Monday, January 28, 2019

The Blood Elves of Azeroth: A Tragic Tale of Loss and Rebirth

My first foray into Azeroth was with the release of Warcraft III. 

I didn't know it at the time, but the story was basically built from the ground-up in the third game. The first two games had very minimal story that was essentially window dressing for the game itself. Very generic fantasy fluff. It wasn't until Warcraft III and beyond that the world started to become fully realized and fleshed out.

But during that time of mystique, where the world of Warcraft felt complete, I held a particular fascination for the High Elves.

A race of ancient, magically-inclined beings, known for their wisdom and patience and admiration of beauty. A haughty race that took great pride in their culture and valued learning and the arts. Sounds a lot like Tolkien's elves, doesn't it?

Quel'thalas, the land of the High Elves, at the height of its prosperity.
And they were, at least in the beginning. The only thing that made them unique was their affinity for frost magic. That was enough to pique my curiosity, but what really grabbed my attention was their transformation in the expansion, and how they would be treated from that point forward.

For you see, at one point in the story, the High Elves are slaughtered to near-extinction. An undead army ravages their homeland, storms their capital city, and desecrates the source of their magical strength, the Sunwell. Those who survive are left with a hitherto unrealized, painful addiction to magic, an affliction once held at bay by the constant energy pouring from the Sunwell.

The undead attack Silvermoon City.
This proud and graceful race is brought low, slammed to the ground, and left in shame. The destruction of their people and their homeland scars them forever.

But those scars transform them into something new, something far beyond the typical Tolkien-esque elf.

Inspired by the deaths of their brothers and sisters, the High Elves, led by their prince, renamed themselves to the Blood Elves.

Where once they dressed in the soft colors of silver and blue, they now dressed in the bold colors of red and gold. Where once they practiced the tranquil magics of frost and water, they now wielded destructive forces of flame. Where once they took the symbol of the unicorn as their icon, they now fell under the banner of the phoenix, a bird reborn from the ashes.

The elves were in pain. They were angry. Their losses ate away at them, changing them, forcing them to take action in a bid for survival, and for vengeance.

A Blood Elf wielding fire magic.
When World of Warcraft was announced, everyone expected the Blood Elves to be a playable Alliance race. They were a staple of the franchise, after all. But when the game was released, the Blood Elves were nowhere to be seen. Their homeland of Quel'thalas remained closed off, inaccessible to adventurers. 

The lonely road to Quel'thalas. In the narrow mountain pass beyond, fallen rocks blocked adventurer's paths.
I used to wander close to that mountain entrance, blocked by boulders, always checking the signpost pointing towards Quel'thalas on the way. What were the elves up to? What had become of their home since its destruction? These questions enraptured me. Their absence only made them all the more appealing.

Come the announcement of The Burning Crusade expansion, Blood Elves were front and center as the major addition to the game. They had rebuilt their home of Silvermoon, now bearing their new red colors. Quel'thalas was on its way to recovery. But it had changed, drastically. The Sunwell was still gone. The elves' magical addiction remained. And in their bid to sate it, many had taken to dark magics, fel energy, a vile source of magical power associated with darkness and demons.

Most surprising of all, however, was that the Blood Elves had decided to abandon the Humans and their allies. They had left the Alliance, and joined their sworn enemy, the Horde.

The elves now had an edge to them. Their scars had darkened them, their desperation leading them to dubious places.

I awaited the release of the expansion with bated breath. I simply could not wait to explore the elven lands for myself, to see what had become of them since their destruction at the hands of the undead. I pored over the pre-release pictures like a vulture, looking at them over and over again.

An image of a Blood Elf Paladin, or Blood Knight. This was one of the very first screenshots of the race to be released to the public.
Come the release of the game, the excitement I felt was fully realized when I made my first Blood Elf character, a Paladin named Xanthas. 

He looked a lot like this.
Silvermoon and its surrounding lands were as beautiful as I had imagined them to be. Floating spires, held in place by arcane energies. Brooms that swept the streets by themselves, like something out of Disney's Fantasia. Gorgeous buildings, inspired by art nouveau architecture, with a fantastical twist to its design. Rolling hills and verdant forests stuck in an everlasting autumn, brilliant colors of red and orange and gold dotting the landscape at every turn. 

