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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.

PSN DRM Disconnect

The long-rumored “game saves in the cloud” option is coming to PlayStation Plus members. Included in its description on the PlayStation Blog is the following statement:

Online storage for game saves is a great way for PlayStation Plus subscribers to ensure that their data files are secure and also for users who wish to access their files from other PS3 systems.

That strikes me as rather fascinating, considering Capcom’s dips into heavy DRM on PSN titles such as Bionic Commando Rearmed 2, which seem to be a clear line in the sand against “game sharing” (where one customer purchases a downloadable title, and “exploits” a “feature” of the PlayStation Store licensing where the title can be downloaded and used on a certain number of other systems).

Sure, Capcom is not Sony — I get that. Plenty of people, especially after the launch of the slim model, also have multiple PS3s in their home, which would make picking up from a save file a lot easier with this new cloud option.

As a PlayStation Plus member (courtesy of a gift from Mr. Deluxe), I am all for the new save capabilities and welcome them with open arms. Somehow it just doesn’t all jive with me, though. I can back-up copy-protected game saves and use them on another system, but I can’t play a single-player-only game offline on another system…? It seems like there is a lot of conflict coming down the road with an option like this.

Random Podcasting Inside Baseball

Nothing of huge interest to write about here, but if you actually follow along with this blog and/or me in any significant way, you might care at least a little bit.

I have been mentioning for a while how a new mixer was on the horizon. Since (I think…) Episode #0112 of the podcast over at Daizenshuu EX, I have been using my trusty Behringer Euroback UB802 (which isn’t available anymore, but the Behringer Xenyx 802 is basically the exact same thing). It has certainly sufficed up until now. I have not been completely happy with it, though — Behringer stuff gets the job done, but you will occasionally be reminded why it costs so little. My own mixer once decided that it was only going to output sound in the left channel, only to have the right channel return to full functionality a few months later. The Xenyx 1204 that I got for work now doesn’t want to output audio at all (which is why my little guy became somewhat well-traveled).

I knew I wanted to upgrade to something that had at least four XLR inputs, which would finally get rid of that pesky situation where someone comes over and I suddenly have more people than inputs on the main mixer, resulting in a totally ghetto daisy-chain. I also wanted something of a higher quality, of course. This led me to the Mackie 1202-VLZ3. A solid mixer from a solid company with an appropriate amount of features = sold.

The big guy came in last week, and I love him to death:

I have yet another boom stand on order, so once that comes in and things get fully set up, I might consider doing a “Version 3” of “My Podcasting Setup” (which was last updated just about a year ago). The basement “studio” has been awesome, and we just decided to put some shelves in, so it’ll get even nicer. Hurray!

Speaking of that there main show that I do pretty much every week, we get our e-mails and forum posts, sure… but I also like to occasionally step outside the internal comfort zone and see what other folks have to say about it. Just about two years ago, I posted up a couple choice quotes I happened to dig up, so I figured it might be worth it to do that again.

I really just wanted to share one particular bit of feedback, though. Upon clicking through to the person’s contact information, it didn’t seem that they are all that active (and this particular post was many months back), so rather than directly contact them (which I may still do), I figured it’s out there and public anyway, so I might as well publicly respond to it. Through the normal course of surfing + Google Alerts, I came across this thread on where someone replied to a conversation about DBZ fandom and communities:

Having listened to vegettoex’s podcast for years until it boiled down to ‘what’s new in your life and lets recap a single volume of manga!’ sort of TL;DNL, I can say yes I’ve been to the forums. Not sure why you assume people haven’t been there as he’s one of the few big sites left from yester year. And while they are active in near 4chan trolling, gifs, bad AMV(bring back the good stuff please?) fandubing and the occasional decent debate, its still vanishing. Even there.

For starters, we make it a huge point to not excessively talk about ourselves. The introduction to each episode does indeed have a little “Hey, how ya’ doing?” segment, but it’s always a part of a larger “What new things came in…” or “What’s new on the site…” that is at least somewhat relevant to the DBZ-loving listener. I will certainly concede that much (much much much) older episodes may have had a little bit too much of the personal talk up front, but even then it was nowhere near what this post would lead you to believe.

The “Manga Review of Awesomeness” is a once-monthly topic. Its purpose was to allow new folks to follow along with a group of fans and their podcast about a franchise that has a ton of history that they might not be completely up on — they are “timeless” episodes that anyone can go back to at any time. Based on the feedback from our big survey, it also happens to be the most-enjoyed type of topic by a wide margin. “Majority” doesn’t mean “entire audience” though, so I can understand how there are folks who don’t care for it — that’s why it’s only once a month! I know for a fact that there are a bazillion other types of topics intermixed on a weekly basis, and they are purposefully arranged so that at least once a month there is a type of conversation (in-universe, product review, manga, etc.) that folks of a particular segment of the fandom can latch onto.

