Wednesday, 18 January 2017

One of Those Weeks

I mentioned I would be posting less this year, and this is one of those weeks. However, I won't leave you with nothing.

Recently I have buckled down re-writing a story that I never felt came out right. It's a bit of an oddball tale, and I'm not sure how it'll turn out, but I can tell you it's not like Knights of the End. This story is one of the first ideas for a story I had since converting, so it is close to me. Of course there will still be action; I'm not writing the Great Gatsby all of a sudden.

How I decided to rewrite it was a story in itself. Mainly, I was listening to the defunct(?) Rockabilly/Swing/Punk band known as the Deluxtone Rockets and the scenario and events played crystal clear in my mind. Music can be quite a powerful tool for imagination.

You might be wondering how that has to do with the story being odd. Well, the Deluxtone Rockets sounded like this:


I'm not sure how that will give you an idea of what I'm writing, mind. But that's how it rolls sometimes.

In other news, I might have an update coming in the next week or two about something I've been working on. But that's out of my hands, so we'll see.

Have a good week!

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

"Reality Couldn't Have Done This to Him" ~ A review of Declan Finn's "Set To Kill"


"The Stormtroopers looked at the staff, then each other, nodded, and sent out a BOLO order for Donatello."
So you want to know about Set To Kill by Declan Finn? Well that's a bit of a tale. If you've read the author's first published novel It Was Only On Stun! then you're halfway to understanding it. Me, I've read the book in question, and I'm not sure I fully comprehended the madness in these pages. What you're in for is a story filled with action, mystery, and more than a bit of comedy. That quote above is not even the most insane thing in the book.

After the events at the Vatican (long story), Sean A.P. Ryan is back in the protection game. Not only that, but he's working another con! Unfortunately, he soon finds himself in over his head as mercenaries, bounty hunters, crazed fans, stalkers, and just plain nutty people, assail him from every angle. Again! No wonder he doesn't like working at these things.

But it soon gets weird.

If there is one thing Mr. Finn excels at (there are a few) then it would have to be the action scenes. I'm hard-pressed to think of an author with so many details in their action scenes. Everything flows, the events are described clearly and fit together, and they are usually quite surprising. And funny.

Despite the action and the comedy there are several pretty good mysteries going on. Someone is killing guests at WyvernCon and it is up to the ever-overwhelmed Sean A.P. Ryan to put a stop to it. Oh yeah, and he has to make sure he stays alive with a several million dollar bounty (and growing!) on his head. That's kind of difficult with explosions, rifle shots, and assassins slipping in from every crevice, while he's trying to do his job. I'm starting to think he doesn't get paid enough for this.

Now if there is any complaint to note it is that there is a bit of inside baseball to some of the background elements of the story. Mr. Finn changes the names, but the events are very much based on a real "fandom" event. And it is just about as silly as he describes it as. I'm not going to explain it here because either you already know what it is or you don't care. Nothing I can say will add to it, so I'll just say that you might feel a little lost getting your head around the central conflict. Mr. Finn does his best to explain it at length, but it is what it is. Nonetheless, he does parody the events, and the players involved, quite well.

This is a hard book to really nail down. Would it be correct to call it something like if Dashiell Hammett wrote an episode of Murder, She Wrote thinking it was a sequel to Commando? I'm just not sure. If you enjoyed the previous book in this series, It Was Only On Stun!, then you should enjoy this one more. Whatever it is, Set To Kill accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do.

Should you read this book? Only if you like wanton destruction and humor popping up in strange places. And, really, why wouldn't you like those things?

I can't wait to read the sequel. Surely by then Sean Ryan will have enough of a handle on the con experience to run his own. I could just imagine.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Into the New Year

I hope everyone reading this is having a good 2017 so far. For my first post of the year, I thought I'd put out a rambler of a post.

When I was a boy I found myself drawn to stories. I could never figure out why. As I grew older I began listening to less music, playing less videogames, and dropped out of most every fandom. But one thing that remained the same, and grew, was my love of story. The big change happened when I realized that what I was most concerned with in the stories I read was the fate of the characters' souls. This only really happened about five years ago.

Not to say I don't care if people die in stories, but that is not what fascinates me in them. What draws me into their tales is the struggle with a deeper evil or ill, and how they conquer them. It's not just about one man versus another. This is about conquering an evil that doesn't just wish to destroy, but eat souls for breakfast. It's about more than it seems at first.

If you want to know why I have enjoyed Brian Niemeier's Soul Cycle saga, Declan Finn's Love At First Bite series, David Gemmell's hero tales, shonen manga, old superhero comics, or the stories in Cirsova magazine, it is because there is often much more at stake than mere life or death. This is also why I really got into writing material like Knights of the End, and what I'm going to put out next year. Whether it is facing down Eternity, sin, alienation, extinction of one's kin or species, or the loss of Paradise, it is the struggle between despair and hope that drives the best stories. This is why I'm still a reader.

