silent mobius

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The reasons that I have decided to watch specific anime series, OVAs, and movies in the past are many and various, but the one the drove me to Silent Mobius is perhaps the most unique. See, I went to Nan Desu Kan this year, as I do every year; for those who don’t know, NDK is an anime convention in Denver, CO, and is one of the things I look forward to each year more than almost anything else. While at the con, I love checking out the dealer’s room, and there’s a stand there each year that sells the coolest posters — they’re mostly of anime from the ’80s and ’90s, and generally have really sweet art. As a fan of old-school stuff, I always take time to root through their poster selection to see if anything catches my eye.

This year, I came across this poster, which ticked all of my checkboxes — good use of color, interesting composition, intriguing subject matter, and no huge text running across it. The problem was, I had no idea what anime it was from, and when a friend identified it as Silent Mobius (something I had never even heard of), I waffled on buying it — until I remembered that I had done this in the past with an art book at a previous NDK, and then regretted it the entire following 12 months until next NDK. I decided to part with my $21 upfront this time and not experience that again. Of course, this meant that I had to actually watch the show, as I’m generally not the type of person to put a poster of something on my wall without knowing what it is, so I downloaded the first few episodes that weekend and started watching them on my flight home.

Much like Noein, it’s kind of hard to give a straightforward summary of the anime’s premise, because it’s not entirely clear, even after 26 episodes, but I’ll do my best. In the not-too-distant future, Earth (or at least Tokyo) is under threat from otherworldly beings known as “Lucifer Hawks” — which are, for all intents and purposes, demons — who live in another world (dimension?) known as Nemesis. A gateway to Nemesis was opened in 1999 with good intentions, but tragic results, by a man named Gigelf Liqueur. His surviving daughter Katsumi is the main protagonist of the story; she is recruited to an all-female team known as “AMP” (Attacked Mystification Police, you can start cringing at any time) who are Tokyo’s first line of defense against the Lucifer Hawk threat. There are psychic powers, magic/witchcraft, high technology, a talking sword, romance, a totally evil bad guy, and plenty of other things to keep this story moving in as convoluted fashion as possible, so let’s just get to it.

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If the show has one main problem, it’s that it is paced extremely poorly. Its premise isn’t bad, really — maybe a little cliché in its general form, but it has elements going for it (which I’ll get to later) that keep it interesting. As the show progresses, however, we’re ripped from its primary conflict over and over again in the name of character development. AMP is made up of seven members (eight, later in the series), and each one can be considered a “main” character; although Katsumi is the show’s primary protagonist, the other girls all get ample screen time and the writers wanted to make sure that they were each developed to a point where the viewer cares for them as individuals, rather than just members of a core group of characters.

Honestly, this is a pretty cool mindset, but the execution is clunky at best. Most of these characters get their own “development” episode, where the focus of the story is primarily on them and/or their backstory. The problem is that the writers couldn’t integrate these stories smoothly into the overarching, man vs. Lucifer Hawk plot that should be the central pillar of the anime. Instead, we watch these admittedly well-intentioned episodes that, on their own, would be perfectly acceptable mini-stories; near the end of each one though, the central plotline is forced into the remaining time in often awkward and head-scratching ways that always feel contrived. Instead of creating a plot that allows us to discover these characters organically, the plot is twisted around these isolated side-stories and pounded into a mold it was never meant to fit.

The result is twofold; first, these characters aren’t given the treatment they really deserve. I want to stress here that, void of most of the context I just gave above, the characters in this story are actually quite well-developed. They all have distinct personalities, and they interact with one another in generally believable ways. Beyond that, although they can feel somewhat one-dimensional on occasion, none of the characters grated on me, and I actually found myself caring for them, which is more than I expected after the first few episodes. It just kills me, then, that the shoddy integration of these characters’ backstories into the overall plot probably robbed me of quite a bit more of that engagement.

The other part of this, though, is that the narrative suffers from this lack of finesse. I’ll be honest in that the anime’s main story was actually of very little interest to me, and as the anime went on that became even more pronounced, but it’s worth explaining that this jagged edge between the plot and its characters made things much worse. The plot undergoes these weird, extreme transitions between hot and cold, where things intensify and then immediately and inexplicably resolve. One can’t help but wonder if the reason for this was to make room for these more innocuous development episodes, but no matter how I slice it I just can’t get around the fact that the plot’s unsteady, inconsistent clip is due in large part to the insertion of such tangents.

That hot/cold dynamic is a huge issue that’s worth talking about on its own, because this was the main thing that repeatedly tore me from the anime’s world. Often, the characters would be involved in a fight against a major opponent, only to have that opponent (who could probably have won) suddenly and without any convincing explanation stop the fight and teleport away. In other situations, characters are subject to injuries that should absolutely kill them, only to survive because of their unbreakable plot armor. In the last episode, for example, one of the girls is in a vehicle with another, minor character. The vehicle crashes and her companion is mortally wounded; she, of course, is 100% unscathed (and did I mention that she had just recently gotten out of the hospital due to another situation in which she almost died?). Conveniently, we viewers don’t actually see the crash itself, we just see their terrified faces as they’re about to crash, then a cut to another scene, and then a cut back to the aftermath as they say their final goodbyes.

