August 14, 2016

The Drifting Classroom


Horrifically Brilliant.

The Drifting Classroom is a horror manga series by Kazuo Umezu originally published from 1972 to 1974 in Weekly Sh┼Źnen Sunday. Umezu is regularly cited as a master in the horror genre. Some of his most well-known works include The Drifting Classroom, Cat Eyed Boy, and Makoto-chan.

I only recently started exploring horror manga, and I find it fascinating. As a newcomer, I usually end up at the most popular authors, because they are the easiest to find. Since they are also considered staples of the genre, it's a great jumping-off point to see if I want to explore further.

After reading Junji Ito's Gyo and Uzumaki, I decided to seek out those that had inspired him. This led me to Umezu and The Drifting Classroom.

It was horrifying.
It was incredibly depressing.
I loved it.

The premise is pretty cut-and-dried: A Japanese elementary school is inexplicably thrown forward in time to the end of the 20th century, where the entire planet has become a desolate wasteland. The real essence of the story is how the characters live and react after said teleportation.

Their motivations and relationships are based almost entirely on survival instinct, with rational thought and reason thrown out in the face of pure desperation and fear. The fact that they are children made it even more disturbing. At first, I expected grotesque, inhuman monsters to become the huge threat. But I was pleasantly disappointed.

Everyone has a breaking point, no matter how noble or sensible they appear to be. The Drifting Classroom stresses this so well. Almost immediately, people turn on each other. The term "friend" becomes meaningless. Logic and common sense are mercilessly crucified. Psychological trauma is always the underlying menace, from start to finish. I was constantly cringing, but I just couldn't stop reading.

There is never a safe point for these kids. Every time it seemed there was a moment of calm, I found myself dreading to have to turn the page, because I knew some new horrible danger was just around the corner. Umezu's pacing is superb. There are so many unexpected hazards from both the outside world and the children themselves. There is violence, but it's only violence necessary to the story. It never turns into a gore-fest for the sake of just being gross. The focus is the writing, which is what good storytelling is all about. You really feel for these characters and their struggle to survive.

The artwork has a very intentional style. Some argue that the human characters look too cartoonish. I disagree. The fact that the future world and all its unspeakable horrors do not share the same art style works in Umezu's favor, and I would argue that it was a very conscious decision. It accentuates how displaced the children really are from everything they know and love. There is no safe zone, no time to relax even for a moment. They are totally alone and without help. Even with a simpler character style, the complete and utter torture these kids are going through is all too real, and is a testament to Umezu's artistic ability.

Volume 1 didn't really capture my attention all that much. The whole thing basically served as an extended prologue for the rest of the series. My interest didn't pique until the end of Volume 3, at which I frantically devoured the remaining volumes like a lunatic.

It was so good, and something I will be sure to lend out and recommend. It was turned into a live-action movie back in the 80s, but I just watched it on YouTube and it was pretty blah compared to the source material. It has also been turned into a TV series in Japan, but I haven't checked that out yet.

In the States, the series was split into eleven volumes published by Viz as part of their Signature Series. As with most popular series from years past, it shares the distinction of having one or two random volumes at an exorbitant price. In this case, Volume 7. The rest of them are below MSRP. If you don't need physical copies, then all of them are even cheaper digitally. I can't recommend this series enough. It's a great portal into the brilliance that horror manga can be. Pick it up!

May 22, 2016

Showcase Presents: Phantom Stranger Vol. 1


Read this book, for it is...THE PHANTOM STRANGER!

The Phantom Stranger Vol. 1 covers the character's series from 1969-1972. Early writing duties fall mainly to Mike Friedrich, and later to Len Wein, Gerry Conway, and Robert Kanigher. The character takes a while to find his feet, but once he does, the book is really good.


Once he is established, the Phantom Stranger is a supernatural being who shows up to stop evil supernatural stuff. His speech reminds me of Storm from the 90s X-Men cartoon (which is a hilariously good thing), and at times he seems to have limitless power. However, a good punch to the face takes him out more than once. This usually happens while he's monologuing to the bad guy about how they can never defeat the power of righteousness.


The earlier stories are not as interesting, as the character is simply a guy who shows up and disproves supernatural phenomenon. These stories get old fast, because there's not actually any spooky stuff going on, and the Stranger himself appears to just be a random guy who shows up and talks a lot without actually doing anything.

Later on, real stuff starts happening, and the Stranger becomes way more engaging with cool powers and abilities. There is some sense of continuity, as he runs into the same two antagonists more than a few times. Tala is a female "Queen of Evil," and manipulates mortals into performing evil deeds. Tannarak is a sorcerer who needs to steal mortal life in order to extend his own. Outside of those two, there's so much crazy supernatural stuff that the Stranger has to extinguish or send back to the abyss. It made for very good reading.


The Stranger usually comes out on top, leaving a strong moral message for those who remain after the battle, though the evil escapes most of the time.


Dr. Thirteen is a huge part of this book. He is another opponent of evil, although his ultimate goal is to disprove all instances of supernatural activity. At first, he and the Stranger are in all the stories together. This quickly becomes formulaic and overused. It's even more baffling early on when he and the Stranger are essentially the same character, since the Stranger seemingly has no powers. Thankfully, they go their separate ways eventually and have individual adventures. Of course, nearly everything Dr. Thirteen runs into turns out to be fake, and everything the Stranger encounters is real, thereby reinforcing each of their convictions.


Early artwork is a mixture of Bill Draut, Mike Sekowsky, and Neal Adams. Later on, it's Jim Aparo and Tony DeZuniga. It's all pretty great. It's interesting to note how artwork from the same period can be so lame or awesome depending on the book. Artists seemed to be given more freedom with the horror stuff, compared to the superhero lineup.


