NieR, Violence, And The Humanity Spectrum: Part 1: Gestalt

Introduction

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[Goes without saying that this post will have major spoilers for the original NieR, though not Automata, that’ll be in Part 2 sometime later]

NieR and Yoko Taro’s other games are about violence, and what drives people to go to such lengths to kill and be desensitized about it, or even feel righteous about it. Obviously, games as a medium are predicated on enacting violence, whether shooting space invaders, or stomping turtles, or gunning down an enemy squad in an FPS, often without delving into it as a moral issue. And when they do, the attempts, particularly in the big budget AAA space, seem rudimentary, offering simple binary “good acts” and “bad acts”: Will you kill the cute little sisters to gain power-ups, but end up with a bad ending? or will you not go the selfish route and save them (which in the end you would recuperate all the missed power-ups anyways) and get a good ending? Commit violence, and while you may get immediate benefits, you will eventually be in a worse outcome. Do good, and while you may be at a loss at first, you’ll eventually be in a prosperous state. Many of the games that try to tackle the moral issue this way end up actually undermining their point, because they inadvertently give a tangible benefit for doing the the right thing, giving you a reward later on, like power-ups, a happy ending, or even simple stuff like a trophy or achievement. And that’s not the best argument for the morality of pacifism if you just end up roping it with a reward. Doing good things can sometimes get you a good outcome, but other times it doesn’t, and it might even put you in a worse place.

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So what the NieR games look into is “why” people resort to violence, what drives people to use such a measure to get what they want, without really casting an explicit judgement on it. Unlike other games that look into the issue of violence, there is no “pacifist no-kill” route, you are required to use violence to progress in the game, with no other way to pass through. And while the games have multiple endings, they’re not an assessment of how good of a person you were. There are no bad endings, or good endings, or middle of the road endings. Violence has to happen, and the games try to show you the motives behind it, on both the player and enemy side of things, so that you can understand, or maybe even sympathize, with the the committers, painting a dire hopeless situation with no out, where the most positive outcome of the clash is “well at least one side will get to survive, or get something worthwhile out of it”.

Both NieR games also examine the morality of violence enacted on a sort of “humanity spectrum”. What do I mean by that? Let’s just say If we were to grade any entity, living or not, on how close it is to humans (or more importantly, how they are perceived to be close to humans): we start from the lowest point with inanimate objects, then to tiny organisms like bacteria, then to plants, to animals, and finally to humans with “souls” (I’m sure there’s a better term for this but for now lets use the clunky “humanity spectrum”). Normally, the average person won’t have much of a moral quandary breaking inanimate objects. But they might when going up the spectrum to plants, to small insects, to livestock animals, to wild animals, domesticated companion animals like dogs or cats or horses, and finally at the top, to humans. People even use higher levels of the spectrum as a justification not to enact violence on lower levels: “Don’t go breaking that car with a crowbar, it’s not Larry’s”, “Don’t chop down this tree or it’ll effect the ecosystem, which will deteriorate the environment and hurt animals and humans”, “Don’t eat beef cause cows are conscious and have thoughts and care about their young ones, just like humans do”. Or they might use someone’s pacifism and sympathy for lower levels as argument that that person wouldn’t hurt entities in the higher level: “so-and-so wouldn’t hurt a fly, so how could they punch someone?”. Things get a little bit more interesting when it’s about violence enacted between 2 entities in different positions on that spectrum. People can tolerate the killing of an animal if it means saving a person’s life, if say a wild animal attacks someone. Sometimes, even humans can go down the spectrum based on what they did or how they are perceived. People justify capital punishment done on criminals because they have done such inhumane acts, like murder, and they cannot ever be redeemed and become genuine human beings again, or that going through with the execution is the only path for their salvation to be a good soul again. Not to mention a lot of horrible genocides and enslavements throughout human history were justified by claiming that people of a certain race or religion or nationality or any form of social group they ascribe to are “subhuman”. The people who believe and act on this say they are not cruel because they aren’t killing actual people, they’re killing “animals” who’s existence is a threat to real humans (or precisely, their very strict definition of real humans, who have a particular look or follow a specific mindset or social belief).

And so the NieR games examine this topic in an interesting thought-experiment way by having you play as literal incomplete-humans or human-like characters fighting other quasi-human characters. The funniest thing about the NieR games (aside from the fact that it is a series that canonically originates from a crazy joke 5th ending of the original Drakengard) is that it’s a series about humanity’s propensity for violence with no real true complete human characters, whether in the protagonist or antagonist side. In the original NieR, this fact was hidden from you, but in Automata it is clear from the outset. The NieR games also love to showcase this via multiple playthroughs, where the first playthrough casts the enemy as seemingly mindless vicious monsters hell bent on ridding you and your kind. But the second adds in a little more context, or puts the player in a different perspective, which will help cement the player’s doubts about the player-character’s motives and justification for using violence that was have built up in the first playthrough.

Part1: Gestalt

In the original NieR, you play as a father (or brother in NieR Replicant, but I’m going with the story of NieR Gestalt) named Nier (just to keep things straight, “NieR” = Game, and “Nier” = character) who wants to save his daughter, Yonah, and his village from the threat of Shades, which manifest as these creepy shadowy monsters that attack the villagers, or as a disease that possess and ultimately kills people, known as the black scrawl. So papa Nier tries his best to go around the world questing and gathering a party and leveling up and acquiring new weapons and magic abilities and other RPG stuff to become strong enough to save his daughter, which halfway through gets kidnapped by the leader of the Shades, called, appropriately, “The Shadow Lord”. After the final confrontation, mysteries are revealed, and you learn that these shades are actually what’s called “Gestalts”, which are the souls of humans that were intentionally separated from their original physical bodies for a long backstory reason, and were planned to be inserted back into artificial bodies at a later time (called “Replicants”), which happen to be YOU!!! THE PLAYER CHARACTER!, and your family and friends and all the other village people.  So on one hand, the gestalts, which were once real humans and sat at the top of the humanity spectrum, got corrupted, became mindless and violent, losing some of their sentience and sense of identity, and slid down that spectrum. On the other side, Replicants, which are mere meat grown in some sort of process, developed a sense of consciousness and identity, and rose up that spectrum. (The NieR wiki mentions that the gestalts “relapsed”, became corrupted and started attacking replicants because their corresponding replicants became more and more self-aware. But I prefer an ambiguous reading of it that doesn’t state which side caused the other).

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This is expanded upon in the second playthrough, when you, the player (not the character you play as or his party), can now understand what the shades are saying with subtitles that translate their garbled unintelligible speech (2001’s ICO on PS2 did a similar thing). The second playthrough also adds extra cutscenes that center around some of the prominent shades you fight. The biggest examples are the wolves attacking the town of Facade, which show that the pack and their shade leader are just enacting a retaliatory revenge attack on the kingdom by attacking the wedding and killing the just-married Queen of the kingdom, all because the guards were previously killing the wolves on masse so that they wouldn’t attack the village during the wedding in the first place. In an attempt to protect the wedding from an attack, the guards only provoked the wolves to attack. Violence begets violence.

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The other example is the little shade controlling the robot. The cutscenes show that the shade is a child that was saddened by the death of their gestalt mother. And that in the shade’s grief, a robot comes and befriends the little shade, becoming determined to protect the kid at all costs. So the battle against the robot doesn’t frame the shade as an entity controlling the robot, it shows that the robot, by its own will, simply wants to protect its friend from getting killed by Nier. (note that the young shade has the most shrill voice, one that is almost literally painful to hear because Yoko Taro is a huge jerk).