That is why every good story needs a good guy. Readers need someone to connect with in the grand battle between two opposing forces. This is why even in stories without them, readers will focus their attention on the brightest burnt bulb in the basement they can find. Rorschach in Watchmen is popular for this reason alone. Anti-heroes are subversive enough to draw in the smirking, nose-holding crowd, and the character might even be interesting on some level, but they ultimately fall flat in the long run. If you stain the white with too much black it eventually all blurs into a drab, murky mess of grey. This is all well and good for teenagers of a certain type and age, but for those of us escaping the despair of college deconstructionism, it offers very little beyond that first course sampler. My second reading of Watchmen left me freezing cold.

Heroes and villains work because opposing sharply contrasted ideals are dynamic. Competing visions and characters are exciting. This creates a conflict bigger than the protagonist that he might not even see at all. But the reader will see it on some level. Even in a story with no physical enemy, it is entirely reliant on the protagonist not succumbing to something intangible. There are still enemies.

Life is a battle for the souls. This is what pulses through every single great story, and why I still read them.

There are so many stories out there that I'll never get to them all, but this year opened my eyes to a lot of stories I might have otherwise never touched. As someone who avoided much modern fiction, it was one where I was introduced not only to much pulp, but newer authors more interested in telling a good story than lecturing their audience, as well as other authors I missed entirely that were also crafting their own tales. I learned a lot in 2016.

But 2017 is going to be a bit of a different year for me. I'll still be writing, and hopefully getting closer to my goal to write the sort of story people would want to read, but I'll be cutting my online time way down. What I said earlier about life being a battle for souls is very true, and I'm still going to fight it, however it is also a battle i need tor regain my focus on. This means prioritizing on a certain things at the expense of others. Therefore, this blog will probably only be updated twice a month next year, and there will be less posts overall.

Now, I still have reviews to post, in fact I'll have one this month, and I'll still do posts like this, but they will be less common. I apologize to any frequent readers, but it needs to be done.

As we enter 2017 I want every reader here to have a very blessed new year. I hope this will be a year of growth and improvement for you.

So I'll say it here: Happy New Year!

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Anime of 2016

I know I rail a lot on anime these days. What can I say, moe just isn't for me. And I don't watch as much as I used to: heck, I've gone years without watching anything new. That said, 2016 was actually a big change.

Starting in 2015, with the first season of Ushio & Tora and Blood Blockade Battlefront, I began to see a slight change in what was being put out. I had only sought those shows out of curiosity and found myself pleasantly surprised. Sure, there were still plenty of interchangeable moe shows and nihilistic psychological ramblers to go around in 2015, but the change continued into 2016 where I have watched more new anime series in one year than I have in easily a decade. I also watched more anime than I did TV shows or movies, though that is mostly do to Hollywood's continual failing to entertain instead of proselytize.

So what changed in the anime world? I wonder. Apparently the industry has started to reach out again to those it had begun to alienate. For an example of what I mean let me list for you some of the series that came out this year that ended up impressing me a great deal. If you haven't seen these, and they seem like your kinda thing, then go track them down on Crunchyroll or Funimation's site. I promise that they are as good as they look.

This isn't a ranking, but in general release date order. So keep that in mind when reading these.



Erased
Studio: A-1 Pictures
Length: 12 episodes
Genre: Thriller
Streaming: Crunchyroll


Erased started 2016 off remarkably strong. What starts as a standard supernatural story of turning back time Groundhog Day style ends up being something much different. Satoru Fujinuma is dissatisfied with modern life and ends up detached from the world. This has happened ever since a murder occurred in his small town neighborhood when he was a boy. He finds he has the involuntary ability to time travel a few minutes back in time in order to prevent something bad from happening. It's up to his quick thinking to figure out the bad thing that is going to happen and how to fix it in time.

What ends up happening is that his ability kicks in at the absolute worst moment of his life, and he is thrown back deep in time to when he was a boy. Now he has to figure out why he was sent back. Hmm, did anyone remember me mentioning that murder that happened when he was a boy? Maybe that's why he was sent there? Or maybe not.

But, of course, there's a lot more going on than he first thought.

My only gripe will be a quick spoiler, so you may want to skip this paragraph. *SPOILER*The killer ends up not being much of a surprise since we didn't spend enough time with all the suspects to really gauge who they are. *SPOILER* It takes away from the mystery element a bit, but in this case its Satoru and the other characters' journey that makes this show so good.

Erased ends up being a series about redemption and second chances, and the ending is easily one of the best I've seen in a long time. Every character's choices are examined and reflected on, and the time travel element shows more sides than you would first think. It's really no wonder this was a huge hit, it was more than earned. If you're a fan of thrillers then this is right up your alley.



Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu
Studio: Studio DEEN
Length: 13 episodes
Genre: Drama
Streaming: Crunchyroll


Rakugo is a strange bird. It's based on a ten volume manga (the anime covers the first five, the second season will cover the rest) based on a recently released convict named Yotaro. A former member of the Yakuza, Yotaro instead decides to devote his life to pursuing the art of Rakugo, which is a traditional comedic form of Japanese storytelling. He strikes up an apprenticeship with Yakumo Yuurakutei, a master storyteller from a bygone age in order to learn the craft. He then learns there is more to this tradition than meets the eye.

