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I bought the 25th Anniversary Blu-Ray edition of Akira from Amazon the other day. Well, I should say it arrived at my house the other day. Really, I ordered it months ago. It was one of my favorite movies when I was in college back in the mid 90s, and I watched it countless times on VHS with the crusty English dub, and then countless more times on DVD with the improved dub. If I was feeling extra obnoxious, I would watch it in Japanese with the sub-titles on.

Akira

The plot of the movie is kind of a mess, since it tried to smoosh the incredibly detailed world of fiction from the manga of the same name into a 2 hour feature film. I think I sort-of understood what was happening by my 80th watch-through. But it doesn’t really matter, because the real draw of the film is the fantastic hand-drawn animation. It sometimes skips along at a less-than-ideal number of frames, but every second of the movie is visually appealing. Sometimes so much so that it seems overwhelming, but it never feels cluttered or over-saturated with imagery. Even in the most complex of scenes, the visuals all fit into place. No secondary parts of the composition overshadow the main focus of each scene. Each piece fits in wonderfully, like the complex inner workings of a master-crafted watch.

Is every second in the movie actually visually interesting? Could individual frames stand on their own as works of art outright? I felt like, after watching it in glorious HD, that the answer was “hell yes, oh my God, yes, sweet Lord, YES.” But I decided to test out my theory by capturing ten random pieces of the movie.

To do this, I wrote a quick and dirty perl randomizer script that returned a time-stamp in a 00:00:00 format. Then I used VLC to jump to the times the script returned (Ctrl+T brings up a dialogue that lets you enter in the time). I then screencapped whatever was on the screen at that exact moment and saved it as a .png.

The results are far from scientific, since I only did 10 samples. If I could automate the capture process entirely, with a script that randomly generated a time and then captured the screen, I would have a whole blog of just random Akira screenshots. I don’t have anywhere near that sort of ability to program, though.

Here are the shots pulled from randomly-generated time stamps. They’re from the 25th Anniversary DVD because I don’t have a Blu-Ray player to capture them on my computer. Click on them to get the full-screen versions.

Akira 00:00:54

Akira 00:00:54

Akira 00:14:42

Akira 00:14:42

Akira 00:19:40

Akira 00:19:40

Akira 00:32:02

Akira 00:32:02

Akira 00:45:36

Akira 00:45:36

Akira 01:09:26

Akira 01:09:26

Akira 01:13:18

Akira 01:13:18

Akira 01:26:42

Akira 01:26:42

Akira 01:35:54

Akira 01:35:54

Akira 01:41:16

Akira 01:41:16

Akira01:49:47

Akira01:49:47

When the Xbox One and PS4 pricing were both announced, I made my decision instantly. For me, my path into the next generation was to be determined exclusively by price. Price is what pushed me to pick up an Xbox 360 over the PS3, and price again determined how I’ll be spending my next few gaming years with the PS4. I preordered it literally seconds after the price was announced and preorders were opened. In the months that have followed, my wife and I have had ample time to tuck $400 (plus tax, thanks Maine!) away for the day Amazon ships that sweet, sweet hunk of gear.

But I think I made a mistake. I just finished reading an excellent piece from Eurogamer’s Martin Robinson on USGamer.net. In it, he makes the case that the Wii U is actually the most compelling next-gen console to pick up this holiday season. I have to agree with him, but there’s a catch.

See, the PS4 is supposed to be the “big gift” under this year’s Christmas tree. It’s a fine tradition in the Macy household. Last year saw the Wii U, and the year previous to that saw a pair of 3DS in blue and red. If there isn’t a video game console under the tree, it wouldn’t feel like Christmas. What a lousy precedent we’ve set.

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The pair of 3DSes and the Wii U get used a lot. I mean, a lot. With the release of Wind Waker HD, my oldest son has dove head-first into the entire universe of The Legend of Zelda. He spends hours poring over Hyrule Historia, sometimes late into the night. He dressed as Link for Halloween, and leading up to the holiday, he wore the costume many times to bed. To say he is obsessed might be understating it a bit. His 3DS gets equal Zelda time, with my old copy of the DS title Phantom Hourglass. My youngest son will spend hours on the Wii U playing the Metroid missions in Nintendoland, a charming set of minigames disguising a thorough tip-of-the-hat to Nintendo fans through the ages. Myself, I am enjoying Pikmin 3 much more than I ever expected, along with the aforementioned Wind Waker HD, and a slew of Virtual Console games.

And that’s why I think I made the mistake preordering the PS4. Looking at its launch line-up, I see nothing that my kids will be excited for. There’s really nothing at launch on either next-gen console that excites me. Lego’s Marvel game will satisfy them on any console for which I purchase it, so why wouldn’t I just buy it for Wii U?

The PS4 is sorely lacking a compelling reason for parents of kids under 12 to buy it. It might just be since all the other kids on the playground will be talking about their next-gen systems when the school break is over, but is that really reason enough? I know that, in the life of the PS4, we’ll get plenty of use from it. But the idea that it will make a good gift for my kids, or anyone’s younger kids, when there is the Wii U, seems unlikely.