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These examples expand the player’s understanding of the shades, showing that they are intelligent compassionate creatures that care not just for their own, but for others like animals and intelligent robots, with sympathetic reasons worthy for those animals and robots to befriend or side with in a conflict, which Nier just cannot fathom to understand, let alone see. But the most important example that explains most about what Nier thinks of the shades is in the village of Aerie, as this shows an example of replicants like Nier recognizing the humanity of shades, and really shows what Nier thinks of them:-

[If you played NieR or watched the part above till 1:39:00, you can skip the next 2 paragraphs, which just describes the above video section at length]

When entering the cave that leads to Aerie in the second playthrough, a short audio-only cutscene plays where we hear that the villagers are talking amongst each other (in an odd possessed tone), being worried about “that man” who will kill everyone. Being that it’s the second playthrough, you, the player, know that this must refer to Nier. You also learn that the villagers wish to be left, with their shades, alone. That they’re not being invaded or oppressed by them. That the villagers and shades want to co-exist in peace and that they do not need saving. This is supported when Kaine confronts and kills one of the villagers, believing that it’s a shade, while the villager and her young brother plead Kaine and her crew to stop attacking. But a shade does indeed manifest out of the still warm dead body of the villager, and starts attacking Kaine and her crew, slashing Kaine and knocking her out, and through the ensuing fight you hear the shade speaking, saying that it and the villagers wish to be left alone, and that what you are doing is monstrous, that you are the true villains for going around killing innocent people, whether shades or replicants.

Then, during the boss fight with the giant orb boss (Wendy), Emil exclaims that what’s in the orb is not shades, it is in fact people, and he becomes hesitant, but Weiss denounced that, saying that it’s shades. The boss fight ends with Emil going nuclear and blowing up the boss and the whole village with it. After that, the party regroups at the entrance of what was just moments ago, a village full of people. Stricken by his guilt, Emil starts crying, but Nier consoles him, saying that if not for him, the group would have been all dead. “don’t look back”, he says, as the cutscene ends.

[Continue below]

This section is probably just as dire and tragic as the ending, since it shows a possible future of peaceful coexistence between the shades and replicants. We don’t know whether this is an ideal coexistence or not. It’s possible that a lot of the shades were inhabiting bodies that don’t belong to them (which is possible, as is the case with Tyrann, who is a shade that’s partially possessing Kaine). It’s possible that even if they did inhabit their own bodies, they would basically write over the self consciousness that the replicants developed, maybe completely or partially, but there’s at least some elimination of character happening. A lot of this isn’t exactly known or explored, but the tragedy is Nier and his crew didn’t even look at this, or give them a chance to work this messy coexistence out. He didn’t understand the situation, or rather, he didn’t seek to understand the situation. Maybe it’s because Nier himself can’t understand what the shades are saying, but if robots and wolves and other replicants can communicate fine with them, why not Nier? Even then, Kaine, being already partially possessed with a shade, have been shown to understand what shades say when she fights the boss Gretel and even earlier against the boss shade Hook. Emil certainly does understood the situation as well. And it’s hard to imagine an all-knowing all-powerful flying wise book like Weiss can’t understand shades. But Kaine holds a grudge against shades, Weiss seem to have forgotten some of his abilities and just history of who the shades are, and Emil just keeps getting pushed around by the other three to do their bidding unwillingly. It shows how people who know what they’re doing is wrong can be complacent helping someone ignorant of the situation, like Nier, continue to enact violence.

Still, there’s a tiny chance Nier was right and all those villagers lost their self consciousness and free will, that they were all possessed and that they could not be saved, that their cries and fears and complaints are mere show, enacted by the shades puppeteering the replicants to instill guilt and hesitation on Nier’s party. This is hinted at in the dialogue cutscene when you enter the area, where the villagers aren’t speaking in a normal tone, but rather an odd “possessed” tone. It’s possible that killing the shades and their bodies, and destroying the village, did prevent the threat of shades from expanding to other villages, but this is merely a comforting scenario that you can believe that makes Nier’s action at least understandable, or righteous.

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This all culminates in the final confrontation between Nier and his Gestalt mirror self at the end of the playthrough. Gestalt Yonah, after possessing her corporeal replicant body, sees that replicant Yonah is a real self conscious entity that seeks to rejoin her father, like herself. Gestalt Yonah recognizes Replicant Yonah’s humanity, and seeing no other way out, Gestalt Yonah sacrifices herself in order to save Replicant Yonah. Contrast her act to what Nier does immediately after that scene. The Shadow Lord becomes stricken with grief over the loss of his daughter and goes crazy trying to kill Nier. And Nier says something important that sheds some light on how he justifies his violence: “You want me to understand your sadness?”, “You think I’m gonna sympathize with you?”, “I have something to defend! I have a reason to live!”. This isn’t just ignorance from Nier anymore, he knows who the Shadow Lord is and what his goals were. It’s no longer ambiguous, there is no benefit of the doubt to be given, and there hasn’t been for some time before the final hour or so of the playthrough, but Nier doesn’t care. It’s very antithetical to what Gestalt Yonah did: Yonah saw her counterpart as a real human worthy of saving, even at the price of her own, while Nier and the Shadow Lord saw each other as a monster that has to be killed.

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NieR doesn’t cast sides as good vs evil, it just presents this sad hopeless dire situation as is. The shades and Shadow Lord particularly are far from innocent, even when they still have their sanity, and have not relapsed and gone into uncontrollable madness. It’s possible that a relapse is in itself a conscious act done by shades as they realize their own bodies grew their own consciousness, leaving no place for them to come back to, and they start killing or possessing replicants as a form of retaliation, or as some way to scare replicants from becoming conscious, or anything more than docile. A lot of gestalts never recognized the replicants’ humanity, so why should the replicants do?

In the end, after the player has gone through multiple repetitive playthroughs of the game, having to have collected all the weapons, NieR hopes that the player has learned from their experience by asking them to do something analogous to what Gestalt Yonah did. It asks if you, the player, have recognized the humanity of an in-game character who you have learned a lot about, how she was shunned by her hometown for her body, how she was raised by her loving grandma who was killed by a shade, thus igniting her life-long grudge against shades, and how she was possessed by a malevolent shade, corrupting her until she was completely taken. It asks you to do the ultimate sacrifice a game could possibly ask its player without probably venturing into illegal territory, all to save a video game character, to extend your gesture of goodwill across the TV and into the game’s world. It asks: “Are you a sympathetic enough dude to delete your save data to save Kaine?”

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Next part, we will be talking about the real reason I have gone and wrote this whole thing, which started out just as a preamble that was pretty long already, and just grew and grew, and I thought “this is just way too big to just put as a supplementary intro so may as well cut it into parts and post it separately”, and that is obviously NieR Automata, where it tackles violence but the major difference being with entities on both sides that don’t:

  1. Really die (seemingly?)
  2. Feel pain (maybe?)
  3. Fight as a means for survival due to #1 but also because they don’t care for survival as a goal (or do they?)
  4. Have language barriers and can communicate freely with each other if they want to

I’m hoping to get that done before the end of the year but I might get lazy or busy or whatever. In any case, hope you enjoyed reading this.

All screenshots were acquired from Maggie Mui Longplays channel on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-LYw1TIOjA3hNhriA7535g
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Shantae and the Half-Assed End Game

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Hello, long time since I wrote here. Anyways, I managed to finish Shantae 1/2 Genie Hero last night. And for a game that started out great, one I’ve been excited to play (can’t say I’m the hugest Shantae or even Wayforward fan but I always enjoyed their games, and their great sprite work along with usual collaborator Jake Kaufman’s music), the last third of Shantae did just spend all the goodwill it accumulated in the first 2 thirds. It’s a problem that’s endemic of bad “Metroidvania” design, things that I sometimes think developers wrongly believe are what’s “fun” about Metroidvanias as a genre. Just to get the good stuff out of the way, I did really like the look and sound of the game (I’m writing this while listening to the OST). And the writing and story was good silly fun.

So like any Metroidvania, Shantae uses level design where you are hampered from progressing thru a level or a part of a level because of you not having the ability needed to get past an obstacle, whether it’s high ledges or underwater caverns or big blocks of rock. And you get the abilities needed via transformations dances, where Shantae can transform into all sorts of animals with a cute little dance. The problem can be probably summarized as “there are way too many transformations and progress-critical upgrades”. The game has about 8 critical dancing transformations (there are 4 more but they’re mostly optional). So Shantae can transform into 8 creatures. But that’s not it. Each of those transformations has its own ability upgrade. So basically there are 16 progress-critical ability upgrades that Shantae needs to get to complete the adventure.

