Jan 302014

Something interesting happened while I was watching the last few episodes of Kill la Kill: I found myself cheering on the villains.  As Satsuki and the Elite Four launched their assault on the neighboring schools, I was eager to see them bring down the proverbial hammer on their opponents.  At first glance, this shouldn’t make any sense.  Having spent a dozen episodes watching our charismatic heroine Ryuko take on this oppressive student council, how in the world did I end up wanting to see them win a battle?


Like them… OR ELSE.

I suspect that this odd turn of events was due in part to Ryuko’s conspicuous absence from the action in the aftermath of episode 13.  With the show’s lone heroine busy recovering from her recent defeats and gathering the scattered pieces of her uniform, Kill la Kill left its audience in a fascinating predicament.  As the Elite Four squared off against the schools from Kobe, Kyoto, and Osaka, we were forced to choose between the villains we knew and their comically over-the-top opponents.  The antagonists briefly became the heroes by default.  Once Ryuko was back in the fight, things returned to their usual state.

Still, the protagonist’s absence alone shouldn’t cause the audience to cheer on her enemies.  The roots of this temporary insanity go far back into Kill la Kill’s earlier episodes.  Each time Ryuko has fought with Satsuki or one of her lieutenants, the show has taken the time to fill in a bit of the student council’s backstory.  Over the course of the first dozen episodes, we’ve come to understand why each member of the Elite Four is loyal to Satsuki.  We’ve also been given hints that Satsuki herself isn’t on good terms with her powerful family.  Compared to what the series has revealed about the Kiryuin business empire, the members of the Honnouji student council seem downright honorable.

Kill la Kill has also gone out of its way to humanize the Elite Four.  We’ve seen it with Sanageyama’s loss to Ryuko in episode 6, where he was forced to confront and rise above his shortcomings.  It happened again during the King of the Hill battle, as each defeated member of the Elite Four sat down on the sidelines as if they were regular students.  Seeing a character suffer defeat only to come back stronger will almost always make the audience like that person more, regardless of his or her role in the overall story.  They may have started out as an inscrutable group of bad guys, but the members of the student council have slowly established a grudging mutual respect with Ryuko.  In doing so, they’ve also managed to change the way we as the audience view them.  We still want to see Ryuko beat them in a suitably epic fashion, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find them entertaining, charismatic, or even likable.


Kawaii Overthink is written by Paul Jensen. You can follow his ramblings about anime on Twitter.
Jan 282014

This past weekend, after being nothing more than a green-colored screen with a logo on it for more than a year, NormalBoots.com returned to the Internet as a full-fledged gaming entertainment site. Normal Boots is once again the official home for several video game personalities, including JonTron, PeanutButterGamer, The Completionist, and Did You Know Gaming, as well as some newcomers such as ProJared and Satchbag.


The return of Normal Boots is quite interesting when you consider the reason why it went offline at the beginning of 2012. In its original run, Normal Boots was conceived as a website where up-and-coming YouTube gaming personalities could collaborate and cross-promote their video content. As videos from content creators like Did You Know Gaming, JonTron, and PeanutButterGamer rose in popularity the site was taken down, as it was believed to be no longer necessary, to paraphrase a statement made by JonTron.

But Jon said Normal Boots has a new purpose in a video posted to his YouTube channel: “We have much more control over our content this way,” he said. “YouTube can be a bit restricting and you may have heard about some of the [Content ID] issues that have been going on, so we’re [rebooting the site] to circumvent all those problems.”


It is great to see so many web content creators working together to still make a living on their independent content. What’s more, I can see this trend continuing. Many gaming personalities, not just those on Normal Boots, have clearly expressed concern over YouTube’s new ability to flag videos for copyright if they find traces of video game footage in a video regardless of whether or not the video complies with Fair Use. Fan communities are very much aware of this issue too, and I would say most are completely willing to sacrifice the convenience of going from video to video on a single website in order to support their favorite independent gaming shows. The return of Normal Boots is a perfect example; the site re-launched on Sunday to a great amount of fanfare. The new Normal Boots subreddit already has about four thousand subscribers. The fans are quite happy that there once again is another independent gaming entertainment site to explore.

