Final Fantasy XIV #EorzeaIRL Runner-Up

Dragon Ball. Final Fantasy XIV. Can’t do anything else. This is my life, and it’s ending one duty roulette at a time.

So Square-Enix and the FF14 team started up a contest called #EorzeaIRL. The basic idea was to take a photo of something “in real life” that looked like or reminded you of a location in Eorzea (the setting for the game). I’ve been lucky enough to take some pretty spectacular vacations, so I figured I’d have something worthwhile to toss into the mix.

I remembered an hour before the contest closed to submit something. Whoops. I probably could have found something better, but this is what I came up with:

ff14_contest_winning_photo

On the left is a bit of ruins from Costa Maya in Mexico. On the right are the stairs leading down to the entrance to the Tam-Tara Deepcroft dungeon in the Central Shroud (with me waving at the camera like a doofus).

Obviously there are no walls surrounding the Costa Maya ruins, but I felt like the colors and overall structure seemed really darn similar enough to give it a try.

And hey, I got a runner-up award! I actually already own the Blu-ray soundtrack for A Realm Reborn and probably would have just tossed it on eBay, so perhaps it is for the best that I did not win one of the grand prize selections. I just received the confirmation asking for mailing info today, so I am definitely looking forward to seeing what the bag looks like when it comes in.

Definitely a cool little contest, and I am glad I entered!

Consolidating Old Websites

Whoops, better not let two years go by without posting something on a personal site that no-one actually views.

(Well, that’s not true. My “WHAT IS A CANNON” and Bardock posts actually still get lots of traffic.)

Anyway, I’m just consolidating things over here. There’s no “front page” anymore on vegettoex.com and vgconvos.com will soon just resolve over here. Speaking of which, “vgconvos” was a fun little experiment and could have made a lot more sense if we all still lived really super close by each other and weren’t all married off and starting families. Video games were never the number-one hobby for any of us, so yeah. Makes sense to just let it be a fun memory of a cool thing we tried.

I’m porting all of my own blog entries from said video game site over here to a “vgconvos” category since I did actually like some of what I wrote. Who knows? Maybe having everything tossed together in one place here will make it easier for me to type something up if I really feel like it.

I also think an updated “My Podcasting Setup ~2014ver.~” post is long overdue. But that has nothing to do with video games. Except I never get around to writing it because I’m playing video games.

Lo-Fidelity Mini-Resurrection: Episode 38′s Review

It’s July 4th, and that means a few things: grilling, beer, Will Smith fighting aliens, and Brad’s birthday.

Our buddy kicked us a tweet the other day saying he was listening to an old Lo-Fidelity episode. Remember that? We do, too! We actually have two full episodes (sorta kinda) that we recorded back in 2010 and 2011 that never saw the light of the day… until now. Well, again, sorta. I had edited together the review from episode 38, and we always intended to toss it out in some fashion, but just never got around to doing so.

So, with it being Brad’s birthday, and with The Early November‘s new album (In Currents) dropping next week, it made sense to finally toss up this review of the I Can Make A Mess Like Nobody’s Business album from back in March 2010, The World We Know.

Ta-dah!

(I haven’t really touched this file since 2010. Hopefully it sounds OK and is actually edited. The file name says it is. I’ll trust myself on this one.)

PSP Game Transfer and Error Message Woes

It seems I don’t exactly have the best luck with video game hardware lately. My 360′s USB ports seem to be on the fritz, my Wii has graphical glitches that seem to stem from WiiConnect24 (a story which I somehow missed back in 2007), and my PSP? Well, other than the one that just flat-out died in its first year, my replacement has been pretty fine!

The system has not gotten a whole lot of use over the previous year, last being the system of choice for a play-through of the original Suikoden. I have been amassing a bunch of PSP games (along with lots of cheap PS1 games via PSN) though, so I decided to pick up a 16GB memory stick to load up, which arrived a couple days ago.

Since tossing a 320GB drive into my PS3, I have greatly enjoyed using it as the central location for the entire PlayStation family (which is… well, really just the PS3 itself and the PSP for now) — I keep every single game I have purchased over PSN right there on the system without having to worry about juggling content due to limited hard drive space. That includes things like ~35 PS1 games, a crap-ton of free Minis, Neutopia for the PCEngine/TG-16, and the two free PSP games I got as a part of the “Welcome Back” program last year (LittleBigPlanet and ModNation Racers).

One of the features I have always liked so much about the tight integration with the two Sony platforms is the ability to play PS1 games on both systems with just a single purchase, and freely copy games and save files between them. With PSN being prone to massive slowdowns and bottlenecks (even with the magic of FiOS!), it has always made the most sense for me to just keep it all on the PS3, hook the PSP up to it via USB when necessary, and copy stuff over — it is far more efficient and painless than loading up the PlayStation Store on the PSP itself, navigating the store or my download history, and individually selecting things to re-download from there.

So imagine my surprise when I could not copy things over to my PSP the other night. There was simply no “Copy” option (navigate on the XMB to the item you want, press “Triangle”, select “Copy” when the PSP is hooked up and in USB mode; you can do the same thing with video and audio files when, for example, a USB stick is hooked up). That was… weird, to say the least.

Those familiar with the PSN download process know that, unlike over on the 360, the PS3 separates the “download” and the “install” of items. If you download an item from the store and let it be (without going to background downloading to putt around elsewhere), it will finish the download, and then immediately install the item. If you go elsewhere, however, the download file will sit in a type of “bubble”-icon within the “Games” section of the XMB — pressing the “X” button on this will “install” the game and place it into the appropriate folder (PS3 games, PS1 games, Minis, etc.).

I had a couple different types of files available to me, so I started experimenting. Could I press “Triangle” and then “Copy” a PS1 game already installed like I use to be able to? Nope. Could I do it with the Dissidia Duodecim Prologus Final Fantasy files (game + Aerith assist) that I had downloaded the prior day, which were sitting in a “bubble” above the folders? Yes. Could I do it with the three PS1 Syphon Filter games I downloaded for free the prior day as a part of PS+, which were also still sitting in their own “bubble” icons, not-yet-installed? Nope. Was the copy option there with Neutopia? Nope. Was it there for any of the Minis? Nope.

How about the PSP software from the “Welcome Back” program (which was not in a “bubble”, but filed in its respective PSP folder)? Yes, the option was there, but would result in an error message:

My next thought was that somehow I had too many systems “registered” with my online identity — I did have another PSP, after all (the one sent back to me was a replacement, not a fixed version of the same exact one I sent back). After slogging around the main us.playstation.com website and knowledge base, I ended up over on the account.sonyentertainmentnetwork.com website. From here, I was able to see that I had three systems “activated” with Sony and tied to my online ID: one PS3, and two PSPs. One of them was clearly the old system, which of course had been activated and tied to the account, but I no longer had physical possession of.

This, as I would correctly figure out, all ties in to a new policy Sony put in place this past November: the amount of systems that could be “activated” and tied to an account to play downloaded games would be decreased from five to two.

PS3: Users will be able to play the game on up to 2 activated PS3 systems.
PSP: Users will be able to play the game on up to 2 activated PSP systems.

Even then, the policy was confusing. What about things like PS1 games that were playable on both systems? Was that one PS3 system and one PSP system (equal to two total systems), or one PS3 system and two PSP systems, since that still restricted it to two systems of the same type? It went on to be clarified that the new policy was only applicable to new downloads you made after the November 18th cut-off — things you downloaded prior to that could still be played on the five-system limit.

Plenty of my content had been downloaded prior to that November 18th cut-off (things like Suikoden on the PS1, which had still been sitting there the whole time, and which I had transferred via the USB method from PS3-to-PSP a year prior), but that “Copy” option was inexplicably no longer there.

The next thing I tried was simply logging onto the PlayStation Store directly on the PSP, and checking my account information. All good there, with an accurate download history as well (though entirely out of chronological order, which is another mess for another day). I could even re-download things with no problem (such as Grandia for the PS1, which I had recently grabbed during its $2.99 sale). So it was not like I could not use content on my PSP at all, but the break-down point was clearly between the PS3 and the PSP.

It is here that we circle back to those three activated systems. Even with older-downloaded content, I wanted to check to see if perhaps having three systems was the problem. I tried to simply “activate” the PSP right on the system itself (“Account Management” –> “Activate System”). The error message: 80109D80.

Huh. OK. The new customer site allows you to remotely deactivate your systems, though you have to do it in one fell swoop, and cannot individually pick a system to deactivate. That was fine — I would just deactivate them all, and then re-activate the PS3 and PSP that I own and have in my possession. That seemed like the cleanest way to start fresh with the systems I truly, actually, physically had right in front of me and could fully account for.

It went fine for the first few steps. The deactivation went well, and I was able to activate the PS3 immediately. The PSP would not activate, however — not through the PS3 when hooked up over USB (“Account Management” –> “Activate System” –> “PSP System”), nor directly on the PSP. The following error message popped up each time and in each location: 80109D80.