Yes, I run a very calculated show. I read and listen to every bit of feedback I can get my hands on. I’ve gotten back into the habit of listening to my own show even after I’ve edited it for release to critique it. I want it to be the best that it can be, to appeal to as many people as possible… but at the same time have just the right amount of pompous authority to show that we ain’t messin’ around, yo. You want to know something? Information you can trust? Ain’t no other place, bro-dawg.

(Also not entirely sure if they are referring to our website and/or forum with that stuff about troll images and such. That’s as far removed from the prison we run as can possibly be described.)

On the other hand, then we get comments like these on the rare occasion which reminds me exactly why I love doing this stuff so much:

Im a relatively new listener who once thought I knew everything about Dragon Ball from watching Toonami…..

I don’t think “thank you” covers it.

So that was a blog entry.

Dipping Into the Classics: Suikoden

I have always meant to go back and play more of the 16-bit and 32-bit RPGs that I missed during their prime. It may take me years upon years on end, but I do eventually hit up what many consider the “classics” (even when I don’t finish them — hello, Final Fantasy VI — I want to give them at least a little bit of the attention they are supposedly worth).

Many personal friends have recommended Suikoden II as one of these games to go back to. It continues to be one of the genuinely “rare” games, though — one that reaches that fantastic $200 price tag on eBay, shared by a few of its peers like Panzer Dragoon Saga. If I were to play a Suikoden game (or series of games), I would likely start with the first. The barrier to entry is far less with the original, particularly when you take the PlayStation Store into account, where it goes for a semi-ridiculous $6.

As a part of their 15th anniversary celebration, Sony offered the first game for half-price back in September 2010. Yes, the game cost $3. At that price, who could pass it up? I sure couldn’t.

I did not get to the game right away, though, having plenty of other things to occupy my time (such as still wading through Dragon Quest IX). Thanks to the remembrative (that’s a word, right?) power of Twitter, I know that I started the game on January 18th — we had a delayed opening at the office, but due to car pooling and train schedules, I ended up heading in at my regular time and hanging out at Starbucks with the PSP.

(Side note: I have reached the point where my tolerance for Japanese RPGs requires that they be portable. If I cannot bring it with me and play in short bursts, I cannot and will not dedicate the time to it. Therefore, Suikoden ended up getting played on the PSP courtesy of Sony’s somewhat gracious option of PSOne Classics being both PS3 & PSP compatible/transferable.)

Having just completed the game yesterday, and at the suggestion of some friends and Twitter followers, I figured I would share a few thoughts on the game. A long entry like this makes up for a drought in terms of articles and podcasts, right…? Try not to think of this as a review, though — it is far too casual for that.

My overall experience with the game was a hugely pleasant one. The game has, in fact, spoiled me in terms of playing current Japanese RPGs (yes, a game that came out 1995/1996 has plenty of leg-ups on today’s games, much like the amazing Chrono Trigger, which I detailed in two pieces). I will analyze some of these, but I would be remiss not to mention some of the annoyances I experienced with the game, too.

Right off the bat, I was extremely impressed with the presentation of the game. I specifically noted areas of the sound design, such as noise from the water fountain panning across the speakers as you walked past.

If I suffer any amount of data loss with a game, it is likely that I will immediately drop it in disgust, never returning to it again. About a week into my playthrough, and directly upon starting up the first major battle in the game (not a boss fight, but rather a special rock-paper-scissors army battle), the PSP froze for a few seconds and turned itself off. Thankfully (more for the game’s sake rather than my own!), my prior save point was only a few minutes prior, which meant returning to the same spot was not a major ordeal — the worst part was simply re-reading a ton of non-skippable dialogue.

Despite completing the game now (and under the 30 hour mark), I do not feel as if I ever fully “got” the magic system. In fact, I did not even use magic for approximately twenty of those hours…! I understood that there were these “runes” and that I was collecting “crystals”… but for the life of me, and even after reading through the instruction manual (which is included in the digital version of the game), I do not think I actually know how I got some of those magic abilities. The town-by-town basis of where certain types of merchants were (those that sold items, attached crystals, sharpened weapons, etc.) did not reinforce any of the concepts to me through normal game play, so it was up to individual experimentation to find what worked with what. Some crystals even specifically noted they were for certain characters (the “Boar” rune being for Pahn…?), but I would collect a dozen of them from defeating enemies, leaving me scratching my head. In addition to not fully comprehending the system, I found that my physical attacks were always strong enough to take on any enemy I came up against, essentially turning magic into a completely irrelevant concept in my mind — I was all about sharpening those weapons, and nothing else!

