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.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

It's out!

Finally, after much waiting on my end, I'm proud to announce that Knights of the End is finally out.

You can purchase it on Kindle here. Paperback version should hopefully not be far behind.

I plan on doing a more in depth post next week on where much of the story and ideas come from. For now, just check out the book!

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Still waiting!

I had a feeling there would be a bit of a delay. Knights of the End might be out tonight or tomorrow.

Until then, here's a completely original post.

Have you ever had a book or author ruined for you by school? If so, this might be the post for you.

When I was in Elementary school, we performed MacBeth* for our school. Naturally, it wasn't the full play--some speeches were edited, and some lines were trimmed--but we still performed the play. We wore the best costumes we could, used toy swords and cardboard shields, and generally did the best we could.

It went over great. Both the younger kids as well as the older ones loved it. We were just a bunch of goofy kids having fun with a story we really loved.

The group of us went on two perform two more plays into high school (Hamlet, and Romeo & Juliet) before the adults got into a disagreement and we all lost touch with each other. We got better and better, but we stopped before we could really hit a peak. It was a waste, but what are you gonna do? That's life.

But I digress.

MacBeth is one of the best stories ever written. It has war, betrayal, magic, and a hopeful ending that leads to brighter days. That's not usually what I hear when someone brings the story up, but then Shakespeare has been used as a front for all sorts of political and social causes he would realistically have nothing to do with. As a kid, MacBeth was merely an extension of all the things I liked as a boy, and has stuck with my through the years.

I should make it a point that in the years since I have taken some classes on Shakespeare. This extended past high school when my play days were over. He also came up in some random English classes.

But none of them managed to capture what it was that attracted me to the story in the first place.

Studying the language is nice, as is the history (I quite enjoy the Ignatius Critical Editions which do both), but it's the story itself that makes MacBeth so good. A pair of friends come back from war, and are approached by witches who try to make a deal with them. One is tempted by power and glory; the other rejects the offer. Along the way there are murders, ghosts, insanity, and another war. We watch as a once good man loses himself to despair and becomes a monster, while good sprouts from his misdeeds and ends up changing the world. I never attended a class which would rather talk about this aspect of the story, unfortunately.

None of this changes the fact that Shakespeare was a great storyteller. The language is nice, as are the themes embedded in the tales, but let's not lose sight of the fact that his stories have survived the centuries is because he told tales that struck a universal chord for the Average Joe. Action, adventure, fantasy, and intrigue, are all what makes his stories sing.

If you had Shakespeare ruined for you by school, then there's little I can do to convince you. After all, it took me years to get back into reading books because of how I had crap like Catcher in the Rye shoved down my throat. But Shakespeare is different.

Just watch the play. Watch a movie. Read the play (with language notes), and say some lines out loud. MacBeth is one of the best fantasy stories ever told. Don't let education ruin it for you.

"So thanks to all at once and to each one,
Whom we invite to see us crown'd at Scone."

Until next time!


*This was also the same time Gargoyles aired their own MacBeth story. It also rocked. Shakespeare was really mindblowing for me at the time.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Knights of the End Preview + Thanks



Being that tomorrow is the release of my first ever novel, I decided to make this post in celebration.