16 is a number and it doesn’t really on its own determine whether a metroidvania has enough progress-critical upgrades or not, but the way they handled them here does clearly show that they kinda over did it by about 5 to 6 or maybe more upgrades, so much so that some of the abilities have like super specific uses that are only used in literally 1 screen of the whole game. Take for example the crab and mermaid forms.

Shantae in her normal form can only swim on the surface of water. She can’t dive under. So one of the first transformations she gets is the crab form, where she be a crab and crawl around and jump underwater. Sound good. Then underwater you’ll find ledges that are too high for you to jump to. And soon you’ll get the mermaid dance, which lets you turn into a mermaid and swim freely underwater. Two forms that are underwater related? Doesn’t it sound redundant, and if the mermaid form makes you move freely, why ever turn into a crab? Well, the crab is much smaller than the mermaid form, so you can go into small crevices underwater, where you couldn’t, Ok. So you go into one and then you find seaweeds and you can’t progress cause guess what, the crab form needs an ability upgrade so you can use your little claws to snap seaweed. Why is a crab snapping its tiny claws considered such an extraordinary ability that needs to be a distinct upgrade you collect out of a hidden treasure chest? I don’t know. It sounds so rudimentary, like having one of the later abilities in a Castlevania game be “swinging a sword” or “punching” or “whipping”. But anyways, so now you can break any obstructions underwater? No. There are big rocks and you need to get an upgrade for the mermaid form to shoot bubbles, which can break them. Ok, is that all of the water-related abilities? Well no, in the last like 30 min of the game, you can the ability to awkwardly climb waterfalls (tho it is functionally more like you warp up to the top of a waterfall or the bottom. You don’t freely move).

And that’s the problem with having so many upgrades. The game splits-hairs on which specific ability can be used to access a specific place that 2 or 3 other abilities that do things similar don’t. Take the Spider-form. It allows you to shoot a web and cling to ceilings (not walls mind you. Spiders can’t do that you know). Taken on it’s own it seems like a fine ability. But it might be the most redundant ability because you can jump higher and climb walls with the monkey form, or outright fly with the harpy form, or use the bat form to float (not freely fly tho, that’s for the harpy form. Splitting hairs!). If Shantae 1/2 Genie Hero didn’t have all these other more immediate abilities, the spider form might be used more. But there aren’t many instances where it is needed unless it’s a high narrow spike-filled pathway that’s too small for the harpy to fly thru, and is inaccessible to the monkey due to spikes, and that there isn’t a nearby ledge that’s on the same height where the bat form can float thru safely, nor is there a nearby wall where the monkey form can climb and then spring over to the other side with the “monkey bullet” ability. Only then (that is if the ceiling isn’t filled with spikes) is the spider ability “useful”.

It also means a lot of the abilities aren’t useful in the “general action-platformy parts” aside from the obstacles that are put there specifically for you to use those abilities. The only 2 are the monkey form, which makes you move faster, be smaller, and jump higher than the human form, although you lose any attack ability. And the harpy form unlimited flight, always useful in platformers (although you only get it really late in the game because of how obviously useful flying is in a platformer). None of the other abilities are useful for taking out large hordes of enemies, nor get thru a level more quickly, or to do more damage against bosses (you’d think the Elephent charge attack might do a lot of damage vs bosses but from what I tried it doesn’t and it’s unsafe and you’re best staying in human form and spamming scimitar magic while attacking). So for the most part you may as well be just carrying around a set of very specific metaphorical “colored keys” that are only useful when you find the coordinating metaphorical “locked door” for you to use. And more often than not, after the excitement of opening those doors, you’ll more likely find another door behind that needs a different colored key that you most likely don’t have and need to do a bunch of backtracking and forthtracking 3 or 4 times in a stage doing tedious fetch quests of items that you can’t fetch because it requires an ability you get by finishing another fetch quest that you should have been doing first instead of this quest you’re doing.

I think Shantae 1/2 Genie Hero might be the ultimate argument of the banality of Metroidvania design if the only things a new power-up grants you is accessing tiny segments of a stage that only house either more locked doors, or another ability that then itself only grants you another tiny segment in another level with more locked doors and colored keys. And as a fan of metroidvanias, I believe this genre is more fun and worthwhile and meaningful than that.

Eva 3.3333333/Qqqqqq spoilery thoughts


I liked it, don’t think I like it more than 2.2222222 but I still liked it. I heard ppl didn’t like this as much. I guess I can see why. It feels…short, not necessarily length wise but it def lacks a conclusion? especially for most of the cast since they kinda don’t go thru any sort of arc (well besides poor Kowaru), even for Shinji. It feels like how the part 1 of the 7th Harry Potter movie (or one of many “we had to split the last movie of our planned trilogy into 2” movie) feels, like it ends on the end of the second act & you are waiting for the 3rd act to start & the oops it ends. Looks hella beautiful as always.
Other thoughts:

– I liked that it’s post-apocalyptic, & it’s post-apocalyptic like nothing else. Like with End of Eva you only get to see what happens after the third impact & then poof, movie over. Here you get to see a little bit more of the world & its red & crazy, it does look like hell on earth.

– I’m kind of a sucker for drastic time jumps, I know it’s an easy gimmick to freshen things up but the fact this takes 14 years after is pretty cool. Almost everyone looks different now, & it’s a new world with new bases & ships & stuff, helps sink in how just foreign this must feel to Shinji.  Although how convenient it is that people who pilot Eva’s “don’t age up”. Like I can get that Ayanami & Kowaru might not age up because Ayanami is just a weird clone/vessel & Kowaru is an angel, & Shinji has been stuck in his Eva Unit all this time (besides the whole Eva saga is about sad teenage feels so it would be kinda counter to the ethos of Eva to have Shinki grown up), but I would have liked an aged up Asuka & what’s her face with glasses…uh…shit…*googles*….Mari Illustrious Makinami. Actually I don’t think they ever even called her name her (she was just called four eyes by Asuka, lol). I will give them credit cause it seems like Asuka has grown up at least mentally & isn’t just her same old hot head self.

– boy they rrrreally made this for Shinji X Kowaru fans. I’m kinda surprised they didn’t do as much “fanservice” as usual tho, beyond the Kowaru X Shinji stuff.

– I think for an Eva movie, they did do more explanation & exposition than usual, like that old dude who hangs out with Ikari did explain quite a bit to Shinji when he played Shoji with him.

– so uh…this was out in Nov 2012 & we are close to 4 years from its release & from what I hear there’s been no info on when the fourth (& I believe last) rebuild would come out. Like Hideaki Anno managed to make a new Godzilla movie out (which I hear is pretty great so I def do wanna watch it) but I guess animation & live action are so different that they can each be in production without hampering the others progress…I guess that’s what I hope the situation is. I really wanna watch the 4th one soon cause I fear I might forget where things were & what happened in the previous movies by the time that comes up. 