What makes the series work is the focus on storytelling and its power to affect lives and inspire. This part of the series focuses mainly on the past of Yakumo and how he got to be so good at what he does. Its a bit hard to go into detail without spoilers, so I'll spare them. Needless to say, its relaxed pacing really sells it as both a drama and a piece of a larger story. The subdued nature of the series sells also Rakugo as an art form.

Of course, most Rakugo performances last an hour, so every episode of the series also lasts an hour to compensate. While this adds to the atmosphere, and to the story, it unfortunately means some, like myself, haven't finished it up yet. It takes a good amount of spare time to set aside to watch one episode. That makes it engrossing as a story, but some will find it off-putting.

There's a good chance you probably haven't heard of this show, and that's a shame. There hasn't been much written about it. Rakugo is easily one of the best of 2016.



My Hero Academia
Studio: BONES
Length: 13 episodes
Genre: Action
Streaming: Funimation


Alright, I'm not gonna spend too much time on this one. You already know that it's my favorite current running manga--I mean I'm writing reviews on every volume that comes out--so I'm not going to bore you with repeating myself.

Long story short is that BONES, the original author, Kohei Horikoshi, and anime writer, Yousuke Kuroda (writer of the Trigun anime and a ton of great shows) have put out one of the best superhero shows there has ever been. It's bursting with energy and hope. Listen to the track from the soundtrack posted above and you'll understand. My Hero Academia is a show about heroism, the fight against evil, the push to reach new heights, and that transcendent quality that pushes a man to fight the ever encroaching darkness of an imperfect world.

The only fault is really that there are currently only 13 episodes. Season 2 starts in April 2017 and covers material that will dwarf what season 1 offered in quality, and there is an OVA (made for video) episode not yet released, but it doesn't change the fact that season 1 was much too brief. Some might have written it off already. But that's a shame. Forget any shonen series you've ever seen: this is one of the best.

I suspect if I do this next year, season 2 will be listed here. There really isn't much else to say. My Hero Academia is a must-watch.



JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable
Studio: David Productions
Length: 39 episodes
Genre: Action Comedy
Streaming: Crunchyroll


This is a franchise that is love it or hate it. I personally like it, but it's hard to recommend. It's incredibly silly and over the top, but it doesn't wink at the audience or think its above what it is. It's a genuine action comedy and embraces what it is, and that's what saves it. The first three parts of the series were basically a Gothic Horror action series, a jet-setting fantasy adventure, and a globe-spanning episodic fighting show, respectively. Diamond is Unbreakable, Part 4, is about a small town which harbors a super powered serial killer and the hunt our heroes go to find them. It's part slice of life and part mystery.

The series stars normal teenager, Josuke Higashikata, as he puts the pieces together (literally!) on this mystery while his town becomes flooded with super-powered freaks disrupting his quiet life. There are carryovers from previous parts in the franchise, but they aren't necessary to understand to enjoy this one. You can watch this completely standalone to see if the franchise is for you.

The only real problem is that sometimes the violence can get overly graphic in uncomfortable ways, though it is at least usually used to establish villains as evil. Just be wary if you're squeamish. The silliness might not be everyone's cup of tea, but if you can engage and wrap your head around what is going on, you'll find an extremely fun series. The action sequences and fights are some of the best you'll probably ever see on television. Every piece is effectively used.

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure's ongoing manga is still running, though the original timeline is six parts long and finished, so there is still material to adapt after this. However, if you only were to watch one part, I recommend this as both the best starting point and overall best part on an execution level. Just make sure it's your cup of tea before you dive in.



Ushio & Tora Season 2
Studio: MAPPA / VOLN
Length: 39 total episodes (13 in season 2)
Genre: Action Fantasy
Streaming: Crunchyroll


Another show I've gone on about, Ushio & Tora aired its second season this year after a break at the end of 2015, and it only got better this year. See that video above? The entire remaining 13 episodes are like that. Ending off the story with one of the best climactic battles in recent memory, Ushio & Tora cemented itself as one of my favorites.

What makes the series work so well is its age. Ushio & Tora ran as a manga in weekly serialization between 1990 and 1996 which means it came along before modern unbreakable cliches were set in stone. This means Ushio is more of a naive ignorant kid instead of overwhelmingly stupid, and Tora has a reason for his anger beyond the surface level "tough guy" stereotype. The plot is allowed to spin out and expand and doesn't get locked down to stagnant stories of school troubles or characters that exist only to try to hook a bigger audience. It isn't restricted by the where the industry is now.

What Ushio & Tora does is remind you of how different manga and anime storytelling was before the '00s, and, in my opinion, how much more potential it offered before it was dumped. Satoshi Nishimura (director of the Trigun anime) knows how to tell a story, and keeps everything that made that era so different than what we have nowadays. Watch it for that if nothing else.

It also helps that the series is really good at what it does. You won't see anything like it being made in the industry now.

However, the early episodes tend to turn some off because they're seemingly episodic. I say "seemingly", because they're actually not. Every encounter ends up adding to a story where every piece matters. Some might also be turned off because of it being old. But hey, if you don't like old stuff, I can't imagine why you'd be reading this blog. Tradition exists because it works.



