Why, Yes, I Do Like MST3K

I recently decided to play through Tactics Ogre, that 16-bit strategy-RPG full of grids and medieval-fantasy politics and chipper little character sprites gasping in horror at the sight of their own entrails. I didn’t do this because it’s the second game directed by Yasumi Matsuno, whose work I’ve never found disappointing. Nor did I do it because I’ve had the PlayStation version for eight years or because it’s worth sixty bucks on eBay, meaning that I should either sell it or use it for something. And I didn’t even decide to play it because it’s crammed with Queen references. No, I’m going through Tactics Ogre because it has a mage named Donald Presance.

Yes, Donald Pleasence, the talented actor known for his roles in You Only Live Twice and The Pumaman, phonetically inspired a useful exorcist who joins the player’s group two hours into Tactics Ogre. I’m sure that, if he were alive today, Mr. Pleasence would find this rather amusing and would not sue anyone. Especially not Mr. Matsuno, who’s had an apparently difficult time since he quit directing Final Fantasy XII two-thirds of the way through.

The Sky Crawlers: Coffee? I Like Coffee! And Smoking!

Here’s the important thing about The Sky Crawlers: among Mamoru Oshii’s movies, it sets a new record for going from zero to basset hound. Oshii puts his favorite dog in just about every film for which he holds the reins, and he makes sure that a basset hound shows up around the five-minute mark in The Sky Crawlers.

As for the rest of the movie, it’s Oshii being Oshii. There are many, many staring contests and lengthy silences endured by the cast of glum, perpetually teenage pilots in some vague alternate version of World War II’s European air war, with enough coffee and cigarette references to invite comparisons to Coleman Francis' classic The Skydivers. The pace eventually quickens and leads to some impressive CG dogfights, but it’s still an Oshii movie through and through, and anyone who wants their alterna-WWII story without frequent pauses (and sub-pauses) can safely head for the door.

But I'll stay. I like Oshii’s style, and I liked The Sky Crawlers. In fact, I like it more each time I think about it. There’s a refreshingly emotional edge to Oshii’s usual stilted tone this time around, and it ties in well to every broader theme in the story. Oshii doesn’t wimp out when it comes to the finale, either, and that’s always a plus for me. I’ll give it a proper review, with stolen screenshots and a pointless rating and everything, once I sort out my opinion.

However, I was surprised to learn that Oshii intended it as a crowd-pleaser. He reportedly vowed to quit directing if The Sky Crawlers wasn’t a success, and yet I can’t imagine anyone making a movie like this with the intent of winning over the typical movie-goer. It may lack Ghost in the Shell 2’s ridiculous quote competitions, yet it’s still slow, depressing, and a lot of other things that a lot of people won’t like. While I hope I’m wrong about that, the audience around me seemed less than enthused. Someone in the theater was snoring twenty minutes into The Sky Crawlers, and as I walked out after the ending (stay through the credits), a knot of kids in front of me spoke loudly of how the film was heavy-handed, how it had no point, and how Oshii “used to be good.” All this at the movie’s New York premiere.

I’d like to see The Sky Crawlers do well, not least of all because Oshii always looks like the unhappiest man on Earth whenever he’s on camera. I doubt he’ll really quit, and he should know better by now. Countless live-action directors learn to accept that their most honest creations will never be mainstream hits, as they have the luxury of a market that makes off-the-radar movies profitable and rewarding. Yes, non-biographical animated films have it tough in the indie sector, but it’s where Oshii’s future most likely rests, basset hounds and all.

Valkyrie Profile Per Hour

I don’t plan on regularly extolling my column at Anime News Network, but last week’s edition may be of greater interest than usual, as it features my lengthy impressions of Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume. The short version: I digs it. It’s the first RPG in years that I’ve played through in its native Japanese, and only the promise of a North American release in March keeps me from starting up the import version again.

There is, however, one major problem with the game, and I mentioned it only casually in the column. That problem is Wylfred’s double ponytail. Koh and Yoh Yoshinari do amazing characters designs, so I’m at a loss to explain why they made an otherwise respectable hero look like the Valkyrie Profile version of Tails from Sonic the Hedgehog. No one likes Tails.

Wylfred’s hairstyle can only be redeemed if he has some secret attack that involves him whirling his ponytails around like a helicopter, lifting into the air, and dive-bombing an enemy. Perhaps that shows up if you beat the game’s bonus Seraphic Gate twelve times without dying and use items only when the game’s timer shows a multiple of three in the minutes column. That would be less annoying than what the game already requires of you in order to recruit certain characters.

I Accuse Everyone

When Valkyrie Profile: The Accused One was first announced for the DS, I took issue with the official illustration that showed Lenneth, heroine and best-adjusted of the franchise’s three valkyries, with her dress blowing up in the air. I was joking. Mostly.