OK, weird yet again. I tried a few more times (and attempted to look up the error messages on Sony’s own website, which was not even listed in their database!), and decided it was time for a call to PlayStation customer support.

The phone call was ~45 minutes in total. Probably ~10 of that was the initial maneuvering through automated prompts and being placed on hold for a live support representative. When I finally got through, “Joe” was totally awesome — regular ol’ fluent English-speaker dude, very personable, very understanding, very knowledgeable, and very quick to compliment me on actually knowing what I was doing and talking about at every opportunity he could (I can only imagine the crazies that call in).

I explained the whole situation, and as expected, the 80109D80 error code was not listed in his database, either. We tried a bunch of basic stuff first (check that the online ID is actually the same on both systems, restore the PSP to factory settings, try reactivating the system again, try different types of content again). I asked if attempting to activate a system so many times would raise some security flag. Joe asked how many times I had tried (I dunno… maybe 10?), and replied that if I had tried so many times, one more was not going to hurt — indeed, we kept getting the same 80109D80 error code. At some point Joe suggested that, if re-downloading on the PSP worked, I should just stick with that option. That was unacceptable to me, though, since I no longer had a feature that had always been available to me, and it was far more convenient to copy from the PS3 than to navigate to the store on the PSP and individually select each item to re-download.

Joe eventually decided that we reached the limit of what he knew and could do, so he asked if I would be willing to wait around 10 minutes for the next level up of a specialist. “Sure, why the Hell not?” I was only on hold for maybe one minute before Joe came back on:

“You’re not going to believe how we can fix this.” (well, something like that; it definitely started with “you’re not going to believe”)

For whatever reason that we still could not clarify, the new DRM wrapping and two-system policy was indeed the likely culprit. To test the possible solution, Joe wanted me to delete something on the PS3, re-download it, and see if I had the option to copy it over via USB mode — all while still on the phone with him. OK! I wanted to go with something small enough that would not take forever to re-download, so I chose Where Is My Heart?, the pretty-well-regarded Mini that I had not yet had a chance to play (~50 MB or so). Deleted, signed in to the PlayStation Store, re-downloaded. The game did not automatically install, so it sat there in the “bubble” icon above the folders. I selected it and tried to “Copy” it… and yes, the option was there!

New error message, though: 80029780.

The groan/sigh/laugh of understanding on the other side of the phone was hilarious. Joe knew exactly what this was. This was finally the “you have been locked out of copying files for seven days for too many activation attempts” error message (Sony’s site defines it as, “You have reached the maximum number of downloads for an unactivated system”). Yes, the account had eventually been flagged for security concerns. What was never really answered, though, is why older content (that should have still had the five-system limit, and had been copied a year before with absolutely no system changes or alterations in the mean time) could not be copied.

Thankfully, it was not as if the online ID was “banned” or not usable in other ways; I could still re-download items directly on the PSP if I wanted to, and seven days from that phone conversation, I would be able to start copying files again. The caveat was that I would have to re-download all of those items on the PS3 (to get the new DRM wrapping and account syncs) before I could transfer them to the PSP… which still means I have to re-download every single last compatible item, but at least it would be on the PS3 for centralized/future access.

So that is where we stand. Seven days from now I will try copying files over again, and will update the post with the results! With no real, well-written, informative posts out there concerning these specific error messages, my goal here is to hopefully save someone the trouble of how to go about “fixing” this issue; documentation for this kind of stuff is clearly limited. As Joe and I both discussed, we both knew exactly what we were doing and talking about, and neither of us could get it resolved in a timely fashion — how on Earth is the everyday gamer supposed to figure this out?!

Also, someone please give Joe a raise or at least a free day off. He was great. My favorite part of the conversation was (other than being told over and over how awesome I was) probably reading my online ID aloud (which is, of course, just “v – e – g – e – t – t – o – e – x”), and being asked with a laugh what that spells out. I wasn’t sure if that meant he knew who I was by some cosmic coincidence; if he did, he didn’t mention it. I guess that means it was just funny, and hearing someone else say “VegettoEX” to me on the phone is indeed hysterical.

If you will indulge me just for a tad bit longer, let me point out that the root of this entire problem was DRM (and specifically, a policy change with regard to DRM). I understand the reasoning for changing the policy — “game sharing” had (apparently) gotten slightly out-of-control. Reducing the number of allowed devices was an attempt to squash that issue in some way. The problem that it created was that I — a legitimate customer — was suddenly unable to do what I had previously been able to do with the items I purchased (well, “licensed”). All I wanted to do was transfer games from one system to another. Had I hacked my PSP and installed custom firmware, I would have been able to load up my memory stick with any PS1 and PSP game(s) I wanted, with absolutely zero restrictions.

I am not advocating for free-reign piracy on the system. This entire ordeal was a clear example of how the wrong approach and policy shifts within an existing DRM scheme can really rub your paying customers (and I have significant investments there) the wrong way, however. I have to be honest: in this case, the great customer service I received basically talked me out of finally getting around to hacking the damn system. The slightest extra inconvenience would have pushed me over the edge. I am half-tempted to buy another PSP just to have one totally legit and one with custom firmware just to compare the two experiences side-by-side.

Am I just being spoiled? Sure. I could have (as Joe suggested) just re-downloaded every item I wanted directly on the PSP rather than transferring it from the PS3. Why should I have to, though? I am almost starting to come around to a full understanding-and-sympathizing viewpoint of the “they took away my Linux!” crowd… and that was always crazy (albeit in an understandable way) to me.

Some Extra Funny Images

So late last month I wrote something called “The Great Canonical Debate” (it was pretty good; you should go read it). I wanted to include some type of moderately-snarky image of some type of god handing down a daizenshuu to go along with the section about how there is no officially-declared canon to the franchise, so I had requested on Twitter a great Photoshopped-image to include.

I ended up going with one by our good buddy Tekkaman-James — you might remember him as the great artist who brought Appuragas to life. As seen in my original article, here is James’ image (now available in full-size when you click! Whoa!):

I wanted to share some of the other ones that came in, though. Our One Piece-lovin’ buddy Alex tossed this together, which I almost used:

Our artistically-awesometacular buddy Karan gave us this one. I liked it a lot (‘cuz… it’s God. Get it?), but if you didn’t “get it”, it wouldn’t have really worked.

And that’s all I’s gots for ya’ today.

The Great Canonical Debate

It’s that time of year — there is a new DragonBall production (the animated adaptation of Episode of Bardock), and all the fans across the Internet want to know:

“Is it canon?”

Actually, they all ask if it’s “cannon”, and these people should all be promptly shot out of a cannon.

Back in August 2008 on Episode #0145 of our podcast over at Daizenshuu EX, we talked with our buddy Desire Campbell about the idea of “canonicity” with the DragonBall franchise. I’m pretty sure I remember a good deal of what we talked about, but if you’re looking for more (and someone else’s perspective, which is always important), definitely check out the episode.

It might be important to actually define what “canon” means. Let’s ask our good friends over at Merriam-Webster:

1
a : a regulation or dogma decreed by a church council
b
: a provision of canon law
2
[Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin, from Latin, model] : the most solemn and unvarying part of the Mass including the consecration of the bread and wine
3
[Middle English, from Late Latin, from Latin, standard]
a
: an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture
b
: the authentic works of a writer
c
: a sanctioned or accepted group or body of related works <the canon of great literature>
4
a
: an accepted principle or rule
b
: a criterion or standard of judgment
c
: a body of principles, rules, standards, or norms
5
[Late Greek kanōn, from Greek, model] : a contrapuntal musical composition in which each successively entering voice presents the initial theme usually transformed in a strictly consistent way

More often than not, you’ll see “canon” tossed out there with regard to religion. Lo-and-behold, most of the definitions you’ll see will thusly head in that direction. You’ve got things like the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were not “canonized” into the Bible. In other words, some dudes decided that those particular words written by some other dudes weren’t what they wanted to bank on and teach to more other dudes.

And that’s really the big difference between the Bible and DragonBall (among… uhh… a gazillion other things, I guess). Whereas the Bible has THE CHURCH™ to define which particular collection of stories into one book (and even which translation) they abide by, there is nothing like that with DragonBall. Sure, there are the ultimate rights holders and production companies, but none of them have ever come out and said, “Look upon ye’ official canonicalness!” and pointed over to a very specific number and type of books. No-one has ever blatantly said, for example, “movies don’t count” or “GT never happened”.

There are a couple things you might toss out there, though. “Hey dumbass!” you may say, “Toriyama said DBGT was just a side-story!” You would be correct, Mr. Rude Fan! In his introduction to the DBGT Dragon Box, Toriyama wrote, “DragonBall GT is a grand side-story of the original DragonBall, and it’ll make me happy for us to watch and enjoy it together.” What does that mean, though? Is he saying he personally does not consider it part of the story (and whether he does or does not, what does it matter to you?), or is he just making a general, sweeping statement?