Mob Psycho 100
Studio: BONES
Length: 13 episodes
Genre: Supernatural Action
Streaming: Crunchyroll


From the author of One Punch Man (one of 2015's best anime series) comes Mob Psycho 100, about a normal boy with psychic powers who fights restless spirits and psychics. Mob, the main character, is a good kid who wants to do the right thing, and only wants to be normal. But if his psychic abilities are pushed too far . . .

Another series I haven't gotten around to finishing, Mob Psycho 100 is as bizarre with its animation as its character designs.  ONE, the author, has this strange habit of creating an over the top premise that he treats lightly, yet never disrespects or subverts. One Punch Man was about a superhero who could effortlessly beat anyone with a single punch, yet ONE never once disrespects the concept of heroes or belittles his characters (except those who are not honorable or attempting good) in his story, and Mob Psycho 100 is exactly the same with the supernatural here.

This clash of old school sensibilities and modern indie art is what makes ONE the good writer that he is. Mob's journey as an extremely powerful psychic might have plenty of jokes, but it is never taken as something to be mocked. That is a rarity in the modern world, and yet, this is his appeal as a writer and artist.

Honestly, the only people who might hate this are those who hate the art style. It isn't as good as One Punch Man since that's drawn by a different artist, but this is very underground and gritty, and BONES' animation suits the style perfectly. Still, that might not be your thing at the end of the day.

But you will probably not see another series like this for a long time.



The Disastrous Life of Saiki K.
Studio: J.C. Staff / Egg Firm
Length: 24 episodes
Genre: Comedy
Streaming: Funimation



From one show about a psychic to another, The Disastrous Life of Saiki K. is about a boy who has extraordinary psychic powers which should make the world simple for him, and yet he hates everything about his life. His powers are over the top and overpowered, his classmates, family, and friends constantly bother him with their insane quirks, and he can't quite reign his powers in. Only his parents know the truth of his abilities, but that doesn't stop some crazy stuff from happening. Saiki tries to lead a normal life while holding back his powers, staying out of the spotlight, and avoiding the crazy schemes his family and friends try to rope him into.

I'll be honest, this show is incredibly stupid. And that's why it's so funny. You just never know what direction the comedy will go in next. The show works by taking a situation with normal comedic potential (school, shopping, work, vacations, days off) and adds Saiki's incredible powers into the mix which ends up blowing every situation up to insane levels. Most anime comedy leaves me flat these days, being about obscure otaku references, boring visual gags, or "anti-humor", but Saiki always keeps me laughing by sticking to its guns of keeping true to the comedy and the characters.

What helps it work is that even though Saiki is incredibly cranky and irritable, he still clearly loves his family and friends and will help them out . . . even when they do something really stupid. It would be very easy to make this a misanthropic show, but its wacky humor and over the top situations, as well puncturing cliches with so many pinpricks that they become total Swiss Cheese, make it a delight to sit down and watch week to week. Comedy is a very subjective thing, I get it, but I haven't laughed this hard at anime comedy in a long time.

It isn't perfect. There are some dirty jokes (not as many as most anime, mind) which go against the grain of the show, though Saiki always points them out as unacceptable and they are treated as such. One of the characters is a major pervert, but his schemes always backfire, and Saiki is usually the one to deal him damage in return. Also, each episode is actually 5 shorts pasted into a single episode. This makes them really fast (I recommend watching in English since the voice actors don't have to talk so fast to deliver certain lines) and therefore might be hard for some to digest while reading subtitles.

But it's still a funny show. Thankfully, season 2 is coming next year, so hopefully it will pick up in popularity. It really deserves it.



Haikyu!!
Studio: Production I.G.
Length: 25 episodes (season 2), 10 episodes (season 3)
Genre: Sports Drama
Streaming: Crunchyroll


Alright, so this is an odd inclusion. Season 2 started in 2015, but finished at the beginning of 2016, while season 3 ran at the end of this year. So I'll just count it here as a whole since it book-ended 2016 so perfectly.

Haikyu!! is a sports series about high school volleyball players striving to be the best and bring back the former reputation of their rural school. The characters all have different quirks, but they all strive for the same goal. Watching them coalesce as a team is a treat. The first season set up all the characters and showed how they grew, but season 2 upped the stakes and put more on the line. Season 3 was even better, leading to an ending that has me wanting even more. And this is after 60 total episodes so far.

The show has some phenomenal animation and music, as well as voice actors that know their characters inside out, but there's always been something appealing about sports series where teams grow both in ability and camaraderie that always gets to me. I suppose there's a reason this show is so obscenely popular in Japan (and growing in popularity here), and that probably has to do with how well executed it is. There have been a lot of sports series out there (my personal favorite is Slam Dunk) but this is one of the few that manages to hit all the marks, even if you don't care for the sport. Haikyu!! is great at what is does. You'll be on the edge of your seat at the end of every episode.

Of course sometimes events can feel dragged out due to how much can happen in one game, and there isn't as much downtime drama between games as I'd like at times, but that's really nitpicking. Unless you absolutely hate sports as a concept, I can't see you not enjoying this on some level. It really does get better as it goes, just like the characters.

It's all about perseverance, really.



