old Gilgy. Since last time I saw him everyone had gotten a nice, beefy weapon upgrade, and I had also gotten my first mastered Thief. A Berserker with Artful Dodger is a wonderful thing.
I tried to win this fight legit, honestly I did. But Exdeath throws powerful spells way too rapid-fire for a team with no multi-heals and no burst damage to survive. Fortunately one of my YouTube subscriptions yeilded the answer: equip Reflect Rings, have someone !Hide, then survive until he uses Zombie Breath. Since Zombies can’t be killed, and your !Hidden character can’t be targeted, it’s impossible to lose the fight in this state. Then it’s just a matter of waiting for him to use Level 3 Flare a few times, which will bounce off your Reflect and deal 3000 damage to him. I ate tacos and watched a whole episode of Breaking Bad waiting for Exdeath to finish killing himself.
Seriously, look at this hilarious shit.
And that brings me to World Three! I was surprised to see I cleared World Two in record time; a little over four hours. (Keeping in mind some of that was letting the game sit idle, because I play it at work and have to divide my attention.) I think that’s because in a normal run I spend so much time filling out spell lists and banging my head against the Gil Turtle and what-have-you, whereas this time I pretty much just kept on task. No point going out of your way to hunt Catoblepas when there are no Summoners in the party, right?
You only get two heroes for this fight, but then, he’s kind of a pushover. I pretty much just pummeled him.
The Gargoyles are annoying because if you don’t kill them at the same time, or at least very close together, they will continuously revive each other. And with a Berserker on the team actually timing your hits can be very difficult… especially with low damage output like mine. (I could have grabbed the Chicken Knife before this fight, but I forgot about it.) !Zenigage could have mopped up here, but I pretty much just gunned it hoping I’d get lucky, and eventually, I did.
This was a long, arduous dungeon I never would have made it through without Romeo’s Ballad. (Or remembering to get the Chicken Knife. Heh.) But I looted the entire place, by thunder, picking up a nice Earth Hammer for my Berserker. Now, at long last, I had a semi-reliable way to damage multiple targets! (My Samurai had a Wind Slash, but its attack power was too low to use in general fights. Go figure.)
With Reflect Rings handy Melusine couldn’t actually damage me. Her attacks served to heal her, of course, but never for more than I could dish out. She has four “forms”, only one of which is susceptible to physical attacks. However, that one form was taking punishment from a maxed out Chicken Knife and a pretty pissed off Berserker. The fight dragged on and on, but my victory was really inevitable.
At this point the game opens up considerably. The idea is you’re supposed to run around the world completing subquests to unlock all the endgame spells and equipment, but I decided to skip most of it because it just didn’t pertain to me. I did swing by the Sealed Castle to pick up a Rune Axe, Masamune and Apollo’s Harp. The Masamune in particular was nice, because it guarantees first strike, so equipping it and !Flee onto my Samurai made avoiding combat trivial. I also visited the Phantom Village for four sets of Hermes Sandals (auto-Haste) and completed the chocobo sidequest for a Mirage Vest (auto-Blink), picked up my Magic Lamp (free summons), and filled out my !Sing repertoire. The new songs included Sinewy Etude (Strength buff) and Hero’s Rime (increase party’s level), both of which got plenty of use.
And so with a team around L30, it was into the Rift with me!
…is vulnerable to Silence. Pulling out the ol’ Mage Mashers was the key here, then I simply whacked her to death.
…is vulnerable to Stop, and therefore chain-casting Romeo’s Ballad is a winner. However, he only stays Stop’d for a very short amount of time; even two Haste’d Bards !Singing full time will let him sneak an attack in once in a while. And without proper equipment (much of which I didn’t have) a single attack will destroy me. So I had my actual Bard !Sing Swift Song, which increases everyone’s Speed stat, and then had two other heroes with !Sing carefully timing their use of Romeo’s Ballad while the Berserker killed Omega with the Chicken Knife. With Hermes Sandals and Artful Dodger, the Berserker got to attack between each layer of Romeo’s Ballad, and after a couple tries to get the timing worked out I was rewarded with my very own Omega Badge. Huzzah!
A tough fight, but with three strong, fast attackers under the influence of Sinewy Etude, he didn’t last long.
This is an optional battle, but winning it opens a save point right in front of a few other tough non-optional bosses, so I wanted him dead. He essentially uses Blue Magic nonstop, which is notorious for being a random grab-bag of effects. Blue Magic is incredibly powerful if used properly, but I was hoping the RNG was too dumb to use the right spells and that I could get lucky just pounding the boss into paste. And that’s what happened. Thanks for the save point, noob!
This boss spams Earth Shaker like nobody’s business. There was simply no beating him without Float. I’m sure there are better ways to get Float at this point in the game, but I was pretty comfortable on the couch and didn’t feel like getting up to check the wiki, so I just ran out of the dungeon and paid a visit to my old pals the Gaelicats. If you’re Floating, Catastrophe opens with 100 Gs, negating the status. Bleeh. With Reflect Rings on, though, 100 Gs bounces off, and what’s better, he’s too stupid to try anything else. In other words, I could have won this fight barehanded with a single character.
Aside from Frogging everyone right up front, I didn’t note anything difficult about this boss. He didn’t seem to have any multi-party attacks, and I had lots of Phoenix Downs. I actually got use out of my Mana’s Paean song, using it to buff the party’s Magic and then using the Magic Lamp to summon Bahamut and Leviathan. (The Magic Lamp casts each Summon in order, beginning with Bahamut and working down. The next spell in the cycle was Odin.)
Odin, by the way, happens to be a OHKO against this massively difficult boss. There’s even a book in the last dungeon that clues you in to this.
Stole the Genji Shield from him, then he ran off.
After the Sandworm, this had to be the hardest boss in the game. He starts out surrounded by four barriers that spam Holy and Flare at you. They bounce these at you, meaning you can’t Reflect them. The only feasible way to win this fight was to spam !Zenigage to take the barriers out before they could kill me with high-level magic. Of course Necrophobe himself has lots of high-level magic, too, so Elixirs were my only reliable way to heal. Eventually Gilgamesh shows up to finish him off for you, and I used the opportunity to steal his Genji Armor.
Exdeath and Neo Exdeath
Exdeath’s first form isn’t a pushover, but his most dangerous attacks are all single-target, so I wasn’t worried about it. His second form has a spell called Amalgest which deals way more damage than my party had HP. (My highest HP total was 1400; my lowest was 750.) The only way to avoid Amalgest was to kill the portion of the boss that uses it before it could get it off. Which, even with my Chicken Knife and Masamune, wasn’t going to happen.
Then someone reminded me that level factors into !Zenigage’s damage calculation (something I should have remembered, honestly), and that I could use Hero’s Rime to beef everyone’s level. Letting Hero’s Rime run the entire time my Berserker was soloing Exdeath’s first form brought my !Zenigage damage up over 8000, so a couple volleys was enough to take the boss out before he was able to inflict a single point of damage.
The next spells in the Magic Lamp cycle were Carbunkle, Catoblepas and Golem, so I went into the finale form with Reflect and a physical damage wall up. That turned out to be overkill, but hey, overpreparing is what FF5 is all about.
I decided against doing Shinryu, because it would require the same Zombie/Reflect/!Hide strategy that World Two Exdeath required, which is boring and mindless and stupid. And while I feel bad about skipping most of World Three, I have to say I’m still pleased I managed to complete the game in 20 hours at the lowest levels I ever have (32/30/32/32).
My overall assessment of the team is that Bard is almost game-breakingly good, first because of Romeo’s Ballad and later because of Hero’s Rime. !Zenigage is the same way, and I’m not sure how I would have gotten through a few sticky spots without it. Aside from that, though, the combination of Thief and Berserker has got to be the worst possible draw from the first two crystals. Literally any other job from either of those crystals would have given me far greater access to damage output, healing, or both.
Thief in particular was a really strange job. It has lots of powerful advantages: spotting passages, no back attacks ever, stockpiling items early on. But these advantages really only shine if you’re in a party of weak heroes… say, oh, mostly Thieves. In that sense they’re a lot like the Wh.MAGE from FF1; sure, Wh.MAGEs can CURE and RUSE and HARM, and all those things are great, but they’re really only required if you’ve gimped your team by putting multiple Wh.MAGEs on it in the first place.
Berserker, on the other hand, is probably the worst job in the game. With one on the team you lose any capability of focusing fire or timing your attacks properly; the only way to avoid triggering a boss’s counterattack is to incapacitate your Berserker. To compensate for these drawbacks, Berserkers get one of the worst weapon selections in the game. Axes and hammers have low hit rate, and there aren’t very many of them. Rune Axe — the “legendary” Berserker weapon — is particularly weak for the point in the game where you find it. Thor Hammer is an upgrade (defensively as well as offensively, since the Berserker can throw it from the back row), but he still can’t outdamage a Samurai. I can’t imagine he could outdamage a Knight, Monk, Ninja or Dancer either.
I did have a lot of fun with this challenge and will probably do it again next year. This is like a yearly thing, right?
In any event, back to Theatrhythm for me. See you!
Today I’d like to share something that I figured out when I was nine: why Super Nintendo graphics looked nicer than Regular Nintendo graphics. I think we all have examples of these kinds of things, things that make perfect sense in the mind of a little kid, and that we are, at the time, monumentally proud of. Like tapping into one of the secrets of the universe, or something. It’s a powerful feeling.
But that doesn’t change the fact that nine-year-olds are stupid and wrong about everything.
I was so happy when I figured it out that I explained it to my mom in some detail. I remember feeling that if I explained it well enough she might be so proud that she would go out and buy me one. (I was wrong about that, too.)
