Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Road to Ruin ~ A Review of "Good to the Last Drop" by Declan Finn

Check it out Here!


And finally we reach the end. Declan Finn's Dragon-nominated Love At First Bite series, part action, adventure, romance, science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and all fun, has reached its conclusion with this release. And what an ending it is.

If you haven't been keeping up, the first book set the stage, the second thoroughly blew it out (and up), the third brought out the big(ger) guns, and now the fourth exists to tie it all together with a neat little bow. Or as neat a bow as an author like Declan Finn allows. It can get gloriously messy, in the best of ways.

For those not keeping up, the Love At First Bite series stars a psychotic human named Marco and a bloodsucking vampire named Amanda as they progress in their relationship from friends to partners as the world progressively falls apart around them with every book. After fighting everything from vampires to demons to . . . whatever the heck the villain in book three actually was to what is ostensibly the end of the world in book four. The series constantly ramps up as it goes.

What makes these books so successful is how much fun they are. There are clear good guys and definitive bad guys, there is humor, there is plenty of action, there is a solid plot with developing characters, and the central romance is engaging. It's the sort of vampire tale not seen since at least the days of The Lost Boys when you could be serious and fun at the same time without insulting the lore or the audience. It also helps that the vampire mythos the story is built on is well established and builds off of concepts Bram Stoker used way back in Dracula and are given solid rules that must be obeyed. There are no glittering pseudo-vampires here.

As an end to the series, it's a suitable final chapter. Each book had slowly grown with scope and ambition leaving few places left for the series to go without devolving into self-parody. But the author avoids that trap by ending it at just the right point when the stakes hit critical mass. You will see carnage and death, and you will see if good really does ever win in this world of horrors. The last encounter is the final statement on all four books and the definitive last period on just what it is all about. I would argue the last few lines of the book sum it up even better, but I'm not going to spoil that.

Amanda and Marco have finally admitted how they really feel about each other, but is that enough? Part of the enjoyment in the series besides the supernatural battles is also the deepening of the relationship between the leads which finally comes to a head here. In fact, it might even have a key part in how things turn out. Love is the strongest weapon, after all.

Good to the Last Drop is what it promises. It delivers the goods you've come to expect from the series, and it delivers until the very last line. Several characters are brought to the limit, and not everyone will make it out alive, but that's par for the course in a Horror story.

This is a hard review to write because I don't want to give spoilers, but it is also the last book of a quartet, so I'll simply review the series as a whole here.

I've always been a fan of classical vampires. The original Dracula by Bram Stoker is one of my favorite Horror tales. But vampires have been de-fanged and watered down over the decades since. They're either generic killing machines or strong humans with pointy teeth and bad complexion. What the Love At First Bite series did was bring the monster closer to the roots laid down by Stoker and has fun with it along the way. This is a messy and intense quartet featuring plenty of horror, action, romance, humor, and even some Fantasy and Science Fiction elements like a garish on the succulent steak that is this series. The Love At First Bite books are stories you might have seen published decades ago when excitement was enough to get publishers to release series like this. Though with how Declan Finn disregards genre boundaries, maybe not.

As it is, this is the best vampire series I've read. An engaging run from start to finish as each book improves on the last and finishes with a conclusive ending that wraps everything up neatly. If you've been waiting for vampires to be great again: these are the books you've been waiting for.
Good to the Last Drop, as well as the whole series, comes highly recommended. You can't get better vampire-related entertainment than this.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Five Minutes to Hell and Back Again ~ A Review of "Hell's Five Minute Tales of Horror" by Hell Richards

Check it out Here!

Recently I've taken the plunge into an odd short story (I suppose the official name is "Flash Fiction") collection entitled Hell's Five Minute Tales of Horror by an author named Hell Richards. I assume she has no relation to Richard Hell, the infamous punk musician, but I can't be sure.

Full disclosure is two-fold: I got this for free, and I've hated the majority of modern horror I've read. It would be easy to dismiss this as a throwaway collection, or give it an easy rating even if I didn't enjoy what I received. But the truth is also two-fold: I don't change reviews based on the price I paid for the material, and I always review products for what they're trying to be and not what I want them to be. All that out of the way, let's get to it.

Well, first I should describe just what this is.

Hell's Five Minute Tales of Horror comprises of just over forty slices of short horror that each take no more and no less than five minutes to read. The subjects vary from obvious horror tropes like serial killers to more ineffable beings to weird twists to legendary monsters and everything in between. For such short stories they are varied in their subjects, some of which are better than others, but all of which make for good horror experiences.

As for my personal thoughts, I enjoyed the stories focused on monsters, indescribable horrors, and weird tale-esque ventures more than the ones involving realistic serial killers. I simply don't find people like this fascinating or interesting in the slightest. Sick people don't make for fun reading unless they are villains begging to be stopped. But they are only one type among many. With a count of just over forty stories there is plenty here to engage.

My personal favorite stories of the collection include Wendigo, The Silent, My Monster, Aronaga, I Hate the Cinema, Daruma-san, That's How I Do It, Satoru-kun, Cat Scratch, and Sally in the Woods. It was difficult to choose among so many as so many are just quick and enjoyable enough to hook the reader for five minutes or so.