So how do I feel about that? Part of me thinks back to the days of the original Legend of Zelda, where exploration was left up to the player without holding their hand — I enjoy that quite a bit. On the other hand, this was not just about combining certain items and finding cool uses for them on your own, a la the Materia system in Final Fantasy VII (which, as a 15-year-old kid, I also had trouble understanding right off the bat, but eventually through my own experimentation was able to not only fully understand, but exploit!). I guess I am conflicted — I understand the basics of it, but never felt as if I was in enough control of the progression. Perhaps I’m wrong. I may just be stupid. Were I to replay the game, I would likely start messing around with crystals and such far sooner in the story and do so far more often, rather than just relegating it to a side thing to occasionally use.

One of my favorite aspects of Dragon Quest IX (and from what I understand, is a large part of prior games, as well) was the little story vignettes. The larger story was there to push you along, sure, but the real heart and charm would lay in each individual town and its smaller, compact, tightly-knit group of characters. There is certainly a town system in the first Suikoden, but the heart of the story was not with the townsfolk — it was with your own rag-tag group of friends. Even with a staggering amount of available characters, and even knowing that some of them would be woefully extraneous and near-irrelevant, I still found myself engaged by nearly all of them and genuinely curious about their plights. The game has a couple instances of short, sequential cut-aways to various areas of your castle with certain groups of characters having conversations with each other, reminding you of their own struggles with loyalty, self-discovery, revenge, and loss. It brought a wonderful sense of camaraderie to the group, which is one of my favorite tropes (did the shonen anime love not give that away?).

That being said, as relatively interesting as the greater cast was, the fact that the main party consists of six characters led to a lot of favoritism. When you consider the party’s formation (short, medium, and long-range attack capabilities), you can see how this would happen. I found myself returning time and time again to Cleo, Vikor, and Flik. Kirkis wound up as a long-range fighter and healer toward the end of the game, and somehow Tai Ho ended up in there, too.

(Oh, and hey… did anyone else not know Cleo was a woman until 20 hours in when she is actually referred to with gender information? Anyone? Anyone at all?)

That also being said, I was incredibly impressed with how easy the game made it to bring other characters back into the fold. Any characters forced into the party for certain situations were usually ones that had been along for the ride and were equipped already, but in the instances they were not, it did not take long for them to get up to snuff. The game dishes out experience not at a flat rate, but somewhat exponentially based on the level of the character — a character at level forty may only get 3 EXP from a monster, but a character down at level five may actually jump straight up to level ten from the match (the numbers not being accurate, but a generalization). Therefore, so long as you kept that forced character alive, they would likely be on par with the rest of your group in just a couple fights along the way.

Without spoiling things too heavily for those that have not played, major character deaths are a semi-recurring trend in the game. Each one was obviously coming by the nature of those forced party members and certain quips, but they all at least brought a twinge of emotion in me. I am sorry to say that I did not gather all 107 (yes, minus a certain one…) characters, which sounds like it would have resulted in a nice “Awww…!” out of me toward the end of the game. On a second play through, I would certainly go for this.

So far, I have only hinted at the story and my feelings toward it. I noted the cast of characters, enjoying the time I spent with them, etc. What about the larger story, though? There is a villain and main plot, right? Well… I suppose so. I hate to keep doing comparisons with Dragon Quest IX, but I think it is an apt one to make in this case — where as Dragon Quest IX smartly held back the main “villain” and its respective goals/plot/interactions until later in the story (and yet still providing that overarching narrative that tied things together and led you along so that it all still felt like it truly was one giant story), Suikoden attempts to do the same thing at times, but misses the boat. It was as if the game designers and writers wanted to show me how the hero’s story was relating to the larger world and the villain’s plot, and those bits shined at key points, but I still felt far more disconnected than they probably would have liked. This “Windy” lady…? Who is she, again? Oh, and this other cloaked figure that shows up from time to time talking about runes…? One particular story where the team is sent into the past to witness a key event really helps set things up, but without reinforcing those story ideas just a little more often, I was far more concerned with my party’s own turmoil than with the world’s. Maybe that is OK. I definitely liked my characters, so if I got enjoyment out of them, isn’t that enough? It was clear that the writers wanted me to care more about the world, though — but I just didn’t.

(Speaking of villains, what the Hell was that last boss I fought…?)