First, I observed that Regular Nintendo games looked kind of flat and blocky compared to Super Nintendo games, which looked colorful and round. So the first thing I had to figure out was where the graphics actually came from. I knew that Regular Nintendo games were drawn with tiles, so if you wanted to draw Level 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. you didn’t really have to draw the whole level. All you had to do was draw, like, six or seven pictures and then use the same ones over and over. Furthermore I knew you could use the same picture multiple times without having to draw it multiple times just by changing the colors, like OGREs and GrOGREs in Final Fantasy.
It stood to reason, then, that all the graphics you could need for a game could be stored right there in the game cartridge. I knew the inside of a Nintendo game had these little green plates, and that the plates were covered in little notches and ridges and things. All the tiles and graphics a game needed were etched right onto the plate, one instance of each, and then the computer inside the Nintendo put them all together so you could play a game. Initially I imagined a man hunched over a desk drawing the graphics directly onto the plates, tiny trees and IMPs and Search Snakes, as though building a ship in a bottle. But then I decided that was stupid and probably they just had a factory where they could draw the graphics on a computer, and then a robot arm etched the graphics for them. That’s how they mass-produced the plates.
But the plates were made of low-quality material, because Nintendo was a small company when they were just starting out in the 1980s. The only plates they were able to afford had microscopic imperfections; they weren’t smooth enough to draw perfectly round graphics. Now, regular drawing paper has microscopic imperfections too, but that didn’t matter because the things you were drawing were so big. The Nintendo graphics had to be drawn super duper tiny, so you could fit them all in, otherwise the imperfections wouldn’t have made a difference. So that’s why everything in a Regular Nintendo game looked all blocky.
After years of selling Mega Man and Legend of Zelda, though, Nintendo was finally able to afford higher-quality material to make the graphics plates. These new plates were perfectly smooth, all the way down to the atomic level, so when they drew the Mario graphics they looked a lot rounder and prettier. (I was especially proud that I was able to slip the word “atomic” in there. Maybe we had just learned about atoms in school, or something.)
Mom was impressed with my reasoning, but it didn’t change the fact that she didn’t have $200 to buy me a Super Nintendo. Ah, lament.
Lollipop Chainsaw is retarded. Let’s get that out of the way first. Before we can answer questions about whether the game is good or bad, or fun, or exploitative, or any other adjective, we have to acknowledge that it is retarded. Horn-dog seventh graders sit around talking about what kind of games they’d like to play, and one of them says: “A game where a big-titted cheerleader cuts zombies apart with a chainsaw,” and his friends look at him like he’s retarded. This is some seriously low-brow, chin-spittle, can’t-break-the-graham-crackers-neatly-along-the-lines retarded shit.
Just so’s we’re clear.
Your capacity to enjoy Lollipop Chainsaw begins and ends with your ability to appreciate retarded shit. This was not a thing I was able to do for a very long time. I remember being in high school, and people would be talking about Turok or Twisted Metal or whatever retarded shit people played back then, and I would be all smug in my pompous, personal silence about the grandiose high art I was experiencing, like Grandia or Parasite Eve. Which says something about my tastes in video games as a high schooler, sure, but it also says something about the horror 14-year-old-me would have felt if he’d known that 30-year-old-me would eventually play a retarded zombie cheerleader game. I might have thought something like, gee, I wonder what happens to me to cause that kind of brain damage? Like do I get hit by a tractor or something?
The real answer is a little less dramatic: I grew up, and more importantly, I lightened up.
I remember the exact moment, too. It was a movie that did it: Freddy vs. Jason. One of my main dudes is a horror buff, and more importantly is well-versed in the guilty pleasures of B-movies. And he decided, for whatever reason, that we would go and see Freddy vs. Jason. I wasn’t that excited about it, and neither were the other dudes, because who wants to willingly pay actual money to watch that kind of garbage? But we went, and I remember none of us were in a very good mood for some reason, because we were arguing about god-only-knows-what, probably because we were all jobless and hanging out with each other way too much and just about ready to kill one another.
And the movie kicked ass.
I think, at first, I probably concluded that there was just something theraputic about absorbing cotton candy media when you’re in a shitty mood and want to kill your friends. You put something flashy and colorful and stupid in front of your eyeballs for an hour or so, and that calms the nerves and smooths out the anger, and then afterwards you don’t even know what you were angry about. I was wrong about that, though, because six months passed and Freddy vs. Jason came out on DVD, and I purchased it, and we watched it again, and it still kicked ass.
The actual lesson, which I arrived at way, way too late in life, is that retarded shit can kick ass. You just have to loosen the valve on your butthole and enjoy it sometimes. I started doing that with video games, too; I started playing fighting games and shooting games, and racing games, and all the other non-RPG non-Mega Man stuff I’d missed out on through my tight-assed adolescence.
More importantly, I learned to identify the retarded aspects of the games I already loved, the ones I considered to be actually worthwhile. Deep stories, interesting characters, brilliant musical scores, yadda yadda, but retarded gameplay. Ten years of playing nothing but RPGs, and I was only just now realizing that all I’d really been doing was pressing the button that chooses my Attack command, over and over.
I spent the next few years broadening my horizons a bit. I did try, though, to make sure I never opened my mind so much that my brain fell out. I was more willing to take chances on new types of gameplay, or types of gameplay I didn’t much enjoy during my formative years, but I was very careful to never buy a retarded game because it was retarded.
(Well, maybe Crackdown. But who could resist Crackdown?)
That put me into a bit of conundrum, where Lollipop Chainsaw was concerned. Upon seeing the initial trailer I predicted the game would be intensely fun for, say, twenty minutes. Certainly not worth $60. There was no way I was going to play full Xbox 360 disc game price for the retarded boobs-and-zombies game.
And so I didn’t. I made Peanut buy it for me. Heh heh.
And that’s where this “review” ends for you, if you’re not the kind of person who can appreciate retarded shit for no reason other than it is retarded. Not just tolerate it, understand, but actually seek it out, and digest it, in order to be nourished by all its short bus splendor. That’s the first hurdle you have to get over before you can appreciate anything else the game has to offer.
To put a fine point on it: the game doesn’t really offer anything else. It’s shallow gameplay and panty shots from here to Titsville, one “oh my god I can’t believe they did that” moment after another, for seven levels, until the game ends. There’s a reason it’s getting such atrocious reviews. Its Metacritic score is like 68%. But then, Freddy vs. Jason‘s sitting at 37%, and it kicked ass. That should tell you what you need to know.
The controls are loose and confusing, in that “Japanese developer trying to make a Western-style game” way. The camera is too fast in some places, too slow in others, and way too snappy to be really useful. There’s a lock-on button that serves no apparent function but to make your life more difficult. There are three attack buttons, two of which are chainsaw buttons, and the differences between them aren’t immediately apparent. You push a button to pop up a menu, on which the only option is “eat this to restore health”, rather than simply push a button to restore health. The subtitles aren’t sans-serif fonts. The last 360 game I can remember playing with ugly-ass serifs in the subtitles was Deadly Premonition, which had all these same problems.
(Deadly Premonition is another game I bought because it was retarded, I guess. But I exploited Amazon rewards to get it for free, so no skin of my bollocks.)
Once you get through that, the game is just wave after wave of zombies. Your two chainsaw buttons rougly correspond to “high attack” and “low attack”. In between you have a quick pom-pom bash. These three attack buttons can be chained together into a huge variety of combo attacks, each one more sparkly and rainbow-y than the last. Rounding out the buttons are a dodge, an awkward dash toggle, a superhero mode attached to a pink star meter that fills up as you kill zombies, and (of course) a grenade launcher.
From there the game gets as deep as you want it to get, I suppose. Killing zombies earns you coins, and killing more zombies earns you more coins, and killing more zombies stylishly earns you the most coins of all. You use these coins to purchase your combo attacks, static upgrades to health and strength, or ever-skimpier “clothing” to traipse around town with. I’m sure if you want to approach the game as an Arkham city-style ballet of carefully calculated attacks, the game is happy to oblige you. After all, there are harder difficulties, and time attacks, and high scores to beat. I’ll be interested to check back in a year and see what players are capable of with a bit of memorization and practice.
That’s not how I approached it, though. I played on Normal, which was actually piss-easy. My only deaths were during gimmick-y minigame areas with immediate failure states. I bought a lot of combo attacks, but I only ever used two: X-X-X-Y was a powerful flurry of pom-pom hits followed by an arcing overhead saw swipe, perfect for taking out single opponents. A-A-X was a long-distance circular saw attack that mowed down huge groups of zombies. I played a lot of the game A-A-X-ing my way through zombie mobs, back and forth, and never got tired of the game slowing down to show me the triumphant rainbow kill animation. I think it hit that same part of my brain as the ultras in Super Street Fighter IV. You never really get tired of watching Rose electrocute some clown, do you?
The game is not long enough to get boring. Each of the seven levels takes between twenty and forty minutes to clear, depending on how quickly you move and how often you have to continue. That’s just about the right length for this kind of shallow gameplay, but there’s a lot of stuff to find and buy and collect if you really have the hankerin’ for more. This is a good thing, because this is the kind of game that you will quit playing the very instant you become bored with it, and the game knows that. I always like to give bonus points when a game knows exactly what it is, and Lollipop Chainsaw does.
The game breaks up the endless waves of zombies with little gimmick challenges. Some of these are QTEs, some are race sequences, one level in particular is comprised almost entirely of retro video game riffs. These are mostly played for laffs and are relatively inoffensive. None of these are repeated often enough, nor do they drag on long enough, to overstay their welcome. You knock them down and forget about them. The QTEs gave me the most trouble because I still think of my ABXY buttons in terms of a Super Nintendo controller, but that’s my moral failing and has nothing to do with lollipops or chainsaws.