These kinds of situations are literally rampant throughout Silent Mobius. It’s a series that lives by rules it seemingly creates on the fly, with no real logic behind them besides preserving characters for specific plot points. As a result it feels entirely haphazard. The story seems to be made up on the go, rather than planned in a way where everything fits together. There’s this sense that the writers wrote themselves into corners over and over, with the only solution being reliance on that vilest of all plot devices, the deus ex machina. To illustrate, that same character that I mentioned above, after her companion dies, runs off to where the other characters are fighting the Big Bad Guy and uses powers that she conveniently just realized she had to save them all from complete destruction, unannounced and without explanation. If you love suspending your disbelief, Silent Mobius is like a buffet of all the most ridiculous contrivances imaginable.

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One other thing that I want to touch on is the series’ prevalence of plot holes — and I don’t use that phrase in the way most people think of it, namely as inconsistencies in the story. I mean it in a more literal sense — the plot has holes, information that is missing in order to fully understand what’s going on. There’s a right way to do this (i.e. Texhnolyze), but Silent Mobius doesn’t do the whole deft/intelligent storytelling thing, so the plot constantly feels incomplete. Important details either aren’t emphasized or aren’t explained outright, and combined with the poor pacing that I’ve already beaten to death, things that happen in the story are often perplexing if not straight-up unintelligible.

Still, while this all sounds pretty bad, and depending on your disposition, Silent Mobius may still be worth checking out. I haven’t yet talked about the thing that ultimately drew me to the anime in the first place — the artistic direction — and this is one way I feel that the anime (mostly) excels.

Silent Mobius was released in 1998, right on the cusp of a very generic time period in terms of animation style for the medium. Luckily, it avoided many of the pitfalls that the following years wrought on the medium, and although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that its animation is “brilliant” or even approaching it, it’s generally very good and for those who enjoy anime from the ’90s, there’s a lot to love here. Its setting helps with this — it takes place in a futuristic Tokyo, not quite cyberpunk but definitely in that direction. Most of the anime takes place at night, so there are a lot of deep blues that permeate the animation. It’s very mood-heavy, rain-soaked, and derelict. Backgrounds are striking, and it was very easy for me to get lost in the city over and over again. On top of this, some of the Lucifer Hawks had really cool creature designs, and each one was different from the others. Honestly, the aesthetic was the main thing that kept me watching, and it did so against a laundry list of issues that would normally take precedence. I hope I’m not overselling it, but I absolutely loved the art style and that alone kept it from being a total waste of time.

I say this all with an asterisk, though, because it’s not perfect. I don’t know if it was my fatigue with other aspects of the show, but the last several episodes seemed to have a markedly lower quality in the fight scenes, and any kind of character motion in general. The fights near the end which were supposed to be more intense felt a lot lazier than stuff earlier in the series. Also, in the last couple episodes we’re treated to some (mercifully brief) 3D shots of a giant monster that is taking over AMP’s headquarters, which are vaguely reminiscent of scenes from The Langoliers. Despite these more or less minor hiccups, Silent Mobius is a generally beautiful series, but keep in mind too that I have a preference for this style so your mileage may vary.

I also appreciated the series for certain things it didn’t do. For example, given the show’s female-centric cast and the type of show it is (cyberpunk-esque sci-fi), the demographic it’s marketed to is pretty clear — males in their teens and 20s. It would have been extremely easy — and no one would have batted an eye, except perhaps in retrospect — for the show’s producers to over-sexualize the protagonists, as tends to happen in situations like this. I applaud the team behind Silent Mobius for resisting this at every single opportunity. The sex that is in the show is implied, rather than shown. There’s pretty much no skin, no fanservice, nothing that more profit-minded studios wouldn’t hesitate to throw in at every other turn. The show doesn’t relegate its female cast to the sidelines in any way, or objectify them. They are genuinely strong characters, deserving of respect, and yet the reason for the all-female team as revealed later in the series rests on one of the fundamental differences between men and women. I’m not about to get into the politics of feminism here, but I felt like the series trod a thin line on the subject very gracefully, and was ahead of its time in that respect.

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I think the show is also to be commended, in a way at least, for the sheer number of different things it tries to do. To be clear, many of these things didn’t really work and contributed to the general feeling that the story was a mess. However, there’s this sense that I got while watching that the creators (or mangaka or whoever is responsible for the story) weren’t throwing all these things at the anime in deference to trends or for any reason other than because they genuinely thought it was a good idea, and simply had no one to tell them “No.” There are multiple romances, sibling rivalry, time travel, pseudo-religious imagery, and cyborgs, to name a few. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t, but part of the show’s charm (yes, it does have charm) comes from all these crazy things being put into this giant blender of questionable taste.

I do also feel that the anime’s soundtrack is worth praising, as it’s done very well — heavy, moody gothic synth/organ pieces fill the background, and capture Silent Mobius’ tense, urban setting perfectly. The opening track isn’t bad, and the song’s closing track — at least, the one used for the first 2/3 of the series — is really good. Voice acting is pretty fine too. Good sound design may not be able to save a bad series from the scrap heap, but in this case it helped to accentuate all the little things about the anime that I felt were done right.

