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Incoherence Intensifies

Sorry for the late update.  Truth be told, it's been a reasonably miserable week for me. 

Real Life: Running Interference:

The younger sister came down with the nephew and niece.  Bless them, but I just did not have time for them this weekend.  Poor little guy got barely two or three hours with his uncle, after I returned from work, before he had to go back up north.  It was spent in Minecraft and I also showed him a little Mechwarrior Online, which he thought was cool.  Heaven forbid the poor guy try playing it alone with a bunch of cranky strangers, though.

The younger brother decided to celebrate 4/20 day by taking up smoking weed using a vaporizer.  No need to call the cops, we live in one of the few states where you can openly buy recreational weed in stores.  It has still been a nightmare for me because I am not a smoker, I never wanted to live in a house with a smoker, but he's brought the habit into our home.

Even though vaporizers are supposed to generate no odor, and he has at least had the good manners to close his door, I am getting blasted with swamp gas from his room.  Probably not the vapor itself, it's probably waste material.  What a massive invasion to my personal quality of living.  I am putting serious thought to seeing if I can afford to move out.  In the meanwhile, I've reorganized the airflow of my room significantly seeing if I can cut down on the smell of dog shit, which I suspect was used by his supplier to fertilize the plant.

I attended a training class today on a day I was not normally scheduled to work.  So between that and the things that happened in the last few paragraphs, I have been facing a significant reduction to my all-too-important "me" time over the past week.  Despite that, I've managed to have some fun.

Dog Days Is Pretty Great:

On my favorite pony board, one of the posters brought up an anime called Dog Days, and I decided to give it a watch since it is on Crunchyroll.  It does not rate particularly well on Anime News Network: merely a "decent" score by most viewers, better for those who have watched it.  However, I will say that Dog Days is good fun.
The Dog Days heroines are a tad too young to be super sexy, but they're
certainly cute and fun to watch!  The dog princess is the one in pink.

I should do an entry that better covers the anime when I finish watching it, but let me give you the basic feature rundown:
  • Our main protagonist is a high school boy (what else) who is a terrific athlete.
  • He gets summoned to another dimension by a cute princess of a medieval fantasy race of beautiful people with dog ears and tails.  She tells him that she needs him to be her kingdom's designated hero to help win a war!  
  • Fortunately for him, in this dimension, war is fun!  The land protects its people from death, they just spend some time morphed into a little animal ball and unconscious.  All the kingdoms have made a spectator sport out of it.  Naturally, our athletic protagonist is only too happy to participate, and does quite well.
  • Everybody in this dimension turns out to be overwhelmingly friendly, even the royalty of the various kingdoms are childhood friends with each other, and there is no real threat to life and limb other than the occasional demon (which have largely been banished or sealed anyway).  Our summoned hero soon makes a lot of new friends.
  • This sets the stage for a light romance between our boy protagonist and a bevy of cute girls, both from his dimension and the new one, if only because it might make for a decent visual novel down the line.  In the anime, it would appear that he is mostly smitten with our dog princess, and why not: in addition to being a cute, magical-sword wielding princess, she's also a pop idol!  Yes, that's ridiculous.  Yes, that's awesome.  Also, it seems this dog girl rather enjoys a friendly petting and game of Frisbee; she's certainly an easy date.
Dang, what a feel-good anime.  Who would not want to take a vacation to the land of beautiful friendly fantasy people and their harmless-but-fun war games?   The whole war scenario thing scans like it was intended to be a Dynasty Warriors clone but, to my knowledge, this has not happened yet.

I have not yet finished watching Dog Days, although I am halfway through season 2 now.  Each season is 12 episodes long, season 3 just finished airing in Japan last season, I hope Crunchyroll secures the rights to broadcast this season soon, and I would probably not say no to a season 4.  This anime will probably not rate better than, "very good" with me due to lack of intensity and overly-gratuitous wish fulfillment, but it runs on some otherwise fantastic production values and overwhelmingly likable characters.  I bet Dog Days has more replay value than the more heavy-hitting series because it is just plain fun.

Mechwarrior Online: Honeymoon's Over:

Well, I have done my part in supporting Piranha Studios by dropping $60 on their game, and I would still attest that Mechwarrior Online has an excellent engine for big, stompy robots.  However, I find myself once again in the altoholic mindset that there's no one character mech (battle robot) I can find myself particularly interested in playing.  It is a mindset that is often indicative of the developers doing too good of a job of balancing the game.

The problem is that each mech is fundamentally unsatisfying for me to use.  I am snubbing the clan mechs on principle of being overpowered, even if Piranha Studios has done a fair job of balancing them.  That might not make much sense, but suffice to say it is a deeply engrained reaction for many Battletech fans.  The remaining "inner sphere" mechs have the advantage in that you can swap out the engine to change their role, but egads, engines are extremely expensive, a high-rating XL engine regularly costs more than entire mechs!

There is just no satisfying answer to what mech I should be using.  Because your long term goal is to buy more mechs, there's ultimately no reason for me to be playing at all.  What else can I say?  Being a remarkably finicky gamer leads to some quick resolutions sometimes.

Revisiting Warframe:

Who wouldn't want to be an intergalactic space ninja?   I spoke of this game before, and am running short on time, so if you need more details of what Warframe is, read that.

About the only thing of significance I have to say here is that the developing studio, Digital Extremes, has been doing a fantastic job pumping out new content for it.  Returning to Warframe now delivered a real slew of cool new places to go, things to do, and equipment to be sorely tempted to buy with real money.  I do not think this game has any end in sight, and now as good a time as ever to eviscerate space tyrants.
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Big Stompy Robot Addiction

This bizarro weekend has been utterly consumed by MechWarrior Online.   I remember seeing PC Gamer raving about this late 2013-released game for quite some time, but this is the first time I played it.  I had been avoiding it because my Battletech roots are in the ancient MUSH I played back when I was a teenager, real time but completely textual versions of the game, which made me come to understand enough of the original board game rules to know that MechWarrior Online stomps all over it with big robot feet.