That just leaves the boss battles. And the boss battles are good. I mean legit good. They are creative and outrageous, and long, and difficult, but not frustrating or confusing. I’m sure there was a point in each one where I realized what the game wanted me to do, and my brain went, “Wait what? I have to do what!?” But then actually executing the thing was easier than I expected, and of course very satisfying. They were a blast to play through and easily the high point of the game.
And the final boss… well, the final boss is the most wonderful, retarded thing of all. You’ll never see it coming, but when it does, why, it’s exactly what you realize you should have expected. It’s the thing the entire game had been grooming you to see.
Let’s see, then. Retarded? Check. Fun and uncomplicated to play? Check. Cool bosses? Check. What else was there. Oh, yeah: the cheerleader’s voice is provided by Tara Strong, and I usually don’t hear Tara’s characters bleeding into each other, but her matter-of-fact voice in this game sounds almost identical to Twilight Sparkle’s matter-of-fact voice. This was the source of some bizarre cognitive dissonance, as you can imagine.
And that’s Lollipop Chainsaw in a nutshell. There’s more to say, of course, once you get into the more Freudian aspects of the game. For example, there’s a good discussion to be had on the nature of objectification on display here, to wit: who is objectified, and how? (And the answer isn’t what you’re expecting, if you haven’t played the game.) But I won’t get into that, because that’s not the part that interests me. I was interested in knowing whether the game was worth playing, and it is. And years from now, when I tell people I played that chainsaw cheerleader game, and they go, “That looked retarded,” I’m going to respond, “Yeah? And…?”
Because holy balls was it retarded.
The downtime between seasons of your favorite show is bittersweet, isn’t it? On one hand you aren’t getting your weekly fix of Don Draper or Walter White. Oh, you can go back and re-watch what you’ve already seen, but that doesn’t scratch the same itch as discovering each new plot development for the first time. You can try filling the void by chatting with other fans of the show, but you’re really just slumming with the jonesing masses, who are all the same boat you are.
On the other hand, getting a break from a great show gives you time to digest, to kind of take everything in. You can hit the wiki and find out whether other folks noticed things you didn’t. You find the time to indulge in clever or amusing fanworks. Heck, if you’re lucky, you might even discover something else worth watching! (Right, Korra?)
But nothing’s more fun than speculating as to what the new season will bring.
That’s hard to do with something like Mad Men or Breaking Bad. These shows are dominated by story arcs, so trying to figure out where the story is going means attempting to read the writers’ minds. And despite what you might think, you probably aren’t smarter or more creative than a team of professional writers. But for a purely episodic show? Something like My Little Pony? Why, the speculations can simply run wild. You can pretty much just make a list of all the wonderful things you’d like to see, and that’s exactly what this post is about.
Typically these kinds of lists degenerate into the realm of braindead fansquee, which means lots of, “I want to see more of the stuff I already like!” And while there’s nothing wrong with that, it demonstrates that fans really aren’t as creative as professional writers. After all, part of what you like about the shows you like is they constantly come up with new stuff to surprise and entertain you. Your only heart’s desire may be to have another episode starring the great and powerful Trixie, but the week before Boast Busters aired you didn’t even know that character existed.
What I’d like to see in season three, then, is not so much “more of my favorite stuff” as “expansion along the lines of what already exists”. If you follow the arc the show has already taken through the first two seasons, it looks something like this: the first season laid the groundwork for the characters, setting, and situations. It did this by establishing a formula and then applying that formula to a variety of stories. The second season quickly altered the formula so that it could be used to tell different kinds of stories, and it was able to do this because the groundwork had already been laid.
By that I mean, the second season focused a lot on developing characters rather than establishing them. Season two was able to do a lot more with its character episodes, because the characters by now had been so firmly grounded. There were more opportunities to “zoom in” on a single pony and tell a story exclusively about her, as in Baby Cakes and Read It and Weep. And there were more opportunities to build off of stories that had come previously, such as Applejack’s changed outlook on asking for help from Applebuck Season to Cider Squeezy 6000.
So this is my list of episodes I’d like to see in season three, and why I’d like to see them. In general I want to see things that 1) expand the existing characters and setting, and 2) subvert my expectations of what the show is and where it’s going.
#1: Fluttershy gets something new and interesting. And she needs it really early on, like maybe the second or third episode. Poor Fluttershy comes in a distant seventh in terms of development in the main cast, and she’s even a few notches behind some of the secondary characters at this point. If there’s going to be any expansion in cast and setting, Fluttershy is in danger of being left behind entirely.
The problem is that Fluttershy’s two most prominent (only?) character traits don’t lend themselves very well to telling stories. So far every story has revolved around her love of animals, overcoming some fear or anxiety, or some combination of those two things. Kindness, fear and shyness just aren’t as interesting as, say, Twilight Sparkle’s neuroses. There are a thousand cool stories you can tell about a pony going insane. But there’s only maybe two you can tell about a pony finding her courage, and Fluttershy has had like four so far.
What Fluttershy really needs is a new, interesting character trait that future stories can build on. Something fresh, but believable, and not so confining as “she’s always nice” or “she’s always scared”. I don’t have a clue what that thing might be, but then I’m not exactly a Fluttershy fan. Smarter people than me can figure it out.
#2: Princess Celestia is the bad guy. Celestia is portrayed as this awe-inspiring queen/mother/goddess figure, which makes her probably the weakest character in the show. If there’s a race to see who can be an even less interesting character than Fluttershy, Celestia is in the lead. The funny thing is, you do see these little snippets in certain episodes that bring her down to earth a bit, especially in A Canterlot Wedding where she’s totally ineffective both in identifying the villain and in fighting her. These rare moments help humanize the character — er, pony-ize her — and I feel like an episode devoted to that concept would open her up as a real character that could be used in real stories, rather than just a series mascot. She needs her own version of Luna Eclipsed.
I don’t think it would be hard to do. The episode opens with Twilight Sparkle (perhaps with the help of Princess Luna) identifying some princess-y decision Celestia has made for legitimately bad reasons. Like, she wants to enlist Fluttershy and Applejack’s help in running a pack of ugly (but otherwise harmless) monsters out of Equestria. Or perhaps she is playing favorites in some social factioning of Canterlot; an enterprising pony has figured out a way to accomplish some public service using machinery that is normally done with magic, and Celestia wants to put a stop to it unfairly. The episode ends with Celestia herself learning a Very Important Lesson, heartwarming monologue and all.
The knee-jerk here is to just have her taken over by some evil spirit, so it’s not really Celestia doing whatever bad thing it is, but that would miss the point. (And has already been done twice in this series, anyway.) I don’t find hero worship to be particularly healthy for a long-term series, and taking the perfect, can-do-no-wrong hero down a few pegs is a good way to dispell that. Gandalf survived it, so did Dumbledore, Celestia can too.
#3: Scootaloo gets her cutie mark, but her friends don’t. Season two did a great job with the Cutie Mark Crusaders. Yes, there is always a strong, single-minded undercurrent to all their stories (“We want butt marks! We want them immediately!”), but that undercurrent was adapted to some highly entertaining plotlines. Characters who merely irritated me in the first season came to really grow on me in the second, and theirs are now some of my favorite episodes.
Two things stick in my craw about the CMC stories, though. First off, Scootaloo isn’t her own character. Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle have both branched off and done their own things, while Scootaloo kind of hasn’t. And kind of can’t, in the current climate of the series. And second, it’s painfully obvious how the CMC story arc is going to eventually end. After all, we-the-viewer already know what the girls’ special talents are, and are just ticking off the episodes until the eventual triumphant moment where all three get their prizes simultaneously.
I think the show can do better.
We already know Scootaloo can’t fly, and that she’s at least a little self-conscious about this. So open up on that premise — she gets a rejection letter from Flight Camp, or something — and she’s really depressed. Her friends save the day by pointing out what a speed demon she is on her scooter, maybe by getting her signed up in the Sixty-sixth Annual Ponyville Scooterpalooza. Scootaloo not only excels, but gets her cutie mark right there in the winner’s circle.
What the episode is about, then, is how guilt and jealousy can create a rift between friends, and how the girls eventually overcome it to remain a trio. (Rather than, say, dump Scootaloo unceremoniously the way Apple Bloom did to Candy Cane Girl early in the series.) This changes their group dynamic a little bit, but I think that’s okay, because their stories are already less about “butt marks immediately” and more about the girls creating trouble for themselves. And also because, while Scootaloo might have a cutie mark now, she still can’t fly. So it’s not like she’s done learning, or doesn’t still need her friends.
#4: Legends of the Dark Knight, but with ponies. The greatest cartoon series ever made is unquestionably Batman: The Animated Series. One of the most steller episodes of that series is Legends of the Dark Knight, in which some kids sit around sharing stories about what they imagine Batman to be like. Batman himself is only in the episode briefly. The effect is an episode about the main character, but which does not feature him. The hero you’re familiar with gets filtered through the lens of a generic everyman, whose knowledge isn’t nearly as well-developed as yours is.
Powerpuff Girls had a similar episode with a scruffy guy filming a documentary.
As the third season winds to a close, I figure My Little Pony will have eyedropped enough personality onto enough background ponies that you could have a whole episode about the mane six where they only feature peripherally. As an example, Twilight Sparkle has this annoying tendency to make important announcements about climactic upcoming events, and then rushing off or disappearing or just descending into madness. From the point of view of a normal citizen of Ponyville this must be incredibly frustrating! But since Twilight is the princess’s understudy it’s not like they can actually say or do anything. Enough such points of view exist that I’m sure they could fill a comical twenty-two minutes.
And hey, if they wanted to slip in some good-natured jabs at previous pony series, something along the lines of Batman’s “Shut up, Joel!”, well, that would be just fine too.