Normal Boots’ return is also great for the content creators themselves. Their business model is pretty simple: new videos will be posted to Normal Boots first as exclusive content, which will then be uploaded to the creators’ respective YouTube channel within a couple of weeks. I’m no economist but I’m positive that should result in more ad revenue in the long run, from both the website and YouTube. Also, the bottom of the Normal Boots website states that the copyright to the videos belongs to their creators may help avoid any snafus by YouTube’s Content ID system.


This story isn’t beginning, nor has it ended. The folks at Normal Boots are a small handful of content creators that are looking for better options for sharing their content than uploading their videos to YouTube. Independent gaming entertainment sites are on the rise, as content creators can host their own videos and get complete creative freedom without fear of being flagged for copyright. Not to mention it’s a lot easier to find specific content on these gaming sites than it is to find videos on a massive video hosting site like YouTube, which today is overly saturated with millions of videos of all genres. Niche content on appropriately themed and marketed independent sites is becoming the norm; expect to see more of this in the future.


The Minus World is written by Steven Brasley. You can keep up with his thoughts on gaming via Twitter.
Jan 222014

I bought exactly four anime series on DVD or Blu-Ray in 2013.  If you went back to 2008 and presented my past self with that number, he’d probably assume that I’d either gone broke or simply stopped watching so much anime.  I haven’t gone broke (though I’m working on it), and I watch more anime now than ever before.  So, what’s changed since my years of rabidly snapping up thinpacks and box sets at the first hint of a sale?


Spoiler Alert: this company is involved.

Well, a lot of it has to do with the state of technology in general, and the Internet in particular.  We’ve reached the point in the US where being able to stream HD videos is like having running water.  We don’t just have it; we expect it and pitch a fit when it goes away.  Our Internet connections can reliably give us higher-quality video than a DVD, provided we can be home between 7:00 AM and 5:30 PM for the cable guy to set it all up.

Couple this with streaming anime services that can send video to our TVs through just about any game console or Blu-Ray player, and suddenly the entire market changes.  For a few bucks a month, I can access a staggering number of catalog titles and simulcasts, all without having to get up off the couch and switch between discs.

For the average consumer of anime, it’s hard to justify paying $25 for a physical copy of one series when that same money could go to several months of a paid streaming subscription.  The undeniable momentum of those numbers has paid off for services like Crunchyroll, which has gone from a tiny website with a few quirky old titles to a titan of the international simulcast business.  Big hitters from the days of physical media have caught on, with Funimation and Sentai Filmworks both offering streaming subscriptions.  For better or for worse, the landscape has changed dramatically.


I filtered Funimation’s streaming catalog to only show titles starting with “s.” This is the FIRST HALF of the results.

While it’s gotten more difficult to sell physical media on a “more for your money” strategy, there is another option that’s been proving successful.  Smaller companies that lack the resources to compete in the streaming market can always count on one thing: anime fans are collectors at heart.  We want to do more than just watch our favorite shows.  We want stuff.  We want figures, posters, soundtracks, artbooks, and suggestively shaped mouspads, and we’re enthusiastic or gullible enough to pay for them.

Thus, we have the “Collector’s Edition.”  Epitomized by the super-expensive box sets from Aniplex of America, this strategy places an anime series into some nice packaging, along with a cornucopia of impressive (and frequently exclusive) merchandise.  It’s been working for Aniplex, along with other small-scale studios like NIS America and Right Stuf’s Nozomi Entertainment label.  These two occupy a middle ground between the low-cost products from the big hitters and the conspicuous consumption of the Aniplex products.  This approach has proven effective enough that Funimation is offering a collector’s edition release of Psycho-Pass, showing a deliberate break from their usual value-oriented physical releases.


If you listen closely, you can hear your wallet sobbing at night.

This split between value and extravagance isn’t entirely new, of course.  Back before the days of complete collections, volume one of a series was usually offered in standard and “Big Box To Hold All The DVDs” editions.  What’s new is the increasing divide between the two approaches.  Instead of paying a ten-dollar premium for the nice version, we’re paying fifty, one hundred, or more.  Instead of choosing between two packages for our physical media, we’re choosing between buying discs and paying for streaming access.  Oh, brave new world that has such anime in it!

At the end of the day, though, I think a lot of this is good for the industry.  The subscription model has been the salvation of quirky niche titles that would never have been licensed in the old days.  It’s now much easier for big hits like One Piece or Attack on Titan to make up for the limited audience of less popular shows, since the subscription fees pay for everything.  Paying for access also encourages people to try out shows they wouldn’t have watched otherwise in an effort to get more for their money.