So do I regret purchasing that poster? Heck no. That single image captures most of what I did actually like about the series — the aesthetic, the art, the ridiculousness (look at the size of that sword!). Still, if I were to recommend this to anyone, I think it would be a hard sell no matter who I was talking to. It’s a show that finds itself in a strange, sparsely-populated no-man’s land between cop drama, serious romance, and sci-fi horror, and fails to do any one of those genres completely right. It’s convoluted, messily-paced and lacking cohesion and rhythm. It’s beautiful and ambitious and full of likable characters who are subject to horrible writing and manufactured immortality. In 2018, it’s a mostly-forgotten title that I have little reason to try and convince people is something worth remembering.

Still, for all its flaws, it’s an anime that I found surprisingly difficult to truly hate, or even really dislike. In fact, thinking back on it brings a feeling of odd fondness. It’s probably not something I’ll ever rewatch, and it’s not something I’m going to tell you is necessarily worth your time. But its sins are inoffensive at worst, and as a mood piece it works surprisingly well. Subjecting yourself to 26 episodes just to experience a “mood” is probably not most peoples’ cup of tea, though. For most of you, you can move on with your lives and not lose sleep over feeling you’ve missed out on some hidden gem from the ’90s that everyone else somehow overlooked — thanks for reading the review, I hope you have a good day. For the few remaining, it might be worth a look if you’re in the right headspace — just keep your expectations low and pay attention to the scenery.

Scores
Characters: 8/10
Animation: 8/10
Story: 5/10
Pacing: 3/10
Music: 9/10
Personal value: 6/10
Overall: 62/100

For a detailed explanation of the above scores, please read this post.

 

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one punch man

one_punch_man_fan_art_by_molcray-d9inz2iArt by molcray

Ok — so let’s just get the obvious, meta-question out of the way immediately. Does the Internet really need another random blogger sharing his thoughts on One Punch Man? I say this as someone who admittedly hasn’t read any other reviews, but I imagine the volume is probably rather large; after all, OPM is certainly one of the most popular and best-loved series released in the past few years. So is this post strictly necessary? Well, probably not — and most people who will read this, I would assume, have already seen OPM and formed their opinion on it. But, I haven’t written an anime review in — holy crap I’m just looking at this now — almost two years and that’s way too fricking long.

To be fair, though, I haven’t really watched much anime in that time, due to the mercurial nature of my interests and attention. Anime cons have a tendency to bring my latent love of the medium roaring to the surface though, and the day after my wife and I returned back from Denver, CO’s Nan Desu Kan this year (which happened to be Labor Day), we had little to do so we decided to binge through the entirety of OPM. It was probably the best decision I made that day.

Look, dear reader, I realize that you don’t need another rando from the Internet screaming at you to watch this anime. If you’ve made it this far reading some nobody’s anime review, there’s about a 99% chance that you’ve already seen it. I tend to be way behind the curve in all things awesome, but I’m going to add my voice to the chorus here because there’s no getting around the fact that this is just a really, really good anime. Perfection? Nah, not even close. This wouldn’t crack my Top 10 or anything like that — it’s not quite that good — but this is the kind of new show that makes me give a sidelong glance to people who make blanket statements claiming that anime is no good these days.

I assume you probably at least understand the basic premise of the show — after all, it’s in the anime’s title. Our protagonist Saitama has the amazing ability to destroy anything and anyone with a single punch, and as a setup this is fine, and interesting, and honestly, they could have stopped there and still made the show as entertaining as it was. But it’s the little things, the extra things, that make it so incredibly likable, such that the show’s titular theme is almost of secondary interest.

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The setting, for example — it’s a world that could be Earth but could just as easily be some other (or parallel) world. Cities now stretch to encompass most of the planet’s landmass; instead of divisions between countries, there are divisions between cities, and each city is known only by a single letter of the alphabet. If the show’s tone were completely different, this could easily spiral out of control into a fascinating case study of a cyberpunk dystopia, but instead it’s a world under constant threat from goofy monsters, evil humans, mutants, and aliens, and protected by “Heroes” — extraordinary people who often possess superior physical or mental abilities, and who are part of a Hero Association that tracks, organizes, and dispatches these heroes where they’re needed most.

The various characters that flit in and out of the story are often more interesting than Saitama himself — each one possesses a certain charm, or character trait that sets them apart without making him or her a caricature (unless that’s the point of their character, which is sometimes the case). They contrast with Saitama’s character in an interesting way. He’s so incredibly, stupidly powerful that he’s boring, and it feels very deliberate — he’s bald; his suit is a flat, ugly yellow; he rarely shows any kind of emotion beyond apathy. Every other character, on the other hand, is either intense or over-the-top in some way, often to their misfortune. I appreciated this trope-breaking approach, even if (or maybe because) it served as a tongue-in-cheek jab at your typical shounen anime.

The character list is quite long — Genos, the humble disciple; Bang, the wizened martial arts sensei; Tatsumaki, the narcissistic esper powerhouse; Mumen Rider, the good-hearted weakling…it goes on, and each hero (and some villains!) drew me further and further into OPM’s unique world. It was somewhat ironic that the show’s gravitational pull had these supporting characters at its center, and not Saitama.

Now, don’t get me wrong here — Saitama is a great protagonist. He’s someone you root for, someone you want to see more of, and know more about. The problem — and I’m not sure “problem” is the right word, exactly — is that he’s so unrelentingly strong, and without any given weaknesses, that it’s hard to really worry about him at all. In fact this is true of the show’s other main character, Genos, as well — although he constantly gets beaten and wrecked, he’s always returned to normal in short order because he’s actually a cyborg and can always be rebuilt because, well…SCIENCE!