Horror works best in a framework of rules. The reader has to understand why what they're partaking in is creepy and will have trouble being engaged if there's no coherent reason for what is happening. Even Lovecraft's most successful stories, as imaginative as they were, played on the fact that the audience, and the protagonist, didn't know the rules. That was what made them eerie. But nothing happened that would jar or take the reader out of the plot and make them feel cheated.

These stories are short enough that no rules get broken, not that I think this author would otherwise, and that's why I can wholeheartedly recommend it to any fan of horror. Just over forty tales is well worth your time and they are all varying degrees of fun. It's also refreshing to not have a modern horror collection that has to sneak in a very clunky moral lesson to ruin the atmosphere and take the reader out of it. These are just what you'd expect--creepy and unsettling stories.

This is good old fashion horror, and if that's what you like, I recommend reading Hell's Five Minute Tales of Horror. This is what you've been looking for.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Welcome to Spooky Season!

This is a bit of an update post, but not in the way you would think. I have a few posts lined up for this month while I finish editing my next novel. Because of how time consuming that can be, I decided to try this small feature out for the month of October. I promise to have more updates on that when I'm able to nail down a definitive release date.

This October we're going to be doing something fun.

These posts all share the theme of being reviews of horror-related material. These will all be from independent authors, including one you may have seen on this blog more than once before. I've been looking for an excuse to give this reviews more of a highlight than usual, so this will be the perfect opportunity.

October is the official month of horror, after all.

To give a bit of a preview of what is to come, one of the things I read was Nathan Dabney's version of Phoenix on the Sword by Robert E. Howard.

Check it out Here!

Unfortunately, I've not read as much Howard as I would like, and this story was not among those I have. On the plus side, this made me appreciate Howard's work all the more. Dabney's version is as close to the original text as I could find (it isn't edited like the L. Sprague de Camp editions that I refuse to touch) and includes an afterward the his attempt was preserve Howard's work to its purest essence. Reading through this story, I could definitely appreciate how great a storyteller the creator of Conan really was.

As can be assessed by the great cover, this is a Conan story--in fact the first Conan story. Conan is a king and is dealt a rough hand as he has to deal with both a treacherous plot to usurp him and a hellish beast summoned from another world at the same time. It's a short five chapter story, but it packs in quite a good deal of intrigue and action. Those who know Conan as "the big barbarian guy" might be surprised to see the horror elements at play in this tale.

If you have not read this story before, or Conan at all, this is a great place to start. It is a brisk, yet very engaging read, in a packaging that gives the material the attention it absolutely deserves.

Highly recommended.


Next week I'll be taking a look at the work of another independent author, and a strangely unique idea for a book.

Until then, keep it creepy!

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Truth About the X-Men

*Add in Shadowcat and Nightcrawler and this is the perfect X-Men team*

One of the great things about childhood is that kids are usually honest about what they like and why they like it. Entertainment is serious business to them.

When I was a boy, the X-Men were the most popular superhero team. No question about it. The Avengers were nothing compared to them. Iron Man and Thor were B-listers as far as kids were concerned, and the Justice League still had the Superfriends stigma attached to them. Superhero teams were not all that big. It was only the X-Men who stood at the top and no one else came close.

They were synonymous with superheroes.

Why do I bring this up? Because of the current cultural zeitgeist centered around political revisionism. The reason the X-Men actually were popular is being overlooked in order to score points. The truth is actually much different from the narrative.

The X-Men were created by Stan Lee to represent minorities and their struggle against the majority. They were detested by the masses, and were looked down on as inferior (as little sense as that made considering they had superpowers), and Charles Xavier and Magneto were little more than analogues to the approaches of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X via race relations. So it was always political from conception.

And the key point: kids didn't care.

If you asked anyone in the 1990s why they liked the X-Men you would have few answers beyond the obvious. They had awesome powers. They were cool. They were distinct individuals with their own talents that backed each other up and meshed well in a group. They always take on the bad guys and put aside their own personal grudges to do so. The stories are explosive and fun.

Whatever politics the X-Men were created with were secondary to what kids enjoyed out of them. Kids loved the Savage Land. They loved the Phoenix Saga. They loved the cartoon. They loved that Wolverine was an unstoppable berserker with a heart of gold, Cyclops was the stoic leader who struggled to maintain composure, Beast was the brains with brawn, Rogue was as hot and vulnerable as she was tough, and that Gambit was mysterious and cool but had trust issues. X-Men succeeded because it was fun and that the characters, as different as they were, always came together to do good at the end of the day.

I mostly grew up with the animated show as the comics were devolving into Onslaught by the time I tried reading them regularly, and it was a big influence on how I view superpowers and superheroes as a whole. Not only myself, but those I grew up with were always big into the X-Men despite how Marvel threw them under the bus repeatedly and tried to amp up the boring political side.

They also, like everything else in the bronze age, became obsessed with moral ambiguity. Ruining some heroes by giving them dark pasts at odds with what we knew, or making them take heel turns to undo character development years in the making. It's no wonder readers fell away from X-Men as the 90s came to a close.

For a while it was as if the animated shows were the only place you could get the X-Men at their purest. But even they began to falter.

X-Men Evolution was an attempt to appeal to younger audiences, turning all the characters (except Wolverine and Storm) into teenagers. The series had a rocky start. It eventually improved and became its own thing, but the plots never quite reached the level of the comics or the old show due to the shackles they put on themselves to make it "relevant" to kids. It also wrote out or dumbed down some fan favorite characters in the process never properly using certain classic X-Men.

