You Are Browsing 'Author'

By Charles On 3 Feb, 2015 At 12:30 AM | Categorized As Conventions, Editorials, Featured, Reviews | With 0 Comments

No Gravatar“You should go to Magfest”

I remember the first time I was told this, way back in 2012. As someone who attends a lot of conventions in a year, names of new events are tossed my way by friends eager to show me something I hadn’t been to before. Most of them are, of course, anime cons: because when you write your thesis on anime convention culture, and spend countless weeks traveling to said cons to speak, everyone you have met AT the con wants to tell you about their favorite events here and there, in hopes of bringing you along and sharing the love. This is nothing new, and is a lot of fun when your friends come along with you.

But Magfest was something else. I had a lot of friends who would “boost” for the convention, telling me about how laid back it was, how it felt more like a party than a con, how it was a lot of music and a lot of games, so there was always something happening. And of course, it was always finished by “you should go to Magfest.” 

By Charles On 29 Oct, 2013 At 06:07 PM | Categorized As Featured, Nintendo 3DS, Portable/Mobile Gaming, Reviews, Uncategorized | With 0 Comments

No GravatarThere are two ways one can go about looking at each generation of Pokemon games: one can explore all the vast landscapes and changes that recent generations have been building and refining. You can look at all the real world inspirations, all the loving attention to little details, added cultures, philosophy, game mechanics and renovations to the user interface. You can get lost in all the activities and events the game world has to offer.

Or you can look at the Pokemon. And a lot of people really enjoy looking at the Pokemon. Innovations and additions to the Pokemon world go hand in hand with the creations of new monsters- now a staggering 717! Some of them are designed to look cool, some are powerhouse battlers, some are tributes to whatever culture they were lifted from, and some are just plain out there. And half the fun of the games comes from not only catching them all, but enjoying the ones you’ve caught.

In the wake of the release of Pokemon X & Y (and in the wake of logging a whole lot of hours in the two weeks since its release), I want to present here an informal look at some of the Pokemon I’ve found wandering Kalos. There have been a lot of lists like this all over the internet since the game dropped, so in the interest of bandwagon-jumping (and because I’m really enjoying the new Gen), I thought I’d chime in with my own opinions to the subject.

florges__yellow__by_dburch01-d6pqot0Florges: Fairy is the new type this generation. A lot of Pokemon familiar to players have been given it as a second type, actually, and a few have been retyped from normal into it.

Florges, which evolves from the early-game Flabebe, is the first Fairy type most players encounter, and it’s a secret monster in-game. Don’t let its adorable countenance fool you- this is one serious Pokemon. With a scary high attack stat, decent speed and defenses, and a diverse movepool, this Pokemon has been one of my go-to monsters since I acquired it. Fully trained in S. ATK and S. DEF, it takes the place of both Fairy and Grass types in my party, and has single-handedly cleared two gyms. From a PvE standpoint, using Florges is a no-brainer, as you will not find a better Fairy type until post game (if even then. Sorry, Sylveon, you look adorable, but your moveset is too limited).

tyrantrum-3Tyrantrum: One online list claimed the best reason to use this new fossil Pokemon was for the satisfaction of sending a Tyrannosaurus Rex after your opponent. I agree with this comment. Tyrantrum, which has been a stalwart also since acquisition, is a quirky little guy- high base Atk and a power that ups the damage on bite-based moves allows for an interesting move build. It has a few giant type-weaknesses, but hits like a truck, and can take out most foes in a single blow. It’s slow, so EV training its HP to survive that first hit it will take is crucial, but once it survives, it will chow down on whatever’s in front of it. Plus its pre-evolved Tyrunt form might be the cutest monster this Gen. (It’s the big eyes.)

doubladeroughDoublade: I haven’t evolved this one yet, it’s sitting pretty at 50 until I finally get a Dusk Stone. This Pokemon has appeared on almost every “Best of Gen” lists, because of it’s survivability and its form changes that occur in battle. From a pure PvE standpoint, this Pokemon serves the same role as Tyrantrum- thick, powerful, slow. And you want it to be. The Ghost status protects from a lot of attacks, its high defenses grant it staying power, and its moves (while limited) are versatile in application. This is a Gen with a lot of good ghost and psychic types, and Doublade’s line can deal with them all.

malamar_by_theangryaron-d6d1eg1Malamar: This is a Pokemon that suffers horribly from a field glutted with similar “types.” It has a very interesting typing with Psychic/Dark, and boasts one of the quirkiest evolution mechanics ever (you need to hold the 3DS upside-down to evolve it), but given the choices at a player’s disposal, Malamar’s use is more out of preference than utility. Given the abundance of Dark and Psychic type moves that other Pokemon learn, and the rebalancing through the addition of Fairy, Malamar lags behind contemporaries like the Tyrantrum and Florges. It’s also meant to be a physical striker, in a generation full of physical strikers. It EV trains almost identically to Tyrantrum, and has similar speed restrictions.

There are two saving graces for this one, though: it can learn some interesting TMs (like Thunderbolt), and it looks like a freaking monster. Seriously- while the Inkay form is an adorable Blooper type, Malamar is just plain terrifying to look at. It contributes to one of the best part of the Pokemon-amie minigame…when it appears from out of nowhere to stare at you with its beady little eyes and sharp beak. Srsly, creepiest Pokemon in the Gen. That should warrant inclusion on its own.

gourgeistGourgeist: It’s a Jack-o-Lantern Pokemon, in a game released right before Halloween. It’s practically begging to be used in some form. While the stats on Gourgeist aren’t anything to scream about (ba-da-bump), the gimmicks associated with this one make up for shortcomings in the PvE arena. It’s ghost/grass, which is a pretty slick typing if you ask me, and it has size variations that alter up its stats (notably attack and speed). The movepool is similar to the Doublade’s at times, but it does contribute its own in battles. But mostly, it’s a fun gimmick to play around with for the time being. And as its one of the Pokemon that evolves via trades, it pops up frequently in the “Wonder Trade” box, where the cute little Pumpkaboo (that’s a name) evolves right after touching down.

Now I’m sure a lot of readers want opinions on the starters this gen. Starter Pokemon are often a point of debate, trying to decide which are the most powerful, which are the most useful, which are the “coolest,” etc. This game gives quite a few solid options on its own, and honestly, all of them are pretty good.

fennekinI went with Fennekin, since I like kitsune, and it’s evolved form adds a psychic type to the mix. As a starter, it’s very useful, and very fun to play with. Unlike last Gen, there aren’t all that many Fire types to choose from, either…unless you use the special event to get the Torchic, at which point Fennekin becomes overshadowed by a previous Gen starter WITH a mega-evolution. I would say choose Fennekin because you like fox Pokemon, not for its typing.

FrogadierFroakie is a very wise choice, because (as in Gen V) water types are few and far between. You are given a Lapras at one point, and it can stand in for a Water type, but honestly, Froakie’s evolution line turn him into a frog ninja, and has one of the most stellar movepools of any starter. Seriously, he’s crazy powerful. If you’re in this game to be a battler monster, this is your guy.

I don’t have any opinions of Chespin, because I have yet to encounter one. But there ARE a lot of good grass type Pokemon, and Pokemon that know grass type moves in this game.

As always, who you choose is a point of personal preference, because outside of competitive battling, the games are never that hard. Choose what you love. Fortunately for this Pokeholic, the Pokemon I live are also viable for post-game battles with people around the world. See you in Kalos!