But its beauty had an underlying darkness to it. Green crystals that glowed with fel energy powered the elven structures, sinister ethereal eyes trapped within, glaring outward. An entire segment of the city, not yet fully repaired, aptly called the Ruins of Silvermoon, infested with elves who had fallen to their addiction and become twisted reflections of their former selves. 

Perhaps most glaring of all was the Dead Scar, a tract of land leading through the forest and into Silvermoon itself, dividing the city between its ruins and its newfound glory, a grim reminder of the path taken by the undead army who had once ravaged their land. The scar festered with shambling corpses, skeletons, and other blights of creation.

Beyond Eversong Woods, where Silvermoon rest, was a place the elves called The Ghostlands. There, Eversong's autumn beauty had never recovered. The earth was sickly pale, and the trees glimmered with cancerous crystals that had seemingly robbed them of their bright colors. The buildings remained uninhabited, and even darker creatures roamed these lands, giant spiders and stitched-together abominations and even lieutenants of the Lich King himself, the man who led the undead.

The Dead Scar ran through there, too.

The manner of speech that the elves used also reflected their transformation. 

"The dark times will pass." "We will persevere." "We will have justice." "Remember the Sunwell." "Hold your head high."

They had not forgotten their losses. They were still angry. They demanded justice. But beyond that, they were still a proud and hopeful and graceful race, eager to believe that one day, things would be set right again. 

The once-mild mannered High Elves were now a bold and boisterous race, whose lingering pain reflected in everything they did and said - and even in the places they lived.

I truly loved exploring those lands, seeing what had become of this tragic race of people, discovering how they had adapted to their pain and used it to transform themselves into something new.

At the time, I did not like the evil direction in which the race was heading. I wanted them to shy away from their dark magics and reckless behavior. I wanted them to go back to the Alliance, who, like them, valued beauty and nobility and dignity, instead of the loosely put together Horde, who seemed brutal and violent and primitive. 

Allerian Stronghold, one of the last remnants of uncorrupted High Elves. These elves never left the Alliance. Their still-blue tower stands tall among very Human houses.
Many times, I gazed upon Alliance cities and strongholds from a distance, so much more gallant than the ramshackle huts and sticks of the Horde that my character had decided to join, longing to have that for myself. I wished I could play as a High Elf instead, back when the race was at the height of its prosperity, back before it was broken.

Eventually, long after I stopped playing the game, the Blood Elves did leave behind these darker inclinations, restore their Sunwell, conquer their addiction, and embrace the light. Even in doing so, they retained their more brazen nature. And their eyes never changed back from that sickly green, a lifelong reminder of the wrongful path that they once took, no matter how much they redeemed themselves.

I spent a lot of time in Azeroth as my Blood Elf. I was still in high school, so I had a lot of free time. Many of my high school memories were made through the eyes of my paladin, Xanthas.

That was over ten years ago, now. As an adult, I still think about those times often. As I reflect on them, the Blood Elves and their plight resonate more and more strongly with me as the years go by. Pain, loss, betrayal, injustice, and even death have entered into my own life, as well. And those things do transform you. They eat away at you. They don't really ever leave.

You have to adapt to them, lest they consume you.

Now, I appreciate the Blood Elves more than I ever have. I remember the determination in their voices as they looked forward and fully believed that the dark times will pass, that they will have justice, to remember what they've lost, and to keep their head high. I no longer hold anything against them for allying with the Horde in their time of desperation. I look at their scarlet armor and crimson robes, flushed red in memory of the blood shed by the fallen, flushed red in honor of their new icon of rebirth, the phoenix. 

I look at and remember these things and I hold a deep understanding and appreciation for them, which is something that has, in many ways, helped me come to terms with my own transformation in my very real life.

Never let it be said that fiction is worthless.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Analogue of Auron: Passing on a Legacy and the Spirit of a Mentor

OPEN SPOILERS FOR FFX. It's an old game, but here's fair warning!

Legendary guardian? I was just a boy. A boy about your age, actually. I wanted to change the world, too. But I changed nothing. That is my story.