Moving back to game mechanics and design, I had one incident where I spent the majority of play time over the course of two days completely unable to advance the story. I was told on Twitter by a few folks that the game is very heavily “check-pointed” (for lack of a better phrase) at times, where these event flags indeed prevent you from continuing the story unless you complete a very specific action. I thought I had encountered something like this during the poison rose scenario, but it turned out I simply had not walked out a door on the top floor of a building to find Milich. This is a recurring thing with me and video games (not seeing the obvious), but I like to think that this was the game’s fault, rather than my own — many of the “doors” in the game are, frankly, not obvious as anything other than a plain ol’ wall unless you know what to look for.

The castle (which I named “Grayskul”, by the way) was something I had never experienced before in a game like this. Having a central hideout/base was intriguing to me, especially with all the other games I have played being so linear (not that Suikoden isn’t) in terms of “this town, then this town”. There was always a place to go back to which grew along with you over the course of the game. Even as I began recruiting characters, I had no idea that some of them would actually embellish the castle and put themselves to work! Coming back to my own blacksmiths, armor dealer, elevator, and even my own (free!) inn made me want to go out and seek the full 108 characters. The first time I wandered my (barren) castle I was extremely apprehensive about it, but the game quickly took care of those fears for me.

Something that I never truly struggled with but still found a nice challenge in was the limited inventory system. While you could store items in your vault back at the castle with Rock, each character can only hold a certain number of items, which includes their equipped armor and accessories. Maybe this was a nice prelude to when I eventually get around to playing Final Fantasy: 4 Heroes of Light. Item drops from monsters would occasionally force me back to a town to appraise and then back at the castle to drop, but there were no instances where I was fighting with the system to bring the necessary number of items on the road with me.

I noted earlier that a couple aspects of the game’s design have spoiled me — those would be (1) “Free Will”, and (2) resting at inns.

While many games have experimented, even within the confines of random battles, with how to speed things up (particularly toward the end of the game when you are over-powered), Suikoden provides a battle option called “Free Will” throughout the entire game, by which your entire party will just automatically target opponents and physically attack them — no magic or items will be used, and they will not necessarily target opponents in conjunction with each other. Despite (or because of?) those limitations, the excessive “Press A To Win” (or in this case, “Press X To Win”) game is not necessarily removed, but at least toned down. The minor tedium of those random battles is still there, but at least with a way to speed up the process and still reap the rewards (cash, experience, and dropped items). “Free Will” also beefs things up in the visual department, zooming in a little more with multiple characters attacking at once, which also helps speed through the round.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the entire game (boy, am I easy to impress…) was how lightning-fast resting at an inn is. Seriously. There’s no excessive “watch the characters walk to their beds” scene. No musical cue to wait through. Pay the innkeeper, screen fades down, screen fades up, no more dialogue to read, go ahead on your way. I simply cannot overstate how impressive this is.

It may go without saying, but were Suikoden II to hit the PlayStation Store, I would grab it in a heartbeat. I am more than ready to dive into what is said to be the best of the series, especially with the first impressing me so much. With a few things cleaned up here and there, a few cameos from the first game… how could I not be interested? It has also made me curious to check out Water Margin, one of the four classic novels of Chinese literature which it is (very loosely!) based on. With Journey to the West also under my belt (which I am coincidentally also about to finish a very loose video game adaptation of!), why not?

Until then, I still have plenty of other classics and cult favorites to get through. Xenogears is finally up on the PlayStation Store now, and you likely won’t see me for a month after the new Pokemon hits this weekend…

Is this thing on? Oh hey, I fixed it.

Broke this thing a while back. Looks like I fixed it. Hurray.

I’ve had a few in-depth blog ideas swimming around in my brain lately, but I just have not had the time to dedicate to any of them. Instead, you are stuck with a couple funny pictures… and that’s what the Internet is all about anyway, right?

Saw this at the grocery store and thought it was funny. Get it? It says “Pee-Pee”. That’s funny. I’m six years old.

For Christmas Dinner, you would think that “the kids” (all being adults) would all be able to hang out in the same room as the older adults. Not so. Not enough room. Stuck in the basement for a while with the actual children. You know, the ones nearly 30 years younger than you. Might as well make the best of it. Here is my talent at work. I’m pretty proud of it.

Plenty of stuff going on, and plenty of things to share on the blog in the future. Heath just started up something that I’ve been meaning to do for a while, too, so look forward to that nonsense. Expect pictures of the recording “studio” when the new mixer comes in early next month (not that it’ll look much different, or anything).

So yeah. There’s always Twitter where I’m tossing out random nonsense, and plenty of folks have been asking crap on Formspring.

My name is Mike, and I approved this blog post.

