Oct 312013
 

Full disclosure: I am terrible at watching scary movies. Gore/horror + my overactive imagination = a bad combination on par with tequila shots + karaoke bars. Scary movies bother me for days after I watch them, and I become a jittery, skittish mess, looking over my shoulder at every turn. Ironically, most of my favorite TV shows are of the sci-fi or fantasy persuasion, which means they tend to feature a healthy dose of blood, death, and monsters on a weekly basis. So if you’re looking for something to creep you out for Halloween, you’ve come to the right place. In no particular order, I give you: 5 Creepy Episodes of TV to Watch This Halloween.

1. “Hush”, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

TheGentlemen

I watched Hush for the first time alone in my college dorm room at 12:30 in the morning. My roommate, who had started her Buffy marathon just a week before my own foray into the fandom, had warned me about this episode, but I was in full on binge-watching mode. We had collectively rented out most of the DVDs from the library (alas, for Netflix Instant would not become a part of my vocabulary for about another year), so nothing was stopping me from pulling yet another Buffy all-nighter. And I pulled an all-nighter that night, but it was mostly because I was too scared to sleep.

“Hush” is about a group of gliding, ghoulish, grinning, fairy tale monsters called The Gentlemen, who steal people’s voices so no one can hear them scream as they cut out their hearts. There’s even a really creepy song about it, sung by an equally creepy little girl during a dream sequence. (Can’t call to mom / Can’t say a word / You’re gonna die screaming but you won’t be heard.)

But beyond the horrifying appearance and motive of the sinister Gentlemen, what really makes the episode scary is that almost the entire hour of television is void of any dialogue. The lack of any spoken words from the characters would seem like a shtick in many other contexts, but in Buffy it is addressed as the terrifying oddity that it is. As a viewer, you begin to realize just how important spoken communication is, and the terror felt by the citizens of Sunnydale as the Gentlemen and their creepy straitjacketed minions roam the streets in search of human hearts begins to settle into your own.

2. “And Then There was Shawn”, from Boy Meets World

BoyMeetsWorld

Yeah, okay, so this isn’t actually one of the scariest episodes of television ever. In fact, it’s kind of hilarious. But remember watching it as a kid? (Or am I seriously dating myself here?) Yeah, that episode freaked me out. The BMW gang find themselves in detention one evening, and discover that a serial killer is picking them off, one by one! (DUN DUN DUUUUNNNNN) Although I can watch it now with a smile on my face, and see it for the satire it really is, it doesn’t lessen the fact that this episode is a real classic.

 

3. “Bushwhacked”, from Firefly

Firefly

The crew of Serenity come across a ghostly ship that appears to be abandoned. Upon closer inspection, they discover that the crew and passengers have been attacked by Reavers, the savage cannibals who were once men. Apart from the mutilated bodies of the passengers hanging from the ceiling and the descent of the lone survivor into his own tortured madness, we see, in this episode, that even strong, tough guy Jayne is terrified of the Reavers, which, if you haven’t been paying attention, means they must be pretty scary. We also see, through the eyes of Simon Tam as he clings to the outer hull of Serenity, the absolute and endless vastness of space, which would be enough to drive anyone insane. That subtle little addition might be more terrifying, psychologically at least, than the violence and mutilation we see in the rest of the episode. “Bushwhacked” is one of those episodes that, no matter how long it’s been since I’ve watched Firefly, will always stick in my mind as creepy.

4. “Blink”, from Doctor Who

Blink

“Don’t turn your back. Don’t look away. And don’t blink.”

Although it’s technically just a “filler” episode, filmed on a low budget and without the two main characters, The Doctor and Martha, present for most of the plot, “Blink” has gone down in history as probably the single scariest episode ever aired during Doctor Who‘s five long decades.The episode introduced the Weeping Angels, statuesque creatures that can only move when no one is watching them. Arguably the worst part? If they get close, if you take your eyes off of them just long enough, the touch of a Weeping Angel will, in the words of The Doctor, “just zap you into the past and let you live to death. The rest of your life used up and blown away in the blink of an eye. You die in the past, and in the present they consume the energy of all the days you might have had, all your stolen moments.” Crazy stuff, right?

Now add to these monsters, these so-called “Lonely Assassins”, the fact that The Doctor and Martha are stuck in 1969, and that it’s up to a young woman and her friend to save not only The Doctor, but themselves as well, and a plotline that’s about as “wibbly-wobbly” as “timey-wimey” itself, and the puzzle you’re in for makes for more than a thrill ride than most full-length movies. If you haven’t ever seen “Blink,” you just need to. It’s that simple.