Move out, Survey Corps! We’ve got subscriptions to sell!

Under the right circumstances, the expensive collector’s edition can fit in quite nicely with the streaming market.  Fans will always have favorite shows, and will want some tangible connection to those titles.  We can watch lots of anime on the cheap with subscription services, and occasionally pay extra to own a quality release of the stuff we really enjoy.  Of course, this ideal is entirely dependent upon all expensive releases being simultaneously available through a streaming service, but it’s worked out well with titles like Madoka Magica and Fate Zero.

So yes, the times are changing, and yes, I think the market for “regular” physical releases will get smaller.  I seriously doubt, however, that it will go away entirely.  There will always be folks who prefer to own everything they watch, and a physical copy makes a better gift than a streaming recommendation.  But you’d have to be a fool to think that the business of adapting and localizing anime doesn’t require the ability to, well, adapt.


Kawaii Overthink is written by Paul Jensen. You can follow his ramblings about anime on Twitter.
Jan 212014

A great prophecy was foretold on the Internet this week. The brilliant bearded bespectacled deity of the PC gamers, Gabe Newell himself, descended upon Reddit, making an account to deliver his divine word to the gaming world. So it was spoken, and written in the Book of Steam:

“I’ll do an AMA [“Ask Me Anything”] once we hit $500K in donations to the [Seattle] Children’s Hospital.”


Okay, so Gabe didn’t have a Valve-related message to give to the Reddit community; he was just promoting a charity. But the fact that he finally joined an online community that consistently praises his work at Valve Corporation is one tiny event that can ring in what will potentially be a big year for the Bellevue, Washington software company.

Since Valve’s announcement last September revealing their latest project, Steam Machines and the Linux-based operating system SteamOS, gaming communities are wondering if Valve’s move into hardware will be enough to stir up some new competition in the console market. It’s very true that Valve has a strong customer base, with Gabe noting recently at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show that Microsoft’s three million Xbox One sales in 2013 pale in comparison to Steam’s 65 million active users. How many of those 65 million Steam users are willing to step away from their gaming PCs in favor of a Steam Machine? Probably not many.

But there’s a chance in the console market right now, a chance for an innovative product to make some new competition for Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. A chance for a company with better financial backing than Ouya to try and achieve what Ouya failed to; a company like Valve.


A few observations have suggested to me lately that console gamers are looking for something different. The PlayStation 4 certainly has been selling well, and Xbox One sales have been about average with the three million 2013 sales Microsoft boasted about. Though I love the one I just bought, sales of the Wii U have been atrocious, with Nintendo failing to meet its sales projections for the consoles yet again in 2013. There is a hole, a small hole but a hole nonetheless, that Valve can fill entering the console market.

Heck, Valve may even steal some of Nintendo’s thunder. Nintendo has historically been known for its innovation in gaming technology, particularly in the past eight years. Valve is partnering with Oculus VR to bring the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset compatibility to Steam games. The Oculus Rift has gamers intrigued in terms of its potential, and if Steam Machines are capable of using the technology before any other console that will put Valve’s hardware in a great position.

It’s going to be tough for any company, big or small, to break into a console market that has been dominated by three major players for the past ten years. Ouya tried it and failed to find the right niche. Valve has the potential to pick up where the Ouya left off, but with a more effective outreach and brand identity that could have console gamers grabbing Steam Machines for their living rooms.


The Minus World is written by Steven Brasley. You can keep up with his thoughts on gaming via Twitter.
Jan 162014

Reviewing a game like Samurai Gunn objectively, while at the same time trying to account for everyone’s subjective experience, is impossible. I remember my friends and I turning to each other and calling the game our “game of the year” for 2013. This may seem completely ridiculous to some. How can an 8-bit art style stack up to the visual output of new consoles, and how can a game with no story match up with the sweeping narratives of Bioshock Infinite or The Last of Us? The answer is simply that it stacks up against those games on its own terms, which is to say that it excels as a group experience. If you do not have a group of friends that you can sit down and play this game with, then there is little purpose in purchasing Samurai Gunn. However, if you do have a solid group with whom you can game, then you need to make playing Samurai Gunn a top priority.