The reason I hesitate to really nail these down as legitimate “problems” is because OPM does not take itself overly seriously at any given point. It treats its boundaries as very fluid entities, flowing between action and comedy and shounen and drama without missing a beat. This interplay of genres and the deftness with which it travels from one to the next is what keeps it incessantly entertaining, even ignoring its other virtues. Saitama’s explanation of his godlike powers isn’t really convincing in a world with hard rules and logic, but One Punch Man creates a world where such rules and logic come across more like suggestions than axioms. I don’t know if there’s something more to Saitama’s strength than the rather bland, straightforward training regimen he describes, but the anime allows that there might not be, and I have to give credit where it’s due — it makes me laugh and that’s half of the magic of this show.

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The other half comes from the writers’ ability to answer a question that tends to plague more serious stories that have an all-powerful protagonist — how do you create tension? Even Superman had Kryptonite — Saitama has nothing that can beat him, nothing that can even harm him, really. Even the show’s final fight — which I’ll return to in a bit for other reasons — was really lacking any kind of stress. Contrary to popular belief, not every show needs tension to be effective — but at least in the anime realm, the shows that go this route tend to be low-key, relaxing slice-of-life stories, not high-energy shounen action series. Tension is what stuff like this thrives on.

In OPM, this comes from other sources — a supporting character’s backstory, personality clashes between the various heroes, Saitama’s own desires and motivations. Occasionally the fights in the series are tense, but only before Saitama shows up. Ironically, a show called One Punch Man doesn’t use Saitama’s punch as a vehicle for too much plot development — most of this comes in other, more surprising and subtle ways, and it always works to the show’s benefit.

For instance, Saitama cares about saving people, certainly, but as the show progresses we begin to see that, at heart, more than anything he really craves attention and praise from others. After joining the Hero Academy and amusingly being put in the lowest rank of heroes, he inevitably finds his way into battles against powerful enemies that lower-ranked heroes typically have nothing to do with, and ultimately Saves The Day…only to be vilified by other heroes and bystanders for supposedly stealing credit for these victories because, by the time he arrives, the enemies in question have already been “softened up” by the higher-ranked, more popular heroes. We get glimpses into his character through these situations, and they reveal depth that is sadly not explored too much in this season; if nothing else, though, it exemplifies OPM’s willingness to defy clichés and forge a somewhat more singular path through its shounen brethren.

This isn’t to say that OPM never relies on tropes, but if it does, it only does so for one of two reasons. The first is to essentially ridicule the very tropes it espouses — Saitama’s backstory, for example, has him deciding to get stronger in order to fight bad guys after almost getting killed protecting a child from an attacking mutant. However the more detailed you get with this, the more off-kilter it becomes. The mutant in question is a man who turned into a crab-creature after eating too much crab. The little boy has a huge butt-chin, and the mutant was after him because the boy drew nipples on his chest while he was sleeping. It’s revealed that Saitama went bald due to the intensity of his training. Everything is just slightly off, yet still recognizable in its general form as the kind of thing you see in this type of anime. There’s a shroud of unabashed sarcasm that covers the entire thing, and I loved it.

The other reason that OPM can get tropey is in order to show off its uncompromisingly beautiful animation. This show relies a lot on shounen-style fight scenes that are predictably over-the-top; the show’s antagonists are of the super-overpowered variety, often throwing or beating heroes into concrete, or through buildings, or through the atmosphere into the moon (as one does). For as brazenly ridiculous as most of these fights are, they’re animated in jaw-dropping detail and style. Often, when the action gets really intense, aesthetics loosen and we’re treated to beautifully fluid, heavy outlines and stylized character animations. For all the adrenaline that fight scenes in this type of anime normally bring, One Punch Man ups the ante in every one, and each fight itself is an occasion for an adrenaline surge not so much because we’re concerned about the outcome, but because of how visually stunning the fights are, and how much dazzling artistic skill and creativity they display.

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Nowhere is this more true than the final fight in the last episode, which ranks as probably the best single fight scene I’ve ever seen in an anime. We get to witness the first enemy that Saitama has encountered who isn’t done in by a single punch — an alien who traveled across the galaxy simply to fight him. It feels like a video game boss battle, with the bad guy getting bigger and badder as the fight progresses. The animation quality steps up three notches for this scene, getting more and more nuts, pushing limits and whipping up fury to hurricane-force levels. It’s something that has to be seen to be believed, utilizing color and camera motion and interesting perspectives to create scenes that contain a thermonuclear bomb’s worth of energy. It’s totally riveting, and worth watching and rewatching just to admire all the little details. As a climax to an anime’s first season, it’s unparalleled.

If OPM is lacking in any department, it’s the fact that, at least so far, it’s a rather shallow experience. Although the series sets up a lot of room for character development and potential depth in later seasons, it’s hard to tell if that’s the path it will go down. Perhaps more importantly, I’m having difficulty imagining how the series can get any more exciting in the future, which is especially disappointing given that excitement is the main emotion OPM runs on. I don’t want to prematurely sour my expectations, so I’m not going to pre-judge the next season (which apparently will be airing next year — count me in), but I’m going to go in with the understanding that we may never see a better episode of OPM than this season’s finale.