And then there was Wolverine and the X-Men, an attempt at hooking the movie audience due to Hugh Jackman's incredible performance of the crazed canuck. This was the most egregious example of how Marvel had let the air out of the X-Men. Cyclops was utterly ruined, Jean Grey died off screen, Rogue was missing her Ms. Marvel powers and was basically made useless, Gambit was relegated to a cameo as was Nightcrawler, and the story just starts mid-universe like we should know what's going on. The plot was all over the place and confused. It was also canceled after one season: a far cry from the 90s series peak.

It reflected the confused state of the franchise very well. How many of those classic characters have been improved on since being removed from the team since the title's heyday? How many are still relevant in the comics? When was the last time Marvel made a memorable X-Men character? When was the last story they made that didn't have something to do with the X-Men being "minorities" (in a world with the Hulk and an uncountable number of non-mutant threats, people are more concerned about the mutants? That's never made sense) instead of some extraordinary or supernatural threat which has consequences for everyone in the world instead of one specific group? That unification of good against evil is what made the X-Men work in the first place.

The X-Men were popular because everything else was pointless in the face of evil. Minor grievances, bigotry (humans having legitimate reasons to fear mutants makes for better drama than one sided real world straw man comparisons), and personal issues fall to the side and Good puts in all their chips to stop the encroaching, and always objective, Evil. That was always what made the X-Men work.

Why are the X-Men no longer as popular as they once were? I'm starting to see why. Even taking aside Marvel hobbling their own income because of the movie rights, they have been doing this to the X-Men since the '90s. They've gone out of their way to remove what people liked most about them. They've gone out of their way to muddy them up and drag them down.

You see, while X-Men might have its base in a political idea, no one really cared all that much about said political idea in the context of an adventure story. Underdogs are one thing, but kids like the X-Men because they were fighting against an evil reflection of what they could be while trying to convince the world their side was right. How? By simply being Good and stopping Evil. That's the fantastic dynamic that allowed the X-Men to become so popular and why Claremont, Wein, Mantlo, Jim Lee, et al. were able to take it much farther than Stan Lee did with his simple idea. In case you forgot, the original run of the X-Men was a poor seller and nearly canceled. It was the relaunch that made them superstars.

People want grand adventures, good versus evil, fun characters, and to be entertained above all. Politics on their own are none of those things and why the original run of the X-Men never went anywhere. And why the most popular arcs of the franchise are not political at all. Especially not the ones kids loved.

Kids loved the X-Men for this:


And not for any revisionist reason you want to make up. The reason the X-Men have fallen is because Marvel has forgotten those simple lessons of fun adventure stories.

Unless you're an ideologue I do not see how that statement is controversial. Especially considering that it is a true statement. Politics do not make for quality entertainment; entertainment makes for quality storytelling. It's that simple. Politics are only minor icing on the over-sized wedding cake called entertainment. Is it any wonder Marvel is currently being left with so much unsold product in their cake shops? It's no mystery.

The X-Men are dead now because modern Marvel forgot what the audience wanted a long time ago. Don't be like modern Marvel.

What you enjoyed as a kid is not what the ideologues tell you it is. That's why they fail over and over while the audience is left unsatisfied.

The customer is always right, and that's why Marvel is failing.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Hitting it Big and Making it Count



I recently read this post by author Rawle Nyanzi about how My Hero Academia will never be a hit on the level of Dragon Ball Z. Go give that a read and double back.

The thing is that we have a fractured culture with few, if any, shared values anymore. Even if a television show was great and aired on the biggest network and garnered terrific ratings, there's a good chance many out there would not bother with it for a multitude of reasons. It's not going to happen like it once did. The 20th century is long gone and we are where we are.

For instance, look a the absurd popularity of Game of Thrones. Books, television shows, pop culture references, and merchandise galore. Certainly everybody has heard of and embraces this franchise.

Well, no. I've never seen a single episode, and have no intention of ever doing so. People I know are split the same way, half love it and half can't stand it. There's no getting around that. One also can't escape the obvious eventuality that it will be forgotten quicker than The Sopranos, Party of Five, or Ugly Betty, when the next "hit" comes along to replace it. They fade from public consciousness faster than goldfish's last thought.

Add to that, we largely don't want to connect. We simply don't have those shared interests any longer to find common ground as we once did.

So the best we can do is to help each other.

It is true that My Hero Academia will never be on the level of Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, or Bleach, in popularity, but that doesn't mean we can't help make sure those that would otherwise miss out pass it by. There are many who simply don't know. I review every volume of the manga on this very blog for the purpose of promoting such a fantastic series for that reason. It is why I review most everything I do, and why I tend to stay away from reviewing already known classics. There are those missing something they might enjoy tremendously.

Before I sign off, let me do you a solid. You may or may not have heard of My Hero Academia (go watch and/or read it, if not) and may or may not have read my reviews, but I will give you a heads up on something else.

Here are three shows in the upcoming anime season you might be interested in. They all have the potential to hit it big--if potential fans are alerted to their existence.

That is the key to all this.





Black Clover

Black Clover is Naruto with magic knights instead of ninjas. It's not particularly original, or on par with My Hero Academia, and the manga is way too fast paced, but if you're just looking for a fun time, you can do far worse. It's just a simple and enjoyable action series. This will probably by the big hit of the next season, so here's a heads up for potential fans.