Samurai Gunn is simple. It is a competitive action game, reminiscent of Super Smash Bros. in format. You play as a Samurai with a sword and a gun, and you get three bullets per life. There are two modes, competitive and survival. Survival mode seems to be an attempt at either a single-player mode, or perhaps another competitive mode with the x-factor of computer controlled enemies thrown in, but for me it isn’t the main draw of the game. Competitive mode, fighting between two to four players, is the game’s bread and butter. The combat is usually quick, rarely lasting more than a few swipes of the sword or gunshot. You can augment your movement using sword swings, and you can block bullets with your sword, both of which add to the frantic action of the combat.

While the combat is quick, often the strategy comes from how you approach each encounter. There are four environments, each with its own unique character, and several levels within each environment type. How you interact with these environments, and the dangers they present, can mean life or death for your electronic avatar. Using falling icicles to your advantage, or avoiding spike pits and razor blades, will often decide who lives or dies. The tone this creates should be familiar to any fan of Samurai films, and may even strike a chord with the Wu-Tang Clan audience out there, though of course that comes out more in the visual and audio style of the game.


Anyone who has been paying attention may not be surprised to learn that the music is reminiscent of Wu-Tang’s “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).” The sound design, both for music and sound effects, takes familiar Japanese tones and sound bites and makes them feel digital. The graphics equally take familiar Japanese settings and render them in 8-bit, creating a dissonant tone that works very well in conveying the intended experience. It’s a mix that matches well with the frantic, and surprisingly violent, combat. The end result is a game that, while not a graphical tour de force, creates a strikingly memorable visual style.

Despite all this, the game is still not worth playing on your own. There is no meaningful single-player experience on offer, and that can make it or break it for many gamers. On the other hand, I found its focus on local multiplayer (there is no online multiplayer) to be refreshing. Over the last generation it seemed that more and more local multiplayer was being phased out and online multiplayer was becoming the norm. Actually being able to invite people over to play video games, and not being forced to coordinate online play, is refreshing, and while Samurai Gunn may not be feature-rich it certainly delivers on the game it purports to be. This is a game with a ton of fun and a hell of a lot of style.


Review by Rob Zakes
Jan 152014

Space Dandy has been grabbing a lot of attention this season, and it’s not difficult to see why.  It shares some major creative staff with Cowboy Bebop, and offers a similar sense of sci-fi stylishness.  On top of that, it’s airing in English on American TV in sync with the Japanese broadcast.  But is it any good?  With all the hype surrounding its premiere, I should hope so.


It’s a dandy show… in space.

In terms of sheer style, Space Dandy is certainly delivering so far.  It eschews the laid-back “cool” of Bebop in favor of a brighter, louder, more colorful presentation.  Between the visual style and the impressive animation, I’m reminded of the recent film Redline.  The first two episodes of Dandy have been something of a sensory overload, a reminder of what happens when a series combines big names and a big budget.

Once you get past the impressive sound and fury, things get a bit more uncertain.  It’s natural to compare Dandy himself to Spike from Cowboy Bebop, but the result isn’t entirely promising.  Spike quickly came across as a charismatic rogue with plenty of secrets, but the high-energy comedy of the new show has left Dandy feeling a bit more cartoonish.  He’s more Johnny Bravo than Clint Eastwood.  The supporting cast presents plenty of question marks, with their development left by the wayside in favor of establishing the show’s pace and tone.  There’s still plenty of potential, but it hasn’t been realized just yet.


Nothing but high art here, ladies and gentlemen. Yes, indeed.

As far as plot goes, there have been hints of a big picture, but little else.  Of course, much of Bebop followed an episodic format as well, so there’s hardly cause for concern here.  What worries me is that a show built around jumping the proverbial shark can only top its own antics so many times.  Dandy will have to give viewers something of substance soon if it wants to be more than a comedy in space.

Setting aside my gripes about the series, Space Dandy is impressive in terms of what it represents.  To my knowledge, American audiences have never gotten both an English dub (on Cartoon Network) and the original subtitled audio (through Funimation’s website) as a show airs in Japan.  That’s a pretty massive feat of logistics, and it speaks volumes that the producers would even consider attempting it.  As an American anime fan, it feels like we’re being acknowledged as a significant part of Space Dandy’s audience.  A bit of an ego trip, perhaps, but it’s a nice feeling nonetheless.


Did I mention how good this show looks? Well, I’m mentioning it again.