The Prologue:
Teddy MacIsaac stood atop the junkpile, victorious. In his hands shone a golden coin with a perfect circumference flashing against the afternoon sun. This was his treasure; this was what he would use to save the world.
The coin twinkled as he inspected both sides. No markings had been embedded on the flawless treasure. It fit perfectly in the palm of his hand. It spoke to him.
He was only a fourteen-year-old eighth grader, but Teddy knew greatness when he saw it. This was more than greatness. This was a gift from the heavens.
He climbed down the mountain of trash. His left arm shielded him from the light of the sun as he descended. His boots crunched into old Styrofoam and rotten food. He brushed himself off as he reached the trash strewn road at the bottom of the hill. Despite the shower he would undoubtedly need, his trek through the junkyard was still worth it. His nose would hate him forever, though.
It was almost unbelievable. The dreams had told him that unimaginable riches awaited him in the trash. He had searched that junkyard for over a year because of those dreams, and, in every moment he spent there, he knew he would find it. He never lost the faith.
Wind blew his strawberry blonde hair back. He brushed it clean.
He patted down his old green jacket to make sure no trash clung to him, and slid the coin into his pocket. Walking through the trash was worth it, even if he stunk like rotten milk and the taste of copper filled his mouth.
He removed his boots and put them into his backpack just like he did every day. There was nothing important in there, anyway. Just school books.
As he changed back into his red sneakers, a heat traveled through him and up his spine. Gooseflesh sprung up all over.
He stood up.
Theodore MacIsaac,” a voice spoke into his mind. “Press your hands together, and heed the call.”
Skepticism overtook him but momentarily. He knew the words. He didn’t know how he knew them, but they echoed through his mind like a Prayer of Devotion that old warriors chanted before they charged into battle. Visions of lonely nights he’d spent over the last year flashed through him, and the familiar voice soothed his fears. This was his chance. He wouldn’t waver now.
Teddy clasped the coin between his pressed together palms like a prayer or a stance in a martial arts movie. Heat shot into his hands and through his body.
“I beg you,” he said, “bestow on me the glory!”
A flash of light overtook existence. Nothing remained but dabs of black against a white canvas. He was gone and then he was back again within a second, standing alone in the junkyard.
He blinked. “What did I just do?”
Teddy checked himself over. His old blue jeans and black shirt were still there, as was the rest of him.
But the coin was gone.
“No. No, no, no, no!”
He patted his pockets. He searched the garbage covered road around him. The coin had vanished.
He debated putting on his boots again and going back out into the trash. It was getting late, but this was a treasure worth more than being grounded. He wouldn’t go home empty-handed. Not after finally learning the dreams were real.
“I think MacIsaac came out here,” Stieg Johns said.
“I thought I heard someone yelling over there.”
Teddy froze. They’d found him. He cocked his ears and listened for the voices again.
“What would he be doing in the junkyard, anyway? Do all you eighth grade losers have brain damage or something?”
Teddy followed the sounds of the voices south down the narrow path between junk piles. He circled around as they drew near, making sure to keep their view obscured of his presence. Sure enough, his first inclination was right. They rounded the bend, joking away with each other. Teddy recognized the group of five teenagers. They were led by Stieg Johns and Corey Hoffman.
“You just don’t know MacIsaac, Corey,” Stieg said, in his best suck-up voice. “I’ve known the loser for years. Never throws a punch, runs from everything, still plays make believe in the woods. Hanging out at a junkyard is the exact sort of thing he would do. Besides, the garbage guy in the truck outside said he spotted a short kid with blonde hair hanging out here almost all summer. Who else would it be?”
Stieg Johns wore a non-threatening bowl-cut hairdo, a thick jacket two sizes too big for his average size, and had the face of a horse. If he didn’t latch on to Hoffman’s gang, he would have been even lower on the food chain than Teddy was.
There was a time that Stieg Johns was Teddy’s friend. That was before seventh grade started. Things changed. Teddy didn’t put much stock in friends anymore. They all ended up like Stieg.
“He is a freak,” Hoffman said, gazing around the piles of waste. “Man, it reeks here. Can’t stand it. Let’s just get him tomorrow. I know a guy that can make this much easier.”
Hoffman was burly, most of which was fat. He wore a thick black jacket and perfectly stylized spiky hair to complete his appearance as a thug. He’d been held back a year, which was fairly obvious to anyone who spoke with him for more than three seconds. It didn’t change the fact that he was the second most feared kid at school. Corey Hoffman was no wuss.
Stieg shrugged. “If you say so.”
“I do, Johns. Just because freaks hang out here, doesn’t mean I’m gonna. I’ve got places to be. Now, shut up and let’s get out of here.”
Teddy didn’t stick around to watch them leave. He sprinted over to the fence by the exit while they were still talking. He knew this place too well by now.
Without pause, he scurried over the fence. As he landed on the other side, a pang of regret knocked into him.
He didn’t want to be like Stieg. He didn’t want to fall in line and hand over his life to the first fat thug that sneered at him. He wanted real friends, and he wanted to be needed.
Teddy wanted to be a hero. He wanted to save the world. He wanted to be the monster-slaying hero from all those games they played as kids. Evil rises, Good slays it. No matter where the monsters struck, and no matter who the innocent was, there would always be a hero to make things right. That is how the world works. That is how it is supposed to be.
Teddy was going to be that hero.
Someday.
He leaned against the fence. His palms itched when he glared at them. He still stunk of sour milk. The whole situation was pathetic.
Teddy was no hero. He was still playing pretend.
And that wasn’t good enough anymore.
Finally, after wasting enough time, he decided to head home. His mom would kill him if he wasted anymore time.
The world was not what it had been when he was a kid. Was this the way things were supposed to be? Would it continue like this forever? A voice in the back of his head answered with one definitive statement.
No.
Heat built up inside Teddy MacIsaac’s body. If he didn’t know better, it was like he was ready to explode.