Battletech: where giant battle robots (mechs) can lose a few limbs!
My main hangup was that armor balance is ruined by giving pinpoint accuracy to players.  The board game rules split armor into eleven separate sections and all the armor of all the original mech designs were balanced in mind that weapons will impact them at random.  Most MechWarrior computer games allow players to pinpoint accuracy to shoot certain sections, eliminating the randomness, making the armor simulated by the original rules practically useless!  It is so bad that Mechwarrior 4 tried to resort to massively beefing up the armor count, but this just delays the inevitable while throwing weapon potency out of balance.

The balance issues with implementing pinpoint accuracy in a Battletech derivative gets even worse because the original weapon tables were balanced in such a way that longer ranged weapons are more accurate at longer ranges, and they pay for this with heat generation and size penalties.  Every MechWarrior game after the first one gave the players pinpoint accuracy, which means longer ranged weapons no longer have any accuracy bonus, but they kept the penalties in place, so large weapons end up a complete waste of mech design space!

Thus, I delivered an ultimatum to MechWarrior Online: implement cones of fire, or I have no reason to want to play this game.  Only by re-introducing an element of chance does the armor work, and having variable accuracy on weapons (longer ranged = more accurate) restores the balance to the way they were weighted.  I turned up my nose and snubbed the game for a good year and a half over this.
"Cones of fire" are disappointingly lacking from most computer games.  You can not shoot a gun with perfect accuracy in real life, but you can do it in a simulation using a mouse readily enough.  However, this is not really a realism complaint, cones of fire actually add an important element of chance to games which make them more interesting.
As it turns out, I was wrong to snub MechWarrior Online for this reason because Piranha Games has shown me there was another way.  Well, it is not that complicated: you just completely re-balance the weapons and change the way they work.

Of the various weapons offered by Battletech, lasers were the greatest potential game breaker without cones of fire, because a projectile that moves at the speed of light makes it rather easy to shoot exactly what you are pointing at.  Piranha's solution was to stop lasers from doing all their damage at once, instead spreading the damage over the period of a second (or less, depending on the weapon).  Indeed, this seems to have done the trick of introducing some random variation in damage distribution, as your target is unlikely to sit still while it's being bathed in hostile coherent light!  The rest of the weapons were less exploitable due to projectile travel time, but thankfully the missile barrages were given a cone of fire, as they were far too accurate in earlier MechWarrior games.

To solve the issue where longer ranged weapons are paying more in terms of size for less benefit due to cones of fire being removed, all the weapons have had their rate of fire made variable (whereas in the board game it was always 1 shot per turn per weapon), and other minor fixes, so huge weapons are now viable.  The days of running around with giant batteries of medium lasers are over, partly because the mech customization system has been balanced to prevent that many from being mounted on most variants of mechs, but mostly because the core heat generation and damage has been tweaked in such a way that this is no longer the path of least resistance.

Granted, I am not going to say this game is 100% balanced, as they committed the cardinal sin of implementing clan mechs.   These hostile invaders from outside the Inner Sphere possess far more powerful mechs than the main factions, and were originally intended by the Battletech board game to fight against three to one odds, but Piranha shoehorns them into matches simply by weight class (as far as I can tell).   To their credit, they are aware of the issue and have made some adjustments, but I think it is probably impossible for clan mechs to be truly balanced with Inner Sphere mechs while still remaining clan mechs.  I have been avoiding taking them out of principle, but I know I am just shooting myself in the foot when I could be abusing clan ER PPCs.

Free to Play, but not pay to win.

A sensitive topic of any "free to play" game is how much benefit spending real money gives you.  An unbalanced playing field dominated by Rockefellers is a real drag on any gamer's impetus to play.

However, I am happy to report that Piranha Games has found a nice balance because, in adhering reasonably well to Battletech mech design concessions, you can be sure that the "hero" and "champion" mechs you pay for are not genuinely that much better than the "free" versions you can purchase with in-game money.

Granted, there are a few "consumable modules" that come pretty close to granting an advantage for money, but in practice I found the advantage of the paid-only consumables to be limited.  With a nice level field, it all comes down to the skill in which you can deliver your weaponry to the foes while avoiding taking damage in return.  Speaking of which...

Thoughts on tactics.

Having spent the greater part of the last 72 hours in MechWarrior Online, I think I am prepared to level some observations about strategy in the game.   Yeah, okay, that normally would not be enough, but this is also coming at you from my experiences in previous games made from the franchise, now updated for this game.

Personal tactics:

Lesson number one is to never hold still, ideally not even approach the enemy head on, because this makes it too easy for them to target your center torso and gut your mech without touching the surrounding armor.  Rotating your torso is vital, because this spreads out incoming damage across the torso and helps prevent you from just being "cored" through the middle.

A rotated torso also allows you to fire at an enemy while moving perpendicular to their sight, which makes you a MUCH harder target, especially when you are close enough that it requires rotating their entire mech to keep up with you.  While moving, vary your speed, as it will make it much harder to compensate for your movement, possibly even leading to imperceptibly warping due to Internet latency.

Really good mechwarriors on this game will both force the enemy to damage their least damaged sections while aiming well enough to take out the enemy's most damaged sections.  Regardless of what you are piloting, you will find it ideal to be unpredictable.  Defeat comes quickly to those who sit still, approach head on, or walk right up into waiting crosshairs.