Final Fantasy X is an interesting game. Often considered the last great Final Fantasy Square made (notice I said often, not always, so calm down, XII-lovers, X-haters, and otherwise) it set out to tell a riveting story with very specific themes and motifs, in a much more cinematic way than we had ever seen before. Relationships were a big part of the game's story.

If you call to mind the word "relationship" when thinking about Final Fantasy X, you would probably call to mind a number of characters.

Tidus and his blossoming love with Yuna.

Tidus and his tumultuous father issues with Jecht.

Wakka and his prejudice against Al-Bhed in general, and overcoming the loss of his brother Chappu.

Yuna and Rikku, cousins from different worlds.

But one you might not call to mind immediately is Tidus and Auron, or at least not in the way I'm thinking. For most of the game, these two have a very clear mentor/student relationship, with Auron acting as the world-wizened soul who teaches Tidus what he needs to know and guides him in the right direction.

But when I think of these two, I like to start at the beginning. We see a younger Auron accompanying Braska and Jecht during several flashbacks in the game.

Before I get into how young Auron relates to Tidus, we should look at how this trio's dynamic worked. There was Braska, the calm, wise, and responsible centerpiece of their journey. There was Auron, his steadfast friend and guardian with a strong sense of justice. Then there was Jecht, the headstrong and arrogant sidekick who gradually matured and became someone much better than he was. Braska kept them in line, Jecht had a can-do attitude, and Auron put doing the right thing above all else.

When you look at these three, they are obvious predecessors to the party you control in the main game. Braska is very much a proto-Yuna. So that would make Jecht a proto-Tidus, and Auron basically a proto-Auron, as he's still there... right?

I don't think so. Other than being an outcast, if you look at the group's behavior and how they interact with each other, the young Auron is much more like Tidus than Jecht.

He places Braska's safety above all else. He wants to see Sin defeated. He's hot-tempered and easy to provoke when things don't go as planned or when they don't go the way he thinks they should. He even thinks of Jecht in a similar way to Tidus - a worthless drunken blowhard. This is all very, very similar to how Tidus wants to protect Yuna, how he blows a gasket when things go south, how he thinks lowly of Jecht, and how he can't accept the bleak reality of Spira.

Young Auron ends up discovering the truth of Sin and its endless reincarnations, ends up discovering the truth of the sacrifice necessary to temporarily defeat him, ends up discovering the truth of the Yevon religion and Yevon and Yunalesca's lies. He protests, unable to accept it, unable to reconcile his sense of righteousness and justice with these truths. He takes up arms against Yunalesca because of this, and dies. Jecht sacrifices himself to become Braska's final Aeon, and all of Auron's protests are for naught. Braska dies, Jecht becomes the new incarnation of Sin. Auron is forced to live with this as an unsent, becoming reclusive, brooding, barely speaking unless he has to and dropping his headstrong nature for a somber and reserved one.

Auron is who Tidus would have become had he failed in his journey.

And when we watch the older Auron guide Tidus throughout his own journey, we can see how he's placed all of his youthful idealism in him. How he realizes that his time is up, he failed. But Tidus still has a chance, so he puts everything he has into guiding him towards his old goals, even if it means cheating death for over a decade. This is doubly effective because it brings the redemption of Jecht full circle. Auron initially distrusted Jecht and considered him worthless, but grew to see him as a close friend and a comrade. Then, in the end, he places all of his hopes in his son.

And when Tidus does eventually defeat Sin, Auron can finally feel like he's righted all the wrongs he failed to do while he was alive, and also completes Jecht's redemption story.

Auron is as much a father to Tidus as Jecht was, or at least a really, really cool uncle.

It's a relationship you can't fully understand the depths of until a replay, once you know everything about Spira and Auron's past.

It's as beautiful as any romance or fatherly redemption, and an underlooked part of the game, I think.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Cinematic Flash Flood

Let me begin with a disclaimer; I am no comic book fan. I have not seen every superhero movie. I have definitely missed quite a few of the DC movies. I never saw Wonder Woman, Man of Steel, or Batman vs. Superman, having them exist to me only in terms of what I've heard others say or how they've been ingrained in the public consciousness.

