Just got back from Portland yesterday. It was an exhausting trip, filled with plenty of walking and foodie’s food. I had wanted to write this post either right before or during the trip, but a lack of sleep got in the way. However, I managed to catch up, somewhat, last night, so here I am.
To start off with, at the beginning of this month, I beat Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abbadon, an action RPG which has one of the longest titles of any game I’ve ever played. In terms of both gameplay and plot, it was better than the first Raidou game, which I beat earlier in the year. New features—such as the ability to summon two demons at once; better accessibility to the Gouma-den, where new demons can be fused; and a negotiation system which, despite its usual tediousness, is the best I’ve seen in all of MegaTen—were quite welcome, though some repetitive elements stood out as the game’s greatest flaws. By that, I don’t mean the reuse of much of the previous game’s assets, which I didn’t mind at all. Rather, what bothered me was the overdone recapping, and even more, the obviousness with how the story’s branches were handled. Every so often, roughly once a chapter, a character would ask a rhetorical, philosophical question that basically asked Raidou to choose between revolution and the status quo. The answers to these ham-fisted questions don’t matter until the very end of the game, and even then, there is one final barrage of inquiries right before the branching path is settled upon. Despite these nitpicks, Raidou 2 was a decent game, though hardly the best MegaTen I’ve played.
A few days afterward, I finally finished reading a manga series which I had first sampled over fifteen years ago: Barefoot Gen. My first experience with Gen came with a copy of Volume 2, picked up cheaply at a certain bookstore in Philadelphia. Some years later, I picked up a used copy of Volume 3, but I didn’t buy any more of the series until last year, when I picked up the first and fourth volumes. Around then was when I learned that my older volumes were heavily abridged, and that the current edition, published by Last Gasp, is complete and uncut. Therefore, I repurchased volumes 2 and 3, and, later on, the last six books as well.
A semi-autobiographical tale inspired by mangaka Keiji Nakazawa’s childhood, Barefoot Gen tells the story of Gen Nakaoka, an elementary school-aged boy who survives the atomic bombing of his hometown, Hiroshima. By the end of the first volume, the bomb has dropped, and the story truly begins. Subsequent volumes find Gen making new friends, being discriminated against, and raging at not just the Americans who dropped the bomb and occupied Japan, but the Japanese Emperor and politicians who were so eager to wage war in the first place. It is, as noted in the always excellent ANN column House of 1000 Manga (spoilers in link), an angry manga, and sometimes, especially toward the end, Gen’s anger gets to be a little too much. The last few volumes are rather tedious at times, even as it explores the Japanese side of things during the Korean War; as a sign of the plot wearing thin, the final tragedy that befalls Gen and his group is one which, startlingly, doesn’t have much of a direct tie to the atomic bomb. Gen is also a violent manga; atomic bomb aside, it hews to the shonen manga tropes of its time, with lots of hitting and fighting, often between adults and children. Despite its pacifist message, seeing Gen so eager to physically fight people who dismiss his anti-war views is more than a bit disarming. Also, without giving anything away, in one of the later volumes Gen does something in the name of his personal philosophy that is so lacking of empathy and maturity it’s astounding. It’s an important manga, probably the best I’ve ever read about Japan during that era, but it’s also rather dated, and at least one of the included forewards was undesirably diversionary from the manga’s basic premise. It might’ve helped if the manga was broken up into chapters, as they were originally serialized, but instead, the manga flows together as one long story, broken up only by its separation into ten books. I recommend the first few volumes, but if you don’t want to stick with it after that, I really couldn’t blame you.
After Gen was wrapped up, and between new volumes of Nisekoi (aka the harem manga for people who normally dislike harem manga) and the always charming and hunger-inducing What Did You Eat Yesterday?, more games were played! I started, and am still playing, a Japanese copy of Picross DS, which I picked up on the cheap during Play-Asia’s annual Spring Sale. There’s nothing much to say about it besides that yeah, it’s Picross, though the zoomed-in 15×15 puzzles took me a little getting used to, not to mention the menus in a language that I can’t understand very much of. Right now, I’m currently stuck on a couple of flower-themed puzzles in Normal mode, though I’m sure I’ll push through them soon enough.
I also cranked through a few short games on Steam. First up was Escape Goat, a room-based puzzle game a la Adventures of Lolo and Toki Tori. It’s a solid entry in this genre, structured to encourage experimentation, and with precise controls and well-designed, if sometimes frustrating, puzzles. If you like this sort of game, as I do, you’ll like Escape Goat—enough said.
Second was Octodad: Dadliest Catch, whose controls were the opposite: intentionally difficult to master. This game, about an octopus trying to live as a normal suburban father in a nuclear family, revels in the ridiculous. Everyday tasks, such as mowing the lawn or picking out the perfect apple at the supermarket, are much harder when your arms and legs are tentacles and you want to blend in with actual humans. The story takes some interesting turns, and although I felt somewhat partially robbed of my final victory due to where a certain object landed, I found Octodad to be a neat little game overall. The pair of included bonus episodes were worth playing through as well.