#5: A straight-up Daring Do adventure. Cold open on the title card: “Daring Do and the Haunted Lighthouse.” Or, “Daring Do and the Secret of the Sixth Circle.” Then, just a full episode of Daring Do having amazing adventures in exotic locations. No framing device, no cut to Rainbow Dash holding a book — just an inexplicable out-of-continuity homage to Indiana Jones. Before each commercial break she lands in some impossible danger. At the sixteen minute mark she says something about an artifact belonging in a museum. Close the episode out with, “Catch ya later, Ahuizotl!” Change the end credits music, too, so it belongs to Daring and not the mane six.
Okay, so this is just me engaging in some braindead fansquee of my own. I am not immune.
It occurred to me, halfway through writing this, that I could probably plumb the depths of EQD and find all five of these stories in fanfic form. That makes me feel a little like I need a shower.
Still, when season two ended I felt like I had learned a little something about Equestria that I hadn’t known before. I would like to feel that way at the end of season three, too. More than anything, I just want the show’s creators to avoid feeling safe in their popularity. “Give the fans what they want!” is a fallacy because fans often don’t know what they want — not really. What I want is to be surprised; I want new and exciting things. And I want the show to go places that I didn’t imagine it could go.
Oh, and no shipping. No shipping ever. This is a kid’s show and you shipper types are creepy. Knock it off.
I’ve owned Super Mario 3D Land since it came out, but I only managed to polish off my full-clear last night. This is a big game. There are eight worlds, with six levels in each world. Each of these levels has three hidden widgets to find, some number of which are required to open up later worlds. And once you’re done with all those, eight more worlds open up, as well as the option to play as a second character. Finishing every level in all sixteen worlds with both brothers will earn you close to 300 widgets, at which point a super hard finale level opens up that will take even the most battle-hardened Mario veterans a hundred tries to clear. Then, and only then, do you get a cheerful message thanking you for playing.
I feel I must add a disclaimer: I’m going to spend this post mostly talking about what I didn’t like about the game. Please don’t take this as an indication that 3D Land is a bad game, or that you shouldn’t play it. Surely gamers of any sort of quality know time spent with Mario is never time wasted. 3D Land is no exception. It looks and plays something like a bastard love child of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario Galaxy. The stages are short and punchy, commonly built around a cool gimmick that hangs around just long enough that you don’t get tired of it. A world or two later that gimmick will pop up again, in a more difficult form, in another short and punchy level. As far as the general design of the game is concerned, I doubt you could concoct a better Mario formula than this.
Okay, some of those level gimmicks are lousy, and result in levels that aren’t much fun. And yeah, sometimes those levels get rehashed for no reason other than to force you to sit through them again. But that’s maybe ten, twelve levels out of a hundred. The win ratio is really good.
As I was enjoying the game, though — and I assure you I was enjoying it a great deal — I couldn’t avoid this jarring feeling that I’d rather be playing Super Mario 64. Kind of odd, considering that 3D Land and SM64 are similar in neither level design nor goal structure. SM64 focused mainly around navigating obstacles, with a bit of treasure hunting thrown in for good measure. 3D Land takes a more classic hop-and-bop approach, and has a greater focus on battling monsters and managing powerups. They’re both built around core Mario elements, but the games branch far enough from that core that they shouldn’t scratch each other’s itch.
It took me a long time to figure out exactly what was going on: Super Mario 3D Land has two major problems that Super Mario 64 didn’t have, way back in 1996. And every time I ran into one of those problems, over the course of sixteen worlds times six levels times two brothers, my brain fired off a neuron that reminded me, “You wouldn’t have to put up with this shit in Tick Tock Clock.”
Actually, there are three major problems. But the third is more of a meta-problem, and not something localized to 3D Land itself. Simply put, the 3DS sucks. It’s too smooth, and gets too warm, and there doesn’t seem to be a good way to get a grip on it. As far as I can tell there are three uncomfortable ways to hold the system, and zero comfortable ones. So I just alternate between the three uncomfortable ones (I call them the “Chest Bracer”, the “Crooked Talon” and “Help! My Sandwich Is Falling Apart!”) and, eventually, turn the system off and plunge my hands into a bucket of ice. I had to quit playing Mario Kart 7 entirely because playing it was so excruciating.
We can’t blame 3D Land for that, I suppose.
The first problem SM64 didn’t have was a proper sense of perspective. Each level was a fully-realized 3D world, and Mario was meant to move through it at all angles and directions. At a given point in an SM64 level Mario’s next move could be anywhere in relation to his current position, off to any side or around any corner. You could spin the camera wherever you wanted it to look, or even zoom all the way into Mario’s head to get a detailed sense of his immediate surroundings. Indeed, these were the bullet points on the back of the game box. 3D Land, despite its title, sticks mainly to 2D planes. At any given point in a level Mario’s next move is either “go sideways” or “go forward”. The camera sits in a fixed position, and your action is limited to just the slice of the level you’re looking at.
Mario’s movement, however, is not limited. He has his 360 degree range at all times, even though most of the time you want to move him in a straight horizontal or vertical line. The 3DS’s circle pad doesn’t have notches around the edge like the N64′s control stick did, so moving it in a strict horizontal or vertical manner is very difficult. As a result, it’s very easy to move Mario 93° instead of 90°, and you won’t notice until you’ve inadvertantly missed a jump or veered him into a monster. In SM64 I often got around these issues by circling the camera behind Mario, locking it in place, and then pushing the control stick into its upper notch. In 3D Land I just died a lot.
There’s a deeper issue here though, and it’s something that crops up in a lot of 3D games that try to adhere to a 2D spirit. When you reduce your 3D game to a 2D plane, you lose perception of one of your axes. In a sidescrolling segments it’s easy to judge height and distance, but not depth. Anything coming at you from the foreground or background is difficult to judge, let alone finnicky jumps to platforms in those areas of the screen. Meanwhile, there are these all-too-common top-down sections, where the action resembles something like a jump-y version of Zelda. Mario has no problem moving any direction he wants in these sections, but it’s next to impossible to detect height. Have fun crashing into ?-blocks and hammer bros. you were trying to land on top of!
I’ve heard tell this can be alleviated by playing with the 3D turned on, which solves some distance and perspective issues. I can’t stand to play any 3DS games that way, though, because the 3D looks like a smeary mess that has to be re-adjusted every time you reposition your hands. The game tries to clue you in when you enter an area that plays perspective tricks, and I did try to engage the 3D slider in those areas, but it never seemed to help, and anyway that’s a totally separate issue from not being able to tell how far into the background you’re jumping. If this is the best the 3DS can do with its stereoscopic gimmickry, it’s a failed experiment. (But that’s okay; Nintendo is used to those.)
It took me a long time to figure out exactly why my brain kept telling me this wasn’t a problem in SM64, but I eventually twigged to it. In that game, if you make 90% of a jump, Mario would grab the ledge and you could push a button to hoist him up to safety. In 3D Land, if you make 90% of a jump, Mario skids down the ledge into oblivion, and all your button does is make him wall kick away from safety. This is something that will happen over and over again, every time you sit down to play. In fact, this seemingly tiny alteration to Mario’s moveset made the difference between hardly noticing those tricksy weird-angle jumps (in SM64) to being continuously devastated by them (in 3D Land).
The second problem SM64 didn’t have was SSPP, which was a delightful step up back in the day because Super Mario World was plagued by it. SSPP stands for “Stupid Shitty Powerup Placement”. What it means is, a given Mario level is easy to play with a particular powerup, but very difficult without it. You can’t get that powerup inside the level, though, so if you get stuck there your options are to just throw yourself at it over and over, or leave and hunt powerups in an old level. Super Mario World had tons of levels like that. I distinctly remember making the two-minute journey across the world map to the Top Secret Area so I could start each new level with two capes and a Yoshi. In 3D Land I was constantly running back to level 1-1 to pick up two racoon tails.
I don’t know how to fix SSPP. SM64 avoided it by simply not having powerups in the traditional sense. I know when we were designing levels for Super Talking Time Bros. we resolved to just put some kind of powerup next to every checkpoint. 3D Land‘s fix is to start you out after each death as big Mario, rather than small Mario, which is more traditional. However, the concession doesn’t really work; allowing the player to take an extra hit isn’t really the same as ensuring the player always has the superpower he needs. When you’ve got the right power — a leaf, a fire flower, or whatever — the levels are breezy and fun. When you don’t, they become arduous very quickly. Getting whatever power you want is trivial, provided you know where to look, but it’s boring. “Well, time to replay 1-1 again!” is just as fun as “Well, time to hit up the Top Secret Area!”, which is to say, not at all.
Actually, scratch that. I do know what the solution is. Since 3D Land is trying so hard to ape Super Mario Bros. 3, it should just take another cue from that game and let you carry around a stock of items wherever you go. Instead of one reserve item, let Mario carry ten. If you have a leaf already, and you pick up another one, send it to the bottom screen to be retrieved later, rather than replace the fire flower that was already there. Allow access to one of these slots any time; allow access to all ten from the map screen or while Mario is standing at a checkpoint. Problem solved. Bill’s in the mail, Nintendo.
I want to be clear that I’m not exactly pining for the days of SM64 here. It’s not like that game didn’t have its own score of issues. For example, I never died in 3D Land because the camera suddenly and inexplicably swung around into a bad position. I never had to wrestle with air currents or invisible wind gusts. I never drowned. And I never got bored collecting coins to make a star appear, not even once. Next time I revisit the ol’ N64 classic, there will be spots where I say, “Man, I wish I were playing Super Mario 3D Land.”
If only I could play the game with a controller that didn’t traumatize my hands so much.
I wasn’t going to say anything about Super RMN Bros. 3 on my blog, because the game sucks and their response to criticism has not changed since Super RMN Bros. 2, but I recieved an interesting new perspective on the situation that I feel is worth mentioning. So here I am mentioning it.