Unlock those arms!  By holding down the left shift (default binding) as you mouselook (which normally just rotates the torso), you get a secondary crosshair uncoupled from your central crosshair.  This represents the range of movement of the arms, which can fire further than the torso can rotate.  Of course, any torso-mounted weaponry will continue to fire straight forward at the main crosshair, but if you have an arm-mounted weapon that can reach what you are pointing at, then you should be able to hit it. This becomes vital when dealing with circle-strafing light mechs, but can be handy in any situation in which a little extra aim is all it takes to win.
Mechwarrior Online is a gorgeous CryEngine game, but if you find yourself facing multiple foes at once without at least as many allies firing back at them, then you are standing in the wrong place.  (This screenshot looks mildly familiar...)
Team strategy:

The general rule of thumb for many new players is to try to keep everybody together in one big formation so the maximum number of guns are being fired at enemies: fight together or die alone.  However, I have found that this does not always work, and the reason for this is because it is actually a bit more complicated than staying together or splitting up.  Victory is actually determined by whoever musters the most effective firing lines.   This entails having the maximum number of friendly mechs firing upon enemy mechs while having the least number of enemy mechs firing back.

Simply packing yourself together can backfire when you block eachother's shots, which means only your mechs in front will be able to fire, and if there are more enemies firing back then you lose.  Yet, if you simply spread out so everybody can fire, this is still no sure victory, because the enemy can come at you from an angle in such a way that more of them can see less of you, and pick you off one at a time.

The solution is not simply packing together nor spreading out, but rather constantly maneuvering to assure that your firing lines are better than the enemy's for the greatest amount of time.  (Of course, no matter how good your firing lines are, if your pilots can't aim worth beans and mitigate incoming damage appropriately, you are going to have a disadvantage.)  This is a perpetual team challenge that keeps the game interesting.

Knowing your role:

Your team will be set up with a light lance, a medium lance, and a heavy lance.  ("Lances" are a battletech term for four mechs.)  The light lance's job is usually to scout enemies and to screen heavy mechs from being swarmed by faster mechs.  The heavy lance brings the bigger amounts of damage, and protecting them is important, although many heavies are built to be unbeatable in a head on assault.  The medium lance falls in the middle, perhaps falling in with the heavies, perhaps angling for a nice flank strike.  It should be noted that there is a rough approximation of which means end up in which lances, depending on available players, so you may decide that your "light" mech really belongs in the medium or heavy lances, or vice versa, and that's fine (the slower you are, the heavier the lance you want to run with).

An important epiphany was found when I realized that light mechs are actually useful versus heavier mechs.  The funny thing about the way MechWarrior Online is balanced is that your core engine heat dissipation is relatively similar whether you are piloting a 20 ton mech or a 100 ton mech.  If you have a 250 rating engine (or greater) and double heat sinks, that is 20 effective heat sinks, and it is hard for even assault mechs to do much better (you could pull roughly 35 effective heat sinks at most) because critical slot limits severely hamper your ability to just plug in more and also placed double heat sinks only are 1.4x as effective as standard heat sinks (contrary to 2x of the engine inclusive double heat sinks).
So lighter mechs can make up for their lack of weapons by simply firing as often as they can, trying to fully leverage their roughly equivalent heat dissipation.  However, do not face heavier mechs head on!  They have more armor, so they will surely win in a protracted slugging match regardless of if they face the same heat restrictions!  Note that heavier mechs rotate slowly, and an excellent mechwarrior in a light mech can often make it very difficult to retaliate against them, but this is a risky gambit.  Do not think of your light mech as disposable, as you can pull some pretty good damage numbers with a good weapons loadout and if you survive long enough.

When building a heavier mech, remember that large ballistic weapon loadouts have a heat advantage, and only heavier mechs can really mount many of them.  This is how you can get around your heat sink limitation: mount a decent amount of energy weapons, but combine that with ballistic and/or missile weapons so you can better leverage your tonnage as raw damage per second output.  A well-built heavy mech can steamroll any unfortunate light mech that thinks better evasion and roughly equivalent heat dissipation is all they need for a toe-to-toe fight, whereas overly-specialized heavy mechs may find themselves a plaything for a good pilot in the lightest of mechs.

In conclusion:

Mechwarrior Online is damn addictive, and I want my last three days back.
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Referent To Your Heart

It is common for a mangaka (manga author) to get intricately involved in the subject matter of their comic.  However, what if the comic is about the performing arts themselves?  After all, the very goal of acting is to weave a compelling illusion for the benefit of its viewers, the same as a manga.  The effect should be magnifying.

So goes my theory as to why Skip Beat! is as fantastic as it is.  It is one of the more foremost shojo mangas in existence, still ongoing from its 2002 origins to today with rave reviews and an international readership.
From left to right, Ren, Kyoto, and Shō.

Of course, I am here to talk mostly of the anime.  It aired in 2008 and relatively faithfully reproduces the happenstances in the manga from chapters 1 to 66.  (So faithfully that I find myself backsliding to talking about the manga by accident.)  Weighing in at 25 episodes, the anime was produced by Hal Film Maker.  Currently, Skip Beat! can be seen on Crunchyroll.

The story is centered on 16-year-old Kyoko Mogami, our leading lady and protagonist.  Entertainingly, she is rather prone to mood swings and adorable hysterics.  As the story begins, she has dropped out of high school and is working several jobs in order to support the decadent lifestyle of her childhood friend, 16-year-old Shō Fuwa. Shō is an up and coming music star pretty boy whose talent is as overwhelming as his egotism.  While Shō broke into the music industry, Kyoko was mostly breaking her butt keeping him afloat whilst worshiping him from afar.