Next year has a few shows that interest me, but I can't see 2017 hitting the mark like 2016 did. Blood Blockade Battlefront and My Hero Academia's second seasons are high on my "To Watch" list, and One Punch Man, Full Metal Panic, and Saiki's new seasons should also prove fruitful whenever they run. Heck, maybe we'll finally get season 2 of Tiger & Bunny! I just don't think 2017 will quite hit the heights of this year.

That said, I know there are a lot of old school anime fans who gave up in recent years. I can't really blame them. Around the mid-00s things changed in the industry so abruptly that most ex-fans still aren't even aware of the reason they stopped watching. It just sort of happened.

But there are some gems buried in the stuff you don't like, and they've become far more pronounced than they have been in near a decade. Ignore the endless light novel adaptions, and check out the shows on my list. If there isn't a single show on there that interests you then I don't know what else to do. Maybe we just don't have matching tastes.

Still, things are changing. The growing realization that the industry needs to cater to the larger fanbase lead to a year that had more to offer an old school fan like me than I've seen in years. If you like the weird storytelling Japan offered through anime and manga years ago then there is stuff out there for you. Hey, there's stuff I didn't even list that I'm sure is more up your alley than mine. Point is, there are options now.

Hopefully that will only improve in the years to come.


Thursday, 22 December 2016

The Most Apt Title Ever ~ A review of "Murphy's Law of Vampires" by Declan Finn


Before this last year I hadn't read too many modern authors. The reasons for that is fairly obvious to anyone familiar with the modern climate for fiction. Pointlessness, perversity, and prevailing sickness, reigns supreme . . . and are all thought of as cardinal virtues that heroes should revel in. This climate is why I began looking into older authors and books and finding what I was looking for.

What has surprised me is the amount of authors I've seen recently that have gone against the grain.

Take Declan Finn, for instance. He's an author as fearless with his stories as he is with genres. He writes comedy thrillers, speculative swatting, and horror romance tales, all with the same energy and spirit as one would take a torch to a vampire. And there isn't a lick of subversion to be found in any of them.

I already reviewed the first book in his Dragon nominated Love at First Bite series, Honor At Stake, so how does the second installment live up to the original?

Murphy's Law of Vampires starts the second after Honor At Stake ends, dealing with the aftermath of the previous book. This sets the narrative in place, avoiding that annoying trope of trilogies where the second book is superfluous and is merely treading water to the final book. It makes sure you're caught up right away. Mr. Finn does not beat around the bush.

The main characters, Marco and Amanda, are a strange pair. One is a vampire, and the other is a monster. This dichotomy makes them as different as they are the same. It makes their interactions and burgeoning romance far more interesting to watch than when things blow up. And that's saying a lot coming from me.

Coming off of the first book, Amanda and Marco are still struggling. They have inner demons that push at their passions and feelings. This would be utterly dull in a modern novel, but not here. Their battles against their vices, the interior war, is just as compelling as the outer skirmish.

And that skirmish? Well, let's just say the title is what it is for a reason.

One of this series' strongest attributes is its ability to add enough development and introspection to the main characters without dragging the story of navel gazing. Not only are the characters always active, but the pace never really settles down. Gears are always turning, even in the low key moments. Both Amanda and Marco learn a lot about themselves and their relationship through this story, leading to an ending that had me frustrated-- in a good way.

Stories with no genre boundaries are fascinating to me in proving the universality of certain truths, particularly in love and heroism. The Love at First Bite series effortlessly combines romance, horror, thriller, fantasy, comedy, and science fiction, in a way that feels organic and exciting. They are all one and the same, just as they were always meant to be.

But most importantly: it's fun. If you are looking for something a bit different than stale vampire fiction and perverted romance stories where there's more sex than plot then you should really check out the Love at First Bite series. There is nothing like it out there.

Now the wait for book 3 begins.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Signal Boost ~ Brian Niemeier's "The Secret Kings"


The third book in Brian Niemeier's Soul Cycle saga is out today!

The description is as follows:

"The god of the Void is free. Aided by a Night Gen fleet, Shaiel’s fanatical Lawbringers spread his Will throughout the Middle Stratum and beyond.
Teg Cross, whose mercenary career took him to hell and back, finds the old world replaced by a new order on the brink of total war. A fateful meeting with a friend from his past sets him on a crusade to defy Shaiel’s rule. 
Meanwhile, Nakvin strives to muster a last-ditch resistance in Avalon. But can worldly kings and queens stand against divine wrath?"

For those of us who have read the first two books . . . well, let's just say this sounds very appetizing!

If you're interested in this series then please read my reviews of Book I and Book II to see if they are up your alley. Long story short, think Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, if they were all one interchangeable genre, with anime, JRPG, and classic genre fiction influences. If any of that sounds like your bag then the Soul Cycle series might just be for you.

2016 has been one strange ride for anyone paying attention, and it still isn't quite over yet. Something tells me this book should be quite the way to end it.

Also, if you haven't checked it out, my first book was recently released. Its a story about a boy who discovers a hidden power from another world, and fights to save his hometown from encroaching darkness.

You can check out Knights of the End here.

Here's hoping 2017 will bring just as many pleasant surprises as this year has.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Fists (and Blades!) Against Darkness!