Nintendo has, and always has had, an ember of magic burning within its properties. Ask someone on the street to name a Nintendo character. I bet nearly everyone you asked could at the very least name Mario. Ask someone to name a Sony character. Or a Microsoft character (that isn’t Clippy). You, reading this, might be able to answer those two questions. But this is NerdSynq, come on now. Mario is a pop-culture icon. He is bigger than the games in which he appears. People have a familiarity with Nintendo’s properties, a fondness, that the other two console makers lack.

Cats and Mario, two of the Internet's fav things

Cats and Mario, two of the Internet’s favorite things

That’s why I feel like the Wii U is THE console of choice for Christmas this year for anyone who has kids under 12. Young kids like the characters, the story, and believe it or not, the history, of the characters with whom they’re playing. For a kid, playing a game is more than just navigating the pathways and puzzles set out by the developers. For them, it’s imagining a whole world, with intricacies that expand beyond what is being presented on-screen. Whether it’s the Mushroom Kingdom or the planet Zebes, or Hyrule, the worlds and characters Nintendo creates resonate with kids and grown fans of Nintendo, alike.

If you’re on the fence over which console to buy, and you have kids, just get the Wii U. They will enjoy it much more. You will enjoy it, as well. There is some modest 3rd-party support. The Eurogamer piece above points out that the Assassin’s Creed IV port on Wii U is great. If you already have a Wii U, as is the case with me, and can’t decide which one of the other two consoles to get for your kids for Christmas… long and short of it, who cares? They’re basically the same. Just pick the one you like more, whatever that reason may be.

Follow me on Twitter, or my personal tumblr, where I write about non-game stuff, too.

Photo source: thefullbrightcompany.com

A compelling, but ultimately disappointing, game of discovery.

Sometimes I worry when my opinion on an especially beloved piece of work differs from that of the overwhelming majority of game reviewers. I wonder if perhaps I’ve missed something along the way. I think to myself “Did I play this the wrong way?” or “Was I not paying close enough attention?” BioShock Infinite, with its near universally high review scores and fleeting comparisons to Citizen Kane, was a recent example of the difference in opinion I felt with professional game critics. I found Infinite to be uneven, with the emphasis on narrative being overshadowed by the disconnect between it and the gameplay.

And so I find myself again in a situation where I have to wonder if I’ve done something wrong. Due largely to the many positive comments I have heard regarding the importance of Fullbright Studios’ “Gone Home,” I felt that I needed to play it now rather than later. The buzz on this plucky indie title is that it should be experienced by all. In some ways, I can’t disagree with that. It should be experienced, but the urgency to do so is misguided.

The game opens with Katie, the player-controlled character, returning home after a year abroad. While gone, her family moved into a new house, a sprawling manor with dark wood paneling that drapes every room in an appropriate sense of Hollywood mystery. The front door is locked, and taped to it is a note from Katie’s sister, Sam, urging her not to try and find her, nor to snoop through her things.

Playing the game is a matter of moving through the house, examining objects and unraveling the mysteries within. There are several stories to discover, from the relationship between Katie’s parents, the changing courses of their careers, and a story about the original owner of the home. But the main focus of the story is on Sam, and where she has gone.

Clues to what has been happening for the last year come in the way of written correspondence. Notes, some formal, some on post-its, some on desks, others torn and crumpled, move the narrative along. It doesn’t hit you over the head, which is refreshing, save for Sam’s story. Other than one notable surprise moment in a bathroom, I felt early on that I knew just where the story would resolve. While it didn’t necessarily roll itself out as I expected, the outcome was where I knew it would end up.

When I finished the game, I didn’t know how to feel about the experience I had just had. The story was satisfying, if not a little predictable, and I appreciated what the game did in regards to a novel approach to storytelling. But I still felt conflicted before I could fully render my final assessment.

The title builds a spooky ambiance through the ever-present rain and the sprawling, empty house. Such a decision on the part of the designers is not without merit: coming to a house you have never seen before, on a rain-soaked Portland night, would probably give anyone a feeling of uneasiness. But the game seems to rely on the haunted-house tropes to convey a level of mystery, and it doesn’t really work once the game is said and done. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t immediately know how to feel when I finished the game. Part of it was realizing that the elevation of the house’s atmosphere to a “spooky” level was not a needed inclusion. It never played out, and leads to a false feeling that something is there when it in no way is. It was a cheap way to build tension in a game whose setting exists in the same universe as you and I.

Another problem I have is that I found the secondary stories to be more interesting than the story of finding Sam. Katie and Sam’s parents, their strained relationships, her father’s decline and seeming rebirth as a writer, these things piqued my attention more so than the story of Sam. To the game’s credit, it allows you to make your own assumptions about how these side-stories resolve, and I find that approach to be more engaging than the straight-forward reveal of Sam’s fate.

Photo source: thecreatorsproject.com

Notes such as this one help move along the narrative and help nail a sense of place and time.

My biggest problem with this game is that it cost me $20, was over in 3 hours, and has no replay value. I didn’t get all the details of the stories, but I also don’t care enough about them to go back and play the game anymore. All the mystery has evaporated from it now that the narrative has concluded. I largely followed leads for the other stories to see how they intertwined themselves with Sam’s fate, and knowing Sam’s fate has made me lose interest in the other stories.