 

5. “Bloody Mary”, from Supernatural

BloodyMary

Let’s be real here. Season 1 of Supernatural was undoubtedly the scariest. Before it settled into the tangled nest of angels and demons and fangirl fights between Sam/Dean and Dean/Cas shippers that it is now, Supernatural was a horror show, really. Every week it featured a new case, a new monster, and a new mystery to solve. Sounds pretty standard, right? There are plenty of those out there. Except the early episodes of Supernatural were actually sometimes pretty terrifying. From the scarecrow made of the skin of its victims, to a vengeful spirit in a lake that attacked people in the bathtub, a lot of those episodes were downright creepy. But one of the first episodes in the entire series, “Bloody Mary”, brought credence to a myth told at slumber parties throughout my entire childhood.

About the infamous young woman who kills you if you say her name three times in front of a mirror, the episode featured a lot of visual horror — sudden shots of a dark figure in the background of a mirror, and victims bleeding from the eyeballs before they die. Ugh.

I’d write more about the episode, but there’s a full length mirror in front of me in this room, and I’ve already typed her name twice…

 

Need something to binge-watch in between serving trick-or-treaters tonight? Try The Walking Dead or American Horror Story, two shows I’ve never personally watched because of my debilitating fear of a.) American horror stories and b.) the walking dead. But really. Zombies are legitimately terrifying to me. But if that’s your thing, then you go right ahead. Have fun. Happy Halloween, all.

 

Death by DVR is written by Emily Krempholtz.
Oct 302013
 

I finally got around to watching Gravity last weekend.  It was quite a good movie, but I couldn’t help comparing it to the long-running anime series Space Brothers.  While one is a 90-minute movie and the other is a television show closing in on 100 episodes, I thought it’d be interesting to compare how the two works deal with the topic of surviving in space.  For those who haven’t seen the film or aren’t caught up on the show, be warned: here there be spoilers.

In the interest of keeping things relevant, I’ll focus on the series of episodes in Space Brothers that follow Hibito and Damian while they’re stranded on the moon.  Like Gravity, this plot arc finds a pair of astronauts struggling to survive after a mission goes horribly wrong.  In both cases, the characters are unable to communicate with any kind of mission control center, and have to deal with the immediate problem of a limited air supply.

HibitioMoon

Hello? Anyone out there? Can you hear me NOW?

One of the more obvious differences between Gravity and Space Brothers is while the former is focused entirely on the astronauts in danger, while the latter also follows the people back on Earth trying to find a way to help them.  Part of this is because of differences in the amount of running time they have to work with, but it also comes down to what they’re trying to convey.

A main theme of Gravity is the isolation that one feels in the vacuum of space, and how that feeling can so quickly shift from peaceful to terrifying.  By focusing entirely on Bullock and Clooney’s characters, the film shows how very alone an astronaut can be while working in orbit.  Had the director broken away from this storyline to show people at NASA trying to send up some kind of rescue mission, it would have taken away from the movie’s effectiveness.

Gravity

Zero Gravity Jump Rope: bad idea.

Space Brothers, on the other hand, has always been about showing all the aspects of a functioning space program.  It’s devoted entire story arcs to studying characters who work as engineers, flight instructors, and other support staff.  Given this running theme of teamwork and a much larger cast, it’s natural for the show to show the efforts of people on the ground to help out the stranded astronauts.

There’s also an interesting difference in how the two works present the viewer with the consequences of being stranded in space.  Gravity kills off one of its main characters in order to show the immediate danger of the situation, a decision that fits well with its narrow focus on the event itself.  Space Brothers brings everyone home alive, but later reveals that one character has developed a panic disorder that prevents him from so much as walking in a spacesuit.  This long-term effect, which the show is still dealing with, shows how a traumatic experience is not always over once the characters are out of danger.  As a weekly series, Space Brothers has the luxury of taking this much more subtle approach.

For all these differences, both works do a fine job of making smart, resourceful characters confront the imminent possibility of death and overcome the challenges set before them.  Sure, Space Brothers has some issues with slow pacing and Gravity had some moments of questionable physics, but both are worth watching if you’ve got an interest in space travel or survival stories.  They show that it doesn’t take giant robots or laser cannons to make a compelling story set beyond the confines of our little blue planet.

 

Kawaii Overthink is written by Paul Jensen. You can follow his ramblings about anime on Twitter.
Oct 292013
 

It’s that time of year again, when every public place is decorated top to bottom in fake spider web, rubber skeletons and quickly rotting jack-o-lanterns, all with “The Monster Mash,” “Ghostbusters” and the entire soundtrack from The Rocky Horror Picture Show blasting out of a boom box on repeat. As dedicated gamers, isn’t it about time we broke the mundane Halloween traditions and introduce our music to the world? Video games have some incredibly creepy music that’s perfect for Halloween, which is why I compiled an “unlucky 13” video game tracks you need to have blasting from your doorstep this All Hallows’ Eve.