Tired of barely ever seeing him, Kyoko sneaks into Shō's recording office and overhears him bragging to his manager about "some girl he cares nothing about" slaving to support his wonderful resplendence but, now that he has made it big, he does not need her anymore.  Kyoko's love instantly turns to a burning desire for revenge!  She calls Shō out for his behavior and declares her vendetta, to which he mocks her, "If you want to beat me, you will have to enter showbiz, otherwise you are too far beneath me to matter!"  His words echo in her head as she is dragged away by security.
Hell hath no fury.
Thus, the inauspicious start of a new star.  Kyoto slashes her expenses and quits most of her jobs, spending her remaining savings on a major makeover.  Then she beats down the door of a major talent agency that opposes Shō's. It is here where she first meets 20-year-old Ren Tsuruga, the swave number one male actor who is quite kind but extremely professional.  When he hears Kyoto's motivation to become a star, he is deeply offended, and treats her coldly.  Thus, he ends up on number two of Kyoto's revenge list, somebody she wishes to overtake!

After being tossed out of the agency, Kyoto stalks and torments the head of the talent agency's talent section until he finally relents and allows her to at least participate in a talent audition.  There, Kyoto actually reveals she has an incredible amount of guts, one of the major things an aspiring starlet needs.  However, in the second round, she reveals a major shortcoming, and is again rejected by the talent agency.

Unknown to Kyoto, the president of the talent agency was entranced by something about her, sensing unique characteristics that may make her an incredible talent.  He makes a special arrangement that, should she return, she would by taken into a brand new department centered on returning to her the one thing she lacks the most: the desire to be loved.  After a few days away, she does indeed decide to try again, and is shocked to be immediately inducted as the first member in the new "Love Me!" department, complete with gaudy jumpsuit and point-earning system.

And so the story goes; like a good soap opera, it just goes on and on with increasing depth and significance for the characters.

Of course, the whole setup here is to eventually create a love triangle.  Kyoto eventually makes big enough of a splash that Shō notices her and realizes he made a great mistake in rejecting this remarkable individual, especially considering they are childhood friends.  Ren is surprised to discover that he is enchanted by Kyoto's incredible moxie on and off the stage, despite her particularities, but he does not feel he deserves to be loved, and their age difference bothers him.  Who is Kyoto going to end up with?  Hopefully Ren, because he certainly deserves her more.  However, if you like a bad boy, Shō is all about that.  Best not be hoping for a quick resolution for this, though, as this tug of war for Kyoto's affections has been going on for over 30 volumes now.

I think perhaps the strongest strength of the series is that the stories progress smoothly from chapter to chapter.  More often than not, the end of the chapter of one story is a cliffhanger that leads into the beginning of the next.  This is just one of the hallmarks of the excellent authorship that includes strong characters, powerful situations of drama (and a decent smattering of comedy), and a wonderful sense of pacing that hardly ever feels rushed (quite leisurely compared to most works).

In the end, I had to give the Skip Beat! anime an "Excellent" (10/11) rating, coinciding with what appears to be the majority sentiment about it.  It did not quite reach "Masterpiece" level on the grounds that it is slightly too centered on reality to produce the fantastic imagery I expect from more imaginative works and, more importantly, that the series ended too soon, on a cliffhanger.  It is definitely a shame it did not get a second season, although there was a 15-episode live action show made in 2012.

Fortunately, if you want to know how the story continues at the end of the anime, you can just jump right into the manga in chapter 67 and go from there.  There are over 200 chapters of Skip Beat! so you will definitely not be wanting for plot... at least, until you get to the end, because the manga is not finished yet!
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Adorable By Moonlight

The latest anime to fall off the end of my procrastination is MoonPhase (a.k.a Tsukuyomi: Moon Phase), which is basically a cute comedy with some romance centered on an adorable little pure-blood vampire named Hazuki.  However, despite enjoying it enough to give it a 9 out of 11, I am afraid there is not a whole lot to say about it.

Hazuki is a vampire princess, 14-years-old, walled away from the world for evil-knows-what reasons.  (There is something about overpowering her innocent personality with an implanted evil personality, known as Luna.)  Since Hazuki has been in isolation since she was very young, she does not have much in the way of manners, but she is understandably very lonely beneath that cute but bratty exterior of hers.  Being a vampire, she sucks blood once a full moon. What can I say? Japan loves their lolitas, and a vampire status is as effective an obfuscating excuse for that as any.

Kouhei Morioka is a 21-year-old photographer who can only get commissions working for a paranormal magazine because even his most innocuous photos tend to accidentally capture paranormal things.  Despite that, he is frustrated to be unable to see or combat spirits in the way the rest of his remarkable family can.

While on journalistic assignment to snap a creepy "abandoned" castle in Germany, Kouhei is surprised to find Hazuki there.  After a bit of smalltalk, Hazuki bites his neck, binding Kouhei as her blood slave in an attempt to use him to escape her confines.   To her surprise, she discovers that he is completely immune to her supernatural powers of persuasion!  However, despite being annoyed at Hazuki trying to order him around, Kouhei takes pity on her and helps her to escape in a dramatic supernatural conflict with the guardian of the castle.

Returning to Japan, Hauzki ends up adopted by Kouhei's family, which turns out to be a lineage of powerful Shinto priests.  Like most Shinto priests in anime, Kouhei's family is capable of manifesting spiritual power to combat evil.  That's good, because a central fixture of most of the conflicts in this anime is that vampire aristocracy keeps trying to recapture Hazuki.  Throughout the anime, Hazuki is slowly reformed by the kindness of Kouhei and the wisdom of his family.