 

By Charles On 16 Oct, 2013 At 11:04 PM | Categorized As Conventions, Editorials, Featured, Reviews, Uncategorized | With 0 Comments

No GravatarPreface: I did not attend NYCC as a member of the press. I did not attend as a speaker, professional, general audience member, marvin, or artist. This editorial review is simply a reflection of my experiences over the weekend, and should be taken as such.

Oh what a difference three years makes.

20131011_125912

The Dork Knight Returns!

Yep, it has indeed been three years since I last attended New York Comic Con. Back then, there was still an Anime Festival attached to the annual spectacle that dominates a chunk of Western midtown, and while that population of otaku and cosplayers was segregated from the mass that was NYCC, it was still something. Then 2012 rolled around, the Anime Festival was shelved, and Comic Con transformed itself into a fully immersive (and massive) pop culture extravaganza. Particular emphasis need be laid on the “pop culture” part of this equation, because in the scant years since its inception, NYCC has gone from a comic convention into something closer resembling its San Diego cousin- television culture, video gaming, literature, comics, collectibles and anime, all wrapped into one gigantic package that is literally impossible to navigate, nor experience over the course of a single weekend. Believe me, I’ve tried.

To put things into perspective, the largest event I regularly attend- Baltimore’s Otakon- pulls in around 34,000 people, and packs the halls of the BCC to almost the choke point. The BCC is a rather large space, separated into two buildings and attached hotels, and still manages to hold the growing anime convention each year. New York Comic Con pulls in around 4-5 times as many attendees, into a space not much larger than the BCC, and completely devoid of mass transit access and affordable hotels. Try for a moment, then, to picture the size and scale of such an event, of the masses of people moving along painfully slowly, stopped 20131012_151752up by cosplay photographs and snaking lines on the floor itself, and you get a general idea of what a typical weekend experience is for an NYCC attendee. And, unlike Otakon, those throngs of people are there for the entire weekend- Sunday is just as packed as Thursday, Friday or Saturday, with the line for badge pickup extended out the door.

That’s been one of the main reasons I’ve skipped NYCC for so long. Unlike the other conventions I attend, there is little actual community at the con- most of the weekend is akin to a fight for proverbial survival against the masses. Panels? Not a chance, as I’m not willing to sit in a line for 45 minutes only to be turned away. Autographs? Also slim, since shelling out upwards of $70 for a signed photo offends my “Queens Sensibilities” (not to mention digs into my food budget). What my weekend ultimately boils down to is a few scattered cosplay shots, some chatting with vendors and artists, and catching up with old friends I only see at Comic Con. It’s not that I’m not motivated to do more, it’s just time, space, willpower, and logistics make doing anything beyond “going with the flow” into an impossibility when you have X hours to attempt Y activities. It takes a special sort of masochism to navigate those halls midday, and for this man, the rewards aren’t worth the undertaking.

20131012_192410Now as critical as this sounds, don’t take it to mean that prospective attendees should balk at going. NYCC is a behemoth, one of the few cons that actually thrive from this mass of stimuli and competing events. The size of the con is its greatest asset, since it forces attendees to prioritize, focus on what is truly important to them, and allows plenty of “wiggle room” for those without a clue of what to do. There is something for everyone at NYCC, provided that everyone chooses to dig through a tome of a program guide in search of the exact panels and screenings that everyone wants to see. It teaches humility, as rooms fill and chances at freebies dry up. And it offers the neophyte congoer a glimpse into the wide world of fandom, which can far exceed anyone’s estimates. Comic Con manages through sheer size the same type of fandom convergence that other cons only hint it, placing it on display and offering options for the individual to select from. Every fan should go at least once, just to share in the experience, and question their own place within the fandom community.

As a fandom experience, though, its far from perfect. Every year has its issues, and this year is no exception. Most glaring of these “flaws” was the placement of the Artist Alley: the last time I attended NYCC, the Alley was opposite the show floor, with wide aisles and a good selection of artists. One simply needed to cross past the massive pavilions for comic publishers and media companies to find those die-hard illustrators showcasing wares. This year, the Alley was relocated to Javits North, a still-growing addition to the convention center that more resembles an airplane hangar than a showroom. In its former place was yet another space for shops, small presses, the gigantic Intel Booth, and some artists. Navigating that space was just as brutal as the rest of the floor, but since it was still separated by the media expositions, it could take twice as long to get from one end of the floor to the other. The Alley itself was perfectly solid- professional illustrators and their amateur colleagues shared table space, signed books and prints, and took commissions from enthusiastic attendees. But its location- segregated from the rest of the show- reminded me a bit too much of the 2010 “Anime Ghetto,” where artists and craftspeople of the otaku persuasion were kept away from the “serious artists” (as one of them put it) up stairs. One can only wonder if those same “serious artists” had similar feelings this year…though not likely, given the large foot traffic that was a constant presence in Javits North (took me a full 25 minutes to get there on Saturday Afternoon).

20131013_114940

Image taken Sunday…afternoon.

Autographs were also in their own special section, removed from the show floor, though that was undoubtedly for logistical purposes, as the higher profile guests had their own snakes, which would have wreaked havoc upstairs on the show floor, which already had its own line issues when vendors decided to bring in talent to sign at their tables. (One point of dismay on my part- I never once saw a line for professional wrestling legends Sergeant Slaughter or Million Dollar Man Ted Dibiase. Has this country forgotten those legends of yesteryear?)

As with previous NYCCs, the roving vendors had their own section, which was more clustered around the exhibits, which took up a good deal of floor space right as one entered. And those exhibitors pulled out all the stops to grab attention: Bandai had a veritable museum of new/soon to be released products, from Saiyan scanners to a Comic Con exclusive model from the anime series Valvrave. South Park built a replica of Main Street, complete with crashed alien saucer. Daisuki.net had a weekend long viewing party that easily outdrew Funimation, and the Intel booth…well, let’s just say it was one of the few places with open space, owing to its sheer mass and revolving programming. Had I not been a Comic Con veteran, I likely would have gone into overload just staring at the booths and flashing lights.

20131013_114935I didn’t really get to do much over the weekend. Anime panels were thin, and filled up quickly, so I elected to avoid them. As I also have become immune to vendor rooms, I also spent very little money (just at GEN Manga and IFC, on Sunday, when the prices dropped). And since I did not have a press pass for the event, I volunteered my services to a friend’s booth for Saturday and Sunday. I’ve worked as a vendor more than a few times (it’s how I got into NYAF 09), and I’ve found that sitting in that one space is actually one of the better ways to experience the con- you have water, food, a place to sit, and generally get to see the same people as a roving reporter would, just without the claustrophobia. You also get a keen sense of the community at large- what are they spending on, what are they enthusiastic about, who are they cosplaying, et al. This weekend, the “big winners” were Berserk (everyone wanted Gattsu figures), Attack on Titan, soft earmuffs, and Ocarinas, only because I was sitting across from a vendor selling them, and listening to the same 10 songs ALL WEEKEND. And “con babies”- I saw a lot of new parents with costumed children in tow, which made me feel as fuzzy as the scarves I was selling them.

Like I started this review-torial with, I haven’t been to NYCC in three years, so seeing the growth and expansion of this convention into a dominating pop culture event was a point of pride and humility. That said, I also left feeling worn out, exhausted, and a little empty. Some of that was definitely due to working all weekend, but some of that was also the “transient” nature of the con itself- I’ve come to expect a certain amount of community and interaction at conventions I attend. I didn’t find it at NYCC. And that definitely soured some of my experience. But that is coming from a longtime convention veteran, who has already been to 14 other cons this year. For the first-timer, or the inexperienced newb, NYCC likely has a much different feel. Like I said, everyone needs to go at least once to discover where that feeling leads them.