HalloweenCover

NOTE: Don’t expect 5 Mario and Zelda tracks on this list. I’m only choosing one song per franchise, and if a series has multiple good tracks, I’ll make sure to list them as “honorable mentions.” So with that, here we go, in no particular order:

 

1. “Bloody Tears” – Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

It starts with an ominous tone, and quickly escalates to kick-ass status as it pumps you up for your vampire-killing journey. While the Castlevania series is chock-full of spectacular Halloween songs (with the original game’s “Vampire Killer” also of note), “Bloody Tears” is easily my top pick from the franchise, if anything for its ability to be both eerie and heart-pumpingly fast-paced. And speaking of fast…

 

2. “A Ghost’s Pumpkin Soup” – Sonic Adventure 2

Yes I know, it’s cheesy with its wanna-be rapper trying to make Knuckles the Echidna look all ghetto as he searches for Master Emerald shards. But that’s what makes the theme song of Sonic Adventure 2’s Pumpkin Hill level so good. This corny rap about getting scared by ghosts gets stuck in your head so easily it’s essentially the “Spooky Scary Skeletons” of your video game Halloween playlist. If you want some more spooky Sonic music, check out the themes for the Hang Castle and Mystic Mansion levels of Sonic Heroes. But let’s be real, those tracks pale in comparison to this gem. Heh. GEM. As in the MASTER EMERALD. Get it?  No? Oh… Moving on.

 

3. “Cohen’s Masterpiece” - BioShock

While BioShock has an overall incredible soundtrack by Garry Schyman, this piece from the game is easily my favorite. “Written” by deranged artist Sander Cohen, this track is both haunting and beautiful, serving as a musical illustration of the intricate and delicate mind of an aristocrat gone mad.

 

4. “Betus Blues” – Super Meat Boy

Much like “Bloody Tears” in Castlevania II, the theme of the Hospital chapter in Super Meat Boy (itself a Castlevania-inspired level) hints of impending doom, using a fast beat to keep you moving and on your toes. If you’re blasting this on Halloween, make sure you keep an eye out for any sentient blood clots and used hypodermic needles on your trick-or-treat route.

 

5. “ROBOTS!” – Team Fortress 2

Halloween isn’t just about classic scares from monsters. It’s also just as much about the horrors of science fiction. And in sci-fi, what is scarier than an army of evil robots running after you with phasers set to KILL? This theme from Team Fortress 2’s “Mann Vs. Machine” mode hearkens back to those days of classic sci-fi, with plenty of scary industrial sounds and a wailing disembodied voice.

 

6. “Lavender Town” – Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow

Ahh, the song that haunts the nightmares of every Gen-1 Pokémon fan. As a new generation of young gamers now enjoys X & Y, why don’t we play this song as we tell them about the time we older Pokémon Trainers encountered the ghost of a dead Marowak?

 

7. “Haunted Graveyard” – Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts

Whether you’re playing Ghouls ‘n Ghosts or Ghosts ‘n Goblins, whether it’s the arcade version, the NES version, or heck, even if you’re playing Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, this is one kick-ass classic game theme for the ‘Ween. That’s short for Halloween, by the way. Not “wiener.” I’m far too mature to make a crude joke about Arthur in his underwear. Or am I?

 

8. “Luigi’s Mansion Theme” – Super Smash Bros. Brawl

Just listen to that eerie toy piano plunking out the notes at the beginning of this song and try telling me why this doesn’t belong in your Halloween video game playlist. This Smash Bros. rendition of the theme from Luigi’s Mansion takes the just-as-perfect-for-Halloween theme from the original game and cranks up the creepy. Now while this may be a theme originally from a Super Mario game, this version is from the Super Smash Bros. franchise. So now that we’re clear that I’m not breaking my one game per franchise rule…

 

9. “Big Boo’s Haunt” – Super Mario 64

Now, the Mario franchise keep cranking out spectacular haunted house themes, from the Ghost Houses in Super Mario World to the Ghostly Galaxy in Super Mario Galaxy. But the theme from Big Boo’s Haunt strikes a different chord with me. Unlike the other “ghost themes” in Mario games, this one is dark. And it’s appropriate enough when you consider it’s in this level that you experience the most frightening event in the entire Mario franchise…

 

10. “Shadow Temple” – The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

While we’re on the subject of the Nintendo 64, let’s talk about Zelda. If there’s any track from the Zelda franchise that needs to play on loop in a haunted house, it’s the Shadow Temple theme from Ocarina of Time. The dungeon itself is a haunted house, with hidden passageways, giant disembodied hands that fall from the ceiling and grab you, and a giant bongo-playing ghost as the boss. This music fills your ears with the mystery and uncertainty of what lies around each corner of the Shadow Temple.