Though comedy, action, and drama take the front seats in MoonPhase, a certain romance blossoms between Hazuki and Kouhei, but Kouhei is decent enough of a guy not to come on to a 14-year-old.  It is more like Hazuki comes to have a crush on Kouhei because he has done so much for her, and Kouhei becomes fiercely protective of Hazuki because she becomes very dear to him and he does not want her vampire relatives to resign her to a fate of being a dangerous parasite.  Their affection mostly manifests as quarreling, although once a full moon Hazuki needs to "kiss" him, and Kouhei comes to like her enough to graciously accommodate this.
The animation studio, SHAFT, is known for some oddball, creative openings, and MoonPhase's is one of the best examples of such.
Note the overwhelming underscoring of how cute Hazuki is, despite her mostly being a brat or in peril on the show.

Overall, MoonPhase is a well-put-together anime with a solid flow from beginning to end, likable characters, and exciting supernatural conflicts; comedy (often fourth-wall breaking) abounds while Hazuki acts adorable and Kouhei's family stands up against various horrors that come for her.  I also enjoy its relative innocence; Moonphase does not brutalize its viewers with panty shots or other examples of gratuitous ecchi.  I do not think anyone would feel they wasted their time giving it a watch.

So why not a "masterpiece" rating; if nothing is wrong with MoonPhase, why settle for "very good?"
  • All that forth wall breaking undermines its seriousness somewhat.  Regular cutaways on scenes (especially the Kouhei's house) reveal it is taking place on a stage.  A running gag is metal pans and such falling on the characters head, usually completely out of nowhere.  That's a good gag, but if the anime is not going to take itself seriously, why should I?   As a rule, I only rate better than "very good" for shows that have increased levels of emotional involvement.
  • I wanted to watch a romantic comedy, but what Hazuki and Kouhei have going on in the anime is not much of a romance.   Not that I necessarily want to watch a 21-year-old macking on a 14-year-old, but there is a massive block on reciprocating their affections, and they do not quite have enough time to get over it in the course of the anime.  Again, this puts a cap of my emotional investment.
  • The anime ends too abruptly.  They spend about 8 episodes winding up this tremendous plot line about how Kouhei is training himself to have the skills to protect Hazuki, which gets even more interesting when it backfires because it reveals to him how monstrous Hazuki's spiritual nature is.  Suddenly, Kouhei goes from gibbering in terror from seeing Hazuki to kicking butt and rescuing Hazuki.  That lasts a span of about 5 minutes, then he immediately re-seals his power, defeating the purpose of the past 8 episodes!  After that, the anime is essentially over: there's two more episodes, but they're basically just goofy catharsis.  It does not end this way in the original manga, instead Kouhei leaves his power unsealed and continues to try to get better at dealing with their side effects.  The anime revision let all the air out of the story for the sake of wrapping up the season in one easily-syndicated package, and I think it deserved better than that.
Yet, despite these things that hold it back, MoonPhase is far from a bad anime.   I like the characters, I like the comedy, I like the supernatural plot, and it is even well-executed in what little romance there is.  This would be a decent addition to anyone's collection.  The manga concluded with 16 volumes in 2008, 3 years after the anime aired, so there is a reasonable continuation of the story available for fans.
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The Spatials Is Almost Special

The Spatials has recently made a Steam release.  Despite being cheaply priced and put together by a two-man team, what was delivered is a time-consuming experience with not all that bad of an entertainment return.  However, there are a few chinks in its armor that leave me wishing the developers gave it another month.

The greatest feature of The Spatials is that it is essentially four games in one, seamlessly integrated and running simulaniously in real time for as long as you run the game.
  1. The space station building part.  Top-down, isometric perspective, empire building game.

    This is a fairly rudimentary Dwarf Fortress clone, not as sophisticated as that game, but then, Dwarf Fortress is a labyrinthine mess of sophistication, so I can hardly fault the developers of The Spatials for simplifying and streamlining everything behind an extremely user-friendly GUI.
  2. The universe-exploring part.  Top-down, isometric perspective, real-time squad combat game.

    Choose a planet to explore and, once you get there, it is basically a superior version of Cannon Fodder with procedural generation and a five-member away team you customize with abilities unique to their class.  Also, unlike Cannon Fodder, there is no permadeath: if all your officers are sent to stasis, they just grouse around your space station with personal problems until they are adequately recovered for another mission.
  3. The autonomous mission-assigning part.  Menu-driven mission assignment game.

    You can buy contracts to send groups of three of your officers off to recover loot, resources, and experience points. There’s a straight up percentage chance of success and these missions resolve in real time, off-screen.
  4. The officer managing part.  Menu-driven squad management game.

    This is primarily where you assign recovered loot to the give members of your away team and look forward to seeing what they can do as they level-up, as well as what impact this will make on their needs.
Overall, if you are just looking to burn a lot of time, The Spatials gives you a great breadth of worthwhile activities to do, and the four modes all running at once lends to a sense of immersion.
Here is splattercatgaming with some reasonably up-to-date gameplay footage.
Of course, the trouble with having four games in one is that you risk a lack of fidelity for each part of it, perhaps even not quite achieving a truly complete game.  Indeed, I found this to be the main weakness of The Spatials:
  1. In the space station building part, the weakness can be quickly discovered if you follow around a high-leveled officer in their routine.  They will largely ignore some vitals (needs) while over saturating vitals that have been met.  They are not blundering around your station, falling into beds and showers at random, but it is hard to tell!  What is the point of giving us various means of solving depleted vitals if the officer AI does not care enough to do it?!