You may go on to say, “Hey jerkface! Those diaz books put the movies on the same timeline as the manga, so it thinks they count!” You would be somewhat correct there, as well! At points, the daizenshuu will note how, if it had to fit, a particular DBZ movie would possibly fit in at Story-Point-X… but then go on to say that it would be impossible for it to work out that way. They acknowledge them, though, so are they considering anything they talk about part of the canon?

Which brings me right back to my main point: no-one’s ever sat down and said, “Mmm, yes… we consider the official story to be the original 519 chapters as written by Akira Toriyama, plus these other things, and absolutely nothing else what-so-ever!”

They just haven’t. No-one in any official capacity, that is.

image courtesy of our buddy Tekkaman James

I’m always curious what folks really mean when they ask: “is it canon?” How are they defining what “canon” is for themselves? I would assume what they’re asking boils down to something like, “Did someone say this is supposed to fit in with the original manga, and are we expected to accept it as always having been this way, despite it being shoehorned in so many years later?”

But it just circles back around at that point, since no-one’s ever said anything like that. Whenever a new animated special comes out (Jump Super Anime Tour Special), whenever a new spin-off manga comes out (DragonBall SD)… no-one from the production side ever makes any claim like that. They’re just making stuff for the sake of making stuff (well, they’re making stuff in an attempt to make money off you at some point down the line). They may make an attempt for whatever new story they write to fit in in the loosest sense, and maybe even give it a broader description, like was the case with Episode of Bardock, which was promoted as a “sequel” to the original TV special from 1990.

Well, of course it was a “sequel” — it picked up where Bardock’s story left off. You don’t have to like it, and it can be tons of fun to point out some of the inconsistencies which causes it to not actually work out flawlessly in conjunction with its inspiration… but no-one’s making any claim about “canon” in there. It just… kinda… “is”.

So are they inside or outside the ship…?

Lots of fans like to create their own canon. A pretty common one is: “if Akira Toriyama wrote it in the original manga between 1984 and 1995, I consider it — and nothing else — to be canonical”. That makes sense; it’s from the original author and written during the time frame of the franchise’s original publication and production.

They may go on to create different “levels” of canonicity, too. The manga may be the base level, and then the TV adaptation below it (basically “less seriously”). In cases like this, it’s usually for the purposes of ironing out contradictions (generally created by filler material or expanded conversations) and deciding which “truth” to go with.

Going even deeper, you have things like the movies and TV specials, and how they are placed into a canon, if at all. One traditional viewpoint is that movies 9 (Bojack) and 13 (Hildegarn) can pretty easily fit in with even the original manga, so hey, let’s consider them part of the canon just to flesh it out and have extra material. What about the TV specials? Bardock gets all the spotlight these days, but what about Trunks? The TV special adaptation took huge liberties from Toriyama’s original “TRUNKS THE STORY” (such as Trunks already being Super Saiyan versus transforming due to Gohan’s death), but most fans seem to “go with” the TV version, and usually because they simply like it more. Is liking something reason enough to consider it part of the canon, though?

Which is her natural hair color…?!

Whatever you “decide” to “go with”, it’s all fine and dandy. It’s a great way to get further involved with the franchise that you love so much, and even just to keep track of things in your ever-increasing head of knowledge.

But that’s really the extent that you can take it. You have examples like DragonBall GT, which was an officially-produced sequel (as in one of the rights holders, Toei Animation, had permission and the capacity to produce it). Is it part of the “canon”, though? Well, you can’t really answer that. Some fans will accept it since it continues where the story left off, and the producers were the ones who made it (as opposed to Joe Schmoe on the Internet writing another AF fan-manga). Other fans won’t accept it since Toriyama’s involvement was limited and only at the beginning of production. Other fans will accept it but also try to work in DragonBall Online, despite the two crossing paths.

No-one’s “right” or “wrong” here. There is no, to bring it back to the definition, “authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture”.

Maybe there is, though. I don’t see anyone debating that what Toriyama originally wrote for the pages of Jump shouldn’t be taken as “canon”. That’s pretty “accepted” as the “authentic works of a writer”, correct?

It gets tricky the instant you step outside of that, though. How about things that Toriyama wrote or decided later on after the series’ completion? There are things like Mr. Satan’s real name being “Mark”, the Kaioshin coming from the Shin-jin and apples and Makaioshin and all that jazz… the original author declared all this, so is it “canon”?

While we’re at it, what about the revised ending that Toriyama drew for the kanzenban? It’s from Toriyama. It’s manga. Is it “canon”…? What about the prior version? Should it be disregarded, as if it never happened?

That brings us to a fun little thought exercise. Let’s say that Toriyama decides he doesn’t just want to keep slapping his name onto things with a “supervisor”-esque credit anymore, and writes a true continuation of the series. It could be right after the original manga, or after GT — it really doesn’t matter in this example. What would you consider this new story? Would it be part of the canon for you? It could go one of two ways. One school of thought places anything that the original author writes for the series (in this case, let’s say just in manga form to keep it simple) in the canon. The other school of thought believes that unless it was part of the original series and was always intended to be a part of the series, it doesn’t matter if even the original author comes back to it — it’s still a new addition, separate from the original canon.

And that’s why I think you can’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) even attempt to ask: “is it canon?” No-one who produced the series seems to care enough to make a declaration of canonicity, and it continues to expand with new productions every single year. I’m not pulling the, “it’s a fun series from a poop-joke author” card here like I usually do, either (well, maybe just a little bit). It really does continue to build with so many different bits of lore every single year, and so much so that if you’re asking what the “canon” is, you’re already so far down the rabbit hole that you’ll never decide on a proper answer.

(Next time on “Mike Rants About Insignificant DBZ Stuff”, perhaps something like “Why you’re missing the point about battle powers”… along with some of the other great “God hands down ye’ golden daizenshuu” images folks slapped together for us!)

Otakon 2011 In Review

My first Otakon was back in 1999. I went for just one day, but for little 17-year-old Mike, it was quite an eye-opening experience. Bootleg CDs were obtained (how was I supposed to know what SonMay was?!), anime was watched (Hiko Seijuro walking on-screen during the Rurouni Kenshin OVA received the loudest applause I’ve ever heard), and fandom was confirmed.

Things are different in 2011. I first submitted an AMV in 2001, and then regularly from 2003-2008, nothing in 2009, again in 2010 (finally winning at Otakon with that one!), and doing many AMV panels there throughout the years with our generational cohorts. Shockingly (more so to us than maybe to anyone else), we actually skipped watching the AMV contest entirely this year — it conflicted with other events we had more interest in. All three of our panel submissions were declined, so unlike 2007 and 2010 with DragonBall-related panels (and other years in there sprinkled with AMV panels), we had nothing to prepare for in that regard. Even our hotel roommates had to bow out toward the end (through no real fault of their own), so it was the first time in around ten years that it was just the wife and I attending as regular ol’ attendees.

Having gone to the convention with that mindset (“I am just another person here!”), I felt like I actually had a lot to say about this year’s convention. Maybe some of it is helpful to someone. Maybe some of it is too rose-tinted. Maybe some of it is too critical. Maybe some of it will guarantee I never get another panel at the convention again. Oh, well.

COSPLAY

No, not of our own — never done that before — I’m talking about everyone else! I am of course drawn to the DBZ cosplay throughout the convention, but I notice a few other things here and there. Still a lot of Fullmetal Alchemist, still a bit of Ouran, a lot more Pokemon than in the past, still a good amount of Final Fantasy VII and Kingdom Hearts… you know, the usual suspects. What would normally annoy me (moderately disruptive behavior) was somehow one of my favorite examples of literal cosplay (as in playing it out in costume): the three dudes decked out in full Beastie Boys “Sabotage” outfits ducking and spinning down the hallway blaring the song on a boombox. I applaud you, good sirs.

Only managed to snap a few shots of DBZ cosplay this year, unfortunately:

Quite a few other good ones (Uub, Selypa). I should probably make more of a concentrated effort to take these types of photos. My bad.

WATCHINGS

The plan was to catch the Otakon debut of Trigun: Badlands Rumble and then head on downstairs in the short buffer period to get in line for Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos. I was led to believe both would be subtitled, but it turned out the Trigun movie would be dubbed, followed by a Q&A session with Johnny Yong Bosch. Having zero interest in the latter but still having an interest in seeing the movie, we crammed into line for the HD theater. A good portion of the folks behind us were told they would not make it inside, so I consider us somewhat lucky that we got in at all. Things ran about 15-20 minutes late, but with that being the norm for these types of events, nothing was particularly frustrating.