To be perfectly frank, this was never a series I was going to seek out if I hadn’t had multiple people telling me to watch it. I’m not generally into shounen-type stuff, and even knowing OPM pokes fun at the genre hadn’t sold me on it completely. I can now say that I was way wrong to put this one off for so long. The bottom line is that no, it’s not a terribly deep series, and no, it’s not going to change your life or make you rethink anything important. But, what it does — high-octane action mixed with sometimes-subtle and sometimes-overt comedy — it does exceedingly well. Above all, it’s just a fun series that I can’t envision many people disliking. It has a certain unique charisma that permeates almost every scene, and a style all its own. It’s not a series that can be confused for anything else. It stands alone, and I think these days — when it does seem that a lot of anime are becoming more and more derivative — OPM is a refreshing take on the purest kind of entertainment the medium has to offer.

Scores
Characters: 8/10
Animation: 9/10
Story: 7/10
Pacing: 10/10
Music: 7/10
Personal value: 8/10
Overall: 81/100

For a detailed explanation of the above scores, please read this post.

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load state #1: final fantasy iv

This is the first in a new series of posts I’ll be doing called “Load State”, the purpose of which is to take a look at some old video games and see how well they’ve aged. As an almost-lifelong casual gamer, I often find the urge to go back and play old games, both familiar and unfamiliar, to see how they feel in a modern context. I thought it might be fun to document the process in a new review series, so that’s what I’ll be doing.

I don’t have a plan as far as what I’ll be looking at, or in what order, or how often, but I hope to revisit some of my old favorites that I haven’t played in a while, as well as to play through others that I never got to before to see how well they play today. I’m going to place a couple minor limitations — first, any game that I will review for this series must be at least 15 years old. This would mean that I won’t be covering any games newer than those released during the XBox/GameCube generation. Second, I’ll be playing the games using either (a) original console/controller, (b) an emulated console with a generic (but faithfully-reproduced) controller, or (c) an emulator on my portable Sony PSP. Third, I’m going to keep these reviews relatively short and to-the-point — the purpose of these entries won’t be so much to determine whether or not these are good games, period, but to figure out whether or not they’re worth playing now. The technology underlying video games, and the approach to creating them, has changed so much in the last 20+ years that I think what we expect out of them has evolved as well — and I’m curious to discover whether these altered expectations positively or negatively influence how I view older games in a modern setting (especially as an older and less easily-amused human).

To that third point, I will be organizing my reviews based on the following questions, which focus more on things that might be limited or affected specifically by the era in which the game was released:

(1) How have the graphics aged?
(2) How have the controls aged?
(3) How has the sound design aged?
(4) How has the gameplay aged?
(5) Overall, is this game something a modern gamer would enjoy?

The final question is key, and worth expounding on just a little here, because it’s subtly different from some other, similar questions I could ask such as “Is this game worth playing today?” or “Overall, has this game aged well?” Both are important questions that I’ll probably touch on throughout these reviews, but the final question I’ve chosen — “Overall, is this game something a modern gamer would enjoy?” — gets to the heart of what I hope to explore in these posts. Namely — for someone who was probably born around or after when a lot of these games were originally released, and grew up playing games mainly in the XBox 360 era and beyond, are these games — regardless of how critically acclaimed they were on their release or in the years following — even enjoyable in 2018 and beyond? I want to approach this from an angle that disposes with the nostalgia and sentimentality that most of my peers will probably have with a lot of these games, and evaluate them (as best I can) with a fresh and critical eye that is able to recognize bad or obtuse game design for what it is, and not try to make excuses for it, even if they’re valid ones (we can blame the limits of technology for failing to create convenient gaming experiences, but that doesn’t make said experiences any more enjoyable, especially nowadays). We’ll see how well I’m able to do this, I guess.

With all that out of the way — hopefully you’ll enjoy! Let’s get started with our first game: Final Fantasy IV!

Final Fantasy IV

Released: 1991
Console: Super Nintendo
Genre(s): JRPG
Played on: Raspberry Pi emulator, connected to my TV

What is it?
Final Fantasy IV was the first Final Fantasy game released on the SNES. At the time of its release, it was only the second game in the series released in the U.S., and as such was released as Final Fantasy II when it originally came out here. The game follows Cecil, a Dark Knight of Baron and Captain of the Red Wings, an airship fleet. Following his king’s orders, he attacks the kingdom of Mysidia in order to get the Water Crystal being held there, and after slaughtering many innocent mages his conscience forces him to question his king’s motives, which leads to him being stripped of his rank and disowned. He then sets out on an epic quest that takes him, among other places, underground, inside a giant robot, and to the Moon in order to stop the evil Golbez (the one behind all the madness…or is he??) from destroying the world. Or something.

The game is classic fantasy/sci-fi JRPG. There are many different skillsets among the different characters, although you can’t set any of them — abilities are predefined and new spells and skills are learned as characters level up. FF4 was the first game to make use of the now-iconic Active Time Battle (ATB) system, which assigns a character or enemy’s “turn” in battle based on an invisible gauge which is constantly filling when the character is not attacking or choosing an action. It’s a deeply story-driven game, and contains a huge cast of constantly-shifting party members.