 

11. “Ghost of Rattman” – Portal 2

You walk behind a broken panel deep in the bowels of Aperture Science to find a hidden encampment made by former employee Doug Rattman. It’s been abandoned for decades, yet you still feel his presence. Starting faint then rising up to almost overpower the music, you hear remnants of Rattman’s schizophrenic ramblings back from when he, like you, was alone in an evil science facility with nothing but his own thoughts keeping him company. Scary as hell, indeed.

 

12. “Sacrificial” – The Binding of Isaac

You’re in the basement of your house, running away from your mother, who is trying to sacrifice you to God (read: murder you with a huge kitchen knife). You’re naked and alone, with creepy and dangerous monsters at every turn. This theme for the first level sets the mood for a game that is perfect to play on Halloween. The music even changes tone as you progress through The Binding of Isaac, getting increasingly ominous (and later more desperate sounding) as you fight through Mom’s labyrinth to save your skin.

 

13. “Mad Monster Mansion” – Banjo-Kazooie

I know we’ve made it to the end, but honestly, you can get rid of all the other songs I listed here because Banjo-Kazooie has your entire Halloween soundtrack taken care of in one level. Need a general spooky-kooky Halloween theme? See the video above. Are you lurking through a rickety old house at midnight? Play this. Do you find yourself in an ancient, unkempt cemetery? There’s a version of the Mad Monster Mansion theme for that too. And while we’re at it, let’s throw in another track from Banjo-Kazooie, just in case you find yourself in a witch’s lair. And look, there’s a spooky rendition of that too! Two themes that can change tones completely with some slight shifts in tempo and use of instruments means you really only need these few pieces from the Banjo-Kazooie soundtrack and your Halloween playlist is covered.

 

The Minus World is written by Steven Brasley. You can keep up with his thoughts on gaming via Twitter.
Oct 282013
 

Earlier this month, Scott Dixon clinched the 2013 IndyCar series title in dramatic fashion at the last race of the season.  Just over a week later, Sebastian Vettel secured the Formula One drivers’ championship with three races remaining in the season.  Both men performed incredibly well this season, so why was Vettel able to complete his goal with so much more time to spare?  In many ways, the answer illustrates a difference in philosophy between the two sports.

Let’s start off with the similarities between these two athletes.  Both Vettel and Dixon drive in physically demanding race disciplines against deep fields of champion-quality opponents.  Both men have shown incredible speed, coupled with the ability to get the best out of a good car.  Finally, both of them have earned their respective titles through talent and hard work.

So, what let Vettel wrap up his season early while Dixon’s campaign went down to the wire?  Going by numbers alone, Vettel won races throughout the season while Dixon had a comparably terrible start to the year, with only one podium finish in the first ten races.  This meant that while a dominant late-season performance was helpful to the German, it was absolutely necessary for the New Zealander.  Of course, the difference in race results was only an effect of the biggest factor, a fundamental difference between F1 and IndyCar.

DixonTrophy1

New rule: the defending champion must carry the giant trophy in his car during races.

Each team in Formula One must design and build its own chassis, while every competitor on the IndyCar grid uses the same Dallara DW12 chassis with either a Honda or Chevrolet engine.  Yes, IndyCar teams are responsible for tuning the mechanical and aerodynamic elements of their vehicles, but they are all starting with essentially the same equipment.  Because a Formula One team needs the staff and resources to build and set up set up their cars while and IndyCar team only needs to do the latter, an F1 driver from a big team will have an easier time beating the competition.  Both Vettel and Dixon benefitted from driving for some of the strongest teams in their respective sports, but the greater advantage went to Vettel.  While his Red Bull helped him leave the field in the dust, Dixon had to rely on his team to do a better job of understanding their DW12 than the competition.

VettelBow

All hail Adrian Newey.

Thus we arrive at the big question: does this difference in regulations make one sport better than the other?  Some would argue that the added technical challenges of F1 make it more interesting, while others would say that a greater equality of resources gives IndyCar more exciting and unpredictable competition.  Both arguments have merit, and I’m of the opinion that it comes down to personal preference.  I could argue all day and not convince you that one or the other is right.

The same goes for trying to compare our two champion drivers.  Does Vettel’s consistent dominance make him better, or does Dixon’s triumph over adversity make for a more impressive result?  To be honest, it doesn’t really matter.  Both are incredible drivers who have already established themselves as legends in their respective sports, and both have plenty of time to continue etching their names into the record books.  Bring on 2014.

 

Pit Box One is written by Paul Jensen. You can follow his thoughts on video games and motor racing on Twitter.
Oct 262013
 

Before we talk beer, we have to talk beer.