Blood Blockade Battlefront & Beyond

From the creator of Trigun and Gungrave comes the sequel season to his third series. Imagine paranormal detectives in a city overflowing with chaos and destruction, as well as a healthy dose of Christian themes and imagery. The first season was a cult hit but lacked the penetration into the mainstream his original two series did. Obviously this has to do with how niche anime has become, but this series deserves better. Give this a shot and let more people know it exists! Yasuhiro Nightow should be a household name already.






Garo: Vanishing Line

The Garo franchise isn't well known in the anime world, but it is a project Studio MAPPA has been working on for a while. Created by veteran Tokusatsu creators, the series changes settings and characters with every entry varying even between live action and animation. The new series has more of an action thriller bent than the previous more fantasy-styled versions. That may be in its favor in order to give this franchise more visibility over here. You see, Studio MAPPA is one of the better studios in Japan constantly putting out quality originals and adaptions that do not get the attention they deserve. They really are a quality studio. Make sure you don't overlook this when it comes out in the upcoming anime season.




And that's really all we can do. We live in a fragmented world now, so the best we can hope is to spread the word about the great material we find. That is what I hope to do with this blog, at the very least.

Maybe someday things will change. But if it does, it won't be for a very long time. For now, this is the way it has to be.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Missing the Point and Loving It!

The entertainment world is basically dead. I'm sure deep down in your heart you also know it's true.

This post is a culmination of several factors, so please bear with me. I don't want this to become a cluttered mess and yet it probably will be. I'm going to link to more than a few things in this post that are NSFW so please keep that in mind before clicking on anything. That said, there is an overarching theme to touch on.

My thesis is simple; we've lost the plot.

Not only have we lost the plot, we're proud of having done so. We're proud of action movies with worse choreography than films thirty years old. We're proud of horror movies without any rules or sense of good to fight evil. We're proud of companies catering to everyone but their target audience. We're proud of no one buying books anymore because the audience isn't worth catering to! And in the same breath we wonder why all those things are failing.

This has more than a bit of relationship with my last similar post on the subject, but this is a bit more specific than that one. This is about an overarching attitude of unearned pride that is tearing apart the things we all enjoy. Within mere decades, many entertainment industries are already on their deathbeds.

Take the video game industry. You can't go one day without some wonk screaming about "antiquated arcade design" that should be scrapped, or being unable to play or understand the simple mechanics of a game in a genre that is essential to the industry they are in. Not only that, but you have members of said industry lining up behind said ignorance as if it is a hill to die on equivalent to Watergate. Pride goes before the fall, and there is a reason no one trusts video game journalists anymore.

Oh, that and their obvious disdain for their audience.

The gaming industry, especially game journalists, have been a downward spiral since the end of the 90s, but they just keep getting worse at their jobs. And they're proud of it!

Here's a good explanation of the silliness I'm talking about here:



Then there's the writing world. Sweet merciful Mike this place is a clusterfudge of ego, bitterness, and high school drama. I am not claiming to be above petty and sinful behavior, but there is so much hatred for the past that it is palpable. No one wants to understand their roots; no one wants to know that Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, are all really the same genre. No one wants to talk about anything older than they are except to complain about behaviors they don't even know the author had-- or if said author had them if it even affects the story in question. And even if it does, who cares? You can still learn from the past and grow from it. But they're too prideful to even try. They are better than their ancestors simply due to the date on the calendar.

There is nothing new under the sun, but you sure can pretend that the sun is a new creation if everyday is the first sunrise. It sure massages to ego to think that you are superior to those who created what you love and enjoy.

And they are proud of it! How do you expect a genre to "progress" if you cut off a little more of its legs every year until there's nothing left? You can't learn or grow from the past if you shun it.

Check out this post by JimFear138 to see what I mean. The treatment of H.P. Lovecraft is a good example of this rotten behavior. Read the post to see how denigrated what he created has become. No respect for source material, no respect for the past, and no respect for the genre. And yes, his post helped inspire this one.

Next up is the anime world.

Now, I can go on and on about how Japan has been missing the point, but I already posted about this many times. Some of what has been happening isn't even wanted by those in the industry and yet is being pursued as a misguided business plan. It isn't spite or pride that guides it. Moe is a whole other problem that I won't even mention. Instead, let's talk about the Western fanbase.

Since anime fell off a cliff back in the mid-'00s most of the old fanbase left. You can't blame them, even with random bones tossed to them like Blood Blockade Battlefront, My Hero Academia, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Dragon Ball Super, and Ushio & Tora, there isn't much to pull them in and keep them there. The anime produced in the industry's heyday is simply not the focus as to what it is putting out now. So part of the audience left. But a few that stuck around decided to try their own hand at anime.

There are those who grew up in that era of anime tropes, faux anime Western shows, and the occasional episode of Dragon Ball and have missed the point. Those that have seen anime and have only a surface level understanding of it have begun making their own material with it as a base. Sure there are those like myself, Rawle Nyanzi, and Brian Niemeier, and many of those in the Pulp Revolution who are influenced by anime, but know there is more to it than big eyes, bright hair, and exaggerated cartoon expressions. That wasn't why we watched it, or why we were fans, nor was it why it took off in a big way.