I have very high hopes for Space Dandy based on its pedigree, and it hasn’t quite convinced me that it’s going to scale that mountain of expectation.  Still, there’s quite a lot to like about it, and I suspect that finding out where this show’s going will be one heck of a ride.


Kawaii Overthink is written by Paul Jensen. You can follow his ramblings about anime on Twitter.
Jan 142014

The day finally came for me this week: I got around to buying both a Wii U and a 3DS (the latter of which was long overdue, having previously only owned an original DS bought shortly after the handheld’s launch day). Though I don’t own many games for the two yet, I started off both consoles with titles from one of my all-time favorite game series, The Legend of Zelda. I charged through The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds in just a few days on my 3DS, and I am currently working through The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, which came as a part of the beautiful limited edition Legend of Zelda Wii U bundle I managed to snag.


I am having the time of my life playing through both of these games, taking in the story, the massive landscapes, the music and the characters. That got me to thinking: Nintendo really can show off their new consoles in the grandest of ways with The Legend of Zelda, but only with this series alone. What is it about these games starring a pointy-eared boy in a green tunic that can consistently bring out the best in Nintendo’s new consoles?

It’s important to note first that Nintendo clearly takes their time when developing Zelda games for their new consoles, with the games often coming out one to two years after the launch of the console itself. Ocarina of Time was famously scrapped and rebuilt from the bottom up, delaying the initially planned Nintendo 64 launch title for a couple years. The original Gamecube version of The Wind Waker was released about a year and a half after that console’s North American launch in 2001. A Link Between Worlds was recently released two and a half years after the launch of the 3DS, and a new Zelda is reportedly in development right now for the Wii U, which has been out for a little more than a year so far. Compared to the next Super Mario Bros. game, which is usually available right at console launch or just after, that’s a pretty long time to hold off on Nintendo’s other beloved franchise.

And yet you can instantly see the difference a couple of years can make. While I do love that pudgy Italian plumber, every time I pick up a new Mario game the experience feels the same for me. It’s fun to play, yes, but I am never blown away by another frolic through the Mushroom Kingdom. Put it on a new console and the look is still the same: cartoony and whimsical. Mario has to be fun, not necessarily stylistic.

The Legend of Zelda is different. Hyrule is a breathtaking land, full of massive temples and vast natural landscapes. The entire world has to radiate with the promise of embarking on a daring adventure, an epic quest. Here is where The Legend of Zelda can show off one feature in a new Nintendo console: its updated graphics capabilities. Nintendo placed a lot of emphasis on the Wii U re-release of The Wind Waker being HD for a reason: the game serves as a tool for showing off the graphics capabilities on Nintendo’s first HD console. And it does the job nicely: every location in The Wind Waker HD looks incredibly clean and crisp, with a bit tighter detailing and incredibly improved lighting in comparison to the original Gamecube release. Thanks to the 3D capabilities of the 3DS, you could easily see the depth of various floors and platforms in the dungeons of A Link Between Worlds. You can say the same for earlier Zelda games. The overworld in Ocarina of Time still stands as one of the most amazing pieces of eye candy on the Nintendo 64, a true gem with which Nintendo could show off their first game console capable of 3D graphics.


The gameplay of The Legend of Zelda is somewhat symbolic as well. Embarking on these adventures, you want to feel like you are the fabled Hero of Time, wielding an evil-repelling sword, a shield, and an arsenal of weapons. Through this Nintendo has started using Zelda to push new gameplay capabilities in their next-gen consoles in a mostly seamless way. For the first time, you could swing the Master Sword using the Wii Remote playing Twilight Princess. In The Wind Waker HD you aim arrows, your Hookshot, the boomerang and other items by titling the Wii U Gamepad. Even before motion controls, Nintendo used its latest technology to help put you more in the action: if you had the original Gamecube release of Wind Waker you could hook up a Game Boy Advance to the fourth controller port to summon Tingle to your aid. The incorporation of new technologies into the traditional Zelda gameplay also adds to the immersive experience alongside the massive dungeons, and again utilizes every new feature of Nintendo’s latest console to give you that experience.


If you’re ever on the fence about buying Nintendo’s next console, wait it out a couple years until the next Legend of Zelda game comes out. Sometimes an adventure in Hyrule is all you need to see the best Nintendo has to offer.


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