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How have the graphics aged?
Really, really well. I’m fond of sprite-based, 16-bit RPG graphics anyway, but I still think FF4 looks phenomenal today. That said, the best was still to come in games like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, which both pushed the limits in terms of detail and color, and which make FF4 look somewhat bland by comparison. But, ignore those for a second and you’ll still get a whole lot out of this one. Castles and towns look gorgeous, enemy design is extremely detailed on the battle screens, and flying around the world map in airships looks great, especially given the limitations of technology at the time.

There are a few things that disappoint in this area, though — for example, spells and summons, things that the franchise would take to cinematic extremes in future FF games, are typically piddly and entirely underwhelming in FF4. Meteo, for example — the game’s most powerful and important magic spell — is nothing more than a few little orange meteorites flying around the screen. The designers could have made using these spells a bit more of an occasion, so to speak, as there’s nothing that visually makes spells like Meteo and powerful summons like Bahamut feel significant. My expectations may have been unfairly influenced by later games, but most people going into FF4 today would probably have those same expectations — so if that’s you, just be prepared.

How have the controls aged?
In a game like this, controls in the usual way we talk about them are barely worth mentioning since they hardly influence one’s ability to play the game — there aren’t really any reflex-based actions required by the gamer, just menu navigation and four-directional movement. However, there are some menu and general design-based issues that are a bit annoying and probably worth mentioning here.

First, the game suffers from a severe lack of explanation that can confuse menu navigation and general understanding of how basic things in the game work. For example, while upgrading your equipment is key in this game, as with pretty much any RPG, you are unable to see a piece of armor’s or a weapon’s stats before you buy it — meaning you can easily (and probably will) end up wasting money on inferior equipment without knowing it. Inventory management is also a pain, unless you know about the “Sort” and “Discard” commands that are hidden at the very bottom of the inventory screen, after you scroll down past rows of empty inventory slots. I didn’t discover these features until about halfway through the game. There’s also the frustration of not knowing what many spells do, as the descriptions offered in-game are often completely useless if not absent altogether.

Another thing — as with all traditional JRPGs, you amass a party of characters, with up to five travelling with you at any given time. While in the main menu, you can arrange these characters however you wish positionally for the battlefield. In other FF games I’ve played, you have the option to set individual party members to be in the front line (where physical attacks do more damage to enemies, but physical attacks from enemies also do more damage to you), or in the back line (where the opposite is true). FF4 has this option — kind of. There are five slots and the front/back line designation is staggered — thus characters in slots 1, 3, and 5 all have to be in the same line, while those in slots 2 and 4 are in the opposite one. You can switch these groups between the front and back line at any given time, but you have no control over the individual slots. Most of the time this isn’t a huge deal, but it means having to rearrange the position of characters in your party whenever the party composition changes (which is fairly often). It’s a vague annoyance at worst, but one that is still noticeable.

One final point is quite minor, but I feel worth mentioning — there’s no real-time minimap when flying the airship, and as a result finding specific points on the world map while you’re flying can be infuriating. (In fact, seeing the world map at all requires you to use a specific magic spell called “Sight” — an innovative implementation, to be sure, but one that is more inconvenient than winsome.)

ff4-3

How has the sound design aged?
Pretty well. One of this game’s better aspects is probably its soundtrack, which is just classic Final Fantasy in every sense. Most every theme is memorable and adds to the game in its own way — standouts include the epic overworld theme, the down-to-business Baron Castle theme, and the slightly creepy, alien-sounding Moon theme. Although not the best soundtrack in the Final Fantasy canon, the music here is nothing to sneeze at — and the game is quite a bit better for it.

I will say though, that I am forever done with the Dwarf Kingdom theme. Take that as you will.

How has the gameplay aged?
I’ll start with the bottom line — given its age, Final Fantasy 4 is still perfectly playable today, both for casual and hardcore gamers. That said, there may be some expectations you want to curb for yourself before diving in.

First off — the game is actually fairly difficult. JRPGs are not necessarily known for their difficulty, and this is honestly one of the things I’ve always found kind of appealing about them — as story-driven adventures, I typically find most of my enjoyment in simply going along for the ride and discovering the world presented to me. FF4 expects a bit more from the player. Although I do believe most casual gamers could get through this one without throwing down the controller, it can be a challenge from time to time.

For example, you’ll find yourself relying a lot on Potions, especially early in the game. Throughout most of the game, any character who can use magic and has access to one or more curative spells will basically be relegated to conserving his or her MP for keeping your party healed. Although such spells can be cast either on an individual or on your entire party at once, doing the latter will reduce the spell’s effectiveness significantly (and the same can be said of the elemental attack spells when used on enemies). MP usage for stronger healing spells also ramps up disproportionately to the actual healing done. Thus, it’s often a more effective use of your MP to use low-level Cure spells over and over on a single party member outside of battle, and then do the same for the next one, etc., until your entire party is fully healed. Near the end of the game, you’ll be doing this after practically every single battle, and it’s time-consuming.