[Gallery] Comic Con After Dark: Images from Sunday night…because not everyone gets to see the con being broken down.

20131013_193958

20131013_194026

20131013_194042

20131013_194126

By Charles On 19 Sep, 2013 At 07:05 PM | Categorized As Animation, Editorials, Featured, Reviews, Reviews | With 0 Comments

No GravatarI made a remark earlier in the year that this has been one of the best years for anime in a while. While normally each successive anime season is a task of plodding through series after series in search of that one or two that will catch my attention long enough to sit a review for, this year I’ve actively had to limit what I’ve been watching, all in the name of time management. For the first time since the Summer of 2011, I’ve juggled four series simultaneously…and I’ve been loving it.

Back in the Spring, I attempted to do a full review of the 6 (!) shows I was actively viewing. Ultimately, three were dropped, and I never gave proper space to Gargantia. Summer 2013 started out much the same, with a full queue of shows: from the moe slice of life “Love Lab” to the distinctly shounen “Blood Lad,” the quirky “Uchouten Kazoku” and hilarious “Watamote.” Two of those shows there didn’t last beyond 4 weeks. The other two joined the still-amazing Attack on Titan in my weekly rotation.

tomokoMuch discussion has been made about “Watamote” in recent months, owing to the extremely self-referential nature of the show, its awareness of “a certain segment” of the populace, and it’s often brutal depiction of social anxiety. One Kotaku review went so far as to call it “the most mean spirited anime” he has ever watched, a criticism that definitely holds weight when the series is viewed by those unaware of the “otaku stereotype,” or those with particular sympathies for bullying. Over at Beneath The Tangles, Charles gave it a much more sympathetic look, but still highlighted some of the issues surrounding the utterly deluded Tomoko.

This reviewer still enjoys the show, despite those valid points. What creates Watamote’s appeal for the many who watch it is that same awareness- we can see a bit of ourselves in Tomoko (or people we might know and be friends with), and understand that the series is playing up a strong parody of those traits it espouses. Yes, I said parody, which is exactly what the series is. It’s not meant to be taken especially seriously. It is a look at some of the extreme views that are levied against “otaku,” cloaked in the trappings of a slice-of-life comedy. While the characterization of its “eccentric” lead (and eccentricity is a huge theme this season) borders on slander, the intent of the series is not to demonize or demoralize the behaviour, just to make apparent the activities, and point out some of the emotions behind it. Or at least that’s what I am getting from it.

watamote01

Fortunately, not all series this season take such a stance on eccentricity. Easily the breakout series of the summer, and one that would easily fly under the radar of the more general anime fan, Eccentric Family mixes a deep understanding of Japanese folkore with elements of the slice of life genre to create something refreshing, and unique among a season full of refreshing and unique takes on classic genres.

eccentric-family-bannerSet in modern-day Kyoto, the series revolves around the (mid)adventures of a young tanuki, Shimogamo Yasaburou. The middle child in a family of so-called “idiot blooded” yokai who spend most of their time in human form, he spends his days wandering the city, interacting with the cranky “professor” Akadama (a tengu who lost his ability to fly), helping his youngest brother deal with bullies, evading the machinations of rival tanuki clans, and crossing paths with the crafty human, Benten, who may or may not be trying to make him into a stew.

The generally humorous and lighthearted tone of the series is counterbalanced by a meta-plot involving the death of Yasaburou’s father years earlier, and discovering both how and why the great elder tanuki managed to get himself eaten. While visibly carefree in his day-to-day, Yasaburou is still shaken up by the loss of his father, which in turn causes him to poke his nose where it doesn’t belong, earning him the “wrath” of both his flamboyant mother, and straight-laced brother, who himself is trying to inherit the mantle of community leader their father once wore so proudly.

the-eccentric-family-1Eccentric Family succeeds admirably in telling their tale. Rather than being bogged down by unnecessary details on heady drama, the show balances the serious themes of love and loss alongside some of the truly crazy shenanigans the Shimogamo family perpetrates. From floating parlours to drunken tengu, the show moves along at an appropriate pace, giving the source material and heavy meta-plot equal attention throughout. Yasaburou himself is easily the most relatable member of his family, mixing in the trickster tendencies found in most tanuki legends with a healthy dose of ambiguity as the story progresses. Even when he’s being serious, you can see the twinkle in his eye and the mischief in his actions.

These become even more pronounced when he interacts with the mysterious Benten, a woman who presents a constant danger not only to the tanuki, but to Professor Akadama. While not a villain per se, the human woman woman (who is named after one of the powerful water-associated kami, Benzaiten) is as ruthless as any other, hiding her motivations while keeping her intentions plainly clear. She has a taste for tanuki, trickery and control, and she wields all three to perfection, even in the early episodes.

eccentric-family-7

Tanuki trash talk

At its core, Eccentric Family lives up to its moniker, however- its a show about family, and how they stick together during the hard times. Not unlike the latter seasons of the landmark 70s series “Good Times,” this is a show defined by loss, and how each character perceives and deals with it (and deal with it differently, they all do). Yasaburou, for all his wit and good-natured trickery, is also self-destructive at times, placing himself in dangerous situations where his safety is in doubt. His elder brother, Yajirou, runs away from the world because he cannot come to grips with what he blames himself for doing, and eldest brother Yaichiro seeks to become the father he lost, regardless of whether it is for the right reasons.

Eccentric Family is anything but cliche, which is the show’s strongest attribute. With just enough tension to keep the plot moving from episode to episode, and intriguing characters throughout, it highlights many of the “hidden traits” of Japanese family structure, and the abilities of the country’s most visible folkloric creature. A show like this doesn’t come along very often, and should be appreciated for what it accomplishes.

HorribleSubs-Gifuu-Doudou-Kanetsugu-to-Keiji-01-1080p.mkv_20130703_083741

Finally, eccentricity is on full display in the ridiculously magnificent “Gifuu Doudou,” a “dazzling Sengoku period drama” (that is the exact description made during the opening) about two samurai known for their “odd behaviour” and prowess on the battlefield. Set during the warring states period in Japan, the story follows best friends/retainers Naoe Kanetsugu and Maeda Keiji- two Kenichiro lookalikes with unnecessary muscle mass and a flair for acting outrageously both on and off the battlefield, as they spend a night drinking sake by moonlight and recounting adventures from their younger years.

What makes Gifuu Doudou such a good time (apart from the leads, who are both intentionally crazy, and unintentionally hilarious) is the peppering of details from Japanese history thrown about in the story. Seriously, this show is a history lesson all its own, but rather than outright explaining the “whos” and “whats” of that dramatic period of warfare, it simply makes the viewer aware of the players and the campaigns, and offers enough motivation to look into them some more. The characterizations around such well-known names like Oda Nobunaga (who gets one helluva introduction) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (who has a definite sniveling air about him) fit well with the historical descriptions, and make the show feel more like “Sengoku Basara” than “Seven Samurai.” Just watch Keiji play his biwa like a rock guitar before slicing some mook’s throat, and you will “get” the entire point.

gifuu_doudou_01_2While I was ready to write this show off after a pilot that made me exclaim “what the fuck was that?” aloud on a bus ride from NY-DC back un July, it grew steadily on me with promises of sweeping battles and intriguing characters, which it delivers on both fronts. While firmly situated on the side of the bizarre, Gifu Doudou nonetheless is a fun time, and a wonderful complement to a night’s viewing that also includes both aforementioned series.