But there were those who took the wrong example from it. Sure you can find much bad anime art on Tumblr and DeviantArt, but that's an entirely different thing, and some of those artists nail the style perfectly. I'm speaking of a different group of people. This is the type who use anime tropes and packaging to sell their own half-baked ideas. This is what those types put out:



This is not a joke. This is real.

This was made by someone who saw anime as cartoony character designs, big eyes, bright hair, flashy powers, high school cliches, and random psychic stuff. It's not made by someone who saw the influence of Western pulp and early comics and manga to build explosive stories of adventure, romance, good vs evil, and wonder. It's not made with the same heart and understanding that built Japan's entertainment industry in the first place. There's no attempt by this show to connect with anything.

All this thing is is surface level anime tropes from 2003 in a story that could have come straight out of a bad Totally Spies fanfic.

There's no love or understanding of the roots of where these things they're taking from originate. There's no attempt to understand the audience those shows were catering to. They don't care. Sure there will probably be references, as that is what Millennials love to indulge in, but references are not understanding the source. References are cheap and lazy; they are simple ego stroking to show what they've heard of. It's shallow and meaningless.

And I'm sure they're proud of it.

The last thing I'm going to mention is something I'm not going to link to. I'm not going to link to it because it is the worst thing Netflix has ever produced and they deserve no views for it. You can look it up on your own. It is a series called Big Mouth, and it completes the downward spiral of adult cartoons since The Simpsons first took off near thirty years ago to this date.

Imagine a Saturday morning cartoon where all the kid characters talk about sex, swear constantly, and talk to their private parts while showing them off to the audience. Imagine Family Guy only even less subtle. Imagine writers that think mindless sex jokes are still funny after a near onslaught of 30 years of the same tired gags. Now you probably have an idea of what this show is.

Yes, there were good adult cartoons, most of which came in wake of the first wave of The Simpsons' success, and are remembered for actually having staff from said show. There are some that have aged well such as Duckman, King of the Hill, pre-revival Futurama, and Home Movies. These shows could be dark and dangerous, sometimes touching, and over the top with their comedy. But what they all had in common was that they knew there was more to adult humor than constantly talking about penises and vaginas in every episode. It's like another Amy Schumer special no one wants to watch.

But ever since Seth MacFarlane's rise, the genre has been stripped of everything that first attracted audiences. Lazy pop culture references, over the top violence and swearing, hollow humanity, and blatant sex jokes and political propaganda shoved into the audience's faces are all they indulge in now. There is no attempt to understand that Matt Groening's early attempts at his show were to try and be honest with the audience about family life. He was trying to connect with the audience.

That doesn't exist anymore, not even in his own show. Now adult comedy is about upper class trust-fund babies giggling about their life observations in one insignificant city that the majority of the audience cannot connect to. And they are very proud of this.

This loss of empathy and idea of connecting is at the heart of a lot of this. You have a "creative class" that feels they are "artists" and above criticism and the audience must either like what they put out or get lost. Places like Marvel Comics hire those that use the reach of social media to promote their political agendas instead of talking about their work or accepting any feedback aside from blind praise. This is an industry that is currently falling apart with rock bottom sales as the new talent is so egocentric and full of themselves that they truly believe they have no one to answer to: especially not their audience.

That is how you get messes like a comic book writer trying to lecture his audience on who can mourn 9/11.



And that is only one example of many.

I suspect the problem is the total lack of empathy those in charge of the entertainment industry have. They have no love of anything but themselves and their small present world that they can't possibly know what it's like to connect with someone entirely unlike them with different beliefs or life experiences. Watch or read anything coming out from them and it is easy to see that not only can they no longer can't connect with the average Joe, they are exceptionally proud that they cannot.

We've lost the plot, and we've missed the point as to what art and entertainment is. It's not about titillating one's ego or getting in tight with a tiny clique. It's about forming bonds with the audience in a relationship that benefits both and allows each to grow in subtle ways. It's that relationship that is key to everything stories are about. What else are stories about other than people?

No one writes in a vacuum, whether they realize it or not. You write for your audience-- they do not owe you anything. Until the current denizens of the entertainment industry realize this, things will not get better. You will continue to wonder why you are enjoying less and less entertainment every year until there is eventually nothing left that you like. And do you think those in charge will care?

This reality is nothing to be proud of, but you can bet that they are exceptionally self-satisfied about their failures. And that is where we are.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

The Limits of Superpowers

There's always been a problem getting superpowers across in fiction. For instance, Superman has almost no defined limits to his abilities, which is fine for a Superman tale but it tends to water down tension in any crossover story he appears in. Batman can be the strongest martial artist, the smartest guy in the room, and the guy with the right tool at any time to the point that "Batgod" is an actual saying. Certain character are just clearly above others and it does wreck a lot of tension.

But it's also a problem in Japanese entertainment, too. In Dragon Ball, Goku becomes more powerful than the demigod of space, Frieza, and then the only tension becomes that the next villain is somehow stronger than Frieza. Or you can have Fist of the North Star where there's obvious fodder that serve no challenge to Kenshiro and where the main villains are the only ones that stand a chance against him. These are all limitations to the sort of stories one can tell with powers or skills.