If that is not enough of a taste, here is another excerpt:

From Chapter 1:

Teddy excused himself from the table. He ducked out into the hall and up the stairs before anyone said anything. Drums rolled in his head.
His legs were lead. Each step to his room grew heavier. He shouldered open his door.
The pillow on his bed was much too perfect. He was out in seconds.
Then he was awake.
“What is all this?” he asked into the endless wind.
He stood atop a dune of ash in the middle of endless night. Blackened wind blew under the sunless sky. The land before him was dead.
Only rolling dunes of black slag remained in this scorched world. No scent of maples, pines, or the sights of the tall redwoods remained. McLeod was gone.
He took several steps forward. The pain had vanished, but his weariness had not. He tasted the dust in the back of his throat. A sense of magnetism tugged him onward.
“Up ahead, Theodore MacIsaac.”
There was a history here. Long dead voices whispered their forgotten tales in the ashen breeze. Something like magic had once filled these lands. But now, only death remained.
A thread of inevitability ran through him. Was he seeing the past, or the future?
But, then, he spotted it. A narrow object peeked out at the top of a hill of ash thirty feet away. It glinted like metal. A pipe? No. It was something far cooler than that.
“A sword!” Teddy shouted.
He sprinted through the whistling wind of the dead world. Up ahead was the last light shining through it. A chorus of endless voices ran through his mind. They guided him onward. He reached the top of the ashen mound, excitement replacing weariness.
The sword stared back at him, plunged into the darkness of the cinders. The hilt was shining white, unlike the flame-licked blade. Its presence pierced the void with white heat. He knew what it was. The Red Sword, a blade of stained crimson red, was calling him forward.
“Theodore MacIsaac, are you ready to heed the call?”

Want to read the rest? Check back tomorrow!

I had a lot of help to get through this one. L. Jagi Lamplighter, my editor, was the most important in shaping this story up. Being that I wrote this in a NaNoWriMo, I edited it quite a bit, but somehow never took a scalpel to the prose.

That was a mistake.

Due to the insistence of my editor, I ended up rewriting from scratch, and using the help of several others (including my parents and my friend, Randy) to help me improve. I learned a lot from them and will be making sure my next work is better tempered before I send it to my editor. Thanks to all of you.

And thanks, Jagi. You really helped me shape this story up! I apologize for making it difficult on you.

Tovio Rogers did my cover. I quite liked his art and how it matched the visual design I had in mind when writing. Check out his art when you get the time. He's got quite a unique style to his work. Thanks, Tovio.

Dawn Witzke helped lay out the design for the text and print book cover. She did a great job. The speed in which she received my request and finished was remarkable. Thanks, Dawn.