Little did I realize that an uproar was exactly what tri-Ace wanted, as proven by a Sofmap store in Akihabara becoming the scene of self-created advertising controversy last week. Clerks pointed out that the game’s official art seems to show Lenneth without due undergarments, as Tiny Cartridge reported from Akiblog, a site that sometimes conjures up an amusing story amid headlines like “Highlights of Kannagi Vol. 6: Armpit! Small Boobs! Thighs!” Apparently this is in line with "Not Wearing," the Japanese anime-nerd scene's collective terminology for fictional women who appear to be going commando but maintain a lingering sense of mystery about their lower regions. Yes, they're that specific about the practice. There can be no hope for these people.
Congratulations, tri-Ace. You’ve taken a game heroine who was once a bastion of dignity and reduced her to the same level as any other hand-drawn schoolgirl hiking up a skirt as she turns flat, viscous eyes on a socially backward expanse of Akihabara regulars. Fortunately, there will be far less of this when Valkyrie Profile: The Accused One comes out in North America next March, even if they’re calling the English version “Covenant of the Plume."
And in case you're wondering: Yes. She does. Don't ask how I know.

Dignity: Death and Rebirth

Square Enix's The Last Remnant arrives this week, and the anticipation for it is guarded at best. It's an ambitious game in design and marketing, as it fashions elaborate open-field battles thronged by humans (wait, they're called mithra), newtlike mages (qsiti), four-armed cat-people (sovani), and other creatures whose species I can't pronounce, all while trying to sell itself to unconvinced Americans just as much as the RPG buyers of Japan. Previews have been kind, at least, and it received two 10s from Famitsu, the Japanese magazine so esteemed that no one would have paid attention if it had given The Last Remnant only one 10. Two 10s, however, are the Famitsu equivalent of a B+ from a genuinely critical publication.

There are cracks in this acclaimed façade, of course. The game's use of the Unreal Engine 3 has sown lag and other visible shortcomings, and the gameplay is the creation of Akitoshi Kawazu and other designers from the SaGa series, which is highly experienced at pissing potential down its collective leg. The story carries a stale aroma, too, though it's not so much the tale of a determined hero out to uncover secrets as it is dialogue like “There's something about that guy.” In this case “that guy” is the Conqueror, a grumpy old man who wears robes dyed red with the blood of his slain enemies. It's the stuff of anime parodies, not the company that once brought us Final Fantasy XII's uncommonly elegant localization.

Yet there's one reason to look forward to The Last Remnant, and her deceptively silly name is Emma Honeywell.

Emma's the leader of an influential clan in The Last Remnant's world, and she serves as a maternal companion to another supporting character, the British-sounding David Nassau. More importantly, Emma looks exactly like you'd expect a 41-year-old warrior to look in a stylized medieval realm. No chainmail bra, no bared midriff, no unrealistic nonsense (that's all for the antagonists). And, as early clips reveal, she's not some sweetly deferential matriarch. Yes, the efficiently dressed older woman of battle is a cliché in fantasy circles, but it's a cliché that video games should jump on a little more often.

It may be that Emma's the sacrificial mom of the piece; her quote mentions protecting her liege city with her life, so perhaps she's here just to throw herself on the blood-red villain's sword and motivate the rest of the heroes. I only hope she'll raise the bar on her way down.

Valkyrie Profile Update: People Draw Things

As Valkyrie Profile: The Accused One's slightly delayed October release approaches, let's all take a look at the work of Yoh (a.k.a You) Yoshinari. He's not just the co-designer of the characters in the original Valkyrie Profile and The Accused One (and some of Valkyrie Profile 2's cast). He's also active in the anime industry, where he's designed monsters for This Ugly Yet Beautiful World and mecha for Melody of Oblivion, both of which are C-list Gainax series. Fortunately, he entered more prestigious circles by crafting the robots in Gainax's recent and generally awesome Gurren Lagann.

Yet Yoshinari does some of his best work as an animator, as shown by this clip collection (or a MAD, as they call it in Japan). Yes, I know that fan-made music videos of any source are typically the filth of YouTube and proof that no one under 20 should be permitted online, but this particular video shows off one of Yoshinari's key talents: he blows shit up real good. Even a terrible show like Mahoromatic looks fun when you've got Yoh Yoshinari handling explosions.

Koh Yoshinari, Yoh's sibling and his collaborator on the Valkyrie Profile art, is an animator as well. I'm all but convinced that Koh is Yoh's older brother, but some sources seem to think that Koh is Yoh's twin sister, even though the Valkyrie Profile artbook shows that they were born three years apart. Until I get some direct, official word on this, I will choose pronouns carefully. Anyway, Koh also animates stuff, including creepy big-eyed girls and a possibly creepier rooster-thing.

On the subject of Valkyrie Profile: The Accused One, the official staff journal gives us a harrowing glimpse of how Ailyth would look when catering to the lowest form of anime fan.

This is not an emissary of the underworld, Mr. Director. This is everything Valkyrie Profile should never be.