Really, this post is about Super Talking Time Bros. 2, more than anything. Putting these two community-driven Mario fangames up against each other in a sort of nerdhole internet grudge match actually makes a lot of sense to me, because one is a fine example of what can be achieved when a community with a clear goal can really accomplish, while the other, uh, isn’t. STTB2 is worthy of every ounce of praise you could possibly give it. People are not exaggerating when they say it’s better than some of Nintendo’s own work. Miyamoto would play this game and nod appreciatively that, yes, these guys really do get it. If the TT guys were Nintendo employees, and they sold you this game for $50, you would not begrudge them a penny.
Let’s start with this premise: a single person cannot make a really good game. Now we know that obviously isn’t universally true, or else the world wouldn’t have gems like Cave Story in it, but the trick is so rare I think it’s fair we can discount it as a fluke of genius. So okay, if you’re a genius you can maybe make a good game all by yourself, but most of us aren’t geniuses. I certainly know I’m not, and I know neither the TT nor RMN project leaders are, nor are any of the dudes who submitted levels. Basically we’re all just gibbering ape-creatures who like Mario a lot, and can maybe tie our shoes by ourselves on a good day, and need to have the crust cut off of our sandwiches, etc.
So with that in mind, we turn to the goals of the two competing internet communities, these congregations of ape-creatures who have come together in the conceit that they could pretend to make a Mario game. And this is the new perspective: Talking Time is a community of gamers, whereas RMN is a community of hackers.
I’ve put about five-ish years into Talking Time so far, and what I like about the community there as opposed to other gaming communities I’ve tried out is that the people like to talk about games. You would think that’s obvious (I mean, it’s in the forum title and all) but it’s really not. The dudes there don’t just talk about what they’re playing and what’s coming out and what new system will have the most chips or whatever. What they talk about is why they play games. You very nearly never have a dude just roll up all, “This fucking game sucks!” If a fucking game sucks, that dude is going to tell you why that fucking game sucks, and usually support his position with examples of games that did what that fucking game was trying to do better. Or ideas on how the fucking sucky parts could have been improved. And then a second dude will come along and disagree; he’ll make a case for why the game doesn’t fucking suck, and support that argument with generally sound reasoning about why he thinks that. And these two guys, even though there is no common ground re: fucking-sucking, are actually engaging in a real discussion about game design.
I have about ten years’ worth of experience in the various RPGMaker communities, of which RMN is just the most recent example, and I say with confidence that it is a totally different style of discourse. The community isn’t centered around playing games, but rather making them, and so everyone has an individual agenda. Everyone is making something, and they all want you to play it. And yes, that means playing the stuff other people make too. And yes, you can actually get a lot of enjoyment from that angle. What happens, though, when you have a hundred guys all using the same game engine to do things, is the conversation becomes skewed. When everyone knows what an engine can and can’t do, the level of expectation gets lowered. Mistakes are forgiven if everyone agrees it’s just a quirk of the engine, and truly novel things nobody has seen an editor do before are praised even if they are bad ideas.
(Indeed, one of the most explosive conversations I had about RMN Bros. 2 occured because I asked a level designer to add a checkpoint to a level, and I was rebuffed because it was impossible to do so. “Make the level shorter, then” was not even considered as a solution to the problem.)
Now when you get these groups together, as a community, to design a Mario game, it’s actually pretty clear why one consistently succeeds and the other consistently fails. Both communities are just doing what comes naturally to them. The TT guys get together and engross themselves in discussion about every level, discussions which sometimes blow up and hurt feelings. If a guy’s level doesn’t work, he’s forced to read lots of comments about why it doesn’t work and, in extreme cases, why it won’t be included in the project. Bad levels get weeded out and bugs get squashed at nearly every point in the process because these are guys who like to talk about games. They just happen to be talking about their own game, this time.
Meanwhile, at RMN, every contributor is ostensibly a game designer. The game thus becomes a collection of individual projects being plugged into the whole. A guy makes his level off in his own corner, then presents it when he’s done, and then goes off to make the next level. And because a “standard” SMBX level is old hat, each individual is trying to push the engine to do more novel things, without regard to whether those are really the kinds of things that work well inside of a Mario game.
These are two groups of people who have a healthy respect for gaming, just in different directions. Talking Time is interested in gaming as a culture, as a form of history. They would have deep discussions about SMBX whether they were making a game or not. Their project, then, is chock full of references and in-jokes, little nods to Mario history, and every brick has been pored over not just for bugs, but to ensure that fun, playability and “Mario-ness” were adhered to all along the way.
RMN is interested in gaming as more of a hobby, an avenue of creative output. They like to put pieces together to see what happens. To them, the simple act of making their own Mario level is worthwhile without acknowledging any higher goal. That a level isn’t very Mario-like is less of a concern, because they get to make a cool thing and share it with their friends, who are also making cool things.
What I’ve learned during my time at Talking Time, and what these quasi-yearly Mario projects continue to reinforce for me, is that the process of making a good video game begins with a willingness to really dig in and challenge everything you think you know about game design. 99.9% of everyone who has ever enjoyed a Mario level has not thought about why they enjoyed it. Understanding why you like the things you like is a skill you have to learn and develop. It’s something I was not very good at myself for a very long time. By its very nature, the Talking Time forums help develop that skill, whereas RMN bypasses it and goes directly to the technical aspects of using game editing software.
And no, merely playing games isn’t enough to develop this ability. A truly well-designed game is built specifically so you won’t notice the game-y aspects of it. If you don’t believe that’s true, turn on the developer commentary in Portal sometime and prepare to have your mind blown. (Here’s a hint, for you visitors from RMN: a lot of the level design that went into that game was directly influenced by player feedback.)
Homework assignment: write 500 words about why the first level in Super Mario Bros. is so good. Or so bad, if you don’t like it. And no filler; I can spot filler a mile away.
Talking Time is like a nebula of game designers. The guys there who really dig their hands in and really engage in the forum’s mission statement of “talking about television games” are, whether they know it or not, getting a powerful education. Super Talking Time Bros. is the proof. When you spend your free time making a case for the games you love and then defending that case against other dudes who do not love them, you become something more than just another ape-creature. A year or so later, when you sit down to make a Mario level, your first thought is, “Okay. What do I really know about Mario levels? What do I know works? And how can I put a little of myself into one?”
That’s the big difference between “Oh cool, a stopwatch! I should make a stopwatch level!” and “What would a stopwatch level look like, and how would it actually play? If it doesn’t play well, is there a way I can make it worthwhile?”
I can say, sincerely, that I am honored to know the guys who made the TT Mario games. It isn’t just better than RMN Bros., it’s head and shoulders above just about every Mario fangame ever made. And truth be told, I was more than a little disappointed in myself that I didn’t see my own name in the credits. I should have made a ghost house or something.
And to you RMN types, well, not that you’ve ever taken my advice in the past, but… you’re not hopeless. You just need to grasp that one important lesson you haven’t learned yet. Step one is realizing that the dudes at the front of the project — yes, I’m talking specifically about halibabica and kentona here — haven’t learned it either. Listen to criticism, be willing to throw away a week’s worth of work, and pay no attention to any positive thing anyone says about what you’re doing. If the TT guys do another sequel this year, I invite you to get a forum account and test your mettle there. Dart Zaidyer will whip you into shape.
It’ll sting, too. That fucker uses an actual whip.
But your levels will be better, scars and all.
If you’re an impartial observer, but you love Mario games, please download Super Talking Time Bros. 2 and Super RMN Bros. 3 for yourselves and make your own conclusions:
Super Talking Time Bros. 2
Super RMN Bros. 3
There were no good videogames this month, so I put my gaming budget towards a copy of the Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game Boxed Set. It was an interesting purchase. I love the setting of Mouse Guard and hope it sticks around long enough to take up a whole shelf in my house. And I loved the idea of a roleplaying game in this setting, because it’s got a unique feel that betrays the traditional “swords’n'sorcery, kill’n'loot” gameplay agenda. The heroes would be brave and strong, sure, but they would be mice. Mice do not slay monsters and amass gold. They do not blaze trails and explore dungeons. They scamper and retreat, climb and hide and trick. They scratch what life they can at the very bottom of the food chain. That’s the angle the comics have portrayed very well, and that’s a kind of roleplaying game I really think would be worth playing.
Having just finished reading the rulebook, I’ve concluded it’s a pretty simple and well-designed game. I bet it plays really well. I know, though, that it will never go over with my gaming group, or with any group that is at all similar to ours. It’s very clearly aimed towards novice groups who are new to roleplaying, or veteran groups who have only played one type of game. There is a lot of structure here, and not enough of the bolts and crossbeams are covered up. It’s too game-y. There are lots of spots in the rules, as written, where I can envision players being frustrated by too much “you can’t do that, just because.” There are a lot of really good roleplaying tools built into the system, but most of the mechanics require the players to approach the system as a game and not necessarily as a world their characters can interact with. What’s worse, the system doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room to chock those restrictive mechanics aside.
My goal is to try and tweak the Mouse Guard rules so they will work for a veteran group that doesn’t need the kinds of rule-game-check restrictions that are built so solidly into its framework.
I’ll talk about the good stuff first, because the good stuff is really good and, more to the point, is the kind of good stuff that was noticably absent from 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. First, character creation is excellent. Every other game in the world seems to work under the assumption that every player has a copy of the book and therefore it’s okay to spend twenty minutes picking skills and spending points and notating abilities. If everyone does have a copy of the book, yeah, that process takes twenty minutes. This only happens if you’re playing a really old game that a lot of group members are familiar with, though. We have about six copies of the 2nd edition AD&D Player’s Handbook. But for a new game that one guy wants to introduce everyone else to? You usually just have his copy, and every player has to spend twenty minutes with it. An hour and a half later you can start playing. (Forty-five minutes if you print out a pirated .pdf of the rules.)