Also, thanks to advice from Brian Niemeier, I enlisted the help of Polgarus Studio to format my story for print and e-book.

I would also like to offer additional thanks to both the aforementioned Mr. Niemeier and Declan Finn for both helping with my blurb, and for their general inspiration as independent writers. Thank you for showing me that there is only one rule in writing: please the readers. I hope I have followed through on that.

There are many other people I would like to thank, but that list is way too long. If you have ever chatted with me, linked to my blog, or just posted about your own love of stories, then I will also give you my gratitude.

And thanks to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Redeemer. I would certainly not be able to write this without Him.

Please be sure to check out Knights of the End when it releases tomorrow. December 1st is when we light the world on fire.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Announcing "Knights of the End"

Cover art by Tovio Rogers
Cover design by Dawn Witzke

I'm finally ready to unleash my first novel into the wilds, after many false starts and just as many edits. I have a lot of people to thank for this, and will in my next post. This book has been a long time coming.

Knights of the End is a young adult novel that was written after I thought about how drab most YA was these days. Being that S.E. Hinton was the author that first got me into reading, I felt called to write something of my own in the style. Why not just write the book I wanted to read when I was thirteen? No one had written that yet. And that was how this story began.

The premise of Knights is that an evil force from a different world has landed in ours. Over the years it has hidden in the shadows, slowly building its forces for the day it can take over. They are the Order of the Ash, and they are out to reshape the world. That is where this book starts.

The titular Knights of the End are a group of warriors from the old world tasked with bringing the Order of the Ash to an end. Fourteen year old Teddy MacIsaac soon finds himself as the new Pyre Knight, the Knight of Flames, and the first line of defense as his town comes under siege. Can he finally be the hero he always wanted to be, or are heroes really just fairy tales?

The #1 goal with this story was to make so many different parts work together. You'll see elements of shonen manga, magical girl, Gargoyles, Ronin Warriors, superheroes, 80s action and fantasy movies, S.E. Hinton, pulp action, and a battle between good and evil that transcends worlds, all blended into one story. I tried to make this a love letter to all the things that inspired me.

Needless to say, it took a long time to put this together.

This all came about after years of disappointment from the modern entertainment industry. The type of stories I liked growing up in the late 80s and 90s has all but vanished from the landscape. Books had ceased being fun, especially in the fantasy, horror, and science fiction arena, and YA books, meant to stir the imagination of kids and teenagers, had also begun to revel in despair and "important ideas" instead of adventure and fun. I wanted to write something different than all that.

I wrote Knights of the End to see if I could capture that feeling of excitement I got from the stories of my youth. Whether I succeeded or not depends on the readers, so please let me know what you think by leaving reviews.

It will be out December 1st, God willing, so please keep an eye out! I'll be making a post for its launch.

Thanks to all the blog readers, and those who have linked here. You have given me the impression that maybe the stories that have inspired me are still wanted nowadays. This one is for you.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

"The Weaker of Us Will be Culled" ~ My Hero Academia Volume 6 Review


*Be aware of spoilers!*


My Hero Academia starts a new story arc in this volume, and it is widely considered one of the best parts of the series so far. That cover isn't just for show. Much happens in this volume, which means there is much to go over.

The Sports Festival has ended. Because of the massive success the students had made the events, they are now being sought out for recruitment by Hero Firms for internships. Things are getting real. They are allowed to pick their official hero names, and chose the place they will be working for a week. Midoriya surprises everyone with his hero name and his turning of an insult into inspiration, and Tenya Ida wrestles with his own identity as a hero as he stews over his brother's near-death at the hands of the Hero Killer. Meanwhile, the villains have approached that very murderer for help in their next diabolical scheme . . .

This volume introduces some very important characters in the My Hero Academia world. The first is the aforementioned Hero Killer Stain who even the author admits his English name was chosen for a very important reason:

"Stain has a very specific meaning in English. Slowly but surely, this character is making his mark on the story."