Growing up in the 8 and 16-bit era of video games, I've seen my fair share of changes to the industry. We've gone from 2D pixel art to polygons, video game music to orchestral faux-movie soundtracks, and experimental level design to scripted corridors, and many more things have changed on top of those. The industry now has little in common with where it began.

However there is one genre of video games that have fallen off the map nearly entirely, relegated to download titles. This is the only genre where "professional" reviewers berate releases for not "modernizing" and getting with the recent zeitgeist and abandoning everything that made them great in the first place.

The genre I'm talking about is the Beat 'Em Up.

In the 1980s the arcades were king. Where else could you get together with a bunch of friends, goof off on some silly simplistic games, then go catch the newest Bill Murray or Spielberg film? The arcade is a fairly dead concept now, derided by modern critics as outdated and overly simplistic, and every genre birthed in those old cabinets has been either buried or declared irrelevant by those in charge of the industry.

Sound familiar?

Beat 'Em Up video games are simple. You have an attack button, a jump button, and that's usually it. Gameplay is centered around characters traversing imaginatively designed locations while beating the stuffing out of any enemy stupid enough to get in your way. These games are usually very short, but long on excitement and replayability. Classics of the genre include Double Dragon, Golden Axe, the Streets of Rage trilogy, Final Fight, The Simpsons, X-Men, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games by Konami, Aliens Vs. Predator, The Punisher, the Dungeons & Dragons Mystara games, and River City Ransom. If you've ever touched a joystick or d-pad before 1999 there is very little chance you didn't play most of these.

But this post isn't about them. It's about the ones lost in the mists of time. You see, because the genre was birthed in the arcades, which are dead, many great games were left in the dust and forgotten over the years. This, combined with an industry that has largely abandoned its roots in favor of mindless "progress", has left these classics forgotten and abandoned and left in a warehouse somewhere in Portland. But that doesn't mean I can't talk about them here.

Besides that, who doesn't want to play a part in an action movie, pulp novel, or thriller? People who hate fun. Who else could it be?

Here are ten Beat 'Em Ups you (probably) never played, and really should:


1) Undercover Cops



Play as three street sweepers as they rid the city of crime! It's sort of post-apocalyptic in a Fist of the North Star way, but the background hardly matters. The level design in this game is impeccable, from dodging sand crawling enemies and mines to escaping a collapsing construction site, every situation in this game is dynamic. Not to mention the moves. Grabs, pummels, special moves, context sensitive inputs, jumping attacks, this game really goes all out.

Irem made this as their only entry in the genre, and I have to say, it really doesn't show. It was made with a care in the design you rarely saw at the time, and it still stands out now as a top entry in the genre. The only downside is that nobody has ever heard of it.

Unfortunately, the best version of this game is not the most easily available version. The standard North American version features less moves than the original and a weaker soundtrack. To play it at its fullest you must either play the Japanese version, the World version, or the extremely rare Alpha Renewal version which includes everything in the original as well as an English translation. But it's well worth seeking out.



2) Metamorphic Force


Ever wanted to play as a werewolf and tear monsters and demons apart? Well here's your chance. Metamorphic Force takes the Beat 'Em Up template and adds transformations and an old school pulp feel to its surroundings. The game is fast-paced and as brutal as Konami's other entries in the genre, but the intensity and aesthetic were nailed so hard here that it's hard to imagine why it isn't well known. This is their Sunset Riders for the Beat 'Em Up genre.

My controversial take is that this is Konami's second best entry in the genre. Yes, even above the X-Men, The Simpsons, and TMNT games. The controls and level design are just so much tighter that it never gets old to play. What's their best Beat 'Em Up? That would be the next game on this list.

The North American version has a few faults not in other versions (listed in the video itself!) but it doesn't really matter which you play. They're all available in English and they all rock.



3) Crime Fighters 2: Vendetta


This is the most '80s Beat 'Em Up ever. And it is glorious. You play as a gang trying to stop another gang who kidnapped your protegee with nothing but your fists and anything you find lying on the ground. Protect the city by beating the stuffing out of anything in your way. Beat 'Em Up 101 taken to its delicious logical extreme. This game has a gonzo sense of humor, a four player mode, and some of the craziest bosses this side of Cannon Films.

It's actually quite amazing how well a game as clearly dated as this has aged as well as it has. The weapons are zany and extremely powerful with detailed sprites, the music sounds like its straight out of an old Chuck Norris movie, the controls are simplistic (there isn't even a jump button) and yet allow for some advanced maneuvers, and the game offers just enough enemy, weapon, and level, variety to keep it fresh. I liked this game when I was younger, but my opinion on it only improves with time.

Vendetta is available in so many versions and alternate territory releases that it doesn't matter which one you play. However, it has never been re-released, and that is the real shame of it. Throw in the fact that Konami is the one behind this, and you have yourself a problem in trying to play it today. But it is worth the hunt. The genre hardly ever gets better than Vendetta.



4) Battle Circuit


Capcom was the biggest name in Beat 'Em Ups, and this was their last entry in the genre, released back in 1997. Its wacky retro golden age of science fiction take is the perfect aesthetic to close off the 2D arcade era, especially considering how heavily Beat 'Em Ups relate to old pulp and action movies. But the gameplay is as expansive as ever, adding to the plethora of moves, crafty enemies and level design that Capcom throws at the player here.