The third short game I played through before leaving for Portland was the shortest and least interactive of the bunch: a wordless visual novel called A Bird Story. Produced by the developer of To the Moon, this is a similarly sentimental journey. In it, a young boy, who goes through the motions at school and is interested in flight, rescues a bird. It’s kind of cloying at times, and because of that, whether or not you’d like this would depend on your natural tolerance for such things. Thankfully, the length is just right, and most everything about it is simple and straightforward.
Now that I’m back, and catching up on my sleep, I think I’ll continue going through some other short games in my backlog, which I may or may not write about here. I also picked up Legend of Dungeon again recently, which has improved since the last time I played it, thanks to some patches. It’s now not as unfair as before, though it still lacks some of the refinement and balance of better roguelikes. Goat Simulator is also in my “Now Playing” list, though I’m not sure when I’ll go back to it.
I also may start the last unplayed PS2 game I have left in my backlog (if you don’t count Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria, which I’ve put up for sale): Sakura Wars: So Long My Love. I may start that this week, depending on how I feel; we’ll see. At any rate, it’ll definitely get played sometime soon.
In addition to playing a lot of games, I read a ton of manga. 2014 was a packed year as far as trying– and committing to– new manga series goes; as of this writing, I’m currently following nearly twenty different series. There have been loads of great new work being produced lately, as well as old classics I’m either finally catching up on, or reading as they are being published in English for the first time. Perhaps I’ll write about some of those works later, but for now, I’ll focus on a specific class of manga: cheap, short series picked up from Right Stuf’s Bargain Bin and epic year-end sales.
Even when picking up manga on the cheap, I tend to do some basic research beforehand; the length of a given series and its general reception are the two most important factors. The latter’s self-explanatory, but as for the former, I try to stick to series that are only a few volumes long at most. Only once have I ever bought a 10+ volume long series at a nice discount without having read any of it, and fortunately, that manga turned out to be excellent: Ouran High School Host Club, picked up in box set form for 50% off (in all fairness, though, I’d previously seen—and loved—the anime). I do have the seven-volume Lament of the Lamb waiting for me in the wings, but if it wasn’t for some decent ratings and the set being roughly 67% off cover price, I wouldn’t have picked it up.
Anyway, let’s get started.
by Norie Yamada and Kumichi Yoshizuki US Publisher: Tokyopop Total Volumes: 2 Original Cover Price: $19.98 for both Bought For: $11.98 (reduced to $10.78 with Got Anime) for both
I’ll start with a short series I picked up in May of last year, Someday’s Dreamers. Like most of the books featured in this post, this was localized by Tokyopop, which abruptly shut down its North American publishing operations in 2011. Without going into that too deeply, this move caused quite a stir in the manga blogosphere and led to Tokyopop books being clearanced out of Barnes & Noble. Since Right Stuf’s Bargain Bin includes a lot of items returned to publishers by other stores, that’s probably what accounts for the large amount of Tokyopop stuff it holds. That said, the condition of these Bargain Bin books ranges from “used bookstore” to “practically new”, but either way, it’s hard to tell if I truly got my money’s worth without actually reading them.
Upon rereading Someday’s Dreamers, I confirmed that in this case, I had. This manga, in which magic is a normal thing in contemporary Japan, is about a seventeen year old girl, Yume, who spends a summer in Tokyo for magic-user training and certification. Her everyday adventures, tinged as they are with magic, reveal her to be extremely empathic and wanting to do the right thing, but, at least at first, without much serious thought put into the potential consequences of her actions. Her biggest hurdles come in the form of lessons about life, death, and happiness, and, on top of that, her teacher has issues of his own.
The art style, along with Yume’s personality and the slice-of-life nature of the chapters, are unabashedly moe, in a good way. Yume definitely fits the moe mold: she’s a sweet, kind girl who you want to be happy, and has the small mouth, smaller nose, and gentle-yet-somewhat-sad eyes endemic amongst this subgenre’s characters. Aside from some mild and occassional emphasis on certain body parts in the art and composition, there is nothing creepy here, just a coming-of-age story about a teenager who also happens to know some magic. Like the best works of this type, it’s pleasant and rather nostalgic, and the premise enables some particularly dreamlike scenes.
If there is one thing that’s unusual about these two volumes, it is that they are both rather short, each one clocking in at around 130 pages, when your standard manga is typically 50-70 pages longer than that. I wonder why Tokyopop chose to release these two volumes individually, rather than compiling them into an omnibus; it could be because of the way the story arcs are structured, or a restriction imposed by the original creators, or something else. Regardless, it’s a good purchase for $12 (seven bucks for Vol. 1 and five for Vol. 2) if you’re ever in the mood for this sort of thing.
by Tomoko Taniguchi US Publisher: Central Park Media Total Volumes: 1 Original Cover Price: $9.99 Bought For: $2.49
As it happens, CPM is another defunct anime and manga company, albeit one who had been around a bit longer and whose business practices were less controversial. They didn’t publish much printed media, but their manga catalog was as diverse as their anime one. In addition to works such as the notorious hentai Urotsukidoji, series by Kia Asamiya and Youka Nitta, various anime adaptations, and even some manhwa and OEL stuff, they published a handful of one-shots and two volume manga by Tomoko Taniguchi, including the short story collection Aquarium.