The dub was thankfully solid (not that I didn’t also think the same of the TV series dub, but it’s a Japanese production — I want to watch it in Japanese at a Japanese animation convention with one of the Japanese guests being the head of the movie’s Japanese animation studio [follow all that?]). As I’ve heard described elsewhere, the three main returning characters had re-castings that were so close to the prior actors that undiscerning ears might not even be able to tell the difference: Milly was a dead-ringer, Meryl was pretty close, and Wolfwood was better (from what little he spoke, anyway). I’m really glad we got a chance to see it first during a convention with such a massive audience, because I’m not sure it would have had some of the emotional impact just by ourselves, even at home in HD with surround sound. The instant Vash appeared screaming on the ground in the opening, the crowd erupted in laughter and cheers. The first moment Wolfwood’s gun/cross got unwrapped, the applause rivaled what I remember from Hiko slashing the Hell out of grunts back in 1999. These were magical shared moments, and ones that I will treasure for a long time to come. Without the audience? Next time I watch the movie, I will likely start picking apart some of the needless exposition, dragging pace of certain scenes, and occasional cheap 3D animation integration. Until then, every time I think of the movie there will be a smile on my face.

Like I said, the plan was to then run on down to Video 1 to get in line for the new Fullmetal Alchemist movie, but the overwhelming crowd and lack of a room-clear following the AMV contest left us in a weird situation: do we wait it out and hope we make it in, and what else could we be doing in the mean time if we decided to just bail? In retrospect, it sounds like we would have been able to get in if we stuck it out, but I’m OK missing out on one movie after having just sat through one immediately beforehand. Besides, without stadium seating, the poor short wife might not have been able to read the subtitles! Insert annoying “chibi” joke / FMA reference here. Funny, right?

We ended up walking on over to the Sailormoon / DBZ panel, instead. More on that later. Much more.

DEALERS ROOM

We buy less and less every year. We at least grab the obligatory gashapon to add to the display in our basement, but unless something major catches our interest (like the DBZ movie 4 program guide from last year), there really isn’t anything to pick up at a convention that I don’t already either own or have on pre-order elsewhere.

We perused the hanger in shifts this year: halfway through on Friday, and halfway through on Saturday. During our Saturday run, we happened across an enormous table filled to the brim with DBZ figures! Most dealers have a few figures and plushies from various series, but this guy had an entire table dedicated to just DBZ stuff. He (unfortunately) wanted to keep a low profile and had no business card or contact information (and declined an interview), but near as I could gather from what he let slip, he grabs a metric crap-ton of stuff when he goes to Japan, and when he needs to pay his daughter’s next college tuition fee, he heads to a convention and sells the stuff. What was most amazing to me was how reasonable his prices were — he easily could have added $5 to the price of any small figure, $20+ to the price of the larger stuff, and I would not have batted an eye.

picture swiped from our buddy TanookiKuribo

I had already grabbed the Piccolo “Creatures” figure elsewhere, and we picked up a few new ones from this dealer. Good little stash, I’d say.

I saw the program guides for DBZ movie 2 and the 10th anniversary movie, but I wasn’t willing to spend $25 a pop on program guides again this year. I almost walked out with a boxed copy of Famicom Jump: Hero Retsuden for the Famicom ($40), but the figure purchases changed that plan.

OTAKU IDOL

Something we had never attended before, Otaku Idol was at least a quick check-in for us this year with our friends Peter and Katie being participants. Due to what I assume is not wanting to overly criticize poor otaku souls, the largest dissections by the three judges were limited to things like “that song was within your range / maybe a little outside your range” or “great job moving around / I wish you moved around a little more”. We watched the ten finalists do their thing, and just about all of them were impressive in their own right. It was no surprise to hear that Peter ended up winning it all in the end based solely on his amazing “GA-GA-GA, GA-GA-GA, GAO-GAI-GAAAAAAR!” first-round performance.

IRON EDITOR

Since we didn’t make it to the Fullmetal Alchemist movie, we also had time later on to attend Iron Editor. After sitting around for a little bit waiting for the event to start up, we got the request to be judges yet again. I love that the AMV winners are played during the second half of the event, but that also means that we literally sit up there for one of the two hours and do absolutely nothing (well, we watch the videos along with the audience). I’m not sure how I feel about that. If we are asked again to be judges (which I certainly enjoy!), I will have to toss some ideas over to Peter (who took over hosting duties this year and did fantastically) in terms of how to make the judges appear to be more than dead weight on the stage. In the past we would choose some of the audience participants for contests, but even that isn’t enough. What else can we do? Hmm…

FAN PARODIES

We were mostly excited to see the Otakon debut of Fanboy Soze, but it sounded like there were a couple other new items being played that might also be fun to check out.

Our own Obligatory EVA Trailer was played Friday evening — that was an interesting experience. We put that together in 2003 when Sealab 2021 was still new. It actually won “Grand Prize” in the 2003 Anime Weekend Atlanta AMV Expo contest! I still love it to death and think it’s genuinely funny and well-put-together, even without any familiarity with either source material (Sealab and Evangelion). In 2011, though? Barely any response. Wow. Really goes to show just how much comedy is subjective, especially to an audience so many years removed from when it was originally created. Honestly, it was somewhat embarrassing. Really puts things in perspective! I wonder how many of our AMV-related works will stand the test of time — will any of them? I have an entirely different perspective since I actually worked on them, and can’t always remove myself from their creation process.

Fanboy Soze, the new parody from NoN.D.E. Fan Films, went over fantastically. The wife and I were discussing how we think the underlying plot point about how many series (particularly DBZ) getting re-released so many times in different formats may have went over the audience’s head a little bit, but everything else made up for it. All the right jokes hit home, and some that seemed like they may be too old or obscure for today’s fans (such as when “West of Home” in the Zork parody came up) really surprised me with how amazing the reaction was. Conventions really are the best place for parodies like these, and with both the video and particularly the audio being set up pitch-perfect this year, it just made everything all the more awesomer. For those interested, Scott has put together a jam-packed DVD with tons of extras. It’s currently available in a multi-part download via their forum.

The biggest surprise in the parody block Saturday night was Macross 7.5 1/2. Especially for a one-man production, I was absolutely blown away. The entire thing could have ended after the 1-2 minute introduction, and I would have been satisfied, but the fact that it went into a full-episode parody hit it out of the park. There were a couple instances where it dragged or became a little confusing, and of course a little extra production help could have helped, but all-in-all you can color me impressed.

PANELS

Oh geeze. Where to start?!

I guess I have to preface this by saying that I absolutely adore panels. When done well, they can be some of my favorite experiences and memories from a convention. I’ll never forget the discussion at Shoujocon one year equating Jem and the Holograms to American shoujo, the genre’s/classification’s relevance to something like Escaflowne, etc. The gekiga panel at Otakon a couple years back was a fascinating look at where hilariously-manly storytelling could go above and beyond shonen and seinen. Every year in between I have attended a panel that blows me away with the amount of research, knowledge, and professionalism that can be presented by mere fans to their comrades.

The other side of panels is what drove me to start doing my own, not to mention the podcast over at Daizenshuu EX. You know the ones — a dude or two sitting up front that simply like something and want to talk about it. Hey, remember that time Person X smashed Person Y in the face? Yeah, that was awesome! What do you think about Event Z? Yeah, that was pretty sweet. Any other questions? No? OK, let’s attempt to be funny for the next fifty-five minutes.

There is a time and a place for that type of conversation, but a panel at one of the largest anime conventions is not it.

Here is a break-down of all the panels we had the opportunity to hit up this weekend. This isn’t even cracking the surface of what was offered, but it might be a pretty good surface-level glance at the type of stuff available to attendees:

  • Remembering Satoshi Kon
    Presented by Daryl Surat (Anime World Order / Otaku USA), I knew what I was getting into with this one — a deliberate format, examples to back up claims, microphone etiquette, and all the other stuff that goes along with a fantastic panel. I learned new things, I remembered things I forgot, and gained an even larger appreciation for the late Satoshi Kon than I already had. Daryl gives himself a hard time by admitting that much of his research extends to on-disc extras and basic online research (indeed, much of what he covered is listed in the Satoshi Kon Wikipedia article), but it’s the way that it’s presented in-person that makes it so engaging. I can’t say enough good things about this panel.
  • Becoming a True Pokemon Master: An Introduction to Competitive PKMN Training…
    We arrived just after the start of this panel (thanks to having to run from the convention center over to the Hilton), and it was filled up enough to have to wait for a couple folks to leave before we were let in. That means we unfortunately missed the beginning portion, so I have no idea who presented the panel and how the first half went, but I was impressed enough with what I saw. Things were a little rough around the edges (you don’t need to read entire paragraphs off your PowerPoint presentation — please learn how to outline!), but the content was solid. I had never heard of “RNGing” before, so I can definitely say I learned new things. The content was excruciating for the wife who had zero knowledge and interest, so this was definitely one for the hardcore fans, and them alone.
  • Anime News Network
    Chris was at least aware of how bad this was and acknowledged it at the beginning, but the panel was basically just “what do you want us to talk about?” I can understand how that is  somewhat appropriate for a mainstay website/panel like this, so it gets a little bit of slack. Nothing particularly enlightening or enthralling either asked by the audience or answered by the panelists, but them’s the breaks. Lots of prizes for the audience, so at least the bribes were appropriate.
  • FUNimation
    The only industry panel we attended this weekend, FUNimation’s was by-the-books, covering recent releases, current statistics, upcoming plans, and a few light announcements. Nothing earth-shattering out of the panel (still no Sailormoon! Blargh!), but for the DBZ superfans, we at least got some preliminary clarifications about the upcoming Blu-ray sets (un-cropped, apparently a new remaster). It sounds like they had one or two more announcements they were hoping to make, but the ink wasn’t dry and they had to hold off on them. Oh, well!
  • Deculture! A Macross Panel
    Walked out after the first ten minutes. The panelists did not introduce themselves, could not get their words out, seemed woefully unprepared, and did not know how to use a microphone anyway. Having recently watched the original Macross TV series (finally!), we have still been riding a high of enjoyment about the franchise. An overview of all the series and some new tidbits of information sounded like a great time. Unfortunately, this seemed like it was destined to be the exact opposite of a great time.
  • Unusual Manga Genres
    We only managed to catch the second half of this one as presented by Erin Finnegan (Ninja Consultants / ANN), but it was still a great time — endless examples of every niche genre spanning hilarious to serious and back again. She knew what she was talking about, was aware of the time constraints and adapted appropriately where necessary, spoke loud and clear… again, another fantastic panel that both enlightened and entertained, the two things I want out of every panel.
  • Masao Maruyama Q&A
    Despite him attending the convention for years, I think this was actually the first time we had a chance to stop by the Madhouse director’s general Q&A panel at Otakon. Another by-the-books professional panel with the expected questions from the audience, but a great and honest commitment by Maruyama to secure funding for and complete Satoshi Kon’s unfinished work (The Dream Machine) was a testament to his own professionalism and integrity.
  • Noburo Ishiguro Q&A
    Why waste time talking about things like Yamato and Macross when you can spend 20 minutes talking about the production of Cream Lemon?! That’s how things roll with Ishiguro! Lots of fantastic anecdotes dropped in this woefully-ill-attended panel.
  • Birth of a Generation: Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon
    In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that we submitted detailed proposals for two DBZ-related panels (one was media-focused regarding parodies and homages in both Japanese and American popular culture, while the other was a more formal dissection of how and why the franchise seemingly failed in Japan this past year). Neither were accepted. I can deal with that — we got our panel last year, it went well, and I suppose you can have someone other than the folks who run the oldest-currently-running and largest English-language resource for the franchise who do this stuff on a daily/weekly basis run a panel about it (ugh, sorry for how amazingly egotistical that sounds… but I’m also not sorry…). This was going to combine TWO FRANCHISES, so I totally get it: twice the potential audience. Makes complete sense, and I might make the same decision. Unfortunately, it was quite possibly the worst panel I’ve ever attended in my life. To be fair, we arrived about 25 minutes into the one-hour block. It looks like they had a PowerPoint at some point, but by the time we arrived, they were already well into a line-up of questions from the audience. The two panelists admitted they weren’t really experts (they just like the series), could not answer any of the legitimate questions asked of them (one regarding “the lost movie” from DBZ), and spent far more time bantering about whether Tuxedo Mask, Moonlight Knight, or Super Saiyan Vegeta would win in a fashion contest, or just how friendly Goten and Trunks really were with each other. The audience walked all over them, the panelists let them and indulged them with each and every painful question, and I struggled to convince the wife to stick around and watch the rest of the train wreck with me. Here’s the conundrum, though: the audience seemed to love it. They cheered with each and every Q&A, kept running up to ask more questions, and seemed to be having a great time. Plenty of people walked out, too, but plenty of people walk out of every panel, so I can’t really make a call in that regard. It just flabbergasts me. These people had absolutely no authority, no real preparation, no presentation skills at all, and yet received both a time slot and free compensation. I’m sorry, what world am I living in that this is not only OK, but appreciated by the audience? Am I the crazy one, here? One of the reasons I love doing panels is that I get a chance to share information and adoration with fans who don’t already partake in that stuff online. They have questions, I have answers, and everyone leaves in a good mood with knowledge they didn’t have an hour prior. That fulfills me in a way that I don’t get in any other fashion at conventions these days anymore, and with the personal interaction that even the podcast doesn’t truly have. At this point, I just don’t even know what to do about it.
  • The Abridged Panel
    A perfect example of a lackluster panel for me, but an extravaganza of awesomeness for others, and one that I totally understand and respect. People attend these panels to see their favorite “Abridged” series creators do some voices, share some new clips, yell things when bubbles appear on the screen, and gracefully accept the random fortune cookie tosses. Thrown in the mix you have people asking the obligatory questions like how to get into abridging on their own, and at the end of an hour, you’ve got a fantastically-attended panel full of laughs. I get it. Not for me, but I get it.

MEETING PEOPLE

With no panels of our own, we didn’t even bother trying to set up some type of community meet-up. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that if I was putting in so little effort, I wouldn’t be meeting too many new people! Major props to Doug (“Drabaz”) for recognizing me during the Friday evening fan parodies block. Having just recently spoken with him on our podcast about his custom LittleBigPlanet level, it was great to chat in person for a bit. The only other new meeting took the entire weekend, but I finally got a chance to man-hug our buddy MasakoX from TeamFourStar after the giant “Abridged” panel Sunday morning. It would have been criminal for him to have flown all the way out here and then never get a chance to say hello at some point, so I am incredibly grateful for him taking the time out of autographing gazillions of program guides, DVDs, books, bare chests, and whatever else fans were throwing his way to instead briefly hang out with us.

There were of course all the catch-ups with old friends, but two new people? That’s it? Lame, Mike. Very lame.

SO WHAT DID I ACTUALLY THINK?

Otakon 2011 was pretty fantastic. We saw a lot of great people, saw a lot of great things, had a great time, and I don’t see why I won’t be back in 2012 for my 14th consecutive time to the only convention I actually still go to. Some things still need work, but they always do, and I look forward to seeing it continue to evolve.

Why “Episode Of Bardock” Makes So Much Sense

You heard the hesitancy as we started discussing it on Episode #0262 of our podcast over at Daizenshuu EX — there is yet another transformation on the horizon for a character that never received it during the course of the series.

Say it with me: “Who the mother eff-in’ eff cares…?!

As more and more news trickled out though, and especially up through this week with reading about the first “Episode of Bardock” chapter, I have really come around on this.

Think to a couple years back when this “new transformation” revival all began (acknowledging that we had a few prior examples such as Yamhan in DragonBall Z / Budokai 2):

We were introduced to Super Saiyan 3 Broli via Dragon Battlers and Raging Blast. Even in the home console game, he had absolutely no story — you spent the twenty stars to unlock a new stage to fight the character, and that was that. There was nothing special about it at all. The form simply existed, as-is, with no context. He was hyped up in promotional videos for the game, so that’s something… I guess?

The same thing happened the same year with Super Saiyan 3 Vegeta — we got an introduction via Dragon Battlers, followed by inclusion in Raging Blast with no contextual story to even frame the darn thing, once again obtaining the character by purchasing a stage with twenty stars (and completing said stage). SSJ3 Vegeta was just another slot on the character select screen. I mean, the stage essentially starts with Vegeta saying, “OK, here I am with Super Saiyan 3! Let’s fight!” and ends with the narrator saying, “Yep, all the Super Saiyan 3 characters just fought, and people like to get stronger!” Could there possibly be any less to it…?

Even if you did care about another couple characters getting such a powerful transformation (one whose point was, arguably, the fact that not everyone could do it), I can’t fathom how anyone could possibly get “Super Excited” about it without that key word there: context. Why did they transform? How did it happen? Was it an accident, or did they work toward it? When in the time line would this transformation happen? Is it just assumed that their target was Goku?

Toss this year’s Super Saiyan 3 (Future) Trunks from DragonBall Heroes into the mix, and you have one giant, steaming, smelly pile of apathy coming from this jaded, old fan.

Like I said earlier though, things are a little different with Super Saiyan Bardock. While he was first revealed as a new card and character for DragonBall Heroes in Japanese arcades (something so far removed that most English-speaking fans will never have the opportunity to experience it), it kept building from there. Next up was word that there would be a special manga presentation in V-Jump. Then Naho Ooishi (of DragonBall SD and the Jump Super Anime Tour manga adaptation) was going to be involved with it. Then it was going to be a three-part short story involving Bardock that ties in the new form from the arcade game. Then the Bardock TV special, along with the Trunks TV special, from DragonBall Z were finally going to be released as individual DVDs in Japan, previously only ever being available as extras within the two DBZ Dragon Box sets released back in 2003.

It was suddenly all Bardock all the time. He had his opportunities to shine here and there (for example, as one of the extra unlockable characters in Burst Limit alongside Broli), but it was never in a leading role like this.

This was an all-out assault crossing over to different media, providing opportunities for different types of fans to finally get engaged on a deeper level. Card collectors could pick up the card. Arcade dwellers could add him to their arsenal. Manga fans had a new story to read. Re-releasing the TV special lets the anime fans get caught up with the back-history (or in the case of younger fans, see it for the first time!).