    Another vital missing feature is the ability to set up automatic queues whereupon your officers will only try to produce enough items to meet a certain supply threshold.  This feature is not quite an industry standard in Dwarf Fortress clones, but it should be.
  2. In the universe-exploring part, there is an unfortunate lack of variety to the procedurally generated missions.  Granted, there is a brief, custom-designed mission for each solar system (and that is pretty impressive considering there are 50 solar systems).  However, most of your away time will be spent killing pirates, their officers, and their structures.  Star Trek this ain't, it's more like Starship Troopers with the never-ending deluge of pest mopping to do.
  3. In the autonomous mission-assigning part gets real monotonous by the time you have sent out your 1000th contract completion team.  There's no right answer here, such is game design, but I can think of a couple.
  4. The officer management part is perhaps the scrappiest of them all.  You get a ton of loot to equip your officers with, but it does not matter considering only five of your officers ever need to be equipped.  Yet, if you had to equip all of them, it would be a chore.  As it is, it's a bit of a chore just to equip your five. 

    Then you get into how the vitals AI does not work very well, and the officer screen starts feeling like a bit of a farce: in order for me to take these officers seriously, they really need to act more like people and less like data.
Perhaps the worst part of the game is that it is overwhelmingly easy.  While you can challenge yourself if you rush through sectors and try to do combat missions with under-leveled away team members, or even repeat same-level planets on higher difficulties, that is about where the challenge ends.  Keeping your officers and visitors happy on your station is as easy as falling off a captain's log: they are either very easy to satisfy or the AI was too dumb to meet their own needs anyway.  After awhile, credits start flowing in automatically from your space station, so you afford to keep throwing your officers at autonomous missions, thereby eliminating your officer level and loot problems forever.  Clearly, this is a casual-friendly game.

But then, egads I'm a finicky gamer, I cannot hold a two-man development team that responsible for being unable to deliver perfection.  As it stands, I have decided to put the game down for a bit and see if they bother to improve it, post-release, because I would hate to burn out on this game when it is in the state it is now.  Yet, I have to admit, even if they decided to move on to another product right now, there are far worse ways to spend $12.50 than the current release state of The Spatials.
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This Entry, The Joke's On Me

For April Fool's day this year, I am going to talk a bit a miserable failure to finish my most recent anime.  In earlier versions of the previous entry about Chobits, I mentioned moving on to Mahoromatic next, as it seems a logical progression in the whole romantic-comedies-heading-in-the-direction-of-robot-girls schtick I seemed to be up.   I have since removed mention of Mahoromatic from the entry.  Surprise!

What happened?  Gainex happened.  This studio is somewhat infamous for weird reinterpretation decisions and sometimes gratuitous fanservice.  Their treatment of making the Mahoromatic manga into a anime thoroughly repelled me, to the point where I simply could not continue past halfway through season 1.

A short summary then:
  • Suguru Misato is a geeky (130 IQ) junior high student everyboy living in Tokyo, alone, because his parents are dead.  A decent fellow, he does not succumb to the cheesecake he is regularly subjected to, but that is about all I can say about him.
  • Mahoro Androu is an elite combat android inexplicably manifest in a junior high girl's body, created by a secret paramilitary force to secretly fight off an alien invasion that has been going since the 80s.  Due to her absolutely wonderful personality, her doting superiors allow her to live as a civilian for the rest of her existence, which amounts to 398 days.  She chooses to serve Suguru as his live-in maid, partly because (unknown to Suguru) she killed his father in a standoff with aliens and she wants to make it up to him, partly because she is such a charitable soul that she wants to stay busy and committed to a worthwhile endeavor even in her final days.  (Not, as some people seem to think, because this anime is promoting the idea that women are happiest when in the kitchen or doing housework; Mahoromatic objectifies women in most other ways, but not this one: see Saori Shikijo.)
  • Saori Shikijo is a woman in her mid-20s who is an absolute travesty to women everywhere - nay, human beings everywhere.  Though she teaches in junior high, she perpetually obsesses over her own gorgeous figure, arbitrarily decides to compete with Mahoro for Suguru's affections, regularly gets drunk off her ass, and (even when sober) loses herself to her dirty-minded fantasies as she dry-humps Suguru (a minor) in the middle of a crowded department store while wearing little more than a string bikini.  Why do Suguru and friends let her hang out with them?  Why has she not been arrested yet?  Because rule of sexy, she's there because she has big boobs and they have a tendency to escape garments on camera.  If Saori was completely removed from this anime, it would have been significantly more bearable to anyone whose brain is not mostly running on testosterone.
  • And also Suguro has some high school friends his age and a cousin and stuff but who cares they're just barely fleshed out supporting characters with some vestigial boob potential.
  • In the second season, Mahoro's little sister Minawa shows up to live with Suguru and be his maid too, has a load of personal problems, but is otherwise a gratuitous loli and yet another reason for me to never want see the second season.
I don't know who this anime was made for.  The genre is classified as "seinen" (older males), and the manga was serialized in a publication whose main readership is 18 years and up.  At times (especially later in the series) it gets dark and even gory with the sci-fi trappings of interplanetary conflict.  Somewhere in here is the trappings of a decent romance.  However, on the way there, we're subjected to puerile scenarios that look like they're targeted for people with a 14-year-old sense of humor.

For example, in episode 4, a giant mechanical crab monster escapes from an American warship (they had hoped to reverse engineer it) and ends up on a beach where Suguru, Mahoro, and his school chums are.  Apparently damaged by American meddling, it proceeds to systematically strip the swimsuits from all the girls on the beach.  So they're all running around naked and fearing for their lives while I am imagining the cheesy 80s college humor movie music going on in the background.  Mahoro engages it in a battle so badly choreographed that I wonder if they hired Kennedy Cartoons to animate that bit, but touchingly Suguru puts his life on the line helping her aim her gun when the giant crab monster blinds her.