However, I do enjoy a good one.

Aquaman was amazing.

The DC movie universe is a special beast. Some of its movies range from lauded (Wonder Woman) to mediocre (Justice League) to laughed at for being terrible (Batman vs. Superman). Again, I know some of these only through their critical reception or hearsay. But it's obvious that their reception has been mixed, even to a casual fan like myself.

It's clear that they're chasing the cinematic universe Marvel's set up, but it's also clear that DC hasn't been quite as successful. DC's take on comics - at least in their films - is darker, grittier, more hardcore. It's a direct response to Marvel's camp and feelgood quips. Or at least, it's meant to be. The execution often falls flat. I often hear Suicide Squad cited as a good music video, but a bad movie. So the aesthetic and intended vibe is there, and people can see that, but it doesn't always follow through into the writing or the direction.

Aquaman is everything the DC universe has wanted to be from the beginning.

What follows could be considered spoilers, although I won't spoil the outcome of any events in the movie, only the general outline of things. Still, if you want to go in blind, don't read further!

First, the narrative. 

The narrative is hardly the thing that's at the forefront of the typical superhero moviegoer's mind. It's nice if there's a decent story to be told, but nobody ever really expects more than that. Aquaman is no literary masterpiece, but there is a classic tale to be told here, one that borrows from Arthurian legend of all places.

Let me make one thing clear. The metaphors towards King Arthur are heavy handed and very obvious. There is no attempt at nuance in their representation. Aquaman's name is Arthur. He is named Arthur by his parents because of the legendary king who brought peace to Camelot. There's an added bit about a Hurricane Arthur hitting their home around the same time they're naming him (get it, he's Aquaman and he's a water hero), but the symbolism is pretty much thrown at your face like a brick.

That doesn't make it ineffective or poorly utilized.

We see Arthur grow up as the half-human son of a lighthouse keeper and Queen Atlanta of Atlantis, who I can only describe as Galadriel from Lord of the Rings with a big ass trident and water powers. Which is interesting, because the other Atlantians have like, space age plasma guns and shit instead of swords and tridents. But I'll get to that later.

Early on in his life, his mother is ambushed by said Atlantians. She manages to fend them off like the badass the writers want to portray her as, but decides by her own will to leave her human husband and go back to Atlantis. She fled the kingdom to escape an arranged marriage, and stayed on the surface because she found true love, but comes to the realization that she must go back and accept this marriage if her true loved ones are to remain safe. And so she makes the noble sacrifice of leaving her family.

First of all, it's great that the badass in this situation is the wife, the queen and not the king. It's great that she shows agency and capability from the beginning. I think we need more awesome warrior women in movies, if you ask me.

Anyway, she goes back to Atlantis and has another son with arranged marriage guy named Orm.

Orm is the traditional, super whitewashed, blonde Aquaman we're used to. Right to the throne, son of the king, Atlantian by nature and capable of fighting on water and on land. He even looks like the old school Aquaman. His one goal is to rule all seven kingdoms of the sea, or what's left of them.

Arthur, meanwhile, is played by Jason Momoa, so he's not any of those things except capable of fighting. He drinks a lot, makes quips at people, lives for himself and likes to have a good time. He has long flowing black locks and a devil may care attitude. He could care less about ruling Atlantis, let alone the other kingdoms.

Oh yeah, Orm is also a psycho who wants to wage war on the surface and subjugate the earth. That's why Arthur eventually ends up deciding he has to claim the throne to Atlantis, despite not wanting to at first.

And so the crux of the movie is set in place. Tradition vs. change. Lineage vs. inherent worth. Accepting responsibility for one's place in life.

Those are all portrayed through the conflict between Arthur and Orm. Brother vs. brother is the central theme of the movie, and all other themes and motifs flow from there.

I fucking love this. There's something about a good brotherly conflict that's intensely appealing on an innate level, especially if the antagonist brother is evil, and especially if the antagonist brother is set up to be more capable and in control than the hero brother. Which he is, here.

Brotherly rivalry is classic for a reason.

Behind this conflict is a surprising amount of really cool world building. 