You can unlock and purchase new moves between stages, all of which vary between characters. You can play as a wisecracking space alien plant. You chase down an evil scientist that blows up about as often as large objects in Michael Bay films do. For Capcom's swansong to the genre it doesn't get much better than this.

It's only a shame few people got to play it. Battle Circuit has never been ported, and Capcom has rarely acknowledged its existence since its release. But people are missing out: It's really one of the best in the genre.



5) Violent Storm


The last Beat 'Em Up made by Konami is a heck of a doozy. Everything they learned from TMNT, Metamorphic Force, and the Crime Fighters games is in Violent Storm. You play a warrior in a nebulous post-apocalyptic yet utopian world where your girl is stolen and you have to fight to get her back. It's very Double Dragon, but with Konami's wacky sense of humor and early '90s sensibilities. It also makes a good place for the genre to come full circle.

At first glance this game doesn't seem as in depth as Vendetta (the game made just before it), and it probably doesn't reach the same spread of ideas, but Violent Storm's differences are about how subtle the changes are. There is a lot of influence from Final Fight in the basic controls and set up, but where it changes it up is in the variety of moves you can preform, the main characters, the stage variety, the off-kilter humor, the enemy types, and the insane bosses. It was clearly made by the creators of the first two Crime Fighters games, and it is only a shame they never made another one after this. But it makes for an end to a fascinating trilogy of Beat 'Em Ups.

Unfortunately, this is a game made by Konami in their classic period of the late 80s and early 90s. Like most arcade games from the era, this means that it has never been re-released, and since this is Konami, probably won't be. But if you can find an arcade cabinet, give it a go. That first stage theme music pretty much says it all.



6) Sengoku 3


SNK is one of the best arcade game developers. Great in fighting games, puzzle games, and shooters, they seemed to have it all. But they never made a great Beat 'Em Up. Every attempt they made at the genre was thoroughly mediocre, unable to touch either Capcom or Konami's attempts in the genre. That is, until Sengoku 3.

The first two Sengoku games are bland post-apocalyptic Beat 'Em Ups with some interesting character designs and art ideas, but with abysmal stages and stiff controls. Sengoku 3 is entirely different. You now play as magic ninjas fighting demons using a wide variety of moves at your disposal and multiple ways to play through the excellently designed levels. SNK might not have been very good at the genre, but this is not only an exception, it is one of the best Beat 'Em Ups you'll ever play. And it was released in 2001 by a defunct team called Noise Factory which means it is also no holdover from the 1980s or '90s.

Being the most modern arcade game on this list (and yet still over 15 years old), it should stand to reason that it is the easiest game to find. Well, it is available on the Nintendo Wii's Virtual Console service, but has otherwise been left obscure. If you can find an SNK arcade cabinet with this game included consider yourself lucky.

*Side Note: Noise Factory developed another Beat 'Em Up called Gaia Crusaders. If you can find it it is well worth the trouble. They only made two in the genre but they are both great.



7) Double Dragon Advance


Everyone knows about Double Dragon, but no one knows about this game. This remake of the original Double Dragon takes everything that worked in the arcade and NES games, and the sequels, and throws them in a blender to make the best game in the series. It is essentially the best of the old school and new school in one overlooked game.

Technos made the original Double Dragon way back in the '80s and ended up changing arcade games in the process. However, despite closing down in the '90s, the team who made this game put everything into it to show how the genre expanded since the original game's release. You have running moves, pummel moves throw moves, combos, weapons, jumping attacks, crouch attacks, and the best level design the series has ever seen. It adds so much but never loses what made the original game a classic in the first place. As a tribute to the pioneers of the genre, it is impeccable.

This game was released on the Game Boy Advance. That should speak to how common it is to find. It has not been re-released as of yet on any modern system or service, and it is hard to imagine if it ever will. But if you have a system that can play GBA games, this an essential addition to your library. Although if you have any love of retro games, the GBA is one of the best anyway.

*Side Note: Technos' last arcade Beat 'Em Up before closing was Shadow Force: a super hard game where you have four attack buttons and play as magical ninjas. This game is next to impossible to find, but well worth seeking out.



8) Rushing Beat Shura


This is the most tragic game on this list. You see, this was actually released over here. The Rushing Beat series was released on the SNES throughout the 1990s, all with changed names and edits. The first was titled Rival Turf, the second was called Brawl Brothers, and the third was called The Peacekeepers. Rushing Beat Shura is the original Japanese version of the third entry.

There are branching paths, multiple endings, wide enemy varieties to fight, and a cyber-punk/near future story to keep you invested in what is going on. For a console release in the genre, this game is pretty packed. Boredom is tough in this game since it is different every time you play it with multiple characters (including unlockables) that change the way it is played. It's only a shame this has never been re-released in the decades that followed.

Don't bother with the North American version. The aesthetics have been peeled off, the music is gone, and the translation is incomprehensible. If you don't want to seek the Japanese version of Shura down, then I suggest sticking with the North American version of the second game: Brawl Brothers. It is the least changed of the three, and even includes the original Japanese version in the game which can be unlocked with a code if you so desire.