Bonus Podcast: “Kintoki” Review

I was just going to toss this up in the Daizenshuu EX podcast feed, but hey… I have some space over here, too, and I said I would only release podcast episodes as a part of this blog when I honestly had something interesting to say and do… and this seems relatively interesting…

In September 2010, it was announced that Weekly Jump would have a special series of one-shots called “Top of the Super Legend” starting with issue 45 and going through issue 50. Current Jump artists would be contributing these new, short stories… but a certain “legend” of the recent past would also toss one into the mix: Akira Toriyama. A little later on, we learned that the story would be called “Kintoki“, and that was about all we got.

Toriyama’s work, KINTOKI: 金目族のトキ (Kintoki: Toki of the Golden-Eyed Tribe), was the last one of the bunch and released within issue 50. All of us from the extended Daizenshuu EX and Kanzentai communities are big fans of everything Toriyama has done over the years, but beyond comparing DragonBall to his prior works (especially its direct predecessors such as Dragon Boy and Tongpoo), we never have an opportunity to go in-depth about them about on our DB-centric sites.

Well, nothing’s really stopping us.

I decided to do a fun “bonus” podcast, and invited on Heath to talk about the new one-shot with me. Much like the “Manga Review of Awesomeness” recurring segment on my main show, what we did was recap the actual story of the manga, and then dove head-first into all sorts of things: name puns, correlations to other Toriyama works, our own thoughts on this new one, etc. It runs around 45 minutes, so it’s a pretty decent length show without going completely overboard (especially considering the one-shot itself is only about thirty pages!). We definitely had a fun time with it, and if you enjoy it and want to hear more like this in the future, let us know! We will probably do it anyway just to amuse ourselves, but it would be nice to know that someone out there actually wants to listen in, too.

OP/ED: “Riding on a Time machine~サイケデリック☆55” by Hironobu Kageyama (from the album Cold RainCDJapan / Amazon Japan)

Holiday Break Gaming

This past Thanksgiving break, as was expected, I dropped a bit of minor cash on all the great sales digital distribution providers were offering. Between some indie pack sales on Steam and some discounts on Xbox Live, I probably acquired a dozen new games over the last week. Some of them will end up like many others in my Steam list and never get downloaded, but others will undoubtedly end up being discussed on whatever end-of-year podcast we end up doing around these parts.

I ended up playing a fair amount of different types of games over the last week. I figured I would break them down for my own sanity (and see what you all were up to):

Dragon Quest IX (DS): $33.62 via Amazon

I almost cannot bring myself to finish the main quest. I really do not know why; perhaps it is due to this part of the story not being particularly interesting (unlike the early, town-by-town stories which I found absurdly endearing)… but I really should just go and get it done. If I want to come back and do some maps, I can do so — nothing is preventing me from doing it. C’mon, Mike! Finish a game! Instead of beating it, though, I just fought some liquid metal slimes for a bit…

DragonBall: Raging Blast 2 (PS3): $34.99 via Amazon

I finally finished unlocking the last couple of characters. While this was more of a “for work” type of game, I was having a good time with it, nonetheless. As you will read, I have been enjoying the heck out of “Galaxy Mode” and its constant stream of dangled carrots. There are still a few characters I want to get back to and learn a little more in-depth, so it may be one of the first DBZ games in a long while that I actually return to after completing its review.

Super DragonBall Z (JP PS2): $64.90 via Play-Asia

On a whim, I tossed this goodie back in. After a couple rounds of reacquainting myself to the controls, I was back in the groove. It is no secret how much I love this game and how much of a crime I feel it is that these darn kids today do not respect it. I played a good amount of rounds as my custom Mecha Freeza (whom is simply named “Mecha”), spamming all sorts of wonderful projectiles before rushing in with quick combos. “Crack Bomb” and “Freeza Cutter” have re-entered my daily lexicon. Consider yourselves warned. I note the Japanese version specifically because that is the one I originally purchased — the American release does not feature the original Japanese voice cast, a deal-breaker for me.

VVVVVV (PC): $5 via official website, Steam, etc.

I had been waiting on some type of sale or bundle before picking it up, since it was almost guaranteed to hit that point sometime soon in Steam. That being said, it is a steal at the regular $5 price point. The simple and limited controls of “left or right” and “change gravity direction” are brilliant and right at home in today’s world of platforming’s glorious return. The music is also fantastic and will have you tapping and thumping along. Much like the recent Super Meat Boy (which I will probably grab on Steam rather than Xbox Live, the only reason I do not already own it), the ability to instantly pick up where you left off after dying is exactly what these types of punishing games need to do to keep it fun and satisfying. I am most curious about playing the game without a controller in the later levels, as it seems so counter-intuitive to do any amount of progressively-difficult run-and-jump maneuvers on a keyboard, alone. Then again, some people say similar things about FPS games and equality of dual-analog sticks to mouse+keyboard… and those people are wrong… so who knows? I could be wrong about this control judgment.