Uncharted 4 spoiler-filled quick post-game review thing

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  • No where near as good as The Last of Us, it might not even be my fav Uncharted. But I liked it still
  • Villains were both meh in their own ways. Rafe was never threatening, while Nadine was never really invested in taking down Drake or getting the treasure. I feel like a combination of the two would have been better.
  • Super happy ending was unearned. It’s like the most optimal ending, which kind of goes against the whole theme of greed having bad repercussions. The whole game is about how Nathan should NOT be going back to treasure hunting, and that’s clearly showcased in Henry Avery’s story. But…in the end he does find the treasure and does end up working as a legit explorer whatever and he becomes super rich and famous and has a daughter and Sam and Sully are now cool uncles who do their own adventuring.
  • Sam could have been a bit more interesting. Him having a lot of banter doesn’t equal character development. I can’t really describe him any different than Nathan to be honest.
  • I wish the tension between Sam and Nathan would have happened earlier in the game. Nathan should have learned that Sam lied to him earlier, because for quite a long time there’s not much that happens once Sam joins up with Nathan right until that point, I mean in terms of character development of Sam particularly and the relationship between Sam and Nathan.
  • Flashback scenes were great, probably the best parts in the game maybe. And they were very The Last Of Us
  • Final Boss battle was up there with MGS4 in terms of being super dumb. Games with final bosses that use a brand new mechanic or are very QTE-ish are dumb. And again, Rafe was NEVER threatening. I never believed for a second that Rafe could take down Nathan in a stupid sword fight, and when he does I blame the stupid new mechanic Naughty Dog just threw at me at this moment
  • Had pacing problems? Lots of long stretches of climbing parts and then shooting parts. It’s kind of repeats itself: get to a place, explore it a bit by jumping and climbing, reach a critical point in whatever location they’re exploring that shows them more clues about the treasure whereabouts and the backstory of Henry Avery, and this point usually has a puzzle to solve, then you exit the place to head to the next cave/island/tower and you find out that bad guys are there blocking your exit so more stealth+shooting commences.
  • Lots of boxes with wheels. The exact same boxes with wheels that are apparently everywhere whether in Panama or Italy or Scotland or Madagascar or a tiny pirate island near Madagascar. It becomes even more comical when you realize that Drake has a rope that he can perfectly throw and hook trees mid-jump but he cant use to climb a wall with?
  • I really liked the backstory of Libertalia and Henry Avery and the pirates. Usually the legends in these Uncharted games never made me interested as much as this one. They seem to always be just enough exposition to service the adventuring and exploring part of the main narrative, and to simply point to where Drake and crew should go next. But this one was pretty cool, first with Avery’s fascination with Saint Dismis, then him amassing his treasure in Madagascar, then the establishment of Libertalia, the Pirate version of “Outer Heaven” I suppose, a nation of pirates. And then the in-fighting and downfall of the nation and ultimately Avery himself due to his greed.
  • It’s probably why I spent more time reading all the notes in this one more than other Uncharteds.
  • I’m also glad that a modern AAA game can still deliver backstory thru stuff like environmental clues or by written notes WITHOUT relying on audio recordings, which is becoming rather tiresome in these games. If you think the backstory itself is not interesting or short enough for me the player to stand there to read/observe, then I don’t think I’ll be interested if I can consume it in a more passive form with audio recordings.
  • Guybrush Threepwood being one of the founding pirates was a cute nod

All in all, I enjoyed my time with the story mode, I just don’t see this as being something I’ll look back to fondly or think it has Game Of The Year potential. Maybe I’m tired of this franchise, maybe this one really wasn’t that great anyways but I’m glad Naughty Dog can now move away from Uncharted to do other stuff.

Castlevania Bloodlines: Of World Wars, FM-Synths, Dracula Towers, French Monarchies, Bram Stokers, and Being the Last of Its Kind

 

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Before reading this post, I suggest putting on Castlevania Bloodlines awesome FM-Synth music while you read: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL01D23354DB6D47D3

Castlevania Bloodlines was truly the last of its kind, and that is probably why it’s my favorite “Classicvania”. Released in 1994, with a gaming industry so eager to drop 16-bit consoles and jump onto the next generation, Bloodlines was the last* fully original Classic-style Castlevania before the series evolved in the next few years, splitting into “Metroidvanias” and 3D entries of mixed quality. Released 8 years after the original Castlevania, and with about 10 entries into the series by then, it seems everything that could be done within the “classicvania” framework has been done:

  • Simon’s Quest has an open-world style level design that foreshadows Symphony of the Night
  • Castlevania 3 has multiple characters and branching paths
  • Super Castlevania 4 has 8-way whip attack. And um…neat mode-7 stuff.
  • Belmont’s Revenge on the game boy has selectable stages ala-Mega Man
  • Rondo of Blood on PC-Engine takes the branching paths idea from Castlevania 3 and expands it by making it fit more organically within the levels, instead of being discrete choices at the end. It also has 2 playable characters. And also Item crashes, which made most boss fights pretty pitiful. And anime cutscenes. 

Looking at it, Bloodlines doesn’t have that big brand new feature that anyone can easily point to, nothing to call its own. Bloodlines is simply a great culmination of the series at that point. Konami simply looked at the series history, collected the best ideas, modified them, and then put them into the game.

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from GameFAQS

 

For example, you have 2 playable characters in Bloodlines. John Morris is the classic whip-wielding Belmont (and son of Quincy Morris from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for some reason). Unlike Simon Belmont in Super Castlevania 4, John Morris can’t whip diagonally on ground, so now he has to rely on using sub-weapons to cover those vulnerable angles, giving back sub-weapons their purpose, just as they were in the NES titles, and making them much more useful here than in Super Castlevania 4. However, Morris can whip diagonally while jumping. This is mainly useful against high-flying bosses, but it also allows Morris to hook his whip onto any ceiling and swing around just like Simon in the SNES game, although in some ways it’s less essential here in Bloodlines, even though you have more opportunities to use it.

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from GameFAQS

 

On the other side, you have Eric Lecarde, the fair-looking Spanish spear-wielder. He can point his spear in several directions, sort of replicating the “8 way-whip” control scheme from Super Castlevania 4. Lecarde can also use his spear to vault up higher than his jump, making him able to reach areas that Morris can’t. It’s a nice concession to Super Castlevania 4’s luxuries I think. Lecarde inadvertently becomes “easy mode” in this game, while more hardened fans looking for a more genuine Castlevania experience can play with John Morris, who has a more challenging time due to his more limited abilities.

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from GameFAQS

 

Item crashes from Rondo of Blood return here too. But they’ve been drastically toned down, so they’re not as spammable as in Rondo, and they do require the player to be fully power-up in order to use them. And any single hit would lose them.

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from GameFAQS

 

So Bloodlines may not have anything new mechanic-wise, but it does do one thing differently from other Castlevanias: It changes the setting from just Dracula’s Castle to become a cross-country adventure across all of Europe, starting with Dracula old castle ruins in Romania, across Athens in Greece, Pisa in Italy, then Germany, then France, and finally to Dracula’s new lair in England. And throughout the journey, you’ll be going across well known sights, whether it’s Ancient Greek ruins or the leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy or the Palace of Versailles in France. It’s weirdly unsettling to see these familiar places get run over by Dracula’s usual host of monsters, makes the game a little bit more real.

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from GameFAQS

 

And I think that’s what the setting and aesthetics of Bloodlines try to do. They makes things more “real” than ever. Bloodlines added a lot more gore and blood, so much so that it got toned down for the PAL release. The story is set during World War 1, one of the most tragic events in human history, and directly links the cause of the war to Dracula’s resurrection. And the stages as I mentioned take place in real locations across Europe.

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from GameFAQS

 

Of course, “realism” is never a requirement to making any piece of media great, and Bloodlines is certainly not realistic. But it FEELS real, and that is what really matters. Jeremy Parish recently did a write-up on USGamer listing 8 essential ideas that Bloodstained (the crowd-funded Castlevania spiritual successor headed by old-time producer Koji Igarashi) needs to adopt. And one important idea mentioned in that article (and one that was mentioned by Parish many times before in his various writings on Castlevania) is about “The tower in the distance” trait. This was specifically about the appearance of Dracula’s tower (the final destination of nearly every Castlevania) in the background of stage 9, almost exactly the midpoint of the first Castlevania (which had 18 stages).

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The aforementioned tower in the distance from the first Castlevania (Image taken from USGamer)

 

The idea is, unlike a lot of video games at the time, Castlevania levels were made with a real sense of cohesion to them. The sequencing of the levels made sense. Stages fit together long before Symphony of the Night actually made them physically interconnected with no cut-off points. Dracula’s Castle felt real even if it was a giant magical shape-shifting place filled with all sorts of fantastical monsters.