By Charles On 29 Aug, 2013 At 05:38 PM | Categorized As Animation, Conventions, Editorials, Featured | With 0 Comments

No GravatarGoing out on a limb here, but if you had mentioned to that small collective of dedicated fans in State College, PA, who gathered on a nondescript weekend in 1994, that their meet-up of anime fans would one day go on to be the second largest anime convention event in the United States, they probably would have looked at you funny, laughed and added “maybe in our dreams,” before running off to watch some tapes or “talk shop.”

And yet, 20 conventions later, that is the truth of Otakon- the largest anime convention on the East coast, and gathering ground for all sorts of otaku, geeks, nerds, Japanophiles, hangers-on, confused parents, and anyone who appreciates either anime, fandom, or both.

Now I’ve been knew to this “game.” My first Otakon was in 2009, and it held a sort of mystery to me. I had heard of it time and again from friends online, but had no idea where it was, and little interest to attend. When I finally did cross through those doors and into the massive space that is the Baltimore Convention Center, I was immediately overwhelmed by what I had stepped into. It took me three years to finally “get it right.” And then two more thrown in “for good measure,” because as much as crowds might unnerve me at times, the prospect of friends and fellowship entices me more.

Blame it on my “history” of attending smaller conventions, but that was really where my fandom gestated. Cons like Otakon differ from smaller fare, and the dynamics of the smaller cons are less about big-name guests and announcements, and more about getting to know your fellow fans. I spent the majority of my  congoing life at those events (and I frequently cite Hampton, VA’s Nekocon as the standard by which I formed my congoer identity), and was generally accustomed to the “simpler things”- meet friends, hang in hallway, grab some food, repeat until Monday. Otakon is not that convention, and hasn’t been for over 15 years. While those types of interactions are definitely a part of the Otakon experience, more of it can best be summed up as “brave crowd-stand in line-see event- repeat until Monday.”

Read reviews for Otakon 20, and you will read a lot about lines. Lines were the order of this convention (so much that one writer quipped that “lines are part of the real Otakon experience.” True, if that’s the experience you seek).  A stark departure from the smaller events where lines seem to only exist outside 18+ content, or in front of autograph tables as anxious attendees wait for a chance to meet their idols. Lines for autographs are definitely long at Otakon. Lines for concert tickets equally so. Lines for the Dealer’s Room, lines for the panel rooms…I know plenty of bloggers and attendees who spent upwards of 7 hours standing in line.

But not me. Like Eric Cartman, I hate lines. And I usually find that what waits at the end isn’t worth the loss of time “better” spent wandering, chatting, or resting my aching body. My Otakon 20 wasn’t about getting to meet Shinichiro Watanabe (though I did, briefly). It wasn’t about snagging that coveted Sunday Concert Pass for Yoko Kanno (though I did, indirectly). It wasn’t even about attending the premieres for Oriemo 2 and Wolf Children (the former I had no interest in, the latter I had seen already).

For me, Otakon 20 was much like Otakons 18 and 19- I was there to experience the weekend as a whole, not the individual parts. I wanted to see the crowds, talk to the fans, tag up my StreetPass, and maybe decompress in the Harbor when the stimulus became too much. I wanted my “stage” to present content, then vanish for hours with friends while we people-watched and drank copious amounts of coffee. That has been my Otakon experience ever since 2011, and for me, it works.

On that level, Otakon 20 was a rousing success. Maybe not as over-the-top awesome as last year’s event, but still a successful weekend all around. They’ve been getter better, as well, since my first “road show” in 2009- part of that revolves around better programming and guest options, part around me knowing what the hell I’m doing- but as each convention passes by, I “get” it more and more.

Since I elected to eschew the lines and made it to exactly one panel that wasn’t one of mine, I can’t rightly call this exposition a review. One of the downsides to the way I experience Otakon is that I see very little of the “con,” but a whole lot of the convention space and community. On that front, I have little comments that I haven’t said before- Otakon is a frenetic mass of controlled chaos, kept in check my beleaguered volunteers who sometimes find themselves in over their heads, not unlike the attendees themselves.

Were their line management problems? Definitely. I witnessed line cuts a few times, and lines set up in the wrong places, but mostly as I passed them by on one of my “walks.” Were their rude staffers? I’d find it hard to believe there weren’t any, given the size and stress of the weekend, though I never bumped into any. Were there memes? Yes, moreso than the last two years, but nowhere near as annoying as 2009. (And one of them- a crowd of people constantly singing “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” from the Mulan soundtrack- were less annoying than quirky. At least they were being “productive” with their hall karaoke.)

Again, nothing I haven’t seen before, and nothing unexpected given the size and scope of Otakon itself. (Although the incident with the bubble bath in the fountain was something entirely new.)

The community this year was surprising- more and more anime-centric cosplay (especially from breakout hits Free! and Attack on Titan), less visible non-anime stalwarts (like Homestuck, MLP and Doctor Who), and a healthy amount of discussion centered around the 2013 anime crop, and how “awesome it is.” One of my early Friday panels- We Con, Therefore We Are, a critical look at convention culture and otakudom, co-hosted by the indomitable Daryl Surat of Anime World Order, and Doug Wilder of AnimeconsTV- exceeded my meager expectations by leaps and bounds: I hoped for 40-50 people, I got almost 1000, and none of them were there to “troll”, only discuss and debate. Which they did, all weekend, as people kept stopping me to comment on how thought-provoking and insightful the panel was. I had intended to present my observations and research from the past five years of activity in the community, and was surprised at how many other long-term members of the same community were coming to the same conclusions, and how their general opinion of the situation wasn’t too different from my own.

Community. Yes, it always comes back to community. Because, when it comes down to it, community is why Otakon has grown by such leaps and bounds, and community is why the convention culture is so strong, fragmented as it might appear. Time and again, I will insist that community is what is driving the attendees to devote such time to their “hobby,” and through the community are their devotions validated. You see it in the smaller, more intimate cons, that thrive off their core of attendees who pop up every year to support their local fandom. You see it in the massive throngs at Anime Boston and Katsucon, who pack the halls of large convention spaces with cosplay and conversation. You see it at Otakon, where these other groups converge for a single showing of support and “insanity,” for who else would choose to brave those crowded halls, if not the “crazy ones?”

On Saturday night, I (alongside friends Kit and Haru) was sitting in Harbor East, having dinner with voice actor and theologian Crispin Freeman. At this “oasis” maybe a mile from the BCC, there were no cosplayers, or congoers of any type, and the lightly packed dining room of the pub we had selected was soon the site of a conversation between the four of us about how the community had changed. Crispin had been part of the convention community since almost the beginning. He remembered how those early cons had been very anime-centric, and the fans hungry for more information. As a media/industry guest, he also had been somewhat insulated to the shift from anime-culture to community-culture that had been so dramatic in the past 4 years. He had not seen the subtle (and not-so-subtle) shifts that altered the dynamic and motivations of the attendees as a whole. As we sat there, talking about Convergence theory and the changing times, it made me ask myself a question- one that really has no solid answer, only observations.

Has Otakon exceeded its intended scope? What is the point of the con now, as the motivations and practices of a new generation of fans have overtaken older concepts? Has Otakon, still a bastion of Japanese media and culture appreciation, evolved?