In Mouse Guard, character creation is structured as a series of questions. The GM goes down the list and the entire group (called a “patrol”) answers at once. The lists of skills and traits are broken down into sections that make logical sense: what skills were you born with? What skills did you get from your parents? Each group only has a subset of the whole skill list. Instead of poring over every available option and trying to balance them against each other, you’re instead just sharing your character’s backstory and letting the book fill in the dots for you. I bet it flows really well and gets a whole group up and running in just a few minutes. Gear is abstracted down to a Resources stat plus whatever the mouse can actually carry, which, being a mouse, isn’t much. I like games where characters are defined by who they are rather than what they can do, and that’s the kind of game Mouse Guard is.
Once you have your skills and such, you level them up by actually using them. Each skill has checkboxes next door to notate passes and failures. Passing a skill test represents getting better with practice; failure imparts important lessons. Both are required to get to the next level. This system is elegant and it rewards players for coming up with creative ways to use their skills. In point-based games you often reach a level where you have enough dots in a skill to pass almost every test you’ll ever make with it, but not enough to do anything really exceptional with it. In World of Darkness this is about four dots. Buying that fifth dot is almost prohibitively expensive; it takes something like three full sessions’ worth of XP. So you want to buy it, but you also don’t want to buy it, and argh frustrating. In Mouse Guard you get out of that boring middle range by seeking out riskier and more difficult applications of the skill. You’ll rack up your passes just by using it naturally, and rack up failures by purposely trying cool new things. And eventually you’ll skill it up.
(World of Darkness, in particular, is pretty bad about ever rewarding really risky behavior. Or maybe our GM’s just a total cocknose.)
The rest of your rewards all come through good roleplaying. Over the course of the game you stack up Fate and Persona points, which can be cashed in to improve rolls. You gain these points by staying true to several aspects of your mouse’s personality: his Belief, Goal and Instinct. I won’t go into detail about what these actually are, but understand there is almost no mechanical application for them. They are strictly defined by what’s in your head. These are not things you pick out of a list in a book, they are statements you make about what your character believes and how he acts. “I believe there is good in everymouse,” or “I never give up the high ground.” At the end of each session the group discusses everyone’s roleplaying and, if you’ve done well, you get points.
The game is also divided into seasons, with maybe one or two missions in each season. The Mouse Guard retires for the winter, and there are very nice rules set aside for how to conduct a Winter Session. This is essentially sped-up downtime where the players get some free points and acknowledge changes in how their mice have grown over the previous year. If a patrol can forego the downtime and volunteer for extremely deadly winter missions, if they really want, but otherwise winter is a great way to decompress and have the characters grow. I think every game needs something like this, and I liked that Mouse Guard specifically set rules aside for it.
So that’s what I liked. Now on to what I hated.
The game is broken up into alternating phases called “GM’s Turn” and “Players Turn”. I made sure to read this section twice through, very carefully, and I cannot for the life of me figure out how this distinction helps the game. The idea is that the GM’s Turn is the mission proper, where the patrol encounters obstacles, gets into fights, works towards their goals, etc. The Players Turn takes up the in-between spots where there is downtime; it’s used to rest and recuperate, obtain supplies, tie up dangling sidequests, etc. In theory it sounds like a good setup for novice players: the GM controls the first half of the session, then you Do Something Cool and then the players take over for a while. However, I anticipate a lot of problems with the system in practice. I am positive my group would reject it outright, and even if I were simply playing the game with another group I would feel unfairly restricted by it.
The major burning question is, why can’t the players just do whatever they want, wherever they happen to be? Sure there is an implicit agreement that the players are a patrol of guardsmice who are working on orders, but why can’t they decide to abandon their mission partway through and go do something else? The book is very clear that once the GM sets an obstacle before them, the players must attempt to clear it. I tried to find an alternate reading of this, something that didn’t sound quite so much like “the players must do what the GM wants them to do”, but there doesn’t seem to be one. After all, it’s the GM’s Turn, isn’t it? You make his checks and then jump through his hoops and dance when he says dance.
I realize a lot of groups play all their games this way. Particularly D&D groups that run on modules. “You can’t do that because it’s not allowed” is an acceptable statement in such groups. But try it with my group and you would be crucified. Our games still have structure, but we feel it’s the GM’s job to make us want to do the things he wants us to do, and to not penalize us when we want to do other things that are reasonable. In fact, we actively mock our GM when the plot threads are too blatant: “Hey look! A sign! It says, ‘plot, this way’! I guess I go that way.”
Mouse Guard is eerily silent on how to handle these situations; it simply assumes if the patrol faces a challenge, they will attempt to overcome it. If the GM gives them a fire to put out, the players will dutifully come together to douse it. And while there’s nothing really wrong with that, there’s also nothing wrong (in my opinion) with the players deciding to wait until the fire burns out. Or to try and go around it. Or to throw their Mouse Guard cloaks into it and form a den of bandits. Or to start the fire in the first place.
Okay, so the patrol puts out the fire or whatever, and now the tables are turned; they’re allowed to do whatever they feel like, and the GM can’t spring new plotlines or challenges on them. But ah, there’s a catch! The players still aren’t in total control, because they can only take a certain amount of actions during the Players Turn! During the GM’s Turn they amass “checks”, and taking an action in the Players Turn requires one check. If you’re thirsty and need to hit a tavern? That’s a check. If your shield needs repaired, that’s a check. You get one free check per Players Turn, and you earn more by purposely harming yourself during the GM’s Turn. You get one check for reducing your dice pool on a skill test by one. You get two for letting your opponent win a tie. If you don’t do any of those things, and only have one check by the time you hit town? Too bad. You only get to do one thing.
It gets worse. A player cannot spend two checks back to back, so if you have five and I have three you just don’t get to use one of yours. Oh, you can give me the extra one so I can take an action I didn’t earn, I’m sure that won’t cause any sour feelings in the patrol. (I’m also sure it won’t bog down gameplay during the GM’s Turn: “Dude! Lower your dice so you get a check! I gave you two last time!” “What? No! Fuck off.” “Fine, then I’m not giving you any more checks!” “Fine, then I’m not spending any more of mine on plot stuff!”)
The whole checks system is totally arbitrary and stupid. There is no in-world reason explaining why difficult rolls translate into more downtime, and absolutely no explanation for why guardsmice can’t simply use their downtime as they see fit. If there are more than two players you can run into ridiculous situations where two players have lots of checks and one only has a few. The player with a few has to sit there and watch the other two guys take turns for a while. “So we were in town for three days. During that time they were able to eat, get drunk, hire a cartographer and restock their ammo. But you’re telling me I had so little time I had to choose between getting a good night’s sleep and getting my spear repaired?” Obviously in these situations it’s better for one player to give another player a few spare checks. In fact, it’s probably best to just make sure all the players distribute their checks so they’re equal as soon as they hit town. And if you’re going that far you might as well just say “Do what you need to do in town, let me know when you’re ready for the next adventure,” and do away with checks completely.
Checks do have another function: you can use them to boost dice rolls during the GM’s Turn. This is actually quite powerful; with a certain ability you can cash in four checks to reroll all the failed dice on any test. That’s pretty nice, but if you’ve ditched the Players Turn system and this is the only thing to spend checks on players are simply going to accumulate them on the easy rolls to bypass the hard ones later. That sort of equals out, and players already have points to spend on boosting their rolls, so you might as well do away with this system too.
There’s another hidden snake in this whole GM/Player Turn system: since challenges and obstacles can only be presented during the GM’s Turn, you lose an all-important element of surprise. When I’m playing, I like the feeling that the next adventure or plotline can erupt at any moment, from any direction. If you’ve agreed to this whole Players Turn conceit, though, the GM is agreeing to not do that. In a game where the players can do whatever they want, it’s okay to spring weasels on them while they’re shopping because they can always shop later. In a game where players have to spend a resource to go shopping, springing weasels is mean and unfair. Not only do they not get to do their shopping, but the don’t get another chance to shop until after the weasels and whatever adventure they’re linked to are dealt with. And only if they’ve accumulated more checks along the way.
I have reservations with the combat system, too. Or maybe I should say the “combat” system, as Mouse Guard is one of those games that tries to downplay combat in favor of other sorts of conflicts. D&D 4e tried this too, with its skill challenges, and the result was somewhat clumsy. The secret to “combat” in games like this, though, is that as long as it flows quickly and gets the job done it sort of doesn’t matter how well it works. Mouse guard does away with time-consuming things like initiative rolls, hit points, magic spells and attacks of opportunity. That sounds insane at first, and maybe it is. I might have to just write up another post about it once I’ve seen the system in action.
In any event, having the roleplaying game handy has inspired me to go back and re-read Peanut’s copies of the Mouse Guard hardbacks. These books are not great writing, but the artwork is exquisite and the author is clearly very passionate about the little world he’s created. It’s the type of setting that inspires you to look for reasons to love it. When I passed my copy of the roleplaying game over to our group’s chief cynical cocknose, his first reaction was, “I already love this picture.” So maybe there’s hope for us yet.
If nothing else, Mouse Guard would make a great stand-in for one-shot adventures as part of a less-filling game night. We have a need for those once in a while. Maybe we can piggyback a two hour session into an evening of Mansions of Madness or Castle Ravenloft sometime.
The vlogbrothers set up this website, readit1st.com, where you can make a pledge to not see a movie until you’ve read the book that movie is based on. I felt this pledge carried two very strong advantages:
1) Whether the book is better or not, it is certainly the denser of the two versions, which means you get a more complete sense of the story and are therefore provided enough context to later enjoy the sensory overload of the movie. I’m the type of guy who finds himself enjoying movies more on the second pass, because if I’m relaxed and not focused exclusively on absorbing the plot I can notice all the other little things movies do that please me. (I’m also the type of guy who always watches DVDs with the subtitles turned on, for exactly the same reason.)