As long as we’re on the topic of magic, I found it to be more or less useless as a form of attack in most battles. (Side note: this is not a problem unique to this game — I would say that most older JRPGs suffer from this.) The problem is that magic is expensive to use, and the lower-level attacks are typically weaker than a comparable physical attack. This wouldn’t be a huge deal except that Ethers, the only items that can restore MP (other than Elixers which are rarer and Cabins which are only usable at save points), are not able to be purchased from stores until the very end of the game, and even then they are ridiculously expensive. You find Ethers in treasure chests and occasionally win them in battles, but they are otherwise unobtainable for the majority of the game. This severely limits how much I wanted to use magic in battles, especially not knowing when a boss battle could happen where I might actually need to use magic; and then typically, my most powerful spells, which cost the most MP, which I wouldn’t be able to use if I had used my MP up in normal random encounters.

ff4-2

The game has some other little annoyances as well. (Things get slightly spoiler-y below, so read at your own risk.) While the game is very story-driven, its plot ends up making casualties of a not-insignificant number of characters who join your party throughout the game. Most of these “deaths” end up being fake-outs in the end, but as characters leave and rejoin your party throughout your adventure, you never really know who is coming back and who is gone for good, meaning all that time you spent grinding to get a character to a certain level could very well have been for naught.

On the other hand, though, this approach actually feels very forward-thinking, even today, when main characters are often given plot armor or are overpowered to the point of disbelief. FF4 slowly changes the way you approach the few decisions you’re allowed to make through the game — halfway through you realize that no one is immune to death (“death”), and any one of your party members could bite it at any time. There are some moments through the game that are truly shocking, especially given the implicit limitations of the technology at the time which restricted how impactful 2D sprites could really be, and I think that’s to be commended.

One last point, though — FF4 can be really grindy. The random encounter rate in the game can feel overwhelming. There were many times where I would win a battle, and as soon as I took a single step a new battle would start. There were more than a few one- to two-hour gaming sessions where 90% of my time was spent battling — either because of the ludicrous encounter rate or because I felt it was necessary to do some leveling before moving on to the next point in the game (often a mix of both).

Overall, is this game something a modern gamer would enjoy?
I gotta be honest — I’m finding it really hard to recommend this game to a general modern audience. Many of the things I liked about it (and, to be clear, I did quite enjoy the game overall) have to do with my own preferences and a general fondness I have for this era of games, and JRPGs in general. That said, I’m struggling to think of a single thing this game does that other games haven’t done better in subsequent years.

Depending on who you ask, the gold standard for 16-bit RPGs was realized in either Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI, both of which I agree are certainly superior to FF4. Many (most) of the minor complaints I have were fixed by the time those two games were released, and although pretty much every little issue I mentioned above is just that — little — they compound to make an experience that, at its worst, can feel like a chore.

I’ve also failed so far to mention one glaring flaw, and possibly the biggest issue I had with the game — its horrible translation. It is rough, awkward, inconsistent, and grammatically weird at every point. The story (which is otherwise very good) is delivered in such a stuttery, messy way throughout the entire game that scenes that would otherwise be emotionally charged often fall completely flat. (If you’re curious as to how wooden the translation is, take a look at this.)

Thankfully, this isn’t the end of the story. Because Final Fantasy is such a beloved and popular franchise, FF4 has been remade — several times. While I haven’t played any but the original SNES version, I have it on good authority that the DS and PSP versions are superior in every way. I don’t know everything that was fixed or altered, but I assume that many of my issues (and certainly the translation) have been given a more modern treatment that might be more palatable to today’s gamers.

As a piece of JRPG history, the SNES version of Final Fantasy 4 is a fine game in its ideas — it took risks in storytelling, offered a lengthy, epic quest to all sorts of locales, and created individual personalities in its characters that went beyond the usual fantasy RPG tropes that were canon at that point in time. Someone looking for a classic 16-bit JRPG could certainly find better games, but I don’t know that they’d find one that felt so well-worn and, I don’t know, comfortable. When you think of the quintessential SNES RPG in your mind’s eye, you’re probably envisioning FF4.

Still, it demands patience through all its quirks, and knowing that many of those quirks have been fixed in later releases, I’d have to give this particular version a pass — but you’d certainly be remiss to pass up FF4 altogether.

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flying low #17: to fly

Back in December of 2006, a Russian editor named ukms[z] released a landmark video in the history of the AMV hobby called Reflections. It won five VCAs at a time when such accolades actually meant something, and put Russian editors on the map — although nowadays the spread of “effects” editors is a lot more egalitarian and not as limited to geographical area, there was once a time that the videos coming out of Russia were seen as typically more cutting-edge than most other stuff, and Reflections was among the biggest videos to advertise that. Perhaps even more importantly, though, is the fact that Reflections was maybe the first really intensive crossover video, as most people would know them today. It has all the trappings of the stuff you see littered across YouTube these days — two completely disparate anime merged together to look like they occur in the same universe, lots of masking, and a metric ton of color manipulation to hide the more obvious stylistic differences between the sources.

Although I would argue that Umika perfected the craft years later (inasmuch as such a generally derivative genre can be “perfected”), it’s impossible to watch Reflections and not see a very obvious proto-2010s crossover approach seeping through every pore of the thing, and to come to the obvious conclusion that ukms[z] was, apparently, way ahead of the curve. Sadly it was the last video he would release, but he sure went out with a bang, all while sealing his legacy in the process.

In re-watching this video for the first time in…a long time, in preparation for this post, then, I was surprised (ok, only a little surprised) to find that Reflections is one of the campiest, most horrifically dated videos I’ve seen in a long while. Crossover videos of this nature often feel this way, but Reflections fares worse than most; a monument it may be, but it’s no wonder this video has been more or less forgotten in the intervening years.