A good college buddy of mine once said, “There’s a time and a place for every beer”. And boy, was he right. I’ve found that for something as delicious and awesome as beer, there is way too much criticism and beer-snobbery going on. All of us could us a good lesson in manners, because that’s all this really boils down to. I mean, I’m not going to walk up to you in the middle of your bologna and cheese sandwich and throw a hissy fit. Look, I’m sure we would all love to have a 32oz porterhouse steak once in a while, but sometimes you’re in the mood for a bologna and cheese sandwich.

beersnob

Why do we treat beer like it’s any different from food, or music, or television preference? Well, I don’t have an answer. But I do have a solution. Let’s run through some of the popular beer choices:

To start, we need to break beer down in to its two essential categories. We have lagers and ales. Thats it! We can get into the bigger differences and some other variations a little later, but for now, lets stick to the basics. Bud Light, Yuengling, and Coors are some popular name brands of lagers. For those who like ales, we can look to Newcastle or Guinness. This does not mean that all lagers are light in color and body, or that all ales are dark and malty. These are just some examples. Its a pretty simple cut, but either choice can take you in vastly different directions. By choosing an ale, one can quickly rule out most of the easily found lager beers from brands like AB-Inbev who makes Budweiser and Bud Lite, or Miller Coors, who makes both Miller and Coors Lite. For your every day mom and pop shop, that can be close to 90% of their beer selection. This mostly due to the price and availability of these beers.

The behemoths of the beer industry, Anheuser Busch (AB-Inbev), and Miller Coors have spent years perfecting their recipes, and lagers work for them. They can produce it cheaply and in mass quantities. This means a lower price for the end consumer. It also means that it’s more accessible, and who doesn’t like easy to get beer?

beercans

The recent craft beer movement has sparked a frenzy of new micro and nano breweries. Each are unique and experimenting with their beers. They want to see what works and what doesn’t. However one thing that that can go unnoticed is the fact that Lagering, or the process of making lager beer, can create high demands for both space and resources. Lager yeast requires much colder temperatures, and thus more equipment and space to store this beer. With that said, many craft/micro brewers will start off by brewing ales. This does NOT mean that your “Craft Ale” is better. In fact, it’s something entirely different from a lager.

On a more personal note, I have to say that on a hot summer day, I do enjoy a Corona lager, or maybe a Pabts Blue Ribbon lager for a small club concert. Occasionally it will snow and I really want a Guinness Irish Ale. What about when the leaves start to change and I’m in the mood for a Pumpkin Ale? You know what I do? I drink it. And so should you. Enjoy your beer and keep your fins out of everyone else’s pint glasses.

Cheers!

 

Shark Puppet Pub is written by Chris Zaccaria.  You can start a drunken argument over his taste in beer on Twitter.
Oct 232013
 

It’s easy to like Black Lagoon for its constant barrage of gunfights, car chases, and witty one-liners, but one of its less explosive strengths comes in the relationship between the main characters.  There’s a fascinating dynamic between Rock and Revy that develops over the course of the series, producing deadly tension and wonderfully understated friendship in equal measure.  In order to understand what makes this quasi-romantic “couple” so compelling, we need to look at these characters as individuals before analyzing how the series throws them together.

RockAndRevy

Rock may be the easiest character to cosplay in the history of anime.

Rokuro “Rock” Okajima could have very easily been an extraordinarily dull or irritating hero.  As a white-collar Japanese businessman dragged into a world of organized crime and piracy, Rock initially serves as the audience’s window into the fictional city of Roanapur.  He asks all the stupid questions necessary to fill in the story’s setting, and we learn the rules of the criminal underworld along with him.  What sets Rock apart from countless other “fish out of water” characters is how he changes as a result of his experiences.

Rock’s business experience makes him an ideal negotiator for the crew of the Black Lagoon, earning him a place on the crew of the titular torpedo boat.  This position puts him in close contact with the heavy hitters of the criminal underworld, like Balalaika and Mr. Chang.  Between these strong influences and the constant “might makes right” resolutions to the series’ plotlines, Rock slowly learns that the only way to get what he wants out of Roanapur is to become one of the people pulling the strings.  This ambition is fully realized in the most recent story arc involving the Lovelace family, which shows Rock playing organized criminals, special forces troops, and a very unstable assassin against one another to achieve his goals.  Over the space of nine volumes of manga (or two seasons and an OVA if you prefer the anime timeline), our mild-mannered viewer stand-in becomes an underworld mastermind who wouldn’t be out of place in a series like Homeland.