The history of this aquatic world is fascinating. The ancient Atlantis that existed above the sea, why it fell, how it fractured into seven kingdoms, how some of those kingdoms fell and others changed and, in the end, only a few were left. How there was an ancient super-king who wielded (what was essentially) a holy trident and ruled the unified Atlantis.

The Atlantians and their offshoots are supremely technologically advanced. They basically wear cool water-themed spacesuits and shoot plasma and wield plasma swords and whips and the like. They have robots and spacecrafts and cities that glow beneath the waves, rife with technology the surface can only dream of.

Each remaining kingdom is explored and plays a role in the story. They're not just background fluff. There's the main kingdom, ruled by Orm. There's the other still human looking kingdom, ruled by red-haired guy. There's a kingdom that became more fishlike and turned to philosophy and academics instead of warfare. There's a kingdom that fell to ruin and became lost in the Sahara desert. There's a kingdom that devolved into mindless monsters. And then there's a... weird crab people kingdom.

Red-hair is named King Nereus, but you'd be hard pressed to remember this if you know nothing about Aquaman characters going in.
You see them all. Every last one plays a large role in the story, even the one that no longer exists. Even red-hair's kingdom feels distinctly different from Orm's traditional Atlantis, and his citizens look different and carry different styles of weapons and ride different vehicles.

I realize that the story is pulling from Arthurian legend, but the way the high fantasy backdrop blends into the modern superhero story is seamless, unexpected, and awesome. It gives the plot a feeling of legitimacy and wonder that goes far beyond campy space villains. It feels like a journey to learn about a lost past, a journey to explore what became of that past, what has happened since then, what went wrong and how to fix it.

Arthur's journey of self-discovery, his journey to defeat his brother and visit the other kingdoms and find the lost trident of the old king, is made extremely enjoyable not only because we are sold on him as a character through Momoa's great acting and the unique take on an established character, but because of the world that he inhabits.

The art direction in this movie is... man. 

It's fucking amazing.

When I think of Atlantis, I think of something like this.

The movie fully embraced the DC universe's heavier aesthetic, however. And we were given this.

The luminous cities, the advanced armor, the character design, the vehicles, the weapons, the set pieces of giant tidal waves and huge krakens and battles between underwater armies all feel fully realized and fully unique. They also feel colorful and vibrant and alive, all while adhering to DC's "heavier" feel. It adapts to the new style without compromising the color of the classic style. A job well done on the part of the artists and special effects teams.

I especially love how everything underwater glows with the natural glow you'd see in the depths of the ocean, from the flora and fauna down there. Even the tech in the vehicles looks like that, like a jellyfish all lit up or the end of an anglerfish's lantern. It feels advanced and organic.

If I were to describe the art style in one word, it would be fusion. A fusion of old and new, natural and technical, industrial and organic.

I wish I could touch on the weapon design in this movie in more detail, but seeing as how it just came out, there aren't many ways to capture footage of the arsenals you see the characters in this movie carrying. Aside from the trident(s) the major players wield, everyone else is wielding some sort of Star Wars shit. And it looks way cooler than most Star Wars shit, because it's adhering to an aquatic theme that ends up looking extremely unique.

I'll have to come back and do a post on the fight choreography and weapon design once it's easier to grab pictures of it, because words alone can't do it justice. There's everything from sword fights to aquatic trident-battles with combatants zipping through the water to plasma whips to water-based superpowers to people riding sea creatures to futuristic guns that convert water into plasma. This movie has a lot of fight scenes, and they never, ever feel stale because each one introduces a new form of combat, often in ways you weren't expecting at all.

There's one particular scene with wine bottles that floored me.

The soundtrack was equally amazing.

This isn't even my favorite track, but it shows the fusion between old and new, the heroic anthem mixed with the industrial beats of the modern age, the spirit of a hero not being lost with said fusion, only enhanced. A King Arthur for a new age, in a place where nobody expected to find one. But one that works regardless.

Give the rest of it a listen, it's great. But it's even better in the movie itself. Obviously.

The movie is one of my favorites this year.

The only other DC movies I've seen are Suicide Squad and Justice League. This one felt like it came from an entirely different franchise. It was coherently written, had naturally flowing dialogue, underlying themes and motifs that resonated with me, and a hero's journey that was simultaneously traditional and modern.