This is a fantastic step toward extending the franchise and getting fans excited again. Up until now, everything has been developed and sectioned off into its own little silo with little-to-no cross over. Plan to Eradicate the Super Saiyans was included in Raging Blast 2, sure, but its assets were all still just within the one game (such as including Hatchihyack as a playable character). All of the new story bits have been introduced in DragonBall Online, sure, but they are again all within the one game. The closest may have been the Jump Super Anime Tour special, which was legally streamed (in various subtitle languages!) online, received a two-part manga adaptation (albeit released only just the one time, so if you missed it you lost your one and only chance), and had Tarble included as a playable character two years later in Raging Blast 2. Maybe the closest example of true merchandise extension so far were the two SSJ3 figures released under the DragonBall Kai Banpresto HSCF label:

(images courtesy our buddy Raithos)

Those examples have all felt like afterthoughts, though. The fact that “Episode of Bardock” is being treated as a “sequel” to the original anime story and has elements being spat out to so many other areas is a great sign. There is a clear amount of effort being put into this: new characters, new names (complete with puns!), research on proper locations that these events might take place in, etc. It is all being done right from the start, too, as opposed to tossing something out (such as a figure) later on down the road. Assuming they start off this way and continue with new items to enhance this story (a scenario in Game Project Age 2011 perhaps? a SSJ Bardock figure, of course? a re-release of all Ooishi-drawn manga in compilation form a year from now, maybe?), then we know they are on to something!

These companies (specifically Toei / Shueisha / Namco-Bandai) are finally realizing that their tactics need to change. With merchandise sales for the franchise decreasing year-over-year since 2007 (7.9 billion yen in fiscal 2007 to 2.7 billion yen in fiscal 2011), something had to give.

They are on the right track — Bardock and some back-history is a great place to start. Keep in mind that this is not about using something as minor as “Episode of Bardock” (and its associated releases) to bring the franchise back to the sales levels of 2007 (never mind the 90s), but rather about keeping it alive at all instead of fading into complete obscurity again until a third wave comes along a few years from now. It will be fun to see if they have a plan to sustain the franchise, or just got lucky with this one.

Mike’s Spring/Summer 2011 Gaming

People seem to want to hear my thoughts on video games, or at least my experiences with what I have been playing… so hey, let’s just dive right in and pretend it has not been a little over three months since my last contribution.

I think what I will cover here actually brings you completely up to speed with my gaming experiences over those last three months since finishing Suikoden — anyone who knows me even the slightest bit knows how slowly I plow through games, so if you expected more, you are out of luck!

As per the norm when covering such a huge amount of stuff, do not expect “reviews” or “well-written commentary” here — it’s all just a string of consciousness. Blame yourselves for asking for it! ^_~

DragonBall Kai: Ultimate Butôden

I plan on finally writing a full review for this game over at Daizenshuu EX, so between what you have already heard on the podcast over there and what I will be writing in the future, you have plenty to dive into. Suffice it to say that this game surprised the heck out of me, and it is a gigantic shame that it will likely never see release outside of Japan.

Besides, this was way back in February, so as The Internet likes to say: “old!”

Pokemon: Black Version

After wrapping things up on the PSP with Suikoden, I was just in time to jump into the new Pokemon. It had been about a year since playing through SoulSilver, a game that I finished but never truly “got into” the same way that I went all out in FireRed and Pearl — but that is a subject for another time. I am just crossing the 100 hour mark in the new game, having defeated “N” and participated in a good amount of end-game content (gathering up the sages, catching all currently-available legendaries, etc.). I have not yet taken on the Elite 4 (and Adler, the actual champion) again because — *gasp* — I have sunken to the depths of specific egg move breeding.

This is something that I have always been vaguely aware of, specifically with the promotion of Pikachu and the move Volt Tackle, but have never bothered to get into on my own. I have sadly gone down the rabbit hole, and I do not know if I will ever return. I have the aforementioned Volt Tackle along with Thunder Punch on a Raichu, a Lucario with Blaze Kick, a Milotic with DragonBreath, and (probably my favorite of all) a Ferrothorn with Rock Smash and Leech Seed. I have no idea what my “team” will be, but I am having a pretty good time toying around with selective breeding for the first time ever. It is a fun compromise between “enjoyment” and “insanity” before dipping even further down into I.V. Training. It fascinates me how much mathematical depth is down a few layers deep, but is always held back in any obvious way from the players. I will concede that having two DSes out (and thinking a third would be helpful) does indeed border on insanity.

None of this is too much of a surprise. Like most of the players who get through the “main campaign” of the game, I find that I enjoy the end-game content far more than anything else. It is as if the game is just stringing you along for a couple dozen hours until the entire world is open and available for you to do whatever you want. That’s a pretty “duh” statement and reflection to all of you, though, isn’t it?

I feel that there is a ton more I could say about the game, but I would probably be doing it a disservice without spending hours upon hours pouring over my experiences with it to come up with an “ultimate post”. I really enjoyed all of the continued improvements, as iterative as they always are, that have been made to the game (though I am left scratching my head why the option to keep the equivalent of “running shoes” on at all times was removed since last year’s Gen II remakes — I hate holding down the “B” button, and I do not always want to be riding the bike). There are some fun daily events to return to, and the Dream World does an interesting job of extending what they started last year with the Pokewalker.

The game is not revolutionary. It is what it is. It is the type of game that lets me get my OCD jollies out so my life still feels balanced. Sometimes that is all I need.

Kirby’s Epic Yarn

The wife and I attempted to play through New Super Mario Bros. Wii together, but ended up putting it aside after one world almost entirely because we got in each other’s way, rendering the game “un-fun”. The two of us have plenty of Mario masteries under our belts (each copy of Super Mario World in our house has that little star next to the 96), so to suddenly be forced to work in tandem with someone else while simultaneous pulling off death-defying leaps of faith was something our brains could not process.

So what made Kirby’s latest adventure any different? The adorable art direction (in many ways taking cues from LittleBigPlanet, and likely in more than just the art) melted our frozen hearts of gamer disgust. It took several months after receiving the game last Christmas, but we finally got around to jumping into the game. It took only around seven or so hours to complete, but like everything else I do with video games, that was spread across a few weekends.

That word “adorable” really sums up everything about the game, especially if you toss “charming” into the mix, too. Particularly on the Wii, art direction and style really means a lot, and it was clear how much the developers took this to heart. The world is colorful, brimming with personality (even the generic “ice stage” has its own distinctive feel), and the right amount of cameos to make it feel fresh while still harkening back to what makes Kirby games what they are. Solid mechanics are a must for Kirby, and they work as expected (that is, perfectly) — a little bit loose and floaty, but tight and responsive at the same time.

While plenty have derided the game for its “you can’t ever actually die” kid-friendly difficulty tone-down, this really was the best choice for the style of game they produced. Even though the majority of levels are on the short side, there were very few that I would have wanted to play even a second time through — a “wash, rinse, repeat” cycle of dying and re-playing would not have worked for them. On the flip-side, that also gave me little reason to want to go back and collect any of the trophies we may have missed (three in each level, similar to the golden coins in recent Mario games) or shoot for a gold medal based on the number of gems collected. We saw it all on one pass through, and simply getting a better grade for the sake of it just was not compelling enough of a reason to return.

Yeah, yeah… all that “art” and “game play” stuff is important, but let’s be honest: the amazing narration work by Dave White is what really makes the game so great.

Portal 2

I got slightly burned on this game, and not in the way you might expect. Amazon was offering it for $5 off plus a $20 credit for pre-ordering the console version of the game, and even though I had no interest in playing the game on anything other than my PC, the PS3 version came with the PC version for free. I decided to go that route and put the free $20 toward the next Dragon Box set. Of course, when the game came in, PlayStation Network was down… meaning I could not redeem the code by linking my account on Steam via the PS3 to get the PC version. It took me a while to get around to playing the game (missing out a bit on the “being an active part of the discussion upon launch” diddly-doo), but it all worked out in the end.

There is really nothing I can contribute to the discussion about this game. What can I say? It was super fun. I was genuinely surprised by the story at certain points, loved all the characters, and even though (yeah, I’m going there) the controls felt a little “console-ified” on the PC, it played like butter. I thought the third section of the main story (post-goo) was a little much and hurt the pacing, but not enough to drag down the whole package. I still have to go back and play co-op, something I can’t wait to do — just gotta find the time and a partner!

It’s more Portal. It’s done well. C’mon, now.

Mortal Kombat

I have written a bit about how I got into Street Fighter, and while I touched upon Mortal Kombat a little bit, I do not think I gave the gory game series of greatness enough credit. As wonky as the fighting engine has always been, it has been a source of hilarity and unironic enjoyment for me. Like most people (I presume), the series faded into obscurity for me after MK3/Ultimate/Trilogy. I no longer cared about the increasingly-convoluted story (yes, I genuinely thought the story was moderately interesting — sue me), the early generation of polygonal fighting games were terrible (and would not impress me at all until Virtua Fighter 2), and I was busy exploring other genres of games, anyway. Oh yeah, and Street Fighter.