On the other hand, we have Revy, the heavily armed combat specialist of the Black Lagoon crew.  Like Rock, Revy begins the series as a relatively archetypal figure: the partially unhinged gunslinger with a habit of letting her handguns do the talking.  As we learn more about Revy, she becomes far more intriguing.  Leading a life of crime since childhood has given Revy plenty of street smarts, but has also left her extremely damaged from an emotional standpoint.  She’s not the type to be fooled by anyone, but that goes hand in hand with an inability to open up to other people.  For all her violent bravado, Revy harbors a great deal of doubt over her worth as a person.

Revy

Where does the cigarette smoke end and the gun smoke begin? Well played, dear illustrator.

Of course, that self-doubt certainly doesn’t stop Revy from pursuing her own priorities.  Even if she’s unhappy about the person she’s become, she’s determined to make the most of her situation, even if that means hurting others (or putting a bullet in the head of anyone who gets in her way).  Revy’s worldview has a kind of Darwinian quality to it, although she’d probably amend “survival of the fittest” to “survival of the best-armed.”  She doesn’t see herself as being above the occasional bit of grave robbery or human trafficking if it means getting a leg up on the competition.

Putting these two broken yet resourceful characters together is an obvious recipe for fireworks.  Revy takes violent exception to Rock’s idealism early in the series, while Rock is constantly infuriated by Revy’s willingness to resort to despicable acts of crime whenever she feels it’s necessary.  Eventually, this tension morphs into a tentative understanding, and they begin to rely on one another.  Revy uses Rock as a way of steadying her moral compass, and Rock comes to depend on Revy to bail him out when his desire to do good lands him in trouble.  They effectively become one another’s best way of staying sane in a crazy world.

Just as fascinating as this shift from opposition to alliance is the reversal of roles that Black Lagoon offers us in this relationship.  The action genre is filled to bursting with veteran soldiers and hitmen who rediscover their sense of right and wrong in the fight to save a damsel in distress.  In Black Lagoon, the genders of the main characters are swapped.  To borrow fairy tale imagery, the princess is the one slaying the dragon to protect the knight.  Of course, in this case, the magic sword is a pair of customized handguns and the dragon is an endless supply of bad guys with assault rifles.  Revy and Rock remind me a bit of the equally understated relationship between Ripley and Hicks in the classic science fiction film Aliens.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the “romance” between Rock and Revy is that it’s never actually treated like a romance.  There’s no sweeping confession of feelings, no kiss in the rain, and no happily ever after.  In fact, you could make a strong argument that Rock and Revy don’t have romantic feelings for one another at all.  The series is deliberately ambiguous about its heroes, leaving the audience to wonder if there’s something going on between the two of them when the camera isn’t rolling.  It’s a classy, subtle choice in a series full of gun-toting maids, arms-dealing nuns, and torpedo boats.

 

You can buy the manga and anime versions of Black Lagoon from Amazon.com here.

Kawaii Overthink is written by Paul Jensen. You can follow his ramblings about anime on Twitter.
Oct 212013
 

In my experience talking to folks who play racing video games, the issue of “favorite game” tends to divide people into two very different camps.  On one side, there are the simulation fans, the Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo players who expect their games to take the phrase “virtual reality” literally.  They want accurate physics, real cars and tracks, photorealistic graphics, and a wealth of options for changing the look, handling, and performance of their cars.  On the other side, there are the arcade fans, the Mario Kart aces who live for over-the-top spectacle.  They want accessible controls, creative tracks, colorful visuals, and clever power-ups.  For all their differences, these two groups have at least one thing in common: they don’t typically care about games that exist somewhere in the awkward middle of the two extremes.

So what’s a game developer to do?  Making a sim racer with more attention to detail than Forza or an arcade game more fun than Mario Kart is next to impossible, but splitting the difference runs the risk of appealing to no one at all.  There are, however, a few tried and true ways of finding an audience in a genre dominated by a handful of big franchises.

The first option is to go for niche appeal and find a kind of racing that the major players don’t cover.  Codemasters clearly has this figured out.  Their DiRT series has become the big name in off-road rally racing, while their F1 franchise is the only game in town for fans of the world’s most popular motorsport.  The big risk here is that commercial success draws the attention of the big hitters, who may try to move in on the action.  The release of a rally expansion for Forza Horizon showed that DiRT’s popularity did not go unnoticed.

F12013

If all the good niches are occupied, there’s always the option of combining good points of the two extremes.  The most common method is to take the shiny graphics and licensed cars of the sim giants and give them the drift-happy handling and explosive power-ups of a carting game.  We’ve seen this for years from big franchises like Need For Speed.  The problem with this approach is that it’s impossible to prevent people from griping about how the cars handle.  They’re either too “floaty” or too “unforgiving,” which are essentially code words for being too close to the arcade or simulation ends of the spectrum.  I suppose you could also try applying Gran Turismo physics to the cars and tracks from Mario Kart, but I suspect there’s a good reason that’s never been done.