I really liked this movie a lot.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Ranking the Red Moon: Akatsuki in Naruto

Akatsuki is one of the best villainous organizations I've seen in comic-style media. Naruto Part 2 gets a lot of hate, especially its anime counterpart of Shippuden, but I don't think even its detractors can say Akatsuki isn't an awesome set of bad guys, even if just on a visual level.

So, without further ado, allow me to rank each member and explain why they were all so damn cool.


1. Pain

I honestly loved this character to death, from his past to his relationship with Jiraiya to the twisted relationship he had with Yahiko after his death to his status as a fallen chosen one to his parallels to Naruto.

Nagato is perhaps the only parallel in the series to not feel exceedingly on point. For example, you have Kakashi and Sasuke, Orochimaru and Sasuke, Jiraiya and Naruto - all of these feel like they are screaming at you that "hey, look, these are the past generation versions of these characters and a glimpse of who they might become." Nagato is a little more subtle. He shares a similarity with Naruto in that he was Jiraiya`s student and really wanted justice in the world, and had that "something special" about him that drew others to him, but his techniques, appearance, and personality are all his own.

He was hyped up for hundreds of chapters as the mysterious leader of the most dangerous criminal organization in the world, and those years he spent as a rainbow shadow only made his eventual reveal all the more hype. He lived up to it, too, killing Jiraiya of all people in his first fight, in what would go down as one of the coolest fights in the series.

Intimidating, capable, cool, unique abilities and a unique relationship with the main cast in a way that didn`t feel hamfisted. What a great character.

2. Itachi

Sasuke`s mysterious older brother. I can`t say anything that hasn`t been said a thousand times elsewhere already.

Part of Itachi`s appeal is that we are introduced to him gradually through the character of Sasuke. Sasuke is introduced as a genius ninja. We later learn he has an older brother who is thrice the ninja he is and more, but more than that, he`s incredibly dangerous and responsible for killing Sasuke`s entire extended family. Holy shit. Throughout Part 1 we always wondered - why would he do that? Is he just a psychopath, or is there some other reason? He had a mystery about him that made him appealing.

His techniques are also just really, really cool - turning into crows, black flames that burn even fire, skill in all three forms of ninja combat, the works. He really felt untouchable, even up to the end. The twist that he was good all along seems to be divisive, but I loved it. It made his already appealing character a hundred times better.

The loving older brother, the perfect ninja, the tragic hero, the solemn warrior. Itachi is just too cool.

3. Kisame

I`m a sucker for water based characters, so I liked him a bit more by default, but he really was awesome in his own right. His shark water bullets, his water prison techniques, his ability to summon tidal waves, his giant scary sword - this guy`s shark theme was done justice.

He has the added benefit of being one of the first members we see, and of being Itachi`s partner, so we as readers had that added attachment to the character. His past as a rogue ninja who lived in one of the worst villages in one of the worst times in its history is also interesting, especially since he shares a connection with his partner Itachi in that he was forced to kill his comrades against his wishes. He and Itachi are both the "ultimate ninjas" in that regard - sacrificing everything for the mission. The scenes the two of them share have a unique feel when compared to the other Akatsuki members, where there`s a sense of mutual understanding and respect between them, but also a distance that precludes any sense of real friendship, showing that they`ve chosen to remain emotionally isolated because of their pasts.

Kisame held his philosophy until the end. Was he a good person? Not really, but he was empathetic and admirable, to a degree, despite his generally bad actions. Awesome voice actor, too.

4. Sasori

His resurrection arc excluded, Sasori is an amazingly terrifying villain. He first appears monstrous in the body of his puppet, and then after learning his past, we discover that he is an actual monster who turned his parents and even the Kazekage into puppets.

He was an appropriately psychopathic villain for a criminal organization, and he also gave us more insight into the Sand village and its history. I loved his dynamic with Deidara as two artists with conflicting ideas about what art is. His battle with Chiyo and Sakura is honestly one of the best fights in the series, especially when animated.

I don`t have much to say other than that, as he had the shortest run of any Akatsuki villain, but he definitely served his role well while he was there. What a great introduction to the rest of the organization in Part 2.