I would think so. It’s become something more than just a fan convention- its become a destination all its own. It’s  been that way for years now- all roads (at least on the East Coast) do lead to Otakon, that special pilgrimage that needs to be experienced at least once. Overwhelming or not, it’s a rite of passage all its own, but one of those rites that has the potential to pull in as many people as possible, and keep them there. New fans or old-timers, it’s still living up to its mission statement, and managing to accommodate all the needs of every fan who walks through the doors- from the staunch Japanophile to the artist and creative, to the confused teenager who’s wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into. Otakon is, and always will be, a place for every fan, everywhere.

Lines or not.

By Charles On 22 Aug, 2013 At 08:34 PM | Categorized As Editorials, Featured, Reviews, Toys and Merchandise | With 0 Comments

No GravatarNo childhood is complete without Lego. Seriously- show me a child who has never been gifted an assortment of oddly colored geometric blocks, toon-like men with interchangeable heads, and settings as diverse as pretty much any geek-related world or interest, and I will show you a child deprived of one of the great joys of growing up. For many children of the 80s onward, Lego wasn’t just a part of being young, it was probably the best part of being young.

Now, while you’re recalling fondly those memories of days spent building houses (or if you were me, castles) and monsters, expressing your creativity with snapping plastic pieces, take a look at this:

SAMSUNG

Yes, that is a Moai head. And yes, that is made entirely of Lego blocks.

This feat of plastic engineering mastery is one part of the utterly fascinating exhibit “Art of the Brick,” currently on location at Discovery Times Square. While not the kind of art one would typically expect from a gallery show, this exhibition is easily one of the most ambitious, and satisfying, displays of artistic merit currently in New York. (and easily overshadowing its neighbors, Bodies and Shipwreck.)

SAMSUNGThe brainchild of lawyer-turned-artist Nathan Sawaya, Art of the Brick is both a labor of love and creativity. Artist Sawaya, discontent with his career as a corporate attorney, began assembling these masterpieces in 2002, and has since transformed his passion into a full-time career. Just how much he devotes to the pursuit of plastic potency is evident from the moment one walks into the gallery space, greeted by a lifelike “hand” holding an ever-so-small red brick.

This sets the tone for the rest of the exhibit, as viewers are led through a portrait gallery, sculpture garden, and down a set of stairs (underneath a Lego Earth) towards the more “experimental” sections. It’s clear the Sawaya “gets” both his medium, and his inspirations, as those early galleries showcase both the original work, and his “take” in bricks on the piece. Formerly flat images “jump out”, given serious 3-D treatment at times, highlighting how well Sawaya understands the scope and execution of his imagination. Simply taking  single look at his version of Hokusai’s classic “Great Wave off Kanagawa” or his eye-popping rendition of the sigil of St John confirms this, as both are incredibly accurate, but successfully utilize the texture of the Lego bricks to stand out.

SAMSUNGIn the next room, his tribute to classic sculpture contains the aforementioned Moai head, and also a Buddha, Jomon period clay doll, and an androgynous replication of Michelangelo’s David, done is perfect scale to the originals. While this might not sound all that impressive, think for a moment about the time and energy that must go into creating such textured figures, using nothing but pre-cut blocks and an eye for layout. Making even one would be a challenge for any of us. Sawaya created all of them, and then some.

Now admittedly, I’m no serious art critic. I like sculpture, and can appreciate the labor that goes into crafting a solid model. But some of the pieces that line the exhibit have their own emotion attached- be it through lighting or sound (both of which play a role in the later galleries), or simply the construction of the specific piece, each one looks less like a “cluster of bricks,” and more like an independent entity. Knowing that these pieces were crafted from the same Lego bricks that many children the world over play with only enhances the impressiveness of the galleries.

SAMSUNG

Yes, that is a T-rex skeleton made entirely of Lego.

If there was one flaw to the entire experience, it’s that it’s too short. I found myself thoroughly entranced throughout my tour, and even went so far as to go through it three times, backwards and forwards, trying to catch each subtle variation and captured movement. The images I’ve elected to include here hopefully show that, because this is not a type of art that is easily captured- it needs to be seen with one’s own eyes, if only to verify that yes, these are Lego bricks.

The final room in the exhibition is devoted to other artists- both children and adult alike- who have been inspired by Sawaya’s work towards creating their own Lego masterpieces. From the minimalist to the ambitious, each one holds the spirit of the exhibit true-to-heart, and shows that anyone- not just a single artist with a dream- can craft and create what they see in their own heads.

Art of the Brick is currently appearing at Discovery Times Square. It also has the good fortune of being located near the Toys R Us, in case the inspiration drives you to create your own sculptures.

By Charles On 28 Jun, 2013 At 06:34 PM | Categorized As Conventions, Editorials, Featured, Otaku Events | With 0 Comments

No Gravatar

Always bring a banana to a party.

Always bring a banana to a party.

Well, well, well- look who’s back. It’s been a while since I’ve made an appearance on here, and with good reason: since the beginning of May, I’ve been on a whirlwind of convention travels- all the way from Charlotte, NC for KiraKiraCon, to Sandusky, OH for Colossalcon, and most recently, Portland, ME for Portcon. In between I’ve dropped by VA for AMA, Boston for AB and a splendid little event in Pittsfield, MA called BAMcon (currently my favorite event of the year). And one of the constants I’ve had all 6 of those weekends is new congoers, from those who have always wanted to attend, to curious friends dragged along for the ride, to the confused parents wondering what their children have been jabbering on about incessantly since last summer.

For those of you who have never been to a con, there really is no time like the present to start attending. Explosive community growth, huge influxes of new fans and fandoms, cosplay galore- this is a great time to start hitting up your local con scene, or even traveling someplace new and exciting for a weekend unlike any other.

Wow, that sounds like a sales pitch.

For those of you who have never attended, or find the entire process intimidating, allow me then to provide you with some tips for selecting and navigating your first convention. You don’t need to heed my advice, because everyone’s experiences at the con are different- that’s what makes them so enticing- but at the same time, there are always common pitfalls that have the potential to derail a previously fantastic weekend.

Author’s note: these tips are not the standard sort of “drink plenty of water,” or “sleep and shower once a day” type- the basic precepts of health and hygiene are common sense, and we all are aware of them. And if we are not, the con staff will definitely make sure you observe them. Rather, these tips will (hopefully) allow you to have an enjoyable weekend, free of drama, hassles, and unplanned roadblocks.

SAMSUNG

Dressing like this might get you dinner…or arrested.

Rule 1: Friends make the difference. This might sound obvious, but nobody wants to be attending their first con alone. From the overstimulation of the crowd’s emotions, to the often hectic environment itself, to the huge platter of events and programming, it is extremely easy to get lost in the mix. Flying solo at a con can be one of the scariest, and overwhelming experiences any fan can encounter- so much so that even veterans often dislike attempting it.

Thankfully, the solution is simple: go with your friends. Make new ones at the con. Build a ‘network’ of people you enjoy spending time with, and coordinate schedules so everyone has fun over the weekend. It’s easier than it sounds, because at the con, everyone is a prospective new friend, and many are actively seeking new people, new experiences and new comrades to share them with. Try it out next time, you will be pleasantly surprised with the results.

Rule 2: Budget, please. Everyone has a con story that proceeds something like this: “I brought $200 with me to cover my weekend, and blew it all within fifteen minutes of hitting the Dealer’s Room. Now I can’t afford to eat.” If this sounds like something that happened to a friend (or even yourself), you are not alone. All congoers fall into this trap at some point- I once spent $400 at a single con on commissions in the Artist Alley, and lived off the charity of my friends for the last day and a half. This often is accompanied by guilt, fear and the knowledge that you just spent a large amount of money in a short period of time, sometimes with little to really show for it.