But there's a whole other way to write powers, a better way, that will help raise the stakes, keep powers unique and mystifying, and will allow the writer far more freedom. Some may scoff, but there is a clear answer to the question of how to avoid the superpowers overtaking the story.

The solution is to limit the powers.

Yes, my solution is limiting the most important part of a superhero story in order to avoid limiting the types of stories that can be told with them. I admit it's confusing, but stick with me here.

Superpowers are fascinating. Having the ability to do crazy things you couldn't do in real life can obviously give you great story ideas. Invisibility, heat vision, flight, or super strength, are typical abilities used in any number of stories. Then there are more specific abilities like growing claws out of your hands or charging playing cards with kinetic energy. You can do anything. This is all great.

But what do you do after that? When the initial story is told, what will your character do next? Sure he beats the villain with his flashy power, but what about the next villain after that? Does the defeated villain merely get craftier and/or stronger as well? I suppose if your villain doesn't have any powers he could, but why would you hobble your poor bloodthirsty sociopath of a bad guy that way? And if your villain has powers, what stops him from not just going out and taking what he wants when the hero is not around? Very little. If this was a world of powers it wouldn't be like many comics portray it, it would be utter chaos. The only way to temper chaos, is with order.

To give you an idea of what I mean, I will list examples of where powers are used effectively and how they influence the way the story is told. These are all stories centering on abilities that are not in any way normal and the characters affected by them.

Oh, and there will be spoilers for the series below, so fair warning.



Yu Yu Hakusho - "Chapter Black"

Yu Yu Hakusho had a great run through its first two (of four total) sagas featuring a teenage boy named Yusuke Uremeshi brought back to life as a Spirit Detective that mediates between the human and spirit worlds. The first arc involved him navigating this tricky new profession and contained a lot of mystique and dread. The second arc went full shonen where the main character powered up Dragon Ball style in order to beat the main villain at the end. It was nail-biting and intense, but when Yusuke finally won it was invigorating.

But then the author realized something. Yusuke was the strongest fighter now, and no physical challenge could set him back. So the author could do one of two things. He could either simply make a villain stronger than the last one (the main mistake of the last saga in the series) or he could think conservatively about his powers and howto approach the story.

What he did was create Psychics who wielded a new type of power. Psychics have strange abilities such as mind reading, freezing people by stepping on shadows, eating anything and reforming it in their body, trapping people in games (yes, Bleach ripped this arc off), hitting the target with whatever they throw, cutting off the pain centers in their body and reforming detached limbs, and control water with their blood. All of these can only be activated in range of the Psychic's zone of effect and can be deactivated only when the user is unconscious or dead. Brute force, the brute force the series had been relying on for the entirety of the previous arc, is rendered a mere card in a deck of choices to overcome enemies. New tactics are needed.

These tactics involve out-thinking opponents, overwhelming them with other abilities, or finding weaknesses in their abilities to exploit. Powers are still deadly and effective, but they are far more limiting (and yet more creative) than what came before in the series.




My Hero Academia - "The Stain Encounter"

My Hero Academia was a fun superhero series at first that laid down strict guidelines for its powers. Because over 80% of the world has them, heroes have to have more knowledge and control of their powers to stand up against any villains that may arise. Brute force isn't enough for every situation. While there were glimpses of this earlier in the series with how Midoriya, our main character, had to get around opponents who simply knew their powers better, it all came to a head during his Field Training exercises.

The Hero Killer, Stain, has arrived on the scene and has started killing those he deems unfit to carry the title of hero. After attacking Ida, Midoriya's friend, due to what the villain did to his brother, he decides Ida is a fake hero who only acts on revenge and decides to murder him as well. Then Midoriya shows up in the nick of time to save his friend from a gruesome death.

Now, there are a lot of good character and thematic moments in this battle which make it incredible, but that's not why it's being mentioned here. It's here because this fight shows how battles with rules are far more intense than those without them.

For instance, Midoriya can only use 5% of his full power. As has been shown earlier in the series, if he uses too much he will break his bones and become useless. In a situation where his friend's life, and an innocent, are at risk he cannot afford to go all out. At one point he loses concentration and almost breaks his arm in the midst of the chaos.

Ida has superspeed abilities, but is frozen by Stain's blood-curdle quirk which freezes in place anyone whose blood he ingests for a limited time. This means if he gets close than he, like Midoriya, are at extreme risk. Add to the fact that Stain is desperate to kill him, and has the means and skills to do it, and he is at an extreme disadvantage.

Todoroki has long range fire and ice powers which allow him to keep Stain at a distance, but getting Stain off when he comes close is difficult. Not only that, Stain has long range and close range weapons to close the gap. And he is far more experienced than Todoroki and the other new heroes.

All three of them need to work together to cover the others and their weaknesses or they'll be killed by a far more experienced opponent and villain. What ends up unfolding is one tense and exciting battle with high stakes and drama.




JoJo's Bizarre Adventure - "Stands"

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure is known mostly for its crazy comedy and over the top action, but it also squeezes in genuine moments of drama. Each "part" of the story is divided by protagonist and era (and sometimes genre) with the first being a Gothic Horror vampire story, the second being a martial arts adventure tale, and the third being a globetrotting action comedy with a new twist. That twist that the author added in Part 3 were called "Stands" and they changed more than just the series, they changed much of anime and manga in general by those they influenced.