5. Deidara

Technically our first glimpse at the rest of the organization after their tease in Part 1, Deidara enters the scene by... fighting the new Kazekage, which is now Gaara, and defeating him. Whoa. That`s how you make an impression.

His exploding clay and brash, youthful arrogance give him a generally loud aesthetic that the other solemn members lack, and all of his techniques ended up being really creative for running with such a simple theme, which basically amounts to "statues that explode." His relationship with Sasori was great, but I also loved his relationship with goofball Tobi, which was often hilarious. Had a great fight against both Gaara and Sasuke. Loved how he`s one of the first Stone Village ninja we see.

6. Konan

An origami ninja? Awesome. Her past with Pain and her status as second in command and her angel motif gave her a lot of presence. Unfortunately, she didn`t get any really great fights. I put her higher because as a character, conceptually, I thought she was really cool, regardless of how she ended up being used. Great design and overall aesthetic. She looked very "heavy metal," and stands out quite a bit compared to the other female characters in the series.

7. Kakuzu

A ninja from an older time who keeps himself alive by stealing hearts. A man who cares for nothing but money. A cold and calculating ninja who doesn`t have the time for pleasantries or relationships. Kakuzu is the kind of villain I`d expect to see in a series about good ninjas vs. bad ninjas. He reminds me a bit of Zabuza in this regard, where he just feels like he fits the premise of the series.

Unfortunately, I didn`t find either his design, role, or abilities to be all that interesting. I don`t actively dislike this character, but I don`t find much to praise about him, either. Maybe it`s because he got shoehorned into a fight with Naruto and Kakashi in an arc that wasn`t about them.

8. Hidan

I found this character actively annoying. Sure, his death god theme was kind of cool, and fitting for the general atmosphere of Akatsuki, but his personality was shallow and his past was nonexistent despite being immortal. A cultist who serves an evil god who was able to become immortal by serving said god. The religious aspect felt out of place in a series about ninjas, especially because this "Jashin" is never explored any further and ends up feeling more like a plot device to make this particular character unable to die.

His whole schtick is that he`s unapologetically evil, but it fell a bit flat because it`s only ever explored at face value. The best thing about this character is that he let Shikamaru have his time in the sun by defeating him.

9. Zetsu

He was sort of creepy and appealing as a weird flytrap man who gathered information for the organization, but nothing good came out of this character, ever. In fact, everything involving him could probably be considered a low point of the series. The whole thing with White Zetsus being clones and Black Zetsu being "the will of Kaguya" and Zetsu fusing with a teenage Obito and... yeah. I really didn`t like him.

With only two real duds out of nine characters, I think Akatsuki was the bee's knees, my friends.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Undiscovered Treasures of Childhood: My Gaming El Dorado(s)

My gaming childhood mostly centered around Blockbuster and Nintendo Power. It was before the internet (90's kid here), so I never knew the release date of the games covered in Nintendo Power, which was my only source of information. I would frequently have to go to Blockbuster and hope for the best. Frequently, the game I wanted wasn't there. Frequently, if it was popular, the game I wanted was out of stock. Frequently, I didn't ever want to "waste" a rental on a game I was only tangentially interested in. This, understandably, left a lot of games from that era unplayed, including most handheld games.

This ended up creating a list of "legendary games" or "forgotten treasures" that hold an almost mythical place in my heart, to this day. On the off-chance that I have returned and visited these games, it's always been an amazingly cathartic experience, as if it's been a journey decades in the making.

Mega Man X3 was one of these experiences - it was the hardest original X game to procure, and by far the most expensive, sitting at the way-too-expensive-for-a-kid price of 80 dollars. I did eventually track down the game, trading a copy of X2 for it. The cartridge I got was mostly broken, and you had to open it up and wedge a screwdriver in there for it to even work at all. But! Finally playing the game I'd pined after for so long was absolutely amazing, especially because my best friend at the time shared my interest and longing for it. He borrowed it after I was done with it. It had been the subject of many a lunch table conversation, and we had found our holy grail at last.