Izuna 2: The Pandering Returns

Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja wasn't my favorite game of 2007. In fact, it likely wouldn't have made my top ten if I'd bothered assembling such a thing. But I liked it enough to finish it, and it became the only game I reviewed on this site last year. So I have a reflexive interest in the sequel and the way Atlus is promoting it. They let everyone vote on which Izuna poster should be bundled with the game on Amazon.com, and the options shouldn't surprise anyone who remembers the first Izuna's advertising.

I'm not shocked by the shameless courting of base hormonal impulses, since Atlus did the same thing for the first game. I am, however, shocked by the second poster showing what appears to be, at a glance, an erect, flesh-colored phallus emerging from the water around Izuna's crotch.

A closer look reveals that it's just a knee belonging to Shino, the dark-haired girl sitting more daintily in the upper corner. Still, it's a shame that the first poster won the vote, as people who'd hang these on their walls deserve to get weird looks for reasons they never intended.

The Lunar II That Wasn't

Ah, the Lunar games. Perhaps they're now archaic, but the first and best two introduced many a sheltered American kid to the ways of Japanese RPGs, including that honored convention of setting a sequel hundreds of years after the first game. Lunar II did exactly that, and it abandoned most of the original Lunar's characters in the process.

That wasn't always the plan. GameArts' original ideas for Lunar II: Eternal Blue called for the main cast from Lunar: The Silver Star to return, older and perhaps as supporting characters. That's what some early concept illustrations from Softbank's Lunar I and II artbook show, anyway. I've never seen these online anywhere, so I decided to scan them and finally get some use out of the book. I bought it in Japan during the height of my RPG obsession, after giving up on finding the Xenogears art collection.

Alex, the hero, was a kid with a harp and a fur hat in the first game. For the second, he became a lumberjack and grew one hell of a mullet, while his passive love interest, Luna, started wearing makeup.

Eve no Premature Indie Fawning

Last year, I held up Yasuhiro Yoshiura's Pale Cocoon as an example of what Japan's animation industry should aspire to create. That now seems quite pretentious and downright stupid of me, but I find myself standing by every single shakily reasoned thing I wrote, either because Pale Cocoon is simply that good or because Japan's animation industry has frustratingly low standards.

The important thing here is that Yoshiura's next project, Eve no Jikan, is finally coming to light. A trailer showed up at the official website, introducing what appears to be the first of several stories about a world where androids are commonplace and distinguished from humans only by hi-tech halos and bovine gazes.

It seems to be a remake of Yoshiura's nine-minute Aquatic Language short, right down to the coffee shop peopled by friendly robots. Less promising are all the ingredients you'd need for some terrible farce aimed at otaku shut-ins: a glasses-wearing kid is shown prominently, and there's a ready selection of android girls for him to get embarrassed over.

But this is Yoshiura, and I expect something closer to a detailed character study about just how cheap sentience could be in a world of humanoid machines (a real study; not that fetishy Chobits horseshit). I've yet to see a release date for Eve no Jikan, though, so it might be a while before I find out just how many doomed hopes I can throw its way.

Trojan Trials

I hate Trojan. I apparently hate it so much that I forgot to mention the NES edition's two-player versus mode, which is limited and boring, but still interesting for an 8-bit game from 1986.


I also forgot to mention the Trojan arcade flyer. It’s actually not that bad of an illustration on the whole, but there’s one thing about it that cracks me up: Trojan Guy’s face.


The flyer doubled as the NES game’s cover art, though it was boxed in by the same hi-tech, neon-is-the-future grid than Capcom used for all of its early NES releases. And that’s a shame, because it made Trojan Guy way too small for us to appreciate his baleful, huge-chinned visage. He’s going to destroy the fuck out of those evil ones.

Happy 1925, Earnest Evans

I realize it's far too late to make some post recapping everything that happened to me in 2007, and that's just as well, because I decided not to write about it and ended up playing El Viento instead. I didn't like 2007 anyway.

But man, do I like El Viento. It's hardly the best action-platform game for the old Sega Genesis, but I can't get enough of all the thoroughly insane crap that Wolf Team threw into it with no regard for logic or cohesion. This delicate theme runs through the game itself, what with Al Capone driving a hi-tech tank (in the 1920s, no less) on the first level, Annet surfing on a dolphin in the fourth stage, and the second level being a Mount Rushmore maze full of trampolines and smiley-faced gun turrets.

Yet it's even more nuts in the story sequences, which are nonsensical mash-ups of Indiana Jones movies, Prohibition gangster stuff, and vaguely Lovecraftian conspiracies about burbling preternatural gibbous squamous eldritch horrors from unknowable realms beyond the veils of space and time. It's also hard to tell just who's saying what, since almost every cutscene consists of a single bizarrely framed image.

This one's my favorite. It's like that picture-making minigame in Super Mario Bros. 3, but someone screwed up by landing on anime Al Capone's face instead of Annet's authentic native Peruvian belly shirt.

And that's El Viento, probably the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth best game I played last year. Happy 2008, everyone.