Obviously, Bloodlines cannot exactly replicate that trait because of the way the game’s narrative is set. John Morris and Eric Lecarde are traveling hundreds of miles across Europe. And the stages are geographically hundreds of miles apart. You can’t put Dracula’s tower in the background of Stage 4 since stage 4 is set in Germany, while Dracula’s Castle is somewhere in England. But Bloodlines does tries to maintain that sense of reality and place by instead incorporating real-life sights. I suppose in some sense this is a lazier way to do it, but Bloodlines reproduces each location with a surprising amount of detail. The background artists at Konami were able to accurately recreate these locations on the Genesis/Mega Drive and it’s such a wonder to see and compare them to the real thing. For example, lets take stage 5, which takes place in the Palace of Versailles in France, and see what those BG artists put in:

 

You first start outside in the gardens of the Palace, which now have gone crazy mutant thanks to Dracula’s power, with giant killer roses and thorns everywhere.

Then you come upon the Latona fountain, which turns blood red as soon as you reach it’s epicenter and red skeletons start rising.

Then you move onto the hall of mirrors, filled with beautiful but deadly chandeliers (not just to you, but to the Axe Armors wandering the hall as well).

Next you reach the fifth chapel, where Louis XVI married Marie Antoinette, here the paths split: Eric Lecarde’s vault-jump allows him to go to the rooftop of the palace, while John Morris’s swinging ability leads him to the wine cellar (Although I don’t think the real palace has any sort of wine cellar).

 

Finally, you go off the outer stairs and then fight the ghost of Marie Antoinette, who then turns into a huge killer butterfly because this is Castlevania after all. There’s just stunning amount of detail here, and you can clearly recognize what each part of the stage is modeled after in the real world. Similar attention is also given to the Pisa stage. 

This attention to detail to recreate real life places is one of Bloodlines most impressive traits, and the one thing that Bloodlines can really call its own since not many other Castlevanias are set in real-world locations. But Bloodlines is also a great Castlevania in the traditional sense. The control scheme is at a nice midpoint between the rigidness of the classic NES games and the fluidity of Super Castlevania 4. The difficulty is well balanced, always giving you a challenge but never trying to exploit the Belmont’s (& co.) rigid, slow, and deliberate movement. You won’t find something like the falling blocks segment in Castlevania 3, or the fight with Dracula that’s set on tiny pillars in SNES Dracula X, or the slow-as-molasses race against impending death by spiked-walls in Castlevania The Adventure. And lest we forget, Bloodlines has an amazing soundtrack by the venerable Michiru Yamane, this being her first Castlevania soundtrack. Yamane handled the series from then on, become the main composer for pretty much every subsequent entry. I love Bloodlines but it is a crying shame it never got ported or re-released, not on Virtual Console, nor anywhere else. So the only  way to play it (well, legally) is by buying the original Mega Drive/Genesis cart. And trust me, it will be worth it.

 

* I realize that the SNES Castlevania Dracula X was released after Bloodlines. But that game is mainly a heavily modified port of Rondo of Blood, reusing a lot of assets and sprites. And thus I cannot call it a completely original Castlevania. There’s also Castlevania Legends on the Game Boy but that was after Symphony of the Night so the tides have changed by then, it was already following an obsolete framework of the series. Then therse’s ReBirth on Wiiware but that is an intentional throwback (and a pretty good game too). Caveats, they sure ruin the flow of an argument, right?

A Post About Danganronpa 2

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The first Danganronpa was one of my favorite games of last year, so I was really excited to get into the second one, which some even consider to be better. I thought it would be fun for me to do write-ups about the game every few chapters or so, not in a comprehensive “let’s play” style, since that would require a lot of screenshots and detailed exposition (things which I am too lazy to do). These posts would be just my thoughts on some of the characters or some of the events that happen in the game. More importantly, I wanted to capture my thoughts as fresh as they could be, as I am still playing the game, without the hindsight acquired after finishing the game completely and having learned all that can be learned about it. I hoped to record all the mysteries and speculations I had while playing it, and then see later on if any of my speculations became true or not, which I think would be a lot of fun to look back and laugh at.

Suffice to say, these posts will be very spoilery, as they will definitely spoil the first Danganronpa completely, and Danganronpa 2 partially, which for this post would be right until the middle of Chapter 2 (right before the star of the second trial). You have been warned.

Introduction

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Playing Danganronpa 2 for a while made me realize how it does a great job at disrupting player expectations, especially those coming from the first game (I guess there may be some who skipped the first and went straight into 2 but why would you do that?). It goes so far as to call itself out on the silly plot-twists it pulled in the first game (like the whole memory brain-washing plot-twist at the end, which was honestly a little bit Deus Ex Machina). The way Danganronpa breaks the fourth-wall, not in a necessarily shocking way but more in a self-critiquing and jokey way, is almost Kojima-esque. These fourth-wall breaking parts are mainly delivered through Monokuma, who by now you would expect to say such bizarre and funny stuff. But it’s not just Monokuma, some of the other characters do their part in messing with player expectations too.

Jabberwock Island

Jabberwock Island

For the sequel, the setting is changed from a school to a deserted set of islands called Jabberwock Island. This isn’t like an uninhabited, untouched-by-human-civilization island, it’s more of a well-known tourist destination (with a fancy hotel, an airport, parks, large buildings, mall etc.) that was seemingly cleared out out of people, and only the 16 students, Monokuma, and Monomi/Usami are inhabiting it.

This change into a deserted island setting is funny to me in how the series is veering ever closer to Battle Royale, which is probably the most popular piece of media with the “trapped teenage kids trying to kill each other for survival” plot. But lets get something out of the way: The premises of Danganronpa 1 & 2 are as common as it could be. It’s a little like Battle Royale, a little like kamaitachi no yoru/Banshee’s Last Cry, a little like the Zero Escape series, especially Virtue’s Last Reward*, and plenty more, not just common with media from Japan, but outside as well, like Lord of the Flies or Hunger Games.

There are a lot if these murder-mystery visual novels with similar premises. And Danganronpa knows that, pulling the same tropes found in the genre throughout. In fact, Danganronpa 2 does a ode to one such murder-mystery adventure game series: the Japanese-Only Twilight Syndrome series, by Human Entertainment (the first three of which were directed by Goichi Suda). Danganronpa 2 makes a mini-game based on it, and puts in within the world as an arcade game that the students themselves can play. It’s a really cool tribute.

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Still. it’s not the broad strokes and general plot that make Danganronpa great, it’s the specific events and characters that do it for me (and that goes for a lot of things, not just video games).

As I mentioned before, The cast of characters also works into that “subverting of expectations” deal. Some draw parallels to the cast in the first game in direct ways (like Akane Owari. She’s pretty much this game’s Aoi Asahina, filling in the role of the super athletic girl with big boobs who eats a lot of fatty food. Although Akane’s personality is more hyper than Aoi). Other characters have a much more subverted meaning behind them. So lets take a look at a few of the more interesting ones:

Byakuya Togami, The Ultimate Affluent Progeny

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“Wait, Byakuya Togami? The same Byakuya from the first game? But he’s fat now? What is happening?”

That’s what I thought when I first saw Byakuya in the opening movie. It looks like this is the same Byakuya. He looks the same, maybe a little bit overweight. He has the same voice actor (and voice clips). He wears and acts just like the Byakuya we all know and love. But he never really mentions anything about what happened to him in the first game. Byakuya did survive the first Danganronpa, so it could be that after the ending, he may have gained a few pounds, got kidnapped again, got his memories erased again, and was then thrown back into the fray. But with Danganronpa, you’re never really %100 sure about anything.

More importantly, Byakuya seems to be continuing his character arc from where we left him off during the last game. At the start of Danganronpa 1, Byakuya was simply a pompous selfish asshole, but at the end, he learned to start appreciating others, and to help and protect his friends in order to achieve a common goal (while still maintaining his somewhat pompous sense of pride). And that is exactly the Byakuya we see here in Danganronpa 2, one that is striving to protect his friends from any harm as long as he is alive. This supports my initial theory that Byakuya simply lost his memory again, while still maintaining his now reformed sense of morality he got after the end of Danganronpa 1, and that memory loss cannot take that away.