To go into his meaning more would be to spoil events further in the story. But Stain is, to put it bluntly, the grey area between black and white. Unlike the cool image such characters have been given in comics since the 80s, Kohei Horikoshi does not fuss around with the monster that an anti-hero can truly be. Stain is the result of pure consequentialism and working for the greater good taken to its obvious end point. I could go further into this, but that would require speaking of future events, and I want to save that for reviews down the line. Long story short, Stain is one of My Hero Academia's best characters, and one that truly helps color in the battle of good and evil that pulses through the story.

Another character that appears is All Might's teacher, the retired hero Gran Torino. He takes Midoriya under his wing to help him control his power and teaches him how to fight villains on his own. This mentor is a curious character. One thing I must applaud Mr. Horikoshi for is not making Gran Torino the typical perverted master type that has been so prevalent since Dragon Ball. He is instead a crafty old codger who feigns senility to take his opponents by surprise. Given that he has intense speed as his power, it is an incredible advantage he affords himself in battle.

Gran Torino's introduction is a sort of mirror of Stain, at least conceptually.

The color coding between the characters is quite brilliant. Main villain Shigaraki wears dark clothes and black to clash against his pale skin, Gran Torino wears all white aside from his mask, and Stain wears mostly black with white bandages and a red scarf. It is a nice contrast between all three characters and where they stand in the grand scheme of things.

Volume six, aside from centering on Midoriya's training, is also about Ida's quest for revenge. He chooses a Hero Firm in Hosu City specifically because that is where his brother was attacked, and where the Hero Killer has been spotted. He refuses to let his friends in on his anger, and abandons his post in a crisis to find Stain instead of doing his job. Ida, normally the most emotionally stable of the group and the moral compass, has become obsessed with finding the man who ended his brother's career as a hero. He soon finds Stain about to execute a hero, and attacks the villain who crippled his brother. Where this all leads is to one of the best encounters in My Hero Academia to date.

As the volume shows with an encounter between Shigaraki and Stain, there is more going on here than meets the eye. Shigaraki wants to use Stain to topple society and instill chaos. He declares the hero world a failure and wants to see it scorched away. Stain wants to use Shigaraki as a way to cull the weak heroes, the ones not in it for pure self-sacrificial reasons, and rebuild a pure hero society over this failed one. Naturally, the two villains hate each other, and can never actually co-exist. This is what leads to the assault on Hosu City.

Stain, for all his talk, is a warped idealist. He is a man who could only see the cracks in the boards and never the impeccably constructed foundation which holds up the entire structure. His quest for pure heroes is impossible as even All Might, despite his public persona, is a flawed man striving to be better and to live up to his image. That the Hero Killer even thinks to kill a teenage boy for not living up this unrealistic standard is reprehensible. Not to mention that said teenage boy is only after him because of the evil Stain caused in the first place.

The Hero Killer is put to test when, after easily dispatching Ida and nearly killing him, Stain is confronted not only by Midoriya, but Shoto Todoroki as well. Todoroki is the same boy who had to live under Endeavor's roof, Endeavor being the exact sort of hero Stain hates with a passion and Todoroki has been trying to get away from. Here the two forces meet in an alley with the lives of two downed heroes on the line, and the hope that the pro-heroes can arrive in time before someone dies. The cliffhanger this volume ends on is truly brutal.

All told, this encounter is one of the best in the series, and the beginning of a stain that will linger on the series for stories to come.

Once again Kohei Horikoshi knocks it out of the park. Fan of superheroes and good manga? Pick this series up.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Paradise ~ A Review of David Gemmell's Wolf in Shadow


Every once in a while a book comes along that makes you say, "This is what I'm talking about!" and has you struggling to find the words to explain just why that is. Wolf in Shadow (formerly "The Jerusalem Man") by David Gemmell is just such a book.