NFS

One final option, and perhaps my personal favorite, is to do something completely different.  Throw the rules of the genre out the window and give gamers something they’ve never really seen before.  My favorite recent example of this approach is the Trials series of games on Xbox Live Arcade.  By combining elements of the off-road racing and 2-D platforming genres, developer RedLynx essentially gave gamers a playground full of physics-based puzzles to solve while riding motorcycles.  Throwing in a powerful track editor was a big help to the franchise, as user-generated content is a great (and free) way of extending a game’s lifespan.  It’s arguably the most risky option, but without developers and publishers willing to take a chance on a unique concept, we’d never have racing games in the first place.

TrialsEv

So yes, the driving genre can be a tough market full of gamers who’d rather stick to their franchise of choice than try anything different (I count myself among this group).  But then again, the same can be said for shooters, RPGs, sports games, fighting games, strategy games, and platformers.  But as long as there are options for doing something different, I like to believe that talented developers will always find a way.

 

Pit Box One is written by Paul Jensen. You can follow his thoughts on video games and motor racing on Twitter.
Oct 202013
 

Church of Play Cover image

This story is easily one of the most bizarre things that happened to me during my time at IndieCade earlier this month. I suppose I should start at the beginning…

My friends and I were in line waiting to enter the festival’s Beer Garden after a long evening trying out games at the press booth. I was a bit hungry and quite ready to gulp down a frothy cold brew when a guy in a blank white mask approached us with pamphlets for some kind of organization called the “Church of Play.” My friends followed him to one of IndieCade’s many white tents and I, hungry but curious, joined them.

We were first initiated inside the tent church, where a game developer attending the festival served as the priest of the church. He too was wearing a white mask, as well as a lab coat that had fluorescent green and orange paint splattered on it. My friends noted a distinct look of confusion on my face as he toured us around the tent. He asked us to pick up a card (which we were told not to look at) and a rectangular mask made out of clear plastic and purple ribbon. I did my best to fit my mask around my glasses as he instructed us to take two blank dice, “the first symbol and tool of the CoP,” the pamphlet I was given explained. The “priest” then took us individually to a mirror. He looked at the cards we picked up and wrote a symbol on the underside of our cards onto the tops of our masks using a Sharpie. I can still hear his voice, asking me if I could see myself in the mirror. It was a European-accented voice slightly muffled from behind his mask that eventually said to me: “Welcome to the Church of Play.” I was definitely puzzled and had no idea what I had just gotten myself into. But at this point I knew there was no turning back.

Blank Dice

We were escorted outside the tent, where higher representatives of the Church of Play were playing games with the disciples until service began at 8:00. But these games were different. There were no consoles. There were no controllers, cartridges or disks. There was body movement, and simple objects such as rope, balloons, and our blank dice. The higher church officials handed golden blank dice to those who performed exceptionally well in the games. These were our invitations into the 8:00 service. I knew the Beer Garden was closing soon; still determined to grab some chicken and a Budweiser I hoped that my friends wouldn’t get the gold dice. They did. Not wanting to be abandoned, and with my curiosity of this video game-themed performance-art-piece-slash-cult growing, I pressed forward.

Some of the games were admittedly very fun to play. A particular favorite of mine was called “Oracle.” In this game, Church of Play members stood shoulder-to-shoulder on a circle made out of rope. One at a time, people would ask questions to the almighty Oracle, dropping their two dice in the circle. If both dice stayed in the circle, the answer was “yes.” If both dice bounced outside the circle the answer was “no.” One inside and one outside: “ask another question.” It was like a Magic 8 Ball without the black liquid, and definitely stemmed from older traditions of using objects to answer questions, such as pulling petals off a daisy to find out if she’s your true love. I was still shaken up by the bizarre premise of the Church of Play, but other church members asking nerdy questions to the Oracle (one of mine was “will the Star Wars prequels ever be erased from human existence?”) helped to break the ice for me a little bit.

oracle

A later game I played hearkened back to the many improv games I played with my friends during my high school drama club days. Players, again standing in a circle, pantomimed working with an object, then handed the object to another person in the circle who then had the task of “morphing” it into another object. Here I felt in my element as I thought of the next silly thing I would create the next time the “morph-able material” was delivered to my hands. Some of my crowd favorites included using a lawnmower and a forklift, and at one point holding a beating heart while impersonating Mola Ram from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I performed well in these games, but not well enough to earn a gold die. Luckily I was given a die from someone leaving IndieCade who earned it in an earlier game. It was time to head into the Church for the ceremony.