9) Golden Axe: Revenge of Death Adder


Like with Double Dragon you might be confused as to why this is here. Surely everyone has played Golden Axe? Well, nobody played this game. This is the second arcade entry in the series, and the most overlooked. It was never ported to anything, and Sega has all but forgotten its existence. But it is also not only the best game in the series, but one of the best in the genre.

The amount of enemies on the screen adds to the sword and sorcery carnage you'll be thrown into, the characters all have a wide spread in how you play as them, and the series has never looked this good. The chaos adds so much to the affair. If you have any love for the series, or the genre, then you owe yourself a playthrough of this one. The level design is the most inventive in the series, adding vertical scrolling and branching paths which changes the game up every time you play it. The Golden Axe series never surpassed this game.

As I said before, Revenge of Death Adder has never been re-released. Not even for the ailing Sega Saturn system. The original arcade game and the Genesis series has been ported to every collection Sega has put out, but this entry remains elusive. It is a mystery as to why.



10) Night Slashers


Last, but not least, how about a supernatural horror Beat 'Em Up? Night Slashers is what would happen if Darkstalkers was a Beat 'Em Up instead of a fighting game. You play as vampire hunters as they track down and slay evil in a set up that could only have existed in the 1980s. What other decade could you incinerate a vampire at dawn only minutes after piledriving a zombie into concrete? Yes, it's one of those games.

There's nothing particularly new in Night Slashers, but it has so much style and panache that you can't help but like it. You fight every horror movie staple monster you can think of and send them back to Hell as violently as possible. Your arsenal includes crosses, charms, and giant metal arms, depending on who you play as, not to mention insane wrestling grapple moves, running attacks and specials, and tag team moves when playing with a friend. Its basically Monster Squad: the Game for the adult set.

Again, like most of the entries on this list, Night Slashers has never been re-released, which is a shame. It's one of Data East's best games, but is still stranded in the arcade. If you can find a cabinet out in the wild then be sure to give it a go. One odd change is that the last hit of Christopher's combo in the Japanese version is a crucifix, while in the North American version it is a crystal ball. It was obviously done to avoid controversy (Because a crucifix obliterating evil is bad or something) but it is a pretty silly change nonetheless.



All in all, Beat 'Em Ups are a great and oft-overlooked classic gaming genre. There's really nothing like them out there, especially these days. Who doesn't like mowing down bad guys with a loved one (or three!) at your side? Unfortunately, with the loss of classic gaming compilations and ports, it looks unlikely that we'll be seeing re-releases or revivals of any of these games any time soon. The game industry just doesn't have that segment focused on preserving its past.

However, that doesn't stop gamers from seeking these classics out on their own. The '80s and '90s were a golden age for arcade games and have scores of gems waited to be uncovered. Whatever you do, don't miss out on them. You'll be missing out on some good times if you do.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a werewolf to DDT.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Where did it come from?

 Available here!

So you might be wondering where exactly this whole thing came from? It certainly just didn't drop out of thin air. A strange concept like this has its roots in the particularly over-watered plant that is my brain.

It started when I decided to take part in NaNoWriMo 2014. I'd been writing for a few years but couldn't make much progress in what I wanted to do. In October as I thought about what to do next I suddenly thought about the stories I liked growing up. The climate is much different now when it comes to not only YA books, but for comics, manga, and television.

Knights of the End started as a throwback. I just wanted to write the type of story that 13 year old me would have swallowed up-- a story of action, adventure, and magic, with a heavy dose of fun. I wrote the entire story in less than a month without an outline by the seat of my pants. It was probably the most difficult and yet easy thing I've written so far.

When I was a kid I watched a lot of cartoons and read a lot of comics. I read books too, but those only really fueled my imagination when I was older.

Fantasy has always been my wheelhouse. It's always been the most fascinating genre to me, but I've never been enthused by the Tolkien aping that went on while I was growing up. Much as The Hobbit was my favorite book as a boy, I never felt compelled to rewrite it. I enjoyed the wonder of new places and situations, the magic hidden just out of sight in the corners of our world, and the fierce loyalty and courage of warriors who stood against the darkness. That was where my inspiration lies.

Knights came together from all my inspirations to make the sort of story I'd always imagined should have existed somewhere. But of course that doesn't mean it would be simple. The first draft came easy, but ironing it out took significantly longer.

I spent 2015 ironing out the story and writing backstory, even planning out sequels (still no outlines), while simultaneously writing other stories (I'm pretty sure those have all been scrapped) before 2016 came around. That was when I learned to edit properly, and began to click in my head how to write with focus.

And now it's out.

Knights is important to me not just as a book, but because it helped me understand so much about writing. You see, there is no library where I live. There are no writing groups or courses I can take. It was basically about learning from books and the good advice I got from others that I managed to finish this at all. I'd written stories before but Knights is the one that got me on track.

While finishing up Knights of the End I've also begun several other projects building on what I've learned here. So if you liked it and want more, rest assured that what comes next will be even better!

And leave a review! That's the best way I can know where I succeeded and how to build on it in the future.