There are three stories in the book. In “Aquarium”, a high school student drowns her sorrows by gazing at the fish at a local aquarium; “The Flying Stewardess” is about a young flight attendant trying to fit in at her lively job; and finally, “The Heart is Your Kingdom” concerns a girl who has trouble smiling around the boy she likes.
There isn’t much about these stories that I could find fault with. The pacing is appropriate to each one and the page layouts convey the tales with clarity. It’s also nice that the second story was lighthearted and comedic, serving as a nice break between the drama of “Aquarium” and that of “The Heart is Your Kingdom”. Despite the brief time spent with the characters, they are realistic, and their stories are heartfelt, if a bit melodramatic at times.
If there’s one thing I would warn potential readers about, it’s that this is most definitely an early 90s shoujo manga. The art style is old-fashioned by today’s standards, which may be a bit of a turnoff to some people. If you can get past that hurdle, it’s definitely worth the four dollars that it’s now going for at Right Stuf. Aquarium made such an impression on me that I now have a handful of other short works by this mangaka on order. Here’s hoping that they are just as good.
by Kazuya Minekura US Publisher: Tokyopop Total Volumes: 1 Original Cover Price: $9.99 Bought For: $2.99
Three young men are caught up in a dangerous game, one in which we might call “tower defense”. The “towers” are corporate secrets on floppy disks, and they must be either guarded or taken away from a competing team. These three are “Business Gamers”, and they play for huge monetary rewards and the amusement of the rich assholes who are their bosses. However, this game becomes more dangerous with each new round, and increasingly difficult to leave.
This “Pilot Edition” of Bus Gamer is all that exists of this series—a series which clearly seems to have been intended to become something longer and more fleshed out. We learn snippets about our heroes’ lives and personalities from chapter to chapter, but many of the biggest questions, such as why they need the money they get from playing this game, go unanswered.
At many times, Bus Gamer is very much a character study, with high school student Kazuo the most earnest of the three; it is he who wants to know more about his partners, with the other two, Toki and Nobuto, only rarely revealing new aspects of themselves. The camaraderie that slowly, gradually, develops between them is the most intriuguing thing about this manga, and a major reason why I wished it had continued.
Bus Gamer‘s art style is detailed, stylized, and imperfect, and a great match for the solid page and panel compositions. The writing has an urban feel to it, with a localization that, thankfully, doesn’t go overboard with the slang. The mangaka is best known for a longer series, Saiyuki, which I’m considering checking out now, even though the setting doesn’t grab me as much. As for Bus Gamer, this one-shot is, like Aquarium, currently $3.99 in Right Stuf’s Bargain Bin and is worth a look if you can tolerate its incompleteness.
Mad Love Chase
by Kazusa Takashima US Publisher: Tokyopop Total Volumes: 5 Original Cover Price: $54.95 for all Bought For: $24.99 for all
Finally, we have come to the bottom of the stack, in more ways than one. I didn’t have the highest expectations for this series, based on its premise, but most people seemed to like it well enough that I figured I should give it a chance. As it turned out, it isn’t bad, but it’s not really good, either. While I wait for the next volumes of truly great romantic comedies My Love Story!! and Nisekoi, please join me in picking apart Mad Love Chase.
Like I said, the premise of this manga didn’t sound like the greatest thing ever, but it did hold some promise. Demon price Kaito runs away from home with his pet cat to avoid his arranged marriage and live freely in our world, disguised as a human. Angered by this, the Demon King sends a team of three agents to find the prince, who can easily be identified by an elaborate tattoo on his back. Hijinks, largely involving the agents trying to remove the prince’s shirt, ensue.
This setup is handled quickly and messily. The earliest chapter is particularly bad, as the setup of the premise feels forcefully rushed, without letting the exposition flow naturally. Things get slightly better later on, though new plot holes arise. For example, somewhere in the middle of the series, a new character and his pet mouse come onto the scene to hunt down the prince, though his motives are never made clear, and, after his story arc is over, he is never seen again and only mentioned in passing once or twice. Another new character, a magician, comes along later on and, although he is actually important to the story, his actions seem too serendipitous to take seriously as plot developments. Then there’s the “love triangle” that permeates the series, and isn’t really a triangle in the traditional sense, if at all. Finally, like the beginning of the manga, the end is rushed and unsatisfying, though it does attempt to tie up all the loose ends for the entire cast.
If there is a high point to this manga, it’s the art, which is very good. Unfortunately, there are many places where it suffers from bad layouts, plus the “gag” art of the characters isn’t all that great. Most of the characters are likable, though the pacing and layouts often work against them. In general, this is a lighthearted, and frequently silly, romp without a whole lot else going for it. Oddly, it isn’t in the Right Stuf Bargain Bin, even though at least a couple of the volumes I got were certainly at that level of condition; it was offered as a bundle during the holiday sales (which is when I picked it up), and again during their recent Valentine’s Day promotion. Even if this series does go on sale again, skip it in favor of an actual good romantic comedy.