And Yet It Moves (PC): $9.99 via official website, Steam, WiiWare, etc.

Part of another indie bundle on Steam, I had been hearing about it for a few weeks and blindly purchased it when the sale kicked in… and I could not be more happy with a purchase. The art direction is jaw-dropping, and the twisty-world mechanics also fit in as a perfect complement to something like VVVVVV. Much like the aforementioned game as well, the checkpoint and instant-restart system in place is perfect for that “just one more level” tug. Everything about this game screams “quality” from the art to the haunting music to the puzzle design, and you owe it to yourself to check it out. A WiiWare version was recently released, though I have not checked out the demo to see how it plays on the console.

Mega Man II (NES): $5 via Virtual Console

I have never been particularly “good” at any game in the series, but its extraordinary music and difficult-yet-fair level design always brings me back around. While I rented III more than any other as a kid, I recognize the quality of II just as much. My session with Mega Man II was just filler in between some other obligations, so all I did was breeze through Metalman’s level… but it was enough to get those memories flooding back.

Game Dev Story (iPhone): $3.99 via iTunes Store

Sure, I am a couple weeks late on this one by the blogosphere’s watch, but who cares? It is an absolute blast. I have been playing in bits and pieces and am still only on my first run through (I am about twelve years in and have completed 32 games and done a few contract jobs), but I cannot wait to play through again. Having now learned all the ins-and-outs of which systems will come when (which should have been obvious, but I was not expecting pun-erific accuracy down to the Bandai Playdia), what the benefits are of training and hiring certain employees, what the best types of game and genre combinations are… what is essentially “Let’s Play Game Management Company!: The Game” could not possibly be more fun. Certain aspects are a little rough around the edges, but its cute factor and attention to detail are overwhelming.

So many other games were acquired and not-yet-touched (‘Splosion Man, Trials HD, Gish, Recettear) that it simultaneously fills me with both joy and dread!

This all got me thinking, though: what are your “holiday trends” with regard to gaming? Do you dive into one specific game and not move onward to the next one until that first one is complete? Are you like me and cruise from parts of one game to parts of another game, making slow bits of progress along the way? Also, did you snag any great deals over the last week?

Ye Olden “Proud Of Myself” Story

As you can probably tell from the various podcast episodes I have done (including here on vgconvos), while I love topical discussions, I also adore old stories. Anything filled to the brim with reminiscence is right up my alley. I love hearing how people grew up with games, how those games affected their lives, and any little vignettes they care to relay.

This is one of those quick, old stories.

I have spoken before at length about Zelda II and whether or not I actually like the game. I shared how I have never actually beaten the game myself, but a childhood friend has the personal glory of owning a save slot on my cartridge with a completed game (and amazingly enough, my game’s battery still has not croaked):

Rewind to the previous game: the original Legend of Zelda.

Mike C. was always a slightly-better gamer than I was — not significantly so, but enough to impress me just enough without leaving me scornfully jealous. It was definitely fun times. We both played the Hell out of the first game, sitting down for long nights in front of the TV (long after our parents thought we were asleep) and trading the controller back and forth on levels and save slots. Mike C. beat the first quest before I did, and the two of us turned our attention toward the rumored-yet-true second quest.

Anyone who has played the original Zelda knows how completely arbitrary some of its discoveries can be. Burn a random tree here, and you found a cheap store. Bomb a random area of wall here, and you found an old man who steals your money. In the second quest specifically, walk through this random wall that cannot be bombed and shows no signs of passage in any way, and you found a hidden passage. Once you realized that only one “secret” would be present on any single screen, things fell into place a little more…  but it still felt very “random”, even with the amazing feeling of accomplishment.

It is that combination of “randomness” and “accomplishment” that gave me one of my only one-ups on Mike C. with the second quest. We roamed the map for days looking for level six, but could not find it. Level seven was a tree burn, sure, and we found that one ahead of time no problem… but where the Hell was level six…?!

Its original location held no clues, but I was convinced that it would still be around the graveyard in some capacity. We pushed every grave stone. We bombed every wall. Nothing…

… nothing, that is, until one night by myself when I decided to blow the whistle/recorder on each of the six graveyard screens:

Words can not describe how proud I was of my child self, and how devilish it felt to be the one to share the information with my buddy.

Now the 360’s Fridge is Full

(Has it really been five months since the last blog post? Holy crap. Time flies when you’re having fun.)