The episodes I have seen seem to do whatever it takes to show us  tits.  Episode 1: Let me wash your back, master.  Episode 2: Saori wants in the bath, too!  Episode 3: Whoops, the bath exploded, lets visit the Japanese bathhouse.  Episode 4: Lets go to the beach... but first, the bikini store!  Episode 5: Turns out Saori likes the skinny dip in the school pool at night.  Episode 6: Oh dear, it rained, and now my summer kimono is all see through.   Yes, most of these are tired trope settings (bathhouse, lingerie store, high school, summer festival) but with the fanservice turned up to 11.
Mahoro's catchphrase: "Ecchi na no wa ikenai to omoimasu" ("I think that dirty thoughts are bad")
Research tells me that episodes 7-12 undergo a major change in tone, away from bawdy slice-of-life, where Mahoro's military past catches up to her and she is forced into a fight an alien Android despite being retired.  It may become something more resembling gritty Sci-fi, to the point where it is actually sort of weird there is a goofy romantic comedy happening at the start at all.  If that is the case, these first six episodes do not represent the series at all.  Unfortunately, after enduring the first half of the first season, I just don't trust it enough to try.   For that matter, I have a hard time caring about these characters because, with the exception of Mahoro and Suguru, they're not at all important or needed for the plot to work, mostly foisted as sex objects. 

I probably should care a bit about Mahoro, because she's just a wonderful person (which undermines her android credibility somewhat) but the fact of the matter is she's going to die, it has been stated by her engineer at the beginning of the series that she has exactly this many days left to live, and she knows this.   Apparently her and Suguru are going to fall in love over the course of the anime, and that's just downright tragic.  The fact she is going to die is irrevocable, with only reincarnation offering a potential for a happy ending.  The anime hammers the viewer with how many days she has left to live at the end of every episode in big bold letters.  So each episode is essentially communicating, "Hey, wasn't Mahoro the sweetest, most courageous being you ever met in this episode?  She's still going to die, though."

If I was not already bouncing off the anime pretty hard from the gratuitous fanservice, I am brick walled by this unnecessary finality of the only character that made it worth watching.  From what I have seen so far, I would give Mahoromatic a "Not Very Good" (5/11) on the Anime News Network rating.  However, in average, it actually scores reasonably well, at about 7.5 (half way between "Decent" and "Good).   I have some theories about this:
  • Maybe the latter half of season 1 is great.  
  • Maybe this anime is just intended for another audience than myself.  
  • Maybe Gainex fans have flooded the scoring system and gave it about 2 more points than it deserves.    
  • Maybe a lot of the fans of the manga rated the anime by mistake.
Perhaps I will steel my depleted frontal lobe and wade into this locker room of immaturity to find the truth... but I hope I have made clear why I really do not want to. So I cheated and read the last 100 pages of the manga, instead. As it happens, the Mahoromatic manga had a pretty great ending, I could see why there was a demand for an anime based off of this property.  It is a pity Gainex decided to "improve" things, souring the much needed catharsis from the manga with ambiguity.  Maybe, after being told by their bosses to implement that much tits, they came to hate their viewers, and this was their way of getting revenge.
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Chobits: An Unexpected Sci-Fi Treasure

When I was in junior high, I finally picked up an Amiga to replace my aging Commodore 64.  As I packed it into its original box and tucked it into the top of my closet, never to be fired up again, I found that there was a great deal of sighing.  So many good times, I think I had grown to love it.  But is it wrong to love a computer?

Sometimes, the ladies can not help but feel a bit threatened of the attention men lavish on computers, but when the brilliant four woman team of CLAMP approached this problem, what they delivered was Chobits.  This is the most thought provoking anime I have seen in years, the end of which was freshly streamed to my pensive brain as of a few minutes ago.

The premise of Chobits is one of near-future cyberpunk idealism.  Imagine if computers underwent the ultimate step in user-friendliness, and now were shaped like people.  You go down to the local "persocom" store, and arrayed on display are a number of deactivated androids, cute as a button, the horrors of the uncanny valley well behind them.  They have been engineered to be waterproof and warm to the touch.  The main characteristic that helps tell a persocom from a person is the stylish access ports coming out of the sides of its head, almost like cat ears.

So you buy a persocom, and the salesman fires it up.  It opens its eyes and, after a brief access time, turns to smile at you (surely a programmed behavior) and asks you if you are its new master.  You shyly confirm that you are, and immediately feel apprehensive.  Why should you feel shy?  It is just a computer, after all, even if it is shaped like a person.  So you take your new computer home, it walking with you, helpfully answering questions thanks in part to its ability to access the Internet wirelessly.  Though your new persocom is mostly silent, just awaiting user input, you can not help but feel you have established a certain rapport.

Persocoms are great, they can do just almost everything a person can.  They can be programmed to perform tasks.  They can earn money doing jobs, provided somebody is willing to pay you for lending them.  They even have a natural learning function, so you may be surprised just what it is that your persocom learns to do in order to please you.  No wonder you can hardly go anywhere without seeing happy people walking with their persocoms.
So it is that there emerges a real fear among people.  Not of persocoms, but of their superiority to people.  Why would a person want to have anything to do with other people when they are so unreliable and selfish in comparison with a persocom?  A persocom is a perfect companion.  Maybe, with a few modifications, a perfect lover, too?  But persocoms do not have emotions, not like people, because they are just computers.  Everyone knows, deep down, everything a persocom does is just a program, no matter how advanced and lifelike it might seem.

Some people have said that this anime actually objectifies women due to the subservient behavior of the persocoms, but personally I think that this interpretation is bunk.  For starters, there are points in the series where persocoms do act against their owner's wishes.  However, I think the greater point here is not about how ideal subservient people are, I think the point is whether people prefer computers over people.  Because, after all, computers are pretty neat!  If computers were more like people, what then?  That is the premise on the table.