I was interested in “MK9″, but purposefully did not actively keep up with its development. If it ended up as a surprise hit, fantastic. If it didn’t, that was perfectly fine, too. Early access to the game’s demo via PlayStation Plus piqued my interest for sure, and a price drop to $40 on Amazon shortly after release was too much to pass up.

Cruising through the story mode, I found myself enjoying the Hell out of how abysmal it was and simultaneously also loving every second of reliving story bits I knew so well from the past — a “reboot” set in the same time period that does not ignore the original version was a fantastic idea.

What is there to say? It is Mortal Kombat, but updated and relevant again. Lots of characters still play the same way as each other (defined only by their special moves), the mechanics still feel a little stiff and imprecise, but dammit, it’s a lot of fun. To reboot with the entire Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 cast is a pretty fine achievement, allowing room to flesh out a collection of go-to characters — I’m still loving Nightwolf (as lame as he is), Kabal, and Smoke… but my ol’ buddy Ermac just isn’t cutting it any more.

Like I said for Pokemon, in the case of Mortal Kombat, it is what it is. It is not going to win over fans of more refined fighting games, but it is a fun romp that has both cleaned and dirtied itself up in all the right ways. It may be getting shoved to the side a little bit in favor of the next two games a little bit, but as I am moderately excited for the upcoming DLC characters, and with “King of the Hill” being as fun as it is, this is one I will continue to pop in over and over.

Demon’s Souls

Wait, what…?

I own a lot of video games that I feel “I should own” — I’m that type of person. Persona 3? Sure, I will likely never get around to it, but I am glad knowing I have it if I am ever ready for it. Shadow of the Colossus? Well of course I should own and play that some day. Huh? What’s that you say? Better versions of each game exist now (PSP and PS3, respectively)…? Well crap.

When Demon’s Souls went on sale for ~$15 on Amazon with its soundtrack last holiday season, it was an extra that I tossed into an order with some presents for other folks. “Mike,” I said to myself, “You will likely never play this game because it is incredibly difficult. You hate hard games, you have more games than you know what to do with, and you are a fool.”

Well, fine. Sure. All of that is true. Except that I am playing it now. I really do not know what convinced me to toss it in. A free afternoon will do that to a guy.

Every experience you have heard about the game (particularly the Zero Punctuation review) is entirely accurate: you start, you die, you get a little further, you die, and eventually you beat a boss. I am feeling pretty great about myself for completing the first stage of the game (“1-1″, the first area of Boleteria) with maybe only three or four deaths — I do not know how I got through that bridge area (with the dragon spewing down fire from above) alive, but I did!

It has been a fascinating learning experience in training myself to not just run around and hit R1 to slash everything to death — attempting to do so will only lead to, well, more death of my own. Pull up that shield. Parry some attacks. Try to circle behind the enemy. Toss a firebomb down there. The game’s pace is so slow, but the way your heart will race with each new encounter will lead you feel otherwise.

I have been enjoying the online messages, which may have been a reason I decided to start playing the game sooner than later — once the servers are taken down (and they have already been extended before), that component of the game will be gone. Sure, most of the messages are garbage, but even the occasional, “No, for reals, beginners really shouldn’t go down this corridor” have been helpful.

Why do I enjoy the abuse so much? Can someone explain it to me? We will see just how far I get in the game before politely tossing it aside — I have already resigned myself to the fact that it is a game I will never complete (then again, I so rarely complete games that it will not be too much of a change for me). For now, I am enjoying that abuse and want to see a little more of the world. Maybe I just feel it is important to step outside the usual gaming box and see what else is out there. Maybe the underlying character stats are pulling me in.

Maybe I just wanna cut up some demons. Or dragons. Speaking of which…

Dragon Quest VIII

As Pokemon winds down for me, I have been looking at what my next Japanese RPG should be. I have been saying for a while how I almost cannot even comprehend playing these types of games anymore if they are not portable, since the concept of sitting around and grinding away at battles while sitting on the couch at home seems like the last thing I would ever consider a “good idea”. I pretty much assumed my next game would be one of the DS Dragon Quest remakes, since IV/V/VI are sitting right there staring back at me. I briefly thought about heading into Radiant Historia next (based on the fact that Pokemon and Dragon Quest were similar in the grindy-grindy sort of way), but if I knocked that one out first, all I would have left would be the grindy-grindy games.

Imagine my surprise when I decided I would do the unthinkable: play a Japanese RPG on a console again. Pokemon is still not quite over for me, and I was looking at playing something alongside Demon’s Souls on nights that I did not feel like playing the DS, but also did not want to concentrate super hard on reflexes and real-time battles.

I knew it had a 16:9 mode to toy around with, I knew it had great voice acting, I had such a great time with IX… hey, why not dive into Dragon Quest VIII…?

At about four hours in (which includes the requisite “stay close to town and grind for a while” opening tactics), I do not have a whole lot to say about the game just yet. It pains me to say it in light of his historical revisionist alignments, but Koichi Sugiyama‘s musical score fits the game like a glove, and has gotten quite a few approvals from the peanut gallery during play sessions. The cel-shading engine brings Akira Toriyama‘s character designs to life, and upscales quite nicely (though the lack of a progressive mode knocks it down a peg). The little story vignettes that I loved from IX (and from what I gather are a staple of the series) are already in full effect, and I cannot wait to learn more about the world.

I also just got a boomerang for my hero (who’s named “Vegetto”, of course), and that just plain ol’ rocks.

That being said, even though it is early in the game, I can definitely appreciate the difference between this and IX. Playing them in “backward” order has been a fun way to see how the main series evolved/devolved, and not even necessarily for “better” or “worse”. One of the things I loved so much about Chrono Trigger (a game that came out 14 years earlier than Dragon Quest IX) was the lack of random battles. It has actually been easier than I thought to go back to a console RPG with random battles — I think the wild-critter-every-step nonsense in Pokemon makes everything else seem like cake. The jump from the later game’s non-defined characters (my team consisting of Vegetto, Snow, Trunks, and Uub) back to a non-verbal hero supported by a cast of well-defined, vocal characters is a fun one. Again, none of this is qualified, but just “different” and fun for being that way. I suppose that is just a “statement of fact” that really does not add anything to the discussion, but hey… I am only four hours in.

Minecraft

Have I talked about this with any of you before? Since we have not done a “vgconvos” podcast episode in over a year (and no search results turn up for it), I doubt it!

I got in right before the alpha period ended, figuring a couple bucks for guaranteed updates to a game that a million or so people were enjoying didn’t sound like a bad idea. I wish I could say more about it, but it has actually been a little bit since I last played. I am not enjoying the level of pain that I have started getting in my mouse hand (started using a tablet at work, scaled back on content creation over at Daizenshuu EX… yeah, sucks getting older), so other than the quick plow through Portal 2, I have scaled back on (what little) PC gaming I was bothering to keep up with.

After learning my way around (and I mean that — after dying the first time it took me days to figure out which direction I had originally headed in to build my first base, after which I promptly built a giant, torch-lit wall so I could see it from a relative distance), I started digging and digging and digging. I have built two base camps connected by a stone bridge in one direction, and recently an air rail in the other direction (crossing across different masses of water and circling back around, if that makes any sense). I have started building more bridges out into the distance so I can find my way back — even with a compass, I feel that I will just end up aimlessly wandering without a distinct path to follow to and fro. I have visited The Nether, I have some diamond weapons, and I have endless series of tunnels that I promise myself I will one day connect to each other.

I find that I enjoy hearing about other folks’ adventures in Minecraft, so if there is any kind of “demand”, I would be happy to take pictures of my building monstrosities. They are pretty terrible, but I had fun making everything.

When I have a couple minutes here and there, I boot up the game and continue digging along in one of my underground tunnels. It is cheap, fun times.

So What’s Next…?

Well, that is a fantastic question — I wish I knew the answer! I have plenty of other console games waiting in the queue. In light of the apparent shut down of developer Game Republic, I feel like I should probably tackle Majin & the Forsaken Kingdom at some point soon. The DS has plenty of RPGs waiting for me, so I could really just grab a game at random off the shelf and go for it.

What about you all? What have you been playing recently, and what gems have I still not gotten around to playing?

My Podcasting Setup ~2011ver.~

Having done a first version and then a ~2010ver.~ a year later, after upgrading a few things, it made sense to follow-up with a… (wait for it)~2011ver.~ post. So how ’bout them podcasts, huh?

When we last checked in on the setup, I was considering cleaning out one of the extra rooms in our finished basement to make a quasi-”recording studio”. The room was a moderate disaster of half-empty boxes and miscellaneous extra crap from when we first moved in, but it would likely make for a fantastic recording area — low ceiling, closing door, a desk was already there, and the wireless signal reached all the way down there from two floors up.