All this is to build up to the video I actually want to talk about — a video that ukms[z] released 11 months before Reflections, and one that couldn’t be more different if it tried. In fact, if there’s any similarity between them, it’s the fact that both make use of two anime that are very different, although in the case of To Fly the difference is quite a bit more extreme. Utilizing the “A Detective Story” short from The Animatrix and a little-known Korean animated film called Wonderful Days, ukms[z] juxtaposes the two in a striking, heavy-hitting way that works a whole lot better than his later technical giant of a video.

It’s also a video that thrives on understatement and subtlety; there are few cuts compared to how most people would probably be tempted to edit this song. The scenes stick around for seconds at a time — a lifetime in AMV terms, in most cases. It holds back and resists the temptation to show its hand too quickly. The monochromatic, claustrophobic Animatrix scenes contrast sharply with the colorful, expansive Wonderful Days scenes, but when those colors come on, man, they explode. It explores an intimate message of a longing for freedom that can be translated across situations into personal, social, and even political terms (am I reaching with that last one? I might be reaching with that last one).

Maybe above all though, is that it’s dead simple. Ultimately, this is why I spent so much time referring to Reflections to begin with. Pretty much anyone who looks at that video today would probably be almost embarrassed by it, at least if they were watching it for the first time. It’s so kitschy and tacky, so overwhelmingly corny and melodramatic. The effects haven’t aged well, and instead of softening the melodrama into something relatable, they accentuate all its worst properties. In short, there’s very little about that video that works — and almost nothing that hasn’t been done better in the years since. Any feelings of fondness I retain for it are purely nostalgic.

There have been a lot of discussions lately in the AMVCentral Discord channel centering around effects use in AMVs, and predictably, a lot of the younger crowd are rolling their eyes at people like me who tend to demonize (or at least question the unrestrained use of) effects in AMVs. But I think there’s a lesson to be learned here, in these two videos — one was once the absolute height of technical achievement in its day, recognized almost universally as a masterpiece of effects work and storytelling, the other was nothing but hard cuts, and was completely overlooked. Twelve years later, I know which one I’d rather be watching.

 

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flying low #16: peering away the layers

It may be hard to remember, and the younger readers may not even know, but once upon a time there was a band called Staind, and for all intents and purposes they constituted what today would probably be considered a meme. In fact, the whole crummy genre of music they espoused was rightly panned by most people who didn’t like wrestling and, like, really baggy pants as being some of the most annoying radio music out there. You can imagine, then, how I felt as a 13-14 year old kid, just getting into music, when I heard Staind played on the radio and kinda…y’know…liked it. But, I mean, at that age social pressure has a way of forcing one to say that something you like sucks and then trying to convince yourself that it’s true.

The fact is I always liked the song “Outside”, despite Staind’s reputation, and I had to repress that enjoyment whenever I was around music-knowledgable friends. 16+ years later, I can finally say this without shame, although it’s not like I’ve just been waiting around for the right time to finally come clean; it’s just that I happened across this great AMV a couple years ago and realized that it’s something I can write about here.

Because this is really a pretty fantastic video. Released in 2001 by serDouglass, this was one of the first 2,000 videos entered into the .org’s database. Given that the .org now has some 165,000+ videos entered in it, that’s pretty impressive. But what’s more impressive, at least to me, is just how well it has stood the test of time these last 17 years. This video demonstrates an innate understanding of editing basics, which is something I harp on again and again when I talk about those AMVs that speak to me the most. There’s nothing fancy in here — of course much of that may be attributed to the time this video was released and the fact that, back then, effects were simply much harder to come by. But this video is all the better for it.

Even so, editing-wise, there’s really not much to comment on. I would expect any halfway competent editor to be able to do the things this video does, and truthfully someone watching this video today probably won’t “learn” anything they didn’t already know. Cut on the obvious shifts in the song, hold onto a scene as the music lingers, pay attention to the lyrics without being obvious about it. Everything in moderation, basically, and that’s the most played-out lesson in the world. If anything, the video shows how important it is, but you probably already knew that.

Nah, what this video has is something more intangible, harder to manufacture without more thought and heart — it’s simply the fact that the anime and song seem to be so in sync, almost regardless of the technical choices the editor makes (or doesn’t). And while that’s also a pretty hackneyed concept, especially on this blog, there’s a reason I’m always harping on it and highlighting videos that do it so well: it’s probably the most important lesson any editor can learn. Smashing things together just because you like them on their own is hardly ever reason enough to do so — the art of editing an AMV implies that the two go together on some deeper, more fundamental level. Being an editor means recognizing that connection and making it work.

There are plenty (and I do mean plenty) of AMVs out there that don’t follow this pattern. Many of those even rely on the disparity itself to work — and many of them are downright excellent. I’ll say this, though — the videos that last, that stick with me and that I watch over and over and over again until a normal person would be dead sick of them are those that harness and emphasize a found synergy between the two sources that totally shoves all the editing tricks and technical wizardry the editor might throw in into the background. Peering Away The Layers isn’t the best video that does this — not even close — but serDouglass certainly hit on something special with this combination that’s worth remembering almost two decades later.

 

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