Byakuya in the first Danganronpa...

Byakuya in the first Danganronpa…

...and in Danganronpa 2.

…and in Danganronpa 2.

So OF COURSE Byakuya is the first one to get killed. The whole series is about “Despair”, and what could be more dreadful than killing the one character whom the whole cast of desperate students looked up to, the one who comforted everyone with his promises of safety, the one who took very careful measures to protect everyone.

But more importantly, Byakuya was the most relatable character to the player since players are already familiar with him from the first game. He is an old friend, the only known face out of a bunch of strangers, the one we were happy to see come out alive from their hellish stay at Hope Peak’s Academy. This is what Danganronpa 2 says with its first kill: Nope, not even those characters whom you loved, who made it out from the first game, are safe. The first Danganronpa did a similar thing by killing off Sayaka first, who was Makoto’s friend, his only friend out of a cast of strangers. And sure, it does have a little bit of a “shock” to it, because it hit Makoto hard particularly out of all the cast, and players are expected to emphasize with the protagonist, even if they only knew Sayaka for an hour or so before she gets killed.

But with Byakuya, it’s much more immediate. Players literally knew Byakura longer than the rest of the cast. In a sense, he is even more relatable than the main protagonist of Danganronpa 2. And killing Byakuya off was the worst case scenario the average player would have hoped not to happen, the one leading ever closer to “TRUE DESPAIR” (unless you hated Byakuya anyway).

Nagito Komaeda, The Ultimate Lucky Student

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By far the most enigmatic student of the group is Nagito Komaeda. He is the “Ultimate Lucky Student” just like Makoto in the first game. In fact, he even looks a lot like Makoto, wearing a similar greenish hoodie with reddish highlights, and voiced by the same voice actor in both English and Japanese (well, actress technically). Even his name is similar as it is almost an anagram for Makoto Naegi (in English at least, I don’t know if there are any significant similarities with their names in Japanese).

However, unlike Makotot, Nagito is not the main protagonist. He is just one of the other students beside the protagonist. Actually, Nagito is the first student you meet. He quickly befriends you and helps you meet the rest of the cast. And unlike his cohorts who are all terrified at their terrible ordeal, Nagito seemed to be well adjusted and taking the situation in stride.

But during the first trial, his true colors show, revealing his sick nature as someone who revels in the death of his fellow survivors, spouting nonsense about how “The Ultimates” will bring about hope amidst this despair, seemingly lacking empathy towards his friends, both the dead, and the survived. He’s such a crazy person that he doesn’t even care about his own life, willing to sacrifice his life if it means it would help achieve his rather ambiguous goals of bringing about “hope through despair”. This isn’t some sort of heroic gesture, and it doesn’t seem like he’s being suicidal due to a severe depression or something like that. He’s just a lunatic who just does not seem to grasp the gravity of the situation he is in, what sort of nonsense he’s saying, and how monstrous he sounds. He is almost out of touch with his reality, like he’s some sort of avatar being controlled by some insane manipulator. Like he is being played with.

Makoto Naegi, Ultimate Lucky student and the protagonist of the first Danganronpa.

Makoto Naegi, Ultimate Lucky student and the protagonist of the first Danganronpa.

So by making Nagito similar to Makoto, is Nagito then a commentary on players of Danganronpa? Obviously, players real lives aren’t at stake when playing these games. Lives are cheap in video games, and death is so abundant. So many games task you with killing 100s of people or creatures. More than not, death usually represents a stepping stone towards achieving your goals, to reaching the end and “beating the game”, whether it’s the death of a final boss, or the death of the player-character in super difficult game, which forms a learning experience, bettering players, and allowing them to overcome that obstacle or level through trial-and-error. Or in the case of Danganronpa and similar murder-mystery games, death signals the beginning of a new chapter, a moment of excitement where we expect new dramatical revelations to happen, and new twists and turns to appear in the plot. So players expect (nay, desire) a few deaths to happen in a game like this. These expectations sound normal in the context of players of Danganronpa, but it would instead sound maniacal when heard in the context of other characters in the game. That may be what Spike-Chunsoft is saying with Nagito.

Or Nagito is just weird because he’s just weird like that. This is Danganronpa after all.

Monomi/Usami

Monomi

In the parlance of Jerry Seinfeld, what’s the deal with Monomi? She looks like Monokuma. She seems to be his “little sister”. She has her own weird vocal theme song. She always appears out of nowhere at random times just like Monokuma. Actually, she seems to have taken part of Monokuma’s duties from the first game, appearing whenever a student has a small question or request, so Monokuma doesn’t need to appear as often as he did.

And yet, Monomi doesn’t seem willing to work for him, which is why she gets tormented by Monokuma, getting cartoonishly beat up all the time by him (the poor thing). She doesn’t even harbor ill will towards the students. All she wants is for the students to get along and be friends, and to collect all those hope fragments. She doesn’t want anyone to die, at all.

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Believe me, I took this screenshot and yet I have no idea why Monomi said that.

Monomi is a total mystery. Is she being controlled by someone who is also trapped in the island by Monokuma? Or is this whole pity-act just an facade by an accomplice to Monokuma? Or are both Monokuma and Monomi being controlled by 1 person simultaneously, one side being the tough mean bear, and the other the whimpering sad sympathetic bear, just as a psychological tactic to coerce the students to kill each other? I don’t know, but it seems like Monomi is this somewhat independent entity between the captivated students, and their captor Monokuma. The students (and the player) are not sure on which side of that divide Monomi falls on. Given that the general premise of Danganronpa 2 is very similar to the first game, the existence of Monomi herself brings about a certain level of unpredictability to an otherwise similar-looking plot. And knowing what’s her deal will definitely be one of the bigger revelations in Danganronpa 2.

Chiaki Nanami, The Ultimate Gamer

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In some sense, I feel like I’m being duped into liking Chiaki. Obviously, I’m a “gamer”, and most of the Danganronpa fanbase are “gamers” too. Spike-Chunsoft knew that they’re making a fan favorite character with Chiaki. I wouldn’t call her pandering, but there’s certainly a little bit of “fanservice” in her, not the pervy kind (even if there is a lot of that in Danganronpa 2, more so than the first game).

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But despite that, I think she’s a great character that’s always fun to talk to. She’s this soft-spoken girl that loves video games and has this immense knowledge about them. But she seems to always be tired and drowsy, and has problems paying attention, always slipping off and staring into space, or even napping whenever the chance arrives (ironic given that you’d expect “The Ultimate Gamer” to have a little bit more of an active and attentive personality).

Chiaki likes to bring up video games ever now and then, whether she’s talking about herself or by using video game terminology to explain whatever current ordeal is happening in her own gamer-centric point of view. She also references other games, and they’re always real games, which is kind of hilarious in that bizarre unexpected “Wait, did she just reference Trio The Punch” way. But unlike Hifumi in the first Danganronpa (who I still like), Chiaki is not so obnoxious about her nerdy hobby. She’s pretty chill about it. And I like that about a character.

Gundham Tanaka, The Ultimate Breeder

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When I first saw Gundham, I tried to guess what sort of “Ultimate Student” he is. For the most part, it is pretty easy to guess what sort of “Ultimate” each member of the cast is: Mahiru is the Ultimate Photographer because she has a camera, Teruteru is the Ultimate Chef because he’s in chef clothing, Peko Pekoyama has a sword (a bamboo sword, to be precise) because she is the Ultimate Swordswoman. And so forth.

With Gundham, I was almost sure he was some sort of “Ultimate Ninja”, with his menacing leer, the scar across his eye, and the long scarf. And then he pulls tiny adorable furry creatures out of nowhere like so:

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And then proclaims proudly that he is “The Ultimate Breeder”. This is exactly why Gundham is so awesome. His intensity and melodrama just clashes with the fact that he is the best man at breeding cute little animals. He calls his tiny hamster/gerbil/guinea pig friends “The Dark Devas of Destruction”. He talks like an insane person, spouting about demonic eyes and evil dimensions, but you somehow can get the point he’s making under all his crazy-talk. And you even start to understand how his eccentric personality would make him the Ultimate Breeder.