Despite this interesting premise, Chobits spends the bulk of its time emulating something else: a typical magical girlfriend romantic comedy!  Thus, a thin veneer of slapstick comedy and naughty shock humor is lavished on the surface of the elephant in the room (the future of android/human relations).  Yes, this is a bit like smearing shit on the Mona Lisa, but I guess CLAMP had to pitch it to the manga publications somehow.

As Chobits begins, Hideki Motosuwa is the last person you should ask about persocoms.  Hideki is a 19-year-old strapping young man whose earnest mind knows little more than how to do the daily chores back at his family's farm.  His simplicity lands him in trouble because he keeps failing college entrance exams.  For this reason, he takes his limited savings and moves to Tokyo in order to attend Seki cram school.  Frankly, I think Hideki's idiocy is the main flaw in the series, he gives even yokels a bad name with his lack of sound judgement.  The series could have been more interesting with a more identifiable leading man, even if it would be tougher to crack jokes as his expense.
Main Chobits cast.  Hideki and Chi are foremost center.  The other characters are not discussed to much great detail in this blog entry, but they all have their own stories about persocoms interfering with conventional ideas of what relationships are.
Though he knows next to nothing about persocoms, Hideki would love to have one because he hears it can (among other things) get him access to lots of Internet porn!  However, Hideki cannot afford a persocom; he can barely even afford rent!  Lucky for him, on the way back to his apartment, he comes across a persocom simply waiting to be taken out with the trash!  Is there something wrong with it or has it been replaced with a newer model?  Hideki decides to chance it, and takes it home.  Not knowing anything about persocoms, he accidentally leaves its software in the trash heap.  Whoops: there will be no Internet porn for him!

The first real challenge with his new persocom is finding where the power switch is located.  After trying everything else he can think of, he suppresses his bashfulness and fingers it.  Sure enough, her power button was right in the ol' robo-vagoo!  This an example of the kind of shock humor that their being androids allows persocoms to subvert.  Another thing that happens with nauseating frequency is persocoms drawing attention to the softcore porn magazines he leaves laying all over the apartment, inadvertently mocking his libido like only a naive automaton can.

Normally, when a persocom is completely lacking in software, it would not even be able to move, but Hideki's new persocon can.  All she can say is, "Chi," so Hideki names her Chi, and she is overjoyed to have a name, smothering him with a hug.  Hideki cannot afford software, but fortunately Chi seems to have some built-in learning software, so over the entirety of the series Hideki teaches Chi everything, and she becomes less a complete infant and more an individual.
Chi's remarkable cuteness is a central fixture of the series.  Computers cannot be this cute!
Throughout it all, Chi acts every bit as adorable as she looks.  Chi is also quite devoted to Hideki: after all, not only is she his persocom, but Hideki is the one who adopted her and is caring for her.  Although Hideki does indeed endeavor to take pretty good care of Chi, to the point of worrying about her constantly, he once again annoys me by falling prey to a running gag of getting embarrassed whenever Chi disrobes or wears anything remotely revealing despite her being a persocom.  Of course, Chi does that kind of thing constantly out of cute naivety but, unlike Hideki, she has an valid excuse for holding up her end of the sexual slapstick.

Would this anime have been as interesting if Chi was just an ordinary persocom?  Honestly, it probably would.  It is a very rich premise!  However, it soon becomes clear that there is more to Chi than meets the eye.  Despite being found as somebody else's trash, she may actually be a legendary persocom known as a Chobit.  This means she has extremely powerful hardware; if the average persocom is a personal computer, Chi is a supercomputer mainframe!  At times, she even flits about through the air, angelically (perhaps supercharging whatever manner of anti-gravity device allows persocoms to reduce their weight when active).  More importantly, even if she theoretically cannot have genuine feelings, she seems to put out an unusually good imitation!  It is almost as though Chi was custom designed to be able to love... which, of course, she was, or this would not be much of a romance, would it?  Chobits are considered urban legends born of wish fulfillment for this reason.

Surprisingly, CLAMP condones Chi's love, and ends this anime having come full circle to the opposite perspective they started: it is no longer a question of whether or not people should prefer persocoms over other people; the question becomes whether or not it is appropriate for people not to reciprocate the love of a persocom solely on the basis that they are to be regarded as mere machines.  Chi's whole existence is a test left behind by the original creators of persocoms, and Hideki is the one who is on trial for humanity.  Can a human being love an android unconditionally, regardless of how there are some things a persocom simply can't do?  I have to wonder if CLAMP might have been forced into this position because Chi turned out to be too endearing to their readers, or if this was their intent all along.

This anime gets an Excellent (10/11) on the Anime News Network from me.  Maybe this is a point more than it really deserves, mostly because Hideki's moronic antics really pull the whole thing down.  However, I will give it that point right back because this is a thoroughly unique premise and it is executed in a way that shines even through Hideki's bungling.  You can find other anime about robotic girls, but you will rarely find an anime that handles it with the same kind of intrigue as Chobits, and fewer still with the same degree of lighthearted innocence.

That is a shame, because if you are hungry for more, you will not likely find it (most other robot girl animes are sadly just excuses to skirt the censors for the fanservice).  CLAMP never did decide to revisit Chobits after wrapping it up with 8 volumes back in 2002, and the anime is a rare case of being pretty much all-inclusive of what happened in the manga, with only minor differences in certain plot points.  However, Chobits does have a spiritual prequel, an earlier CLAMP work called Angelic Layer, which takes place in the same world a few years earlier, but is actually about a fighting game played with dolls that are controlled mentally.  A few characters from Angelic Layer have a major connection to some of the characters and events in Chobits, but this downplayed somewhat in the anime for copyright reasons.


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