One of the reasons I wanted to pick up an Xbox 360 was, believe it or not, how great of a service Xbox Live seemed to be. In addition to the integrated friends list and all that standard goodness, the titles available on the platform seemed like a blast. From old arcade classics like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, to new takes on old games like Uno, to entirely new experiences like Geometry Wars… well, I wanted in.

Microsoft always painted themselves into a corner by having to support the “Arcade” unit of the system which did not come with a hard drive, eventually resorting to packing in some amount of on-board storage to support their own initiatives. It seemed strange to split your consumer base in this day and age, something Sega learned the hard way with the Sega CD and 32X a decade earlier.

A few years have passed since then. We have been updated to a whole new “experience” with a new interface. The restrictions on how big a downloadable game must be have been lifted, and then lifted again... and lifted what seems like several more times since then. Current games like Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light now kick around in the 2 GB range. 50 MB seems hilariously quaint by comparison.

What about me, though? I am a gamer. I knew which system model to get back then — I got the standard model with the 20 GB hard drive, of course! I had all sorts of downloadable games I wanted to check out, and the upcoming Guitar Hero III and especially Rock Band were going to need all sorts of space for DLC!

Flash-forward again to 2010. I have 4 MB of space left on my Xbox 360 hard drive.

I have removed as much as humanly possible while still keeping the necessities. No music videos initially installed to the drive. No extra game demos. It is an epic struggle every few weeks when a new Rock Band Network (or even just standard, weekly DLC) song comes out and I need to juggle some space around. Sure, a USB stick is an option for a couple small items… but with the entire original Rock Band and Green Day: Rock Band installed to the hard drive, and now not having enough room for Lego Rock Band (never mind installing Rock Band 2 for when 3 comes out next month)… those dongles just are not going to cut it.

At the time, 20 GB seemed like plenty of space for a game console that was still primarily disc-based. We all saw the purely-digital-delivery revolution coming down the line, but not enough of us anticipated just how much it would come this same generation.

Needless to say, I am in the market for a new Xbox 360 hard drive. 60 GB (the amount Microsoft eventually began including as “standard”) seems like enough for me… for now, anyway. That should cover the Rock Band installs I need to do, along with plenty of room for demos and XBLA games (looking at you Lara Croft and Limbo). The question is… is it really enough? If I could not anticipate 20 GB not being enough, having all the experience that I now possess, is it incredibly short-sighted to think that 60 GB will carry me to the end? A used 60 GB hard drive runs about $35-40; a used 120 GB runs about $45-50. Should I just spend the extra couple bucks on double the more-than-double the space? Buying “new” is out of the question almost on principle alone, as Microsoft is well-known for entirely gouging with their accessory pricing.

That all being said, let us not forget about our ol’ pal the PS3, either — with all of the mandatory installs, that 40 GB hard drive is typically hovering in the range of only having one or two free gigs. At least that one can be easily replaced

So Hey, We Made An AMV This Year

Those of you who have followed Daizenshuu EX for an extended period of time may be familiar with the sudden drop in productivity sometime around April through June each year. It is during this time that the wife and I turn our attention to working on an Anime Music Video for Otakon’s contest. We have been submitting since about 2001, and have been regular finalists (either individually or collaboratively, depending on the video) since about 2003-2004.

In 2009, we did not make a single AMV. It was the first year we did not do so since 2000 when I got into the game — we did not even make so much as a trailer! My combination of apathy and laziness toward the hobby was rubbing off on Meri as well, and we simply did not get around to making anything that year. Especially after what we were able to create back in 2007, I felt like I had tapped out any imagination I had left. I was pretty damn satisfied.

(Insert generic description about the life-long friends we made from our years in the hobby, still enjoying watching fantastic video output, the amazing creativity people have, yadda yadda yadda…)

We wanted to make something for Otakon 2010, though. It was the only convention we were going to be attending this year, and with so many friends no longer submitting videos (or working on the intro to the contest, instead), our quasi-vested-interest in seeing the overall contest was waning. Also, to be frank… the last few years of Otakon’s contest have been pretty difficult to sit through. I just have not enjoyed them as a whole. I have always said (as both an editor and a coordinator) that if you don’t like the contest, your only course of action as an editor is to put up or shut up — either make a video that you are proud of and submit it, or quit yer whinin’.

So we tried that this year.

The two of us really love songs that tell a story — you look at examples like our Kare Kano video “Fake” from a few years back, and you can see how much we enjoy a song that so perfectly captures the feeling of a series and its characters in mood, sure, but also does so via its lyrics. Is it us (again) just being lazy? Perhaps.

Cage the Elephant’sAin’t No Rest For The Wicked” was getting lots of local radio play earlier this year with their album getting re-released (and apparently used in the opening to Borderlands, unbeknownst to us). The song was bound to hit us. The song has a great story to it. The song has a great attitude to it. It didn’t take much convincing from Meri before I agreed to it.