Well, the room got cleaned out, and we have been recording down there for a few months now. I couldn’t ask for much better out of such minimal work! Here is an updated, general view of the area:

With the overview done, let’s dig into the hardware! I again have to preface this by saying that I don’t actually know anything about audio or any type of engineering, so this is all self-taught, trial-and-error based on moderate research and reading. I’m probably doing stuff wrong, I’m probably doing it all inefficiently… but it seems to be working out so far. Take my advice and recommendations with a modest-sized grain of salt.

One of the most important upgrades has been from the Behringer Eurorack UB802 (~$50-60) mixer to the Mackie 1202-VLZ3 (~$300) mixer. In addition to the two additional XLR inputs (which means no longer daisy-chaining something like Jeff’s mixer when he comes for a “Manga Review of Awesomeness”), I have much greater control over just about everything. It’s just an all-around better mixer. As I read in the reviews, I noticed a better sound with the same microphones I was already using, and there was a noticeable amount of less noise in the output signal — when tweaked properly, it is essentially whisper-quiet.

The output is still going from the “Tape Out” via the Behringer U-Control UCA-200 which came with my work mixer — no, I’m cheap and still haven’t purchased my own stand-alone UCA-202 (~$30) or similar device. This is one area that I may eventually upgrade. I’m not sure how or what I will do, since a dedicated Firewire setup is above and beyond what I need, but it feels like there might be a better way to get the audio to the computer with even better clarity and possibly normalization. Currently, the U-Control takes over as the input device, so switching Windows’ properties for what handles “in” and what handles “out” lets me use that for input, while still using the laptop’s on-board sound for output to headphones (to listen to test recordings and/or anyone on Skype).

Over on the microphone side, everything is basically the same as it has been for well over a hundred episodes. I am personally still rocking the MXL 990 condenser microphone (~$50-70), which is held up by a Samsom BT4 boom stand (~$40).

Within the last couple episodes, I have been keeping a duplicate of that same setup around for the wife so as to avoid using the Shure microphone (see below). It’s not that it’s a terrible microphone, but if I have something that’s so much better, why not use it? Having identical microphones in use (instead of both a dynamic and a condenser) also seems to help the levels and who gets picked up how much on which microphone across the room.

For when the extra microphone is absolutely necessary, I have at least tossed the Shure 8900 dynamic microphone (~$50) on an On-Stage MSA-9508 side boom (~$10-15) and gooseneck extension so it is far more adjustable in terms of position and comfort, instead of directly on top of the old RadioShack Heavy Duty Microphone Stand with Cast-Iron Base (~$30). The RadioShack stand with a larger mic clip and the boom extension also doubles as the Rock Band accessory of choice for guitar + vocals, so it all works out in the end.

In terms of headphones, I use the simple but serviceable Sennheiser HD201 (~$20-30) headphones. They are closed-ear with a super long cord, and they sound crystal-clear enough for the recording quality that I work with every week, so I haven’t felt the need to go nuts in this area.

You will probably notice some other stuff in the room that handles I guess what can only be called “logistics”. Perhaps you wonder how it is that we all read notes on the “Manga Review of Awesomeness” (OK, Jeff just uses his iPad, now…) or e-mails. Do we print out notes? Of course not! A second monitor mirrors the display from the laptop for others in the room to keep up with the general show outline. I am really tempted to put a flat-screen TV up against that wall on the left in the future, though — not only would it be incredibly bad-ass, but it would give the entire room a larger, more convenient view of the screen, too.

To just wrap up this section of the post, here is my general view of the room each and every week:

So what about the software and actual recording? Not much has changed in that area, except the effort I ask of my usual participants coming in over the Internet.

Everything is still recorded and primarily edited in Audacity. 44 kHz, mono. Done and done. I also still use the Call Graph plugin to record Skype conversations, but rarely in the same way as described last time around. Previously, I would take its 11 kHz output with my own track in the left channel and other side in the right channel, kill my track, turn the other track mono, re-export it, and use that as the secondary audio track to edit with, which isolates the other side of the conversation and lets me cleverly edit around any inadvertent talking over each other, etc.

These days, because all of the regulars (Julian, Heath, Jake, Corey, etc.) actually know how to use a computer, I simply ask them to record locally on their own side, as well — that’s the second track I use (after recording they send me the audio, usually as a high bitrate MP3, rather than the needlessly larger WAV). I still use Call Graph as a backup, and usually to line up the two separate tracks. I place my own local track up top, bring the Call Graph stereo track below it, and then the other person’s local track below that, line them all up, kill off the Call Graph track… voilà! It sounds far more complicated than it actually is — since Audacity lets you zoom in to insane degrees, I can line up the tracks to the tiniest fraction of accuracy possible.

By not using Call Graph (never mind its 11 kHz limitation, despite its amazing convenience and other customizations), we avoid any of that traditional “Skype noise” — you don’t hear someone’s call quality drop with their Internet connection fluctuations. In addition to that, by actually editing the show, we can avoid any excessive talking over each other, usually done by accident due to minor audio delays — I will typically just say, “Oh hey, start that sentence again.” It’s little stuff like that which folks may not even specifically notice, but I hope makes an impact in the back of their head somewhere while listening and comparing to other shows.

After editing the tracks (which have already been noise-removed prior to editing), I spit the product out to Levelator to even things out. I still bring everything into a project file in Adobe Premiere to line up the bumper music — it’s one of those relics I can’t let go of. The block-based dragging and snapping, along with a pre-edited bin of all the bumper music, makes it very easy to cut the sections apart. I usually leave a 10-second gap in between sections while editing to make it easy to visibly tell in Premiere where the sections need to be spliced with the jingles.

I may upgrade the software some day (likely Adobe Audition), but I figure until I know more about how audio actually works, it’s not really worth sinking the money into software.

About those other folks, though — what are they all recording with these days? Well, the two most relevant folks to note here are Julian and Heath.

Julian uses the Elecom HS-NB01UBK (~$30) headset that he picked up over there in Japan. As you have been hearing lately, it catches the bass of his voice quite well. It picks up a fair amount of background noise, but I am able to kill that off with some basic filtering in Audacity well enough. Since I am editing with multiple tracks, that means I can also just silence out an entire area on his side if I need to. I ask that my co-hosts don’t rely on that and practice proper microphone etiquette and all, but at the end of the day, you cannot control when the little one decides to yelp!

Then there’s Heath. Up until recently, he has been using whatever generic headset he’s had lying around (he tells me it was the Logitech USB Headset H530). You may have been able to hear it (even though I try to cut around it as much as possible), but it would randomly peak when he would start talking, and it picked up a rather huge amount of background noise — it’s the kind of headset that works fine for gaming and casual conversations, but not for podcast discussions. With all the great content him and I planned on bringing to the podcast in the future, this just couldn’t last. In response to some random chatter on Twitter, we made it known that we were looking to upgrade Heath to some actual audio equipment. Our buddies Lemmy and Ryan came through with some donations that covered it all… within minutes! Heath would really have no need for a mixer setup the way I have things, so we decided to go with a dedicated USB setup for just himself. In addition to a generic pop-filter and the same Samsom BT4 boom stand (~$40) that I use, we went with the USB version of my microphone: the MXL 990 USB (~$100-150). Unfortunately, the USB version of the microphone comes with just a little stand that would never work for the way we like to actually be comfortable while recording, so to complement the mic and boom stand, I sent him an old, only-semi-broken MXL 90 shockmount (~$35) that I had from my first microphone (I had since gotten a replacement as a gift). One of the screws was slightly stripped, and the inside rubber portion needed a little glue, but all-in-all it was in perfectly fine shape! Appropriately so, Lemmy wanted a picture of Heath’s new recording setup… and so did I for this blog post!

Here’s what the good sir had to say about it:

I’m loving the new setup, and the audio quality is SO much better! After messing around with things, this is the setup I finally settled on. It’s somewhat like what I was using before, only my Logitech headset is now replaced with my new fancy microphone and boom stand. The MXL 990 USB powered condenser microphone is plugged into my laptop on the left, whose only purpose is to record the mic audio in Audacity. The laptop is also used to connect to Skype if I’m recording with anyone else over the world wide web. I then use my personal desktop computer to look up references while recording; typically there’s Kanzentai on one screen and Daizenshuu EX on the other. I would record on this computer, but Audacity tends to crash once I hit the stop button. Luckily my mouse and keyboard are Bluetooth, so I can set the keyboard in my lap if necessary. Of course I just use my headset as head phones while recording. But more importantly, there’s usually a beer just to my right on the desk and there’s a mini fridge full of it behind me.

So that’s pretty much where we stand. I don’t feel the need to really upgrade a whole lot more on my end, with the possible exception of eventually having four of the same microphones so even Jeff doesn’t have to bring one over. Oh, and some more folding chairs would be nice. Maybe a new desk eventually, too. And a mini-fridge for beer convenience. Do they make silent mini-fridges…?

(NOTE: We did not consult each other re: mini-fridges prior to writing this…)

I guess we should also treat Jake to upgraded equipment at some point in the future. Julian, too, if and when he ever makes his way back to the states.