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Just like Chiaki, talking to Gundham is always a fun time. I’m always excited to hear what sort of madness he’ll be talking about at every meeting. It is why I try to spend time with them both whenever I get any free time, at least before the game kills them off.

They’ll probably be killed off, right? Oh please don’t kill them off. Please don’t, Why would you do such a cruel thing, Danganronpa 2? Why oh why I HATE YOU DANGANRONPA!

(Hopefully, they won’t die before my next post. See you then)

* I guess Danganronpa may have inspired VLR since Danganronpa 1 came out before. In fact, the Zero Escape games were published by Chunsoft, while Danganronpa were by Spike. And both companies soon merged together to form Spike-Chunsoft. Plus Kotaro Uchikoshi, writer for the Zero Escape Series, did mention on his twitter that he’s friends with the Kaz Kodaka, the writer for Danganronpa, but my point is, they share a lot of ideas.

VGMusings #4 My Favorite VGM Podcasts

I like podcasts. I like them a lot. I probably listen to an average of 8 hours of them a week (Although I am sure it was more than double that during my college years). Currently, I am subscribed to 46 podcasts, mostly in the video game and comedy categories (but I don’t necessarily listen to every new episode of all 46 podcasts, but I digress).

One of my favorite podcast…genres(?) is Video Game Music podcasts, and there are plenty of those. Video game Music (or VGM) lends itself well as great podcasting material, probably more so than “normal” music or film/TV scores. Most VGM tracks are pretty short, especially those from older 8/16 bit consoles, giving ample time for a discussion around them. Plus the nature of VGM allows for more varied “overarching themes” to form a playlist around, filled with tracks from totally different games. With regular music you may have a playlist that focuses on a composer, a band, an album, an era, or maybe a music genre. With VGM you can have a focus on composers, games, game series, game genres, music genres, eras, consoles, or even recurring tropes like snow levels, lava levels, water levels, credits music, title screen music, shop music, battle themes in RPGs, multiplayer mode music, music from games based on Godzilla movies, and so much more. You have so many options to connect disparate games together under one common theme, and then see if they offer any form of similarities in their music (if any). And if there are a certain similarity, one that I find to be very enjoyable, I can then search out for more music based on that particular theme (this is how I found out that Golf games have amazing music).

Anyway, here are my favorite Video Game Music podcasts (in no particular order):

The Sound Test from 1up.com

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Hosted by: Ray Barnholt

Site: https://archive.org/details/TheSoundTest_RayBarnholt  (original site is dead since 1up.com was shut down. Even the iTunes feed is dead)

Status: Used to be bi-weekly, but now Defunct

This was my first VGM podcast I ever listened to (and also the oldest from the ones listed in this blogpost). Hosted by Ray Barnholt, who was an editor at 1up.com at the time (now working on the excellent SCROLL Magazine, which just ended, sadly), The Sound Test was a pretty straightforward biweekly podcast (biweekly as in an episode every 2 weeks), focusing more on simply enjoying the VGM playlist, rather then creating informative discussions around it. While Ray does introduce each track before playing it, the introduction itself is usually brief, unlike other VGM podcasts, where discussion about a specific track may be several times longer than the track itself.

The episode themselves don’t really have a running theme or topic (aside from the double-length Jazz episode, which is excellent. And the NES anniversary finale episode). The selection of music runs the gamut from 8-bit era tracks to contemporary releases to official arrangements to even fan remixes on YouTube. Each episode lasts about 30 minutes (aside from the aforementioned hour long Jazz episode). And the selections themselves contain excellent tracks from a lot of obscure Japanese games and arrange albums. I discovered gems like the Ace Attorney Jazz Album “Gyakuten Meets Jazz Soul” (my first VGMusings), Napple Tale (by legendary anime and Video Game composer Yoko Kanno), and NieR from this podcast. And some of those are now my all-time favorite music period. It’s a shame that it ended so quickly, with so few episodes.

But that also means going through all of them should be an easier task. If you’ve never listened to The Sound Test, then I urge you to check it out. In fact, if you’ve never listened to a Video Game Music podcast, The Sound Test’s brief run, simple structure, and short episode length should make it an excellent entry way to VGM podcasts.

Favorite episodes:

The Jazz Show (which I already mentioned a few times)

Episode 8: highlighting some unknown great music from Ollie King (composed by Hideki Naganuma of Jet Set Radio/Sonic Rush fame), InFamous, and the Art Style games on WiiWare

Legacy Music Hour

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Hosted by: Brent Weinbach and Rob F. Switch

Site: http://legacymusichour.blogspot.com/

Status: currently monthly, with mixtape versions of previous episodes coming in about every week. Used to be weekly before the hiatus.

Out of all the podcasts mentioned in this list, the Legacy Music Hour is the longest running, coming in at 160 episodes as of this writing. This is doubly impressive considering how the Legacy Music Hour has set itself the strictest constraints with regards to track selection out of any VGM podcast. Aside from a few outliers, every track in every episode comes from an 8 or 16-bit console or portable (and sometimes arcade system). Not only that, they also leave out tracks from CD games, so no SEGA CD games or TurboGrafx-CD games. And finally, no adapted music. So tracks like the Cyndi Lauper theme in Goonies 2 on NES, or the TMNT tv show theme in TMNT games don’t count.

So the Legacy Music Hour has all these rules that it set itself, and yet, the hosts got so many fantastic tracks out of the show. It shows that there is plenty of great undiscovered tracks beyond the Mega Mans, the Sonics, and the Final Fantasys. great tracks from games like The Second Samurai, or The Smurfs Nightmare, or Last Bible III, or Quarth, or Magician Lord, or Moryu Senki Madara.

The episode themes, on the other hand, stretch out to every conceivable topic. Of course, you have episodes that focus on a music genre or composer or game company or game genre. But there’re a lot more “esoteric” topics, like power-pad games, games based on Manga franchises, Gambling games, castle areas, games with product placement, or Elevator Music (a favorite episode theme of mine). And the episodes themselves are usually packed with a lot of discussion, sometimes informative, and sometimes it’s just the 2 hosts joking around.

While the Legacy Music Hour did start in 2010 and ran weekly for three years, the hosts decided to end the podcast at the end of 2013, with mixtape versions of old episodes still being put in the feed after it (mixtape episodes merely repurpose the tracks used in previous episodes into a straight lean playlist, without the talky parts). But about a year after, Brent and Rob decided to revive the podcast, making brand new episodes (now in a monthly schedule). In any case, the Legacy Music Hour is a fantastic VGM podcast and you should subscribe to it. Even if the episode release schedule is not as frequent as it used to be, this just gives room for you to catch up on old episodes.

Favorites episodes:

Composer guest/interviews: from ep 36 with Kinuyo Yamashita to to ep 143 with Matt Furniss, to ep 159 with Jake Kaufmann (AKA virt)

Any Elevator Episode, or Sports episode.

Cross Over with VGMpire (Episode 151)

VGMpire

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Hosted by: Brett Elston

Site: http://www.vgmpire.com/

Release status: Bi-weekly, weekly during October (AKA Rocktober)

Part of the Laser Time network (which hosts a bunch of great podcasts on different pop culture topics, along with videos and articles), VGMpire is hosted by Brett Elston, and usually guested by a few of his cohorts at Laser Time.