Gold Die

I don’t remember too much about what the developer “priest” said at the mass. I do remember us sitting in a circle as strobe lights bounced across the walls of the tent and weird out-of-sync metronome ticks played from a speaker. Eventually, we were each given two halves of tomatoes, which the priest put a spice blend and black pepper on. Then, he approached me. I was shocked. I know I still looked confused… had he caught my bluff? Does he know that I’m just playing along, and trying to not act like I’m part of a bizarre Jonestown for gamers?

“What is your name?”

“Scout…” I replied with some hesitation (members of the Church were told to have nicknames).

The priest removed my mask.

“It is very nice to meet you,” he said, looking into my eyes.

I breathed a sigh of relief as he went around the circle, repeating the process with each Church member.

Concluding the ceremony, we all linked hands, putting the tomato halves together. We then squeezed our hands together, squishing the tomatoes and making V8 all over the floor and our clothes. As someone who does not like getting dirty, I was relieved when a church member had water for our hands after the mass.

Looking back on it, although the presentation did feel very cult-like to me the Church of Play reminded me that we never needed controllers or keyboards to play games. Eons prior to the release of Pong, humans played with each other through physical games, and not just sports. Playing physically is not always about testing one’s athletic capabilities; playing can also be about sharing an experience, sharing a laugh, and getting to know people better in the process. My original plan that night was to get to know developers over a couple beers. Instead, I got to know more people, and know more about my friends, by playing in the Church of Play.

 

The Minus World is written by Steven Brasley. You can keep up with his thoughts on gaming via Twitter.
Oct 172013
 

From the dark days of two-episode VHS tapes to today’s era of simulcasts and Blu-Ray collections, one thing has remained constant in our relationship with anime in the United States.  Regardless of the price or format, we (and everyone else who doesn’t live in Japan) have always imported our favorite shows from their native land.  With a few notable exceptions like the Avatar franchise, we’ve never had much success with replicating the look and feel of Japanese animation in domestic productions.  The list of “why nots” is both long and familiar: high cost, limited audience, difficulty of production, and so on.  American studios just aren’t able to justify the cost of giving us our own shows about giant robots and psychic cat-eared maids.  Enter RWBY, the latest project from Rooster Teeth.

RWBYScreen

Magic sword with rotating elemental enchantment thing? Yep, it counts as anime.

Without getting too technical, the biggest difference between RWBY and a typical anime series is the way the two are animated.  While Japanese studios have been incorporating CGI into their productions for years (Exhibit A: the delightfully outdated racing sequences in Initial D), the actual process is still very much a frame-by-frame affair.  The software used to make RWBY works more along the lines of a video game cinematic.  The animators build character models, props, and environments, then record their movements through the virtual equivalent of a camera.  The result is that the characters in RWBY can jump around and shoot monsters in the face without the folks at Rooster Teeth having to draw the whole thing thirty times for each second of video.  This means that the show can be made with a smaller staff and a smaller budget.

While I’ve enjoyed the sharp humor and colorful visual style of RWBY, what fascinates me most is what it means for the world of animation, especially when it comes to the epic science fiction and fantasy visuals that attract so many of us to anime.  As computer animation evolves and develops, it’s becoming increasingly feasible for small companies like Rooster Teeth to create shows that would once have required the resources of a major animation studio.  This is excellent news for a couple of reasons.

First, it means that unusual, financially risky projects are more likely to get the green light because of reduced animation costs.  For an example, look at Arpeggio of Blue Steel, which is airing this season.  It’s an odd little sci-fi series with some very flashy naval battles being produced by a studio typically associated with doing the 3D CGI work for bigger projects.  By leaning heavily on computer aids, they’re able to pull off some impressive action sequences in a series that would’ve been a tough sell a decade ago.  The less money they have to spend, the less they have to make, and the more quirky, original shows see the light of day.

BlueSteel2

We all live in a computer generated submarine. (Too many syllables?)

Second, it means that we’re more likely to see studios outside of Japan try their hand at making something with the visual style of an anime series.  I don’t expect Pixar or Cartoon Network to give us the next Spirited Away or Madoka Magica, but I am confident that we’ll see an increasing amount of animation projects from small, independent studios from a variety of countries.  What would an anime series from an American, French, or South African director be like?  I don’t know, but I’d love to find out.

RWBY is by no means the first piece of indie animation to show off what a small team can do (anyone remember Voices of a Distant Star?), but it’s the latest example of how new technology opens up more possibilities for the world of animation.  Am I about to tear down my Samurai Champloo wall scroll to make room for a poster of Ruby or Yang?  No, but that’s mostly because I’m more of a Weiss fan.  Am I excited to see how RWBY and shows like it develop over the next few years?  Absolutely.

 

Kawaii Overthink is written by Paul Jensen. You can follow his ramblings about anime on Twitter.