We agreed that it should be a multi-source video with a well-defined cast of characters: (1) the main character who comes across these “wicked” folks, (2) the whore, (3) the thief, and (4) the preacher. It was painfully obvious to us (as you will read later on) that Spike from Cowboy Bebop would make the perfect main character — Spike always works well with other series, and the old west vibe of the song fits in a little too well with the aesthetic of the show. Wolfwood from Trigun was the second easiest to cast, literally being a preacher with baggage, conflict, greed, and internal torture. The others were a little more difficult. We wanted to stick with shows in a 4:3 format to avoid cropping, so any more recent stuff was pretty out of the question. Choosing a notable character to act as the thief who holds up the main character at gunpoint was a tough one. We ended up going with Alucard from the Hellsing TV series (as opposed to Ultimate in its 16:9 format) since he definitely has a gun at all times, and he seemed like he might work well clashing up with Spike. The whore was the most difficult to cast — we did not want to go with Faye, since the other characters were all from different universes, so who would it be? What notable female characters could work in this context? We eventually settled upon Lust from the first Fullmetal Alchemist due to it also being in 4:3, and her demeanor fitting in well with the rest of the cast.

What would the point of the video actually be, though…? One morning en route the train station, I had the brilliant idea: Spike would kill them all…!

That proved a little more difficult than I thought. I remembered Fullmetal Alchemist entirely wrong, and we therefore had no footage to show Lust being killed. Alucard can’t die. Huh. All right, then. Our goal as creative editors is to tell the story we want to tell, though, and we ultimately (to quote Tim Gunn) had to just make it work. We are already making something “new” by combining the video and audio, so to take things out of context and tell that brand-new story really is the whole point!

We decided early on that we did not want to do a whole lot of compositing, and instead (to keep things simple for our lazy selves, and also as a partial challenge) wanted to be clever with our editing. No overboard effects. Keep it clean. Sophisticated. Appropriate for the music.

In the end, we only had one composite shot (someone else’s hand being turned into Alucard’s glove pointed at Spike), with the rest handled through creative editing and cuts.

OK… so there is actually another composite shot later in the video, too… for whatever reason, I don’t classify that in my mind the same way. I guess ‘cuz it’s on a TV.

The most difficult section to edit was the first chorus — it was also the last section we edited. The second and third verses feature a very distinct style of editing, which transitions into more traditional cuts for their respective choruses. The first verse+chorus combo of the video had none of this. There was no consistency! What could we do?! The problem was that the bass introduced in the second verse is not present in the first section of the song, which is what the masks and swipes were being timed to later in the video.

To be honest, we ran out of time and imagination before the Otakon deadline. Neither of us were happy with anything we tried. We had to show Spike somehow brushing her off and ultimately shooting her, but how could we do that with nothing interesting happening in the music yet? We ultimately went with a pretty awful split-screen (top and bottom) showing scenes of each character. Just cuts on a beat. No fades. No swipes. Nothing. It was ugly. It was not something I was proud of, but there was no more time before the contest submission deadline.

Something we had never done before was further edit a video after submitting it to a contest. Done is done, right? I was not about to let this one slide, though. It took us a month (and the impending Anime Weekend Atlanta Exposition AMV Contest deadline) to get it done, but we did. We wanted to do something that would set up the style of edits that would happen in the second and third sections of the video, so a similar style of masks and motion came into play. That bass still didn’t exist earlier in the song, so the timing was based off the lyrics, instead. There are still some split-screens at the end of the segment, but things at least have a flow to them, now. The execution style and initial editing was all Meri, while the timing and direction was all me. Good teamwork!

There you go. We made an AMV this year. Short and sweet, clocking in at just under three minutes. Is it my favorite video that we have ever worked on? Not by a long shot. Forcing these characters into this story certainly worked, but not as “perfect” as I would have hoped. I do think it is a fun video, which is pretty interesting considering that it is so clearly a “Drama/Serious” video underneath it all. What do you think? The attendees at Otakon seemed to like it, as we actually won first place for the first time ever in their contest. Huh.

(Yes, we will be putting up a downloadable version in the near-future. Just haven’t gotten around to it yet.)

I was tossing this out on Twitter one day, but I thought it would be fun to collect a bunch of links here to go along with this post. We never bothered to look to see if anyone else had made an AMV with this song (of course they would have), but it is fun to take a look afterward and see what is out there. Would they use any of the sources we used? Hilariously enough, all four of our sources have been used to make individual videos to the song!

There are a ton of other ones out there, too. Take a gander through YouTube. Funny stuff.

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