The episodes tend to have a game series focus, with a few game genre focuses here and there, like a driving game episodes, or a vehicular combat genre episode featuring music from Twisted Metal and such. However, there aren’t any “music genre” themed episodes yet, because as Brett himself admits, he doesn’t have the adequate music terminology knowledge needed to make such episodes (which is sort of a running joke in the podcast). Granted, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any intelligible discussions during an episode. One of the more interesting aspects about VGMpire is that it’s not purely a VGM podcast. Most of the music in a typical episode comes from games that either Brett himself played and knows a lot about, or from games that one of the guests have. So the discussions are not strictly all about the music itself, but they can also double as a series retrospective in general. This gives a better context to the music being played when you know that it plays at a specific cutscene where such and such event is happening. Other VGM podcasts tend to be more estranged with the music they play. Their whole relation to a VGM track can be strictly based on how good of a musical composition it is. They may know that it plays at this level or maybe in some cutscene, but for the most part, the discussions are centered around the music itself, as a composition mostly independent from whatever source it came from (which is also a viable way to critique them). But with VGMpire, there is nearly always one person at least with a personal connection to the music being played, there is always a fan of some sort of the series that can give better context about the tracks, whether it be Brett himself or one of the guests. No other podcast will ever have a complete episode dedicated to F-Zero GX/AC soundtrack, half of which would be about the bizarre-but-cool pilot themes that only appear 

And that may be VGMpire’s best attribute as a VGM podcast. The show is incredibly funny too.

Favorite episodes:

Sega CDelight episode: A focus on a bunch of lesser known SEGA CD games.

Rocktober: a month long retrospective where the podcasts shifts into weekly releases all focusing on a single game series, usually reserved for series with a huge library of amazing music (2012 was Castlevania, 2013 was Final Fantasy, and 2014 was Pokemon)

Musical Menus: an episode about random menu music mainly in Nintendo and Sony consoles

The Legacy Mana Hour: A cross-over episode featuring Brent Weinbach from the Legacy Music Hour on the topic of the Mana/Seiken Densetsu series.

F-Zero GX episode: As I mentioned, no other podcast will have an episode only on F-Zero GX’s amazing soundtrack. This perfectly encapsulates everything that’s great about VGMpire. Although I do recommend listening  to the previous F-Zero series focus episode first just to get yourself ready for this one.

Super Marcato Bros Video Game Music Podcast

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Hosted by: Karl and Will Brueggemann (AKA the Super Marcato Bros.)

Site: http://supermarcatobros.com/podcast/

Release status: Weekly

Another long-running and prolific VGM podcast, the Super Marcato Bros podcast is hosted by brothers Karl and Will Brueggemann. Both are obviously big fans of VGM, but they’re also musicians themselves, with their own produced music (many of which are remixes or inspired tracks from games they love). Their musical talents play an important part in the podcast, allowing them to discuss each track presented in a deeper musical sense than other podcasts, analyzing a track’s harmonies or melodies or rhythms or instrumentation, even going to discussing them on a hardware level, which waveforms were used, how they handled the sampling, and generally how they handled all the sound channels during a specific track. The discussions are at a technical level unlike any other VGM podcast. And this the Super Marcato Bros. podcast’s defining quality.

The Episode topics range from music genres to game genres to specific themes like credits music or ice levels, to composer/developer focus episodes, and a host more. There is a lot of variety in their topic themes, and that goes for the track selection too, sourced from everything from 8-bit console and computer games, to modern games, to official and fan-remixes. And with an episode count of 148 as of this writing, the podcast was able to cover a lot of ground. Soon it will outpace even the Legacy Music Hour, so there is plenty of material for a new listener to go through.

Favorite episodes:

Show & Tell episodes: These “free play” episodes have the hosts “show & tell” recent track discoveries that they made to each other and the listeners. It’s a good way to understand each host’s musical and gaming tastes, with a good variety of tracks too.

Listener Show & Tell Episodes: These are like the Show and Tell episodes, but instead it is listeners who are doing the “show & tell” to the hosts, so it’s episodes where the whole playlist is listener suggested, and it’s clear that Super Marcato Bros. Fans have great taste.

The BGM Show

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Hosted by: Daniel New

Site: http://www.thebgmshow.com/

Status: Defunct, but used to be weekly, sometimes it took a few months hiatus. It never really had a strict release schedule.

Another old VGM Podcast, The BGM Show was hosted by Daniel New, who now writes for Thumbsticks.com. Since it started just a few months after The Sound Test, I listened to both shows concurrently, and they worked quite well as a pair. Both shows have similar formats and lengths, they’re light on discussions as the focus is clearly on the tracks themselves. But the track selection in both shows are quite different. While The Sound Test mainly had tracks from Japanese games, The BGM show was more focused on tracks from western games. Of course, there are plenty of tracks from Japanese games here (and western ones in The Sound Test), it’s just that the tracks that resonated with me the most from The BGM Show were from western games, music from Mafia II or Bully or from composer Jesper Kyd. I think the best way to summarize both The BGM Show and The Sound Test is that The Sound Test had tracks from games I never heard of, let alone played, while The BGM Show had tracks from games I never really “listened” to, games that are probably more well known but few have ever seriously checked out their soundtracks, if that makes sense, which is not something you’d see in a lot of VGM podcasts.

Another cool aspect is the episode theme. Of course, you have the a composer-focus episode on Jesper Kid (the only composer focus in the whole shows run), and you also have you Valve focus episode or SEGA Genesis episode, but for the most part, the themes in a typical BGM Show episode is more abstract than that. You have an episode about “Place” or “Youth” or “Bastards”. They’re not concrete rules that govern an episodes choice of tracks, but they definitely create a more harmonized playlist.

Favorite Episodes:

#25 Jesper Kyd: A focus on the Danish composer known for the Hitman series, who then moved to Assassin’s Creed, and recently worked on the Borderland series (though none of his Borderlands music is featured). But the episodes delves deeper into Jesper Kyd’s past, before his recent live-music compositions, and features a couple of his SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis soundtracks.

#09 Playful: This is a great showcase on The BGM Show’s particular “themes” which form an episode. The games featured in this episodes don’t really fall into any singular game genre, nor do their music fall into a single musical genre, but it’s clear that they all share a sense of “playfulness”, and it forms a more cohesive playlist than a playlist with a “harder” genre specification.

Honorable Mentions

These are podcasts I only recently listen to an episode or two, and haven’t really delved quite into, but I nevertheless suggest to check out:-

Sound of Play

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Hosted by: Leon Cox, Jay Taylor, and other members of the Cane And Rinse gaming site.

Site: http://caneandrinse.com/sound-play/

Feed status: Biweekly

The Sound of Play podcast comes from the Cane and Rinse podcast group (which you should check out too if you like an alternative video game podcast that is not about current events or brand new releases but instead focuses on a single game each episode, dissecting it from top to bottom). Sound of Play is a pretty straightforward VGM podcast, with a focus more on presenting great music that speaks for itself rather than having in-depth discussions about specific tracks. The episodes don’t have an overarching theme usually, with a random selection of VGM tracks from different eras. One thing I like about the podcast that I wish other podcast would do is that the hosts usually incorporate track selections from listeners into the episode (in fact, episode 6 was all listener-suggested tracks). All in all, a nice VGM podcast that I will be checking out more of soon.

Train Station at 8

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Website: http://www.whalesarewhales.com/trainstationat8

Status: Weekly

I only listened to one episode of Train Station at 8, but I think this is a very interesting and very unique take on the VGM podcast format. Rather than putting a big selection of tracks to listen to, with talks about them in between, the hosts and guests of each episode zero-in on one specific track of a game soundtrack, with super in-depth discussion about said track lasting about 20, maybe 30 minutes. Of course, there will also be snippets from different tracks of the same game here and there, and it’s obviously critical to examine the soundtrack on a whole in order to give a better context to the subject track, but for the most part, you will only listen to one track fully. The podcast is also guest heavy, as nearly every episode features guests like composers talking about their track that’s featured on an episode (or just talk about some track they really like, not necessarily one they made). There’re also VGM arrangers and remixers, such as Overclocked University (from the excellent OcerClocked remix site, which, again, you should check out too). There’re even other VGM podcast hosts, like VGMpire’s Brett Elston, or the Super Marcato Bros. All in all, it’s a great alternative VGM podcast that may not exactly have a lot of VGM in it, but definitely has a lot of informative and engaging talk ABOUT VGM in general.