Budgeting is your friend, throughout the weekend. It’s extremely easy to survive on the cheap at most big cons (especially ones in urban areas, with easy access to fast food), but when the temptation to blow your hard-earned cash on figures and DVDs arises, rely on those friends you went to the con with to keep you in check. Make sure you never take all your money with you anywhere, or give it to a friend who you know budgets well and have them reign you in. Your first con will fill you with impulses you might never have felt before, which invariably leads to impulse buying, and “shoppers remorse.” If you have your friend with you, keeping you from throwing cash left and right, you will make it through the weekend unscathed.

SAMSUNG

The freaks might not come out at night, but the yokai certainly do.

Rule 3:Don’t try to experience everything. Simply put, you can’t. It’s not possible to do everything at the con over one weekend, especially if your first con is on the scale of Otakon (which is a popular choice for East Coast congoers), Anime Boston or *shudder* Anime Expo. Often events on that scale are massive, with dozens of panels and programs running concurrently all across the convention space. Trying to “keep up” will drive any neophyte congoer insane.

The best strategy is to find a few things you really want to see, and then allow the weekend to progress organically. What do I mean by organically? Well, even the best-laid plans can run awry. Sometimes friends have different plans, or there could be a completely spontaneous decision to do something other than what you planned to do. Looking at the programming schedule beforehand helps you whittle down what you have time for, but it can never forewarn you about random photoshoots, dinner plans, or bumping into that friend you know online who wants to catch up outside of the internet.

Progressing organically, then, is to just ‘go with the flow.’ Enjoy yourself, enjoy your friends, and decide what’s really important when the moment arises. You might wander into a random panel and find yourself interested in the subject. You might discover that a certain cosplay event isn’t what you expected it to be. Or you might just latch onto a cluster of new people and follow them. This is usually one of the best ways to approach congoing, especially now, so just enjoy yourself, and see where everything takes you. Becoming preoccupied with pre-planned events is a surefire way to ruin your weekend. The real appeal of the con is just being at the con.

SAMSUNG

Navigating the halls sometimes requires skills with a lightsaber

Rule 4: Utilize discretion.  On par with common sense, just because you are at a con, doesn’t mean you should run around like a blithering idiot, get wasted, hit on anything with two legs, and consume things you would never touch in your daily life. Discretion, common sense, a bit of skepticism- these will allow you to circumvent any number of unexpected shocks and potentially toxic situations.

Now this might SOUND like a given, but bear in mind- the energy exchange from cons is powerful, and has the potential to itself become intoxicating. And people who start to fall to intoxication lower their inhibitions and act in ways that might be completely unexpected, even to THEM. I’ve witnessed young adult males doing questionale things for a girl’s attention, seen teenagers drink themselves silly because they can, and witnessed all sorts of…unsavory behavior, simply because one person wasn’t paying proper attention at the time.

Now do not take this to mean that cons are dangerous. They’re incredibly safe. But at the same time, even the safest places are not immune to stupidity and bad decisions. Be aware of yourself, and utilize discretion in your interactions. It will save you more than your fair share of drama.

 

When meeting your favorite voice actors, please remember they are people too.

When meeting your favorite voice actors, please remember they are people too.

Rule 5: Don’t feed the trolls. Just like on the internet, trolls exist, and prowl around cons. They can be the guys with the cameras taking candid photos without permission. They can be ‘that guy’ in the back of the panel room who never stops commenting on how ‘wrong’ the panelist is. It could be the kid in the mask throwing water at people. They are present, and sometimes highly visible at the con weekend, and can contribute a huge chunk of unwelcome drama. More than a few new congoers have been driven off by their antics, or reduced to tears in the hallways.

Remember, trolls are a part of the fandom experience. You will eventually encounter one, that’s a given. The real tip here is not just not let them bother you. They are actively trying to provoke a reaction, often for no reason other than their own boredom. They thrive on conflict, and making you feel terrible. If you give in, they win. If you shrug them off, they find someone else.

Look all the way back at rule 1 for the best way of dealing with them- your friends. The words of some anonymous congoer might sting, but remember that your friends are there for YOU, and will help you deal with any trolls you might encounter. Rely on them, and your weekend will be a success.

Note: Also, do not confuse trolls with the grey-skinned denizens of the popular webcomic Homestuck. Those are also trolls, but not of the same variety.

So, first time congoer, go forth and enjoy yourself.

For more information, check out some of my earlier blogs on the subject:

Con-Ventional Wisdom

Con Advice

By Charles On 3 May, 2013 At 06:15 AM | Categorized As Comics/Manga, Editorials, Featured, Movie News, Reviews, Reviews | With 0 Comments

No Gravatarhot-toys-iron-man-3-mark-xlii-limited-edition-collectible-figure-2Okay, so funny story: I’m feeling deja-vu right now. Why? Because exactly one year ago today I was sitting in my kitchen, pounding out a quick list of “lessons” learned from the midnight release of “Avengers.” Now, a full year later, I’m sitting in my bedroom, about to pound out some wayward thoughts about another Marvel movie, Iron Man 3. Wow, thing’s don’t really change for the geek blogger, do they?

So last year, in my list of lessons, I made it a point to state that fans of the comic book heroes should forget Iron Man 2 ever happened. Iron Man 3 only drives the final nail into that coffin. Seriously, I watched the second movie about two weeks ago, trying to remind myself what was wrong with it. Was it the performance easily phoned in by Downey, Jr? Was it the utterly ridiculous accent affected by Mickey Rourke? Was it the over-the-top Justin Hammer, or the blatant overcompensation of the Stark Expo? No, it was ALL of that, and what should have been an amazing look into the day-to-day psychosis of Tony Stark ended up being a cartoon movie on par with Phantom Menace, just sans a motion capture fan-pandering and the utter brilliance of Liam Neeson.

Iron Man 3 is quick to shed any vestiges of that previous misstep. Borrowing heavily from the same character development and loss that worked so well in the Dark Knight Rises (yes, I am making that comparison here), Iron Man 3 manages to capture both desperation and the bravado of Tony Stark, while still showcasing that the man can feel pain. Actual, legitimate pain. Remember, this is a character created specifically to be unlikable, and now we the audience not only see his vulnerable side, but we see him suffer because of it.

iron-man-3-trailer-11-questions-raised-118967We watch as he loses not just his home and armor, but his peace of mind. We watch him dream up nightmares of what he has seen and done. We witness the stress of actually BEING Iron Man finally take its inevitable toll on what is in fact just a man. A brilliant, arrogant genius of a man, but ultimately still just a man. We watch as it robs him of any sense of security he might have had, and cast him into a well of self-doubt and fear that takes actual effort to claw out of. This Tony Stark cannot, and will not, just buy himself freedom from his demons. No, now he has to actually face them, and surpass them, before he loses himself.

No more chasing shadows and suppressing his shortcomings, no, this time we get to see the real Tony. And, as he puts it so eloquently in the film’s closing moments, we watch as he realizes the suit wasn’t his obsession, nor his therapy, but rather it was his “cocoon.”

That, my fellow comic fans, is a story worth seeing. Never you mind that we saw it play out to utter perfection last summer with Bruce Wayne, this time we get to see it again, and watch it happen to quite possibly the most deserving douchebag in the entire comic book canon. Hell, its so worth seeing, that I’ll probably go again next week, just to see if I missed anything.