The prospect of hunting down an almost legendary blue flower to propose to your loved one of choice was romantic even to my six year old self. I know, I'm a sap.
The original Harvest Moon was another. I remember longing after it in Nintendo Power, captivated by the bizarre prospect of a game solely about living a life on a farm, finding the premise utterly unlike anything I had ever seen before. I was always hoping it would one day appear on the shelf at my local Blockbuster. It never did, and I was only able to play it much, much later. It's for this reason that it was also one of the only lifelong longings to disappoint, as it was an object of my distant affection for a very long time, long enough for me to play Harvest Moon 64 before it - which is an all-around superior game.

Most, however, still remain untouched to me, even almost two decades later.

Some of these legendary, mythical games include:

Perfect Dark

This was a follow-up to Goldeneye for the N64, made by the same developers. And every kid knew Goldeneye was the best multiplayer game ever, so its spiritual successor had to be even better! It also had extensive coverage in Nintendo Power, for what seemed like a very long period of time, so I saw this game quite a bit... without ever actually seeing it, physically.

I still fantasize about the couch co-op experience that never was. I refuse to revisit it now, as its multiplayer-centric focus on a very dated console made it a product of its time, and I firmly believe that you had to be there to fully appreciate it.

Fun fact: The "Ghost Babel" subtitle was dropped in the US for some reason, with "Solid" adapted as the subtitle instead. This is why I used this cool key art instead of the box art. Why drop a cool name like "Ghost Babel?" That sounds awesome.

Metal Gear Solid: Ghost Babel

A game that's an alternative sequel to Metal Gear 2 for the MSX, which means it's set in an alternate universe to the Solid series on Playstation. Despite this, it feels more like the first Metal Gear Solid game than any other game in the series according to everyone I know who has played it. Whereas the mainline series went in different directions after the first game, focusing on things like social commentary, a vintage spy theme, or meta-commentary on the director's own experience of the aging process, this just looks like a tried and true, by-the-books sequel. A pseudo-anime stealth adventure with a colorful cast of characters and just the right amount of Hollywood cheese. I think a lot of people wanted that instead.

I should really play this. I'm hyping myself up for it all over again just writing about it.

Conker's Bad Fur Day 

I was, like most kids, a huge fan of platformers at the time. Being somewhat of a prude by nature, and much more so in my childhood than now, I avoided this game for its supposed adult and racy content. Not because my parents wouldn't let me play it (they would have) but because I would have felt dirty doing so. The way it was marketed, you'd think it was pornography or something. Turns out it's really just South Park style humor. Still, I've never gotten around to playing it or its remake.

Mario is Missing

Luigi looks... off. What is that enemy even doing?
I know what you're thinking. What the hell is this bad game doing on your list of legendary games? Isn't it universally hated and made fun of by almost everyone?

Hear me out for a second.

I would always see this at Blockbuster, calling out to me. "I'm a Mario game!" it said. "Luigi is the main character!" it said. But then I would look at the back of the box and see its questionable nature. Why waste my rental on an educational game? I ultimately made what I still think was a rational decision, especially for a gullible 1st grader, and passed on it every time. But its whispers still intrigue me, on a deep and primal level. It IS a Mario game, and it DOES star my favorite Mario brother, after all...

Beyond the Beyond

In the era of JRPGs, this game always looked to me like another Lunar or Wild Arms or Suikoden, titles I held very dear to my heart. But something about it seemed "off." I could never put my finger on what it was, either. The character design and overall art style looked like other games I liked. The genre seemed to fit my tastes. The weird Engrish-y name was a lot like other weird Engrish-y games I played and liked, like Wild Arms. But something in my gut told me I wouldn't enjoy it. Reviews I've read since then have clarified that as true. At the same time, its developer, Camelot, has made a lot of actually very good games, like Shining Force and Golden Sun. I know everyone says it's bad. I know it probably is. But, like Mario is Missing, the initial intrigue I felt towards it remains.

I think it's kind of funny how I'm perfectly content leaving these games untouched after pining after them so strongly in my youth. Some desires truly do fade with time. I'm still slightly curious about some of them, but for the most part, I'd be ok never playing any of these games for the rest of my life.

Except for Ghost Babel. That game is just hard to find. Still it eludes me!