What Stands were was a reflection of the user's soul in weaponized form. If you were a single-minded punk, you would have a Stand named Star Platinum which allowed tremendous speed and strength in close range situations. If you were a chivalrous fencer, you would have a Stand named Silver Chariot which allowed for lightning quick precision strikes. Most Stands in Part 3 worked this way with some near the end going over the top and strange.

But it was Part 4, Diamond Is Unbreakable, which gave the Stands an extra kick. Now they had more varied limits and applications and require much more out of the box thinking to overcome. The main character, Josuke, has a Stand which can disassemble and reform anything--except himself. So while he can heal others, it means little if he is dead and cannot help others. Not to mention, he has to get close to use it. Other powers are similarly limited, yet strange, leading to some truly unique battles.

Part 4 was not that popular in Japan when it came out (the least popular part) but the anime has raised its popularity overseas and given it a shot in the arm. And it isn't like it was that hated, it influenced a little game called Persona 4 which has its aesthetic, premise, and general powers, and made a mint in the process.

It was with this that the importance of rules in regards to powers became essential to creating unique drama. Later parts of JoJo would go crazy with Stands and giving them too much power, but when the series hit the right note like part 3 and 4, it can be a lot of fun.




Of course these aren't concrete rules to writing powers. You can do whatever you want. There are few concrete rules when it comes to writing other than "make sense to the reader" and "give the audience what they really want", but they do help give guidance.

Superpowers are a lot of fun to imagine and play around with, but its important to not get carried away. It's still a story of heroes and villains, and if the heroes have an obvious and easy time achieving victory then the audience won't be engaged. It's the same if the villains could achieve all their goals before the story even begins. Heroes and villains need a reason that keeps the other from easily succeeding. Just remember that whatever you write that you're still writing a tale of Good Vs. Evil just the same as if there were no powers involved.

But, beside that, it's important to have fun. This is fantasy, after all, so go nuts. A limit on power does not equate to a limit on imagination. As the above examples show, you can do a lot even within borders.

There will always be a limit somewhere, just make sure it's not in the confict.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Brave Fencer Musashi: One of the Best Video Games Ever Made



It's been a while since I've done one of these. But with recent games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild blowing minds, Ys VIII poised to release over on this side of the pond, and Final Fantasy XV bringing some spotlight back on Square Enix's most popular worldwide franchise, it looks like many of the old action adventure and RPG series are getting a second wind. In this post, I want to focus on a game no one ever talks about and yet is very much a classic like the above series. It is a game that had been unceremoniously forgotten over the years, partly due to Square Enix's massive incompetence since Hironobu Sakaguchi left back in the early days of the PS2.

I don't think I have to point out just how big Square Soft was back in the day. In the SNES and PSX days they released classic after classic. Just to name some, they made Final Fantasy II (IV) and III (VI), Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Live A Live, Super Mario RPG, Secret of Evermore, Seiken Densetsu 3, Front Mission 1-3, Chrono Cross, Parasite Eve, Bushido Blade, Xenogears, Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics, the Saga games, Legend of Mana, and the game that broke the JRPG genre, Final Fantasy VII. But for my money, the best game they released is the one that no one remembers.

I'm talking about the action RPG for the PSX known as Brave Fencer Musashi.

The game was originally conceived by Hironobu Sakaguchi as a story where the Miyamoto Musashi is taken to an alternate dimension and must fight his way out. He originally envisioned the tale about a wanderer pulled into a new world against his will and must fight to go home. The game turned out slightly different as instead Musashi turned out to be entirely different dual sword wielder, instead he's a sort of Good Samaritan with a rude exterior, transported to a strange kingdom and willing to help anyone despite how it inconveniences him. Where this Musashi (or Sir Musashi as some call him) actually comes from is a mystery and is never explained.




Initially released with a demo for the craptacular Final Fantasy VIII, this game is not known for much else even though it was Square's first fully polygonal game. BFM had high reviews at the time, but it was glossed over due to the high level of quality games Square were constantly putting out at the time, and that is a true shame. Brave Fencer Musashi was released around the same time as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and while that classic overshadowed this, I would say that I had far more fun here. I can't even count the number of times I've replayed this game over the years, it's just that good. 

You might notice something familiar about the character designs. That's because the characters were also designed by Tetsuya Nomura, though as the picture above attests, they are way more visually appealing than his later designs. I still contend that Musashi (this Musashi, not the other one) is his best designed character.

So what is Brave Fencer Musashi? It's an Action RPG about a teenage punk with a height problem named Musashi. He is summoned from another world by Princess Fillet in order to save the Allucaneet Kingdom from the evil Thirstquencher Empire. From the names you can tell there is a lighthearted edge to the story, but that's only part of it as it does get quite dark at times. The atmosphere varies from bouncy adventure, to menacing dungeon romp, to crazy action set piece, over and over again. In his journeys Musashi must also save the lost residents of the kingdom, trapped in Bincho fields, before the Binchotite runs out and he is unable to ever return home. Oh, and it might also kill him.

Musashi turns out not to be the Musashi of legend, but a very different sort of warrior named Musashi. I think this is an improvement on the original idea. You see, while he might not be Miyamoto Musashi, he is a swordsman, and he is unrelentingly strong and agile. He also has a snotty sense of humor, a love of fighting, and only initially agrees to the quest to return home despite being a very good guy at heart. We never learn anything else about where he comes from, other than his rival Kojiro (Not that Kojiro, either!), or his past but that only brings him across very strong on first impression. He's a character you want to play as and root for. That's partly why I became a fan of him within the first half hour of gameplay.