This is my inner struggle with this game: I know it’s a good game. I know that it takes an interesting approach to storytelling, and for that it should be lauded. I have long felt that stories in games are largely superfluous (BioShock Infinite being a prime example of a critically successful game where the story and gameplay exist on two independent planes). Where Gone Home succeeds is in making the story the game itself. There’s nothing magical about the exploration-based gameplay here, but it’s the execution that makes it work. Without the gameplay elements, the story would not be as compelling, and vice versa.

Gone Home is an important, if flawed, foray into the world of interactive storytelling. Its implementation of certain game elements feel forced, like shoehorning door unlocking “puzzles” in, and while the story itself is interesting, it concludes too quickly and predictably. It lacks sufficient variety to warrant a second-playthrough, and from a strictly value-based perspective, its twenty dollar price tag is more than most gamers would be comfortable spending. I recommend this game, but wait for a Steam sale.

Photo source: UDON Entertainment

MM25: Mega Man and Mega Man X: The Complete Works

As a child, one of the features of 8-bit gaming I most enjoyed was a well illustrated instruction manual. For those of you who are too young to remember when games included a physical book inside the box, a book that contained more than just a seizure warning and an advertisement for another game, let me fill you in a little.

Inside each instruction manual was so much more than just instructions on how to play the game. Honestly, with two buttons and a d-pad, there really wasn’t a lot you couldn’t figure out just by popping the game into your NES and sussing it out. The real beauty came in the illustrations. Japanese style art accompanied most manuals, with pixel monsters or in-game objects having a cartoon-ized entry in the book.

This was the 1980s. There weren’t large swaths of the internet dedicated solely to the pop-art coming out of Japan. The manga and anime style were totally foreign to most everyone. NBC even ran a piece on the nightly news about this new “Japanimation” style. The style instantly clicked for me and thousands of other kids. Some of those kids turned their fascination with it into a lifelong obsession. Others simply appreciate it for what it is, a clean, colorful style that seems paradoxically simplistic and complex at the same time.

For some reason, game companies were convinced that American kids were repulsed by the Japanese art style, and often replaced it with amateur, soulless “Westernized” depictions of the games. The first Mega Man box is easily the most famous example of this misguided belief that kids were turned off by the cutesy designs of Japanese, but honestly there are a lot of other reasons the first Mega Man box art is bad. It looks like it was drawn by a very earnest, but ultimately less-than-talented, western artist whose grasp of proportions, anatomy, and direction was sorely lacking. It’s like Napoleon Dynamite penciled it, spending three hours on the shading on Mega Man’s upper-lip.

Photo source: Wikipedia.com

Famously awful

We didn’t want that. We wanted the original art. Not only did it represent a style unknown to us, it just looked cool. It’s amazing to me how off-the-mark publishers were with their internal notions of design. From a strictly design viewpoint, the original art is just better. It evokes feelings of action and movement while remaining simple. There are no extraneous lines or unnecessary shading.  Each stroke of the pen or brush is no more and no less than exactly what is needed. It’s a style that hearkens back to traditional Japanese art styles like Sumi-e, where a single stroke by a master artist can quite literally paint an entire picture.

This isn’t to say Japanese pop art can’t be complex. Look at the works of Studio Ghibli or the infinite complexities of 1988’s “Akira.” But there is little in the way of waste. Each line is effortlessly and efficiently placed. The results are visually captivating.

UDON Entertainment’s release of MM25: Mega Man and Mega Man X: The Complete Works, aside from being very heavy on the use of colons in the title, is over 400 pages of nothing but art. Every Mega Man and Mega Man X game is represented here. Each boss, character, set designs, and promotional illustration from the series’ 25 year history is presented in a dense volume that begs to be pored through by anyone and everyone who has an interest in the work Keiji Inafune began when asked to translate the pixel drawings from the development of the game into illustration. The process folds back in on itself when Inafune sketches first the designs for bosses and characters who then become pixel drawings, and the book charts the process from the Mega Man’s beginnings to the present.

Photo source: UDON Entertainment

As someone who spent so much time appreciating the limited amount of Japanese art, particularly Inafune’s art, in those early days of instruction manuals and hyper-kinetic Nintendo Power layouts, this book is like an overload of child-like wonderment. There are no screen shots here, no photos of designers or artists. Mega Man and the cast of hundreds and hundreds of characters spawned over the years are in the book. There are comments from the artists and producers of the game, outlining or explaining the design process. Like a DVD commentary, they are chances to see into the minds of creators, to understand their motivations. In understanding the process and motivations of artists, appreciation of art is increased.

The bottom line: I cannot say enough good things about this book. I have my wishes: that it could have been hardcover, that the black ink wasn’t so prone to fingerprints, but I am still satisfied with my purchase. I feel that anyone who appreciates art or the creative process should have a copy of MM25 on their shelf. Fans of Mega Man should absolutely love this incredible chronicle of 25 years of artistic development.

The book is available on Amazon and other fine retailers.