2) Peanut is always wanting to drag me to the movies, and I sort of don’t ever want to go because movie theaters are terrible places to go in a universe where waiting two months allows me to purchase the same film for an equivalent amount of money which I can then play on a theater-quality flatscreen HDTV. Also, we have better snacks. “Whoops, I haven’t read the book,” is an efficient way to get out of an otherwise unenjoyable evening.
Since that time I’ve had to spring that excuse on Peanut twice. And I read some other stuff in between, too.
Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan
I accidentally purchased this book while trying to buy one called Game Over: How Nintendo Slaughtered America’s Youth and Drank the Wailing Souls of the Damned, or something. I had heard the book had since been re-branded with a somewhat less soul-drinking name, but couldn’t remember what it was at the office at 5am when I was hankering to read a book, so I ended up with this one instead.
I wasn’t disappointed, though. What I got was essentially a history book that tells the story of Nintendo by focusing on the birth and evolution of its biggest superstar. It’s weird to think of videogames in terms of needing a history book, but sure enough, they do. It covers Nintendo’s early forays into arcade cabinets, to its runaway success with Donkey Kong, to the company’s daring swoop into the barren landscape after the 1983 crash, to its stumbling through the years dominated by optical media, and finally to its revolutionary new console with movement-based input that amazed grandmas everywhere but left many gamers yawning. It’s all in here. Maybe not put quite so cynically. Heh.
There were a lot of interesting stories in here I had never heard before, or at least not heard in detail. Such as the details of Nintendo’s legal battles with Universal over the use of Donkey Kong. Or how Nintendo’s president wanted to market the SNES to businessmen as an online communications machine. And it reinforced some things I’ve suspected for years, but never researched. For example, it kind of blew my mind to read that the technology to build a 16-bit console actually available in 1985, and Nintendo opted not to use it because an 8-bit console would be more affordable. Remember when the Wii came under a lot of criticism for being a non-HD console, and how it sold six quadrillion units anyway? That’s been Nintendo’s business strategy all along.
Towards the end of the book the author starts getting a little misty-eyed about looking forward to the future of videogames. He fenced gamers off into three categories, defined broadly be era: the arcade stickers, who got into gaming with Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, who see games primarily as tests of skill; the d-padders, who started playing on the NES, SNES or PlayStation, who view games more as a singular experience to be absorbed and enjoyed (this would be my generation); and the waggle-o-trons, who view games as slight diversions with minimal input, made popular with motion controls or touchscreens. Mario, of course, is one of the very few videogame archetypes that works well in all three divisions. There’s a heated internet debate to be had on the subject, but it was a nice way to end the book. If nothing else, I felt whatever craving my brain had for gamer books had been fulfilled by Super Mario and didn’t immediately go back seeking Game Over. I suppose that’s a complement.
World War Z by Max Brooks
I don’t care what the jaded-ass forum monkeys say, zombies are not played out. They are not just a silly internet meme along the lines of BACON CHEESE PIRATES. Zombie stories are compelling and terrifying, and can be told a thousand different ways. I don’t think I could ever get tired of them. I think what these people are missing, these “zombies are old and cliché now” people, is that the zombie itself isn’t the climax. Nobody writes a story about zombies. Zombies are the premise. It’s like, you wouldn’t look at sci-fi and say, “Oh, those are just stories about outer space. Outer space is so played out.” No. Of course not. You start with outer space, and then you jump off and tell your story. Zombies are a genre now. It’s like, “Suddenly, ZOMBIES!!” And then, “Okay, now what?”
From there the stories deviate into a few different directions, depending on whether the story is a drama or a comedy or a horror, but they almost universally focus on a small group of people right at the flashpoint of the outbreak. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there are still a million stories to tell that start that way, but what World War Z does is pulls the camera back and tells the story of a global zombie outbreak from a macro scale. It starts with the flashpoint, works its way into the government cover-ups and the mass hysteria, moves on to humanity collecting its shit and mounting the counter-offensive, and finally describes how much different the post-zombie world is, culturally speaking.
The book is written as a series of interviews of people from all walks of life who survived the zombie apocalypse. The premise is that the author (that is, the fictional author compiling the data, not the actual author) has a lot of stories left over from a historical account of the war he was putting together which were deemed too emotionally-charged to be put in the final cut. So instead of getting the dry, matter-of-fact textbook version, we get the biased, gory, unbelievable Real Talk version. And by god was it entertaining.
I was constantly impressed by how many details got worked into this book. I mean, little things that would necessarily happen as the result of a worldwide zombie uprising which are always overlooked in zombie stories. Real bottom-of-the-closet stuff. For example, when the US army finally starts fighting back, its uniforms are these warm, practical things that resemble Civil War uniforms. And why not? Zombies don’t care about camouflage. And wouldn’t there be cases of young children losing their parents but surviving somehow themselves? Wouldn’t you have to set up some infrastructure to care for these feral children after things calmed down? The book covers that eventuality. Or, wouldn’t the cultural and political differences of countries around the world handle the outbreak in totally different ways? Of course they would. China attempts to cover the story up far past the point of practicality. Russia executes soldiers that want to desert to be with their families. South Africa implements an extremely controversial countermeasure that draws a lot of fire due to being similar in spirit to Apartheid. American celebrities huddle together in a mansion, guarded by a private para-military security force, and are the victims of their own hubris when they try to broadcast their co-existence as an internet reality show.
Finishing this book left me wanting more incredible zombie stories. Unfortunately there aren’t very many zombie novels out there, so…
The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks
…I was instead forced to re-read The Zombie Survival Guide. This would be the dry, matter-of-fact textbook stuff that World War Z doesn’t include. It is essentially just a how-to book for surviving zombies. What more can be said, really? It’s not an amazingly entertaining read — what how-to book is? — but having a fictional threat being examined in such a detailed, realistic and practical way just creates this bizarre sense of fascination that is impossible to resist.
What I’m saying is, reading these two books will leave you wondering if Max Brooks knows something the rest of us don’t.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
My sole exposure to this movie before cracking the book was the Muppets’ parody of its trailer, and a quirky news story about people calling Redbox to complain that the DVD was pirated because it’s printed to look like someone scribbled on it with Sharpie. Honestly, I thought it was going to be a kung fu epic. In any case, Peanut bought the Blu-ray and I told her I couldn’t watch it with her because I was honor-bound by an internet pledge. “That’s stupid and you’re stupid,” she said, but she dutiflly shelved the movie until I could read the book.
I’m really, really glad she did.
This novel captivated me in a way no novel has since… let me think, now. Probably Memoirs of a Geisha. Part murder mystery, part cyberpunk drama, part… I don’t know… financial war epic. The two main characters are extraordinary in that they are both very different from anyone you know, yet somehow very relatable. (Well, to me, at least.) I really, really loved reading a story where neither of the “good guys” possessed a smidge of our tiresome, boring, outdated “American values”. They are both atheists. They are both sexually promiscuous. They are both, in their own way, devoted to revealing harmful truths. They are both ruled by logic rather than emotion. These are characters who have identified their flaws, and are comfortable with them. I found that to be refreshing.
What really drew me in, though, was the novel’s tone. The story is consistently told in this very clinical style. Something like the opposite of “show, don’t tell”. As far as the book is concerned, its job is to simply describe what’s happening, full stop. It doesn’t indulge in metaphor or symbolism. If a character puts on black pants, the book says “So-and-so put on black pants.” If a character goes into a room and stays there for seven minutes, the books says “He stayed there for seven minutes.” The chapter titles are just the dates on which the action takes place. Dragon Tattoo is a long book with lots of fiddly little details, and the tone helps make it go down smooth. It wouldn’t work for every story, but it works for this one.
On a personal level, I really enjoyed seeing a complicated mystery coming together the way it did. I’ve been pondering the workings of a good mystery book ever since I stumbled my way through writing one for NaNoWriMo ’10, and I think Dragon Tattoo taught me a few things.
The movie was excellent too, of course. I knew Daniel Craig starred in it, but the whole time I read the book I imagined his character portrayed by Liam Neeson.
The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo
If you’ve ever taken a psych class, you know who Dr. Zimbardo is. He’s the man who designed and implemented the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, where a group of college students were divided into two groups of guards and prisoners to play-act a fake prison for two weeks. The experiment had to be cut short because of the extreme emotional stress the “prisoners” found themselves in, as the guards abused their power and things got way out of hand. The conclusions Zimbardo drew were that normal, everyday people can do atrocious things when put into extreme situations. He argues that, while we are always responsible for our actions, they are not always the product of purely internal factors. Our external situation can alter us as well, often without us even realizing it.
what the book does is compares the prison experiment to the real-world atrocities carried out at Abu Ghraib. The parallels are chilling. Zimbardo argues that the government’s explanation for the abuses there — having been the fault of just a few “bad apples” — is a short-sighted summary of the situation that borders on being a total miscarriage of justice.
Leaving the scientific and editorial aspects aside, the book was worth reading simply for being such a detailed analysis of these two events. From a historical standpoint, these are interesting tales that reveal something about our own culture and humanity. I do sort of wish the book had stopped there, though. Not being a psych major myself, the chapters and chapters of rote data analysis simply rolled off of me, and while I don’t disagree with Zimbardo’s findings and opinions I thought he came across as unnecessarily preachy during some of the overlong “this is what it all means” segments.
I get why the book is written the way it’s written. But I would have liked a more condensed version of the same material.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
This was the second time I turned down Peanut’s movie invitation. This one worked a little better in my favor, though, because it not only kept me out of the theater but also got Peanut to actually read a book herself. (I wouldn’t classify what she usually uses her Kindle for as “books”. More like “senseless drivel”. But that’s a complaint for another time.)
A lot of people had told me this book was exceptional, and… I don’t think I agree with them. It was short, at least. I was able to consume it in a single night. The story and the characters were great. The premise is interesting in a blatantly horrific way. The book does a good job pulling your brain in and forcing you to examine yourself in the protagonist’s situation. It’s similar to zombie stories in that regard.