Some random tidbits now, before my coherence leaves me:

Ben Kingsley, OMGWTF. The man still has it, and in droves. Ditto for Gwyneth Paltrow, who proves, and quite definitively, that she has an inner badass that just needs the right method to convey.

blight

Blight

While I am aware that this film’s plot was culled from the “Extremis” storyline in the comics, the entire time I watched Aldrich Killian “do his thing,” I kept picturing Blight from Batman Beyond. Not that I have a problem with that, Blight was awesome. I just couldn’t shake that notion. (Which, in hindsight, is also probably why I started thinking of Dark Knight Rises…tenuous connection, I know, but one that my mind is already predisposed to making.)

Obligatory post-credit scene? Check. We get to see Ruffalo again. Do not miss out on that, especially all you Tony/Bruce shippers.

And lastly, one does not mess with Don Cheadle. Seriously, don’t mess with him, OR his toys. WARMACHINEROX

This rant has been brought to you by the letters S and D, for sleep-deprived.

By Charles On 3 May, 2013 At 01:52 AM | Categorized As Animation, Comics/Manga, Editorials, Featured, Old School Otaku, Reviews | With 0 Comments

No GravatarEveryone has a favorite teacher; that dedicated, funny, sympathetic role model who helped shape your formative years and provided comfort from the often callous and vicious world of school angst and the pitfalls of growing up. Think about that person for a moment, and what made them great. Picture them in your mind, hear the memory of their voice in your ears. Got a clear image of them? Good.

I bet your mental image looks nothing like this:

Eikichi_OnizukaThis man is Eikichi Onizuka, age 22, virgin, and for a class full of misfits and “social rejects,” he was that favorite teacher, the man who challenged and taught them all about the “real world.” How? By just being himself, and teaching them how NOT to act.

Great Teacher Onizuka was one of those “unlikely anime,” the type that is completely devoid of fantastic elements, lolicons, twenty minute power-ups and skimpy clothing, but still manages to pull the viewer in and keep them interested. Rather than deal with otherworldly enemies threatening human existence, it focused more on the trials and tribulations of being a high school student, which at times could be just as chaotic, and just as terrifying. It lacked “good guys” and “villains,” eschewing instead for a whole lot of gray-shaded cast members who were as petty as they were devoted to their jobs. In short, GTO (as it was so fondly referred to) was a sort of “dirty shonen” slice of life series, more concerned with its world and residents than impressing its reader base.

And that was not a bad thing at all.

A lot of that appeal centered around the aforementioned Onizuka, himself a social misfit more concerned with sex and violence than educating the youth of Japan. A former biker gang leader, he somehow managed to leave the “thug life” behind, enroll in a “5th rate college” and graduate with a degree in…something. You never really find out how studious he was, nor where his “academic” inclinations actually lie, given his preoccupation with porn, fighting and “keeping it real.” But next thing you see, he’s trying to find gainful employment, and failing miserably. Blame his bleached hair, his “yakuza tendencies” or the constant mountain of arrogance that he’s the proud king of, but poor Onizuka can’t seem to catch a break.

gtoAll that changes the day he meets, then loses, the “girl of his dreams:” a spunky high school student whom the future Great Teacher is absolutely positive he will finally lose his virginity to. And just as they’re about to do the deed, she literally jumps out a window and into the arms of another man. Who does he lose this wellspring of sexual energy to? Her high school teacher, a dumpy, bespectacled man with a sour face and apparently all the pull in the world. On that day, he swears to become the best teacher in Japan. Why? To get laid.

Let’s put aside the blatantly horrendous motivation for this decision, and focus on Onizuka for a moment. What does he have to offer his students? Forget about the three “R’s,” as Onizuka can barely read himself. Valuable lessons on life? Does one really want to accept the words of a “reformed” biker and generally viewed “lowlife?” Common sense? Not at all, since he’s doing this for the worst reason possible. For all intents and purposes, this man should never be anywhere near children, let alone given the task of teaching them. And yet, that’s exactly what he does.

Finally scoring a job at a prestigious private academy, Onizuka is immediately given the worst class in the school, made up of people either just like him, or well on their way to becoming just like him. Wannabe gang-bangers, unmotivated geniuses, promiscuous girls, awkward kids, and all manner of students who just don’t fit in. These are the students destined to fall through the cracks of the educational system, that the rest of the faculty have given up on, but can’t simply expel because their tuition checks have already been deposited. So, shunted off to the side and ignored, they plod through one ineffective teacher after another, until Eikichi ends up at their door one day, the latest in a long line of schmucks suckered into teaching the class. The “Great Teacher” brings in bluster in the door with him, trailing arrogance like a proud bridal train, ready to talk some “sense” into these students. How do they take to this new teacher, so completely “different” from any they have ever encountered before?

As far as they’re concerned, Onizuka isn’t any different from the others, except maybe that he’s dumber than any one of them, and starving for respect and attention. And they hate him.

Great-Teacher-Onizuka-3Why? Because they can see right through him. They know he’s not a teacher. They know he only cares about having fun. From his “tough guy” facade to his horrible sense of humor, this is a man worthy of only their contempt, which they heap on him in droves. hell, the only reason he’s even in this class is because they’ve driven off every single other teacher assigned to them, and the administrators hope that they will do the same to Onizuka.

Until he starts saving them, one student at a time. Whether it’s giving them a reason to live, putting their problems into perspective, telling them to get over themselves (often with associated punches, kicks and getting his own ass handed to him), helping them get “revenge” on those who wronged them, teaching them to stand up for themselves or just not take any s**t from “the man,” the Great Teacher imparts whatever wisdom and street smarts he can, while often taking lumps and plenty of attitude along the way. It’s like the School of Hard Knocks, 90210-style.

gto1His tenacity eventually overcomes even the most stubborn (or stuck up) of the students he encounters, and by year’s end, he manages to reform the worst class at the academy into something resembling a productive learning unit, while teaching even some of his “colleagues” the value of knowing themselves…or at least giving them lessons in self-extracting their heads from their own asses. A little humility goes a long way, and while Onizuka might not know the meaning of the word, he sure can impart its value on others.

That tenacity is the key to GTO’s appeal. Knowing from the outset that Eikichi Onizuka is an “eternal f**k-up who just doesn’t give a s**t” lends him a certain humanity that drives the story. You know he’s going to fail, yet you cheer for him anyway. When he occasionally succeeds, you celebrate with him. When he gets caught with his pants down (literally, on more than a few occasions), you feel for him, but also realize that it’s only going to make him more careful in the future. His crass manners have a certain charm to them, you root for him to find the “right girl,” and when he finally gets the better of his naysayers, you want to clap him on the back and buy him a drink.

Onizuka is the ultimate underdog. And like most underdogs, you want to see him win, regardless of whether its against “corrupt” educators, “conniving” students, or even his own shortcomings. You want Eikichi Onizuka to win. And I guess in that regard, he already has.

Gratuitous shot of...well, everything.

Gratuitous shot of…well, everything.

You can consumer GTO in a number of ways: the 1997-2002 manga, while out of print, is excellent. The 1999 anime is a faithful adaptation of the manga, and easier to track down. The 1998 J-Drama (with 99 sequel film) is a bit short on the plot, but the actor who plays Onizuka is phenomenal. Or you can look for the 2012 reboot. Honestly, it doesn’t matter: any version of GTO is worth consuming. Honestly, how many properties can say that these days? There is also a prequel manga “GTO: The Early Years,” and sequel”14 Days in Shonan,” both available now from Vertical Publishing.