What first sold me on this game was the entire first segment of the game. Let me paint a picture for you.


Musashi is chewing out the residents of the castle for taking him out of time and space when he is directed to the creepy tower behind the castle where the legendary sword Lumina is held. If he uses that sword he can slay the evil that is on the way to the castle at that very moment. He agrees and runs off without any hesitation.

He heads to Spiral Tower in search of the sword first by crossing an eerie forest and slaughtering plant monsters, hopping over streams, and tossing Thirstquencher thugs around like sacks of potatoes. Then he reaches the tower, which is not a tower at all, but a small stone structure with giant statues erecting some kind of barrier around a huge rock head in the center. After destroying the statues, the tower ascends from the center, taking the head to the top.

Musashi goes into Spiral Tower meeting ghouls, bats, and spooks on the way. He quenches the flame with a huge bell, bringing back light to the inside and unlocking the way forward. Finally he reaches the top of the tower here he sees the head from before sealing the sword in another barrier. He breaks it, and finally has the legendary sword!

But it wasn't that easy.

Before he can descend the tower, the stone head goes berserk and fries the top of the tower. Now Musashi runs down the side of the tower as the destroyed head rolls down after him in pursuit. He must also hop stone ledges or become a Musashi sandwich. Finally after jumping over the ledges, and outrunning the head, he lands safely on the ground.

And so does the head!


It chases him back through the forest crushing all the enemies and obstacles Musashi had fought on his way there the first time. He hops more structures and streams on his way back to base. The sun sets as the head finally lodges itself in the castle wall as Musashi finally makes it back in one piece. Or does he?

Finally returning (after smashing a hole in the wall) he meets the villain Rootrick who has just captured the princess. It seems the earlier attacking force has finally breached the castle walls. Before he can do anything, the bad guy makes off with the girl. At the same moment a giant monster named the Steam Knight smashes through the ceiling. The huge robot has four legs dispersing steam, a love of oversized wrecking balls, and a hatred of heroes.

So what does Musashi do? He smashes the legs with his swords, then he throws the giant monster through the castle wall. He chases it down through the village, then throws it through the courtyard house and onto the next street. As it struggles valiantly against the pint-sized hero, Sir Musashi tosses the gargantuan hulk through houses and off a steep cliff. Then to make sure its dead, Musashi throws its own wrecking ball down from the incredible height, finally crushing it and making it explode. Then he falls asleep on the side of the cliff.

End of chapter 1.

Oh, and none of that was a cutscene. It was all playable.




Speaking of playing, the game was designed first as an action game with RPG elements to enhance the experience. Musashi has two swords, he can buy items, and he can jump. He can level up his basic abilities as well as find new gear that can give him more moves. So you get a lot of action, puzzles, and even platforming throughout the adventure.

The dungeons and bosses are all invigorating to explore and fight, and the rewards you get for beating them are always worth the struggle. It also helps that the controls are tight, and the music is big enough to carry the epic scope.

One interesting wrinkle is the fatigue system. Musashi gets tired running around all day. Because there is a day and night system (with enemies coming and going at different times, and the townsfolk having schedules... same year as Ocarina of Time, remember) Musashi will eventually get sleepy. The longer you are out, the more his meter goes up. When it gets to 100% he will randomly fall asleep, even in battle, and he will move extremely sluggishly. You can bypass this by falling asleep just about anywhere, but your percentage will never drop below 30% unless you visit an inn or the castle. Oh, and enemies can attack you while you sleep. So it's not always a smart idea to sleep outside.

As mentioned before, Musashi has two swords. When he powers up Lumina with the Five Scrolls he can unleash its full power with different magic skills. That paired with the katana named Fusion, which can absorb skills from enemies, makes him a force to be reckoned with. He can mix and match for a lot of different combos in battle. Musashi is a one man wrecking crew.

And that's why Brave Fencer Musashi succeeds so well. You really feel like you are in the role of a legendary warrior summoned to save a world because the hero is really that incredible. He's a tough talking loner with a heart of gold, but he throws giant robots through walls and slays ice dragons in between naps. Its a game where every jump, solved puzzle, and landed hit jut feels satisfying. Square has never made an action game nearly as satisfying as this one is.


Square would go on to make another action RPG named Dew Prism (Threads of Fate) and a sequel to this called Samurai Legend Musashi (which reflected PS2 era Square really well: it was insanely bland and missed everything the original did so well) but they have never come close to Brave Fencer Musashi in fun factor or sheer spirit.

Its also never been rereleased overseas. Possibly due to the surprisingly good voice acting (with VAs such as Mona Marshall as Musashi and Steven Jay Blum in several roles), Square has never even put it on PSN, depriving the classic of further recognition. That is the true tragedy here.

Much as I would like a remake that simply updates the polygons and leaves everything else alone, I don't see it happening. I also foresee game critic and modern Square Enix fans turning their nose up at it. Brave Fencer Musashi came out in a very different time in the gaming world and would probably not go over well today.

But it is a classic, and I feel no shame in saying so. If you missed out on it back in 1998 then you missed out on something great. Rectify that.