And the setting was pretty much perfect. The book is set in a nonspecific future sometime after the downfall of the USA. It walks that fine line between giving you just enough information that you have a good sense of the world and how things work there, but not so much that you’re overburdened with trivia. When a setting walks that line correctly you know the world well enough to absorb the story being told, but you don’t know everything so you’re always left wanting to learn more. This works especially well when the book is the first in a series, which The Hunger Games is.
It was the tone of the book that really got to me. It was just very, very… wrong. This story is about an enslaved country whose children are forced to draw lots to see who “wins” the opportunity to fight and kill each other in gladitorial bloodsport. It’s emotionally and psychologically terrifying, both from the standpoint of being a kid whose name gets drawn and from being a member of the community who has to stand by watching it happen, year after year.
However, the book is not written in a dark, gritty, “holy shit can you imagine” kind of way. It’s written like Harry Potter. Which, I will grant you, were great books! They were at their greatest, though, when they were lighthearted stories about young kids exploring a magical world of infinite fantasy and wonder. When the books veered off into darker territory they got really uncomfortable, and virtually no one liked those parts to the exclusion of the fantasy bits. And while you could argue that kids being in situations where they have to fight for their lives should make you feel uncomfortable, understand that I mean “awkward uncomfortable” and not “writhing in your chair uncomfortable”. Like the authors themselves were uncomfortable as they were writing out the words.
Without having seen the movie yet, I’ve decided Hunger Games probably works much better on the screen than as a book. That’s not an insult in the slightest; some storytellers simply have that quality. (Two prestigious examples being Neil Gaiman and Stephen King.) I still don’t want to go to the theater, but this will be a day one Blu-ray purchase. I’m sure Peanut will be happy that we’ll be able to watch our new movie right away for a change. And though she’ll never admit it, I think she’ll be happy to have read the book first, too.
By the way, this is just a cartoons blog now. I don’t read or play video games anymore. I gave all my systems to orphans and now I just watch cartoons all day, forever.
Having just shotgunned the entire back half of Avatar: The Last Airbender in the past week, I was entirely prepared to come here to the ol’ blog and give a detailed analysis of the most impressive aspect of that show: Prince Zuko’s character arc. I had the post half-outlined, even, bits and baubles tucked away in a .txt file from the first two seasons of the show, talking not only about why Zuko was a stellar character in and of himself, but also how amazed I was someone had signed off on his inclusion in what is ostensibly a children’s program. I felt that by digging into Zuko I could really get to the heart of why Avatar was so tremendous, and that it would be a better way to attack the post than by simply doing a huge-ass review.
But I’m not going to do that anymore, because in the past few days I’ve gotten myself up to speed on The Legend of Korra, and I have a much better way to attack the post now. The Last Airbender was some truly excellent writing, start to finish, and Korra has given every indication of continuing that trend. So instead of making Zuko my poster boy, I’m going to simply take it head-on and share three observations that will explain why I feel this writing is so strong, and why I’m so glad to have it as part of my weekly cartoon rotation.
Generally speaking, both Avatar series have a healthy level of respect for their audience. This is really a combination of two different things. For one, the writers trust the audience enough to understand the story and the motivations of characters without explicitly spelling everything out for them. And for another, the writers trust themselves enough to keep a firm hand on the fanservice faucet.
As to the first thing, the thing about respecting the audience’s intelligence, I do think it’s fair to hold children’s programming to a certain standard. A lot of people don’t, dismissing it with “It’s a kid’s show, what do you expect,” but that’s just wrong. Kids are smart. They can learn things. In a sense, learning things is all kids know how to do. Obviously you’re not going to get away with intricate subplots of the wheels-within-wheels variety, but that’s no reason to make nuance and subtlety completely verboten. Consider Iroh’s scenes in The Tales of Ba Sing Se. Early on, as he is shopping for some odds and ends, he cheers an upset child by singing about a brave little soldier boy. Later, he sings this same song in memory of his dead son. He has been shopping all day for the ingredients of a little shrine, clearly a ritual he has undergone before, to commemorate a sad event in his life. He doesn’t explain to anyone he passes on the street, “Today is the anniversary of my son’s death,” or even “Your boy reminds me of my own son.” The audience is allowed to fill in the blanks, because there is only one way the blanks can go.
It’s not just kid’s shows that get this wrong. It’s the difference between The Wire and CSI: Wherever. There are shows at every age level that aims at what the writers suspect must be the lowest common denominator. In my opinion, the bad ones tend to aim much too low. Maybe it’s a result of those grown-ups having their expectations molded by cartoons which assumed they were dummies, back when they were kids.
The other respect issue is fanservice, and this is one of the big reason I can’t watch serial anime. At some point of the development process the writers begin getting feedback about what their audience thinks they want to see, and then either 1) gives it to them or 2) teases them with it. The problem is that the audience usually doesn’t know exactly what they want to see. We lack the scope and imagination to understand what the show is capable of doing, and packing it into tiny boxes like “Toph x Sokka 4EVER” is counterproductive to giving us a well-realized story. It can lead to character elements that don’t make any sense, or to the show simply not inventing anything new because the fans are always clamoring for more of the stuff that’s already old.
My favorite example of anti-fanservice so far happened within the first few minutes of the first episode of Korra. A young child runs up to the sole remaining character from the first series and asks her about the one lingering mystery that series ended without solving. “It’s a remarkable story,” she’s told — but then she’s immediately interrupted by a second child who begins machinegunning stupid, banal questions instead. The mystery is left unsolved. This was a very strong message. “Yes, that story is interesting,” the writers are telling us, “and we will get to it eventually. But now’s not the time. We have this new character and this new world to show you first. Don’t worry so much about everything that came before; our new story is just as good.”
That kind of storytelling takes respect and courage.
This one is really a no-brainer, and is a key aspect of pretty much all fantasy fiction. The world of Avatar is a mystical place which gives the likes of Westeros and Middle-earth a run for their money. It’s very clear that this is a place which was well-defined geographically, politically, culturally and spiritually before the first episode was even written. Somewhere at Nickelodeon HQ is a filing cabinet full of information about Avatar that will never make it into the show proper, but rather will just be used to color the story as appropriate.
It blew my mind when I realized the huge lake and double-circle-thingy that I’d been staring at on the map during the intro in every episode turned out to be a huge geographical feature and an enormous city, respectively. The map was there in the first few seconds of the program. Serpent’s Pass and Ba Sing Se weren’t relevant until well into the second season.
The Last Airbender focused a lot on Aang developing his superpowers, which led to a lot of what the elements meant culturally as well as practically. However, the story was set in a time where the air culture had long been wiped out, and Aang himself had no more use for airbending instruction. And so while water, earth and fire were all explained to us during his lessons, air remained at least a little bit of a mystery.
That came to an end during the second episode of The Legend of Korra. Korra is the exact opposite of Aang; she has already mastered (or, at least, has a natural aptitude for and has received competent instruction in) three of the four elements, but simply cannot grok the concepts behind air. Enter her airbending teacher, Tenzin, who for the first time in sixty episodes gives us some very basic explanations behind the art. What you realize, as you watch Tenzin’s children whirling between the spinning gates, is that these concepts have been within the very heart of the series all along. Korra is, after all, just learning things that came natural to Aang.
I’m willing to bet, before the series was even pitched to the network, someone sat down and delineated what each of the four elements would represent in this world, what their cultures would look like, what their practitioners would be able to do. Then, after laying that overtop the plot graph for The Last Airbender, they realized that while this airbending stuff is important, there’s no realistic place to really put a fine point on it. No reason to have someone sit us down and say, “Okay, this is what airbending is and why it works.” The information was there, it just wasn’t spelled out until it became necessary to do so, at the beginning of the second series. Now that the second series is here, we can look back and say, “Oh, yeah, that all makes sense. It all fits.” This gives the viewer the sense of a world that persists whether they are watching it or not.
Because the world of The Last Airbender was such a vibrant and well-realized place, I not only know that Korra‘s more focused setting has a firm foundation, but also that it will continue to grow in a believable way.
This is the big one, though. The really, really big one. The Last Airbender had an ending. A for-real ending that was for-real planned by for-real writers who for-real knew where they were going. It was a completed story, and you can tell it was built that way from the very beginning. Each season (or “book”) had a self-contained plot, and each episode (or “chapter”) advanced that plot. There was very little filler, and what was there was used for pacing rather than padding. The writers were never in this limbo where they had to just keep the story spinning its wheels until they saw whether or not their next season would be picked up.
In a series like Avatar, I really really need this kind of structure. I need some assurance that, if I watch fifty episodes of your TV show, I will not have wasted my time. I need to know you’re going somewhere. This is why I very rarely begin watching a series that hasn’t already run its course. Yes, I know now that Lost had a worthwhile structure that told an incredible story spanning six years’ worth of episodes. But how could I have possibly known that the night the pilot premiered?
The Last Airbender had just such a structure, though. The individual episodes were worth watching, but so too was the entire series worth watching. Absorbing the journey is fine, but I’m really more of a destination guy. What this says about Korra, though, is that the writers have their direction, know where their end point is, and have the chops to get us there. I know I can put my money on the table here and get something for it.
Of course, there are lots of reasons to like Korra outside of its storytelling muscle. For instance, you can dress up just about anything in jazz music and fedoras and make it instantly appealing to me. But that’s a superficial kind of fandom, and Korra deserves more than that.
I should also point out that a good TV show doesn’t need these three elements in order to work well. My other favorite currently-airing cartoon possesses none of them to a particularly enviable degree. But then, Korra wants a larger investment from me than other cartoons do. Because of what its older brother accomplished, I’m happy to pay it. I think it’s going to be a great ride.