As far as this reviewer can ascertain, this novel is not the one he is known for. That would be Legend and the general Drenai series of works. It is not without reason. Legend is a phenomenal story with an incredible cast and an ending that is hard to top, and I assume other stories in that universe are taken with just as great care as his first. Morningstar, as this reviewer has mentioned, was a great sword and sorcery story that fell a little short in a few key areas but was otherwise an unquestionable recommendation. How does Wolf in Shadow stack up to those?

The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world teetering on the edge of annihilation. Jon Shannow, the Jerusalem Man, is a gunslinger ridding the land of brigands and the godless on his way to find his home. In other words, this story is very much a western as much as it is sword and sorcery. Shannow soon finds himself up against a demonic cult that sees him as a threat to their existence, in addition to leading a band of nomads to their promised land of Avalon.

Though it is impossible for either to have had influence on the other, the story this reminded me of most was the Trigun anime. It has similar themes; Shannow has much in common with Wolfwood's conflicted killer and has near the skill of Vash, and the ending is similarly powerful. He is also tested by demons, hated by townspeople, and thought of as a monster. His interior struggle mirrors his exterior one, just as it does the characters of Trigun.

And these are all very, very, very, good things.

The character growth of Shannow from a man on the brink of despair and full collapse to slayer of evil, and his search for the Lord of Hosts, are both believable from a Christian standpoint as well as from the quest's narrative. He questions his motives, but does what must be done, and never shirks from evil. Battered and bloody as he might get, there's a reason Satan wants him dead. But he just won't die. Jon Shannow might be my favorite character Mr. Gemmell has written.

Of course I can't mention the positives without talking about the negatives. Though there isn't much to mention.

The beginning chapter is a tad slow. The relationship Shannow has with a woman is fairly pathetic on both sides, but understandable from their perspectives and how the story develops. The problem with the relationship is that is forgotten by one party in a way that makes them unlikable for a good portion of the story and the other in a way that makes you wonder if there was a point for them even getting together in the first place. There is another character who is entirely wasted, being rescued at one point then killed later without any development in between. It was a lost opportunity to not utilize said character in the final act when everyone else is given excellent ends to their character arcs. This person gets the short end of the narrative stick.

That is about all there is to say negatively. Any issues this reviewer has are incredibly minor compared to everything else.

The action in this book is incredible. David Gemmell knows how to stage a confrontation. The action in Legend was top notch, but it is combined here with a western tinge that is wholly Mr. Gemmell's own. The author has a way of making the hopeless appear natural in his setting, characters, and action scenes, while never succumbing to despair and inevitable doom. There is always a crack in the door. It is a magnificent trick.

Of course this being a work of the 1980s infers several things. For one, it is unapologetically violent without reveling in the resulting carnage and aftermath. For another, discussions about Jesus Christ are not whitewashed one way or another into strawmen. Finally, the good guys are unflinchingly good, and the bad guys are definitely evil. There is no banal love of grey here. This book is a battle between good and evil, and doesn't shirk from how messy a war that is.

This is technically the third book in a series (of 5), though it was written first. I haven't read any of the other books yet so I can't say anything about them except that they aren't necessary to read Wolf in Shadow. This book tells a complete story, and I never found myself confused once. But I am still planning on reading the other books in the series.

I'll be frank about this. Wolf in Shadow is why I read stories in the first place. David Gemmell has done it once again. It's the full package.

Are you a fan of post-apocalyptic westerns with biblical themes, demonic cult magic, gun fights, adventure, and a hero you can put your chips in with? Then you should absolutely read Wolf in Shadow. If you don't like those things then maybe imaginative stories aren't for you. You might consider taking up ditch digging instead.

Needless to say, after this and Legend, I will be continuing my journey through Mr. Gemmell's works. I can't imagine what else awaits me.

God bless you, David Gemmell. You truly are one of a kind.

And Wolf in Shadow is a one of kind book.

Highly recommended.