 

No GravatarThe Nintendo DS was an underrated system. Cue backlash, but hear me out for a moment: in an era with flashy onscreen graphics and multiplayer gameplay, the DS stood alone with its often “basic” displays and “restricted” single-player campaigns. And, predictably, there were a great many games that flew under the radar of gamers. This is the tale of one of those games, which appeared and vanished quickly, while still gathering praise and helping add to the prestige of the series with which it was aligned.

This is the tale of Devil Survivor.

Devil_Survivor_by_MachoMachiDevil Survivor arrived on scene at the perfect time: early Summer 2009, right after the release of Pokemon Platinum (and at the time when the casual Poke-players would be seeking something new), near the beginning of a season perfectly suited for portable gaming. Part of the prolific Shin Megami Tensei series, this game was a solid representation of the visual novel/tactical battle system pioneered by Atlus throughout the previous decade or so. Mixing elements of strategy, foresight and “common sense,” it brought players into a world on the brink and asked “what would you do to survive?”

Devil Survivor was an apocalypse story in the truest sense of the word. Rather than portraying the downfall of society at the hands of zombies/aliens/communists/etc, the game chose to “pull back the veil,” and reveal to a select few the “reality” behind out world: angels are calling the shots and maintaining a semblance of order, while demons seek to rebel and overtake the masses using mankind as a nexus point for their plots. Humanity, caught in between their eternal war, is given seven days to comply with the angel’s commands, or the city of Tokyo will be completely destroyed.

While borrowing heavily from Christian symbolism and storytelling, the game manages to frame the topic in a context that leaves religion out of the debate. Rather than bear witness to the coming doom, a select few of those humans choose to do something. Cults devoted to the idea of human liberation preach the transcendental power of humanity as a whole and warn against both domination and depravity. Certain demons, despite their “unholy” origins, choose to work alongside humans to spare the destruction, while angels appear petty at times, reveling in their “power” while the world around them slowly decays. Long before Supernatural decided to “humanize” the warring factions of good and evil and throw shades of gray into the cosmic struggle, Devil Survivor was portraying both sides strengths and weaknesses as part of an expansive “morality play” and forcing the player to call the shots on how the story ended.

shin-megami-tensei-devil-survivor-overclock-3ds-screenshots-10The concept of survival was a central point to the entire experience, as players were forced to deal with mobs of panicking humans, discovering shelter for the night, acquiring food and even looking for a power source at one point, all while society crumbles around them. The daily “countdown” towards impending doom added to the tension of the story, facilitating the need for “smart” decisions, rather than just reacting to the situation at hand, a tactic which would more than likely lead to death or derailment of plans/plots/initiatives. While not as urgent as a survival horror game, there was a distinct emphasis on consequences and foresight built into the plot, which rewarded astute gamers, and added stress to impulsive choices.

This emphasis on storytelling is one of the hallmarks of the Shin Megami Tensei series as a whole, and Devil Survivor expanded upon narrative and character interaction throughout the “seven days” of gameplay. There were numerous story lines in play, rooted around the game’s central characters, and even more around some of the “supporting cast.” Deciding which path the game took often required quick thinking, time management, and attention to detail, for some of the alternate stories hinged on how certain interactions proceeded, how often specific characters were used, what time of day it was, and how well the Protagonist sympathized and related to the individual stories of his friends. One slip up could close off an entire story line from that play through (especially those which were time-sensitive), and often that deciding moment would not be noticed until hours later. Finally, unlike its sequel, which forced the player to choose which side he was on, Devil Survivor elected instead to keep the main plot of the game static: the alterations to the plot rarely changed the outcome, just the path the story took to get to the outcome.

auctionMechanically, Devil Survivor was fantastically executed. I often called this game series “Pokemon with demons,” and for good reason. Unlike Persona games, which rely on luck and savvy fusing skills, or previous SMT games which needed negotiations to win demons over to your side, Devil Survivor tackled the issue by instituting an auction system. Money accrued during gameplay was used to enter into a “demon auction” against computer controlled AI “characters,” who would bid for the rights to contract with demons offering their services online. Quick bidding and successful manipulation of the system would net powerful demons at a low cost. Failure would mean loss of a potentially powerful ally forever.

mqdefaultWhile there was a buyout system which circumvented the bidding wars, it was often more cost-effective to analyze strategies and find ways to outbid the computer, thereby winning powerful new demons to your collection, which could then be fielded or fused within the Cathedral of Shadows to create more powerful fare. Players were encouraged to keep checking the auctions after each battle, since new demons would appear frequently, as older ones would eventually “experience out” of viability. This mix of fusion and “negotiation” proved to be as addictive to players as wandering the tall grass, because battles were often challenging and required a steady stream of “the best” demons to ensure victory.

Battles were both simple and complicated affairs. Borrowing from the tactical RPGs which Atlus is known for, combat removed the player from the interactive world and placed him on a massive grid system, facing off against wild demons or opposing summoners. Strategy took the form of choosing not only the appropriate demon, but also having a working knowledge of the demons skills and “specialties.” Certain demons had the ability to move quickly, or multiple times. Others could attach twice. Others could attack from long range. Some could heal, or fly, or teleport. It was very easy to lose sight of these special skills in the heat of combat, and thereby discover your party has been maneuvered into a tight spot from which escape was unlikely. There were many-a-battle where enemies with huge hit boxes could wipe out an unprepared party before they could move within range to strike.

beelzebulDevil Survivor was a frustrating experience for the unprepared. While the learning curve was hardly an issue, the difficulty would abruptly ratchet up several levels in between encounters. Time-sensitive events would vanish swiftly, and frequently never pop up again in the “daily log,” thereby restricting (or even breaking) carefully planned course of action. Certain bosses were quirky and had merciless AI and “random number generators,” which could spell doom for even the best-prepared party. Even grinding was unpredictable and relentless in its encounters. And yet, it is a testament to the game’s appeal that one would not wish to stop playing. Even after losing a hard-fought, twenty-plus minute boss fight in the final moments due to an unanticipated sequence of strikes, the player would simply reload a save and go right back, taking what they learned and hopefully avoiding it the second (or third, or fourth) time around. Maybe a tweak to character abilities, or a swapping of demons/party members, and it was back into battle. It made the eventual victory both sweeter and more satisfying, knowing it was attained through strategy and effort, and not just overpowered steamrolling.

devil survivor 2It might be a testament to the success of the game that you rarely see copies for sale. It sold fairly well, maybe not a hit in most people’s opinions, but certainly enough to warrant both a “fancy” 3DS upgrade, and “cult classic” status. It vanished from store shelves a few months after release, and even the used game sections rarely-if ever- see copies in them. Like many of the other SMT titles, this one served to satisfy the fan-base, but also made fans of many newcomers, myself included. While it’s a radical departure from the wildly popular Persona series that many casual gamers recognize, it was also familiar enough to have solid appeal. The replay value was extremely high: New Game + mode carried over demons and money, which made the followup game sessions ridiculously easy; the existence of multiple endings, “exclusive” fusions, and optional bosses prompted repeat plays just to see how strong one could become.

There was a sequel released in February of last year, also for the DS, which carried over many of the aspects that made this game such a success. And on it’s own, Devil Survivor 2 is as much a “Game You Slept On” as it’s precursor. But for this gamer, the first title will always be the special one. It opened the wide world of Shin Megami Tensei on a platform that seemed perfectly suited for casual play, while not losing any of the addictive nature that other SMT games hold. It was because of this game that I sampled Persona, which has become its own monster in my gaming life. And while I haven’t played it since those three hundred or so hours back in 2009, I can still recall vividly how much enjoyment the game carried with it. That’s a rarity these days.