Overall, it was great. The early stuff had me wary to continue, but I'm glad I did. The Stranger is an interesting character, and I find it impressive that DC has kept his true origins and backstory a complete mystery. He truly is a phantom stranger.

April 17, 2016

Nintendo 64 Anthology - The Ultimate Book (Kickstarter)


This Kickstarter caught my eye the other day. It boasts almost 400 pages, 388 game reviews, interviews, a complete history, and various odds and ends. It seems pretty legit, especially since it's already been published in France. This Kickstarter seems to be a means to get it printed and sold in English.

When I read "already published in France," I initially feared the worst: was this a Pix'n Love Publishing book? Thankfully, the answer is no. It is translated from the Geeks-Line version of the book, which is another company that publishes video game-related books in France.

HOWEVER!

The current director of Geeks-Line is Jean-Marc Demoly. This is not good! He is the one who jumped ship from Pix'n Love Publishing a few years ago after the shit hit the fan, the international side of the company was left in ruins, and people had their money stolen. You can read about that in this post.


So should you back this book? I'm on the fence. Geeks-Line has backed zero projects, and this is their first created project. But I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. Though, this Kickstarter of the Another World book didn't even come close to their goal, partly because of the negative feelings people had towards Pix'n Love Publishing. Is this just the same scam under a different name? That really seems to be Demoly's game.

There is a little bit of credibility here though, because Geeks-Line is supported by retrogamescollector for this project, and they seem to be a good group of folks. I hope they hold Geeks-Line accountable if this project succeeds. As of now, it still has 26 days to go and is already half funded. Things are looking pretty good on the funding front. Let's just hope backers don't get a bunch of empty promises/wallets once the campaign is over.

So it's really up to you whether or not you take the risk. That's true of any Kickstarter. People get burned now and again, but there are plenty of projects that have no issues whatsoever. You look at the creator's pitch, their background, and make your own decision. I would think that reprinting a book that's already done, just in a different language, wouldn't be so hard compared to creating it from scratch. But with Demoly's track record, we'll see.

If you want to check out the actual physical book, albeit in French, you can see this unboxing video.

Kickstarter Link: Nintendo 64 Anthology - The Ultimate Book

March 14, 2016

Pluto, Volume 4


Act 24 - The Professor's Day Off

Professor Ochanomizu has the day off, so he's spending it in the park. His escort is a police robot. Idle conversation doesn't really work, since the robot is only focused on protecting the professor. Later, Ochanomizu finds a damaged robot dog. It's a very old model, but he decides to try and fix it anyway. After searching for and failing to find replacement components, he decides to use newer parts instead. Unfortunately, it doesn't succeed, and the dog fails to properly reactivate.


Ochanomizu is heavily distraught as he's watching the dog struggle to survive. The symbolism of this event really tells a lot about his character. In the middle of his repairs, he's even contacted by the defense ministry to give approval to build robots as soldiers, which he vehemently rejects. It's quite a good scene.


The police robot informs Ochanomizu that the dog's owner has shown up, and is invited inside. However, the owner (a robot himself) reveals himself to be Goji, a key figure in constructing the Persian Kingdom's robot army used in the war. Goji demands that the professor summon Atom to a set of coordinates, at which the professor refuses. As incentive, Goji states that a stationary tornado has just touched down in Japan, where Ochanomizu's grandson is located...

Act 25 - A Fine Day for a Tornado

Goji and the professor continue to discuss robots' ability to kill. The professor is adamant that robots cannot kill people, it is against their programming. Goji argues that robots are now nearly indistinguishable from humans, is it possible they could also want revenge for wrongdoing done against them?


Goji also asks the professor what the Bora Survey group found in Persia when they went to investigate. The professor admits they found no weapons of mass destruction, so Thracia's declaration of war was unfounded. He asks if that's what the recent killings are all about: revenge. Goji just laughs and repeats that Atom needs to be summoned.

At that moment, Atom crashes through the ceiling, being summoned by the police, who are aware of the professor's current situation. Goji runs, but is caught by the police. However, his AI is missing, and all there are a bunch of cockroaches all over his body. Atom makes sure the professor is okay, then rushes to his grandson's aid in Japan, where he reveals Uran went already to check out the tornado situation.


Act 26 - The Confrontation

Ochanomizu informs the police that Goji is behind everything, and demands to talk to whomever is leading the investigation. Coincidentally, it's Inspector Gesicht...

Uran reaches Japan, where much of the house has been destroyed by the tornado. Everyone is okay, and Atom informs her that's he's almost there. Upon arriving, the entire oceans rears up as a wall with a demonic face. Atom charges in, and there is a huge surge of power. When the water recedes, Atom is lying lifeless on the ground.



Act 27 - A Different Dream

Gesicht awakens from a nightmare which he cannot remember. Across the street, Adolf Haas has a rocket launcher aimed, but is unable to fire. He is still out for revenge for Gesicht killing his brother. However, the KR wants Adolf out of the way, and state that Gesicht is crucial to their plan's success.

The next morning, Gesicht meets with professor Hoffman to discuss his new nightmare. Hoffman dismisses it, but secretly wants to tell Gesicht that he is merely a pawn in a larger game. He tells Gesicht to have fun on his vacation.


Meanwhile, Adolf, while visiting his brother's grave, is practically killed when his car inexplicably explodes. At the same time, Gesicht receives the news of Atom's death. He has a vision where Atom accuses him of being the same as Pluto, and asking if Gesicht is the one who killed him. Gesicht collapses.

Act 28 - Emergency Call

Gesicht awakens in Hoffman's lab. He insists he is fine and heads out due to an emergency call from police headquarters.

Meanwhile, Adolf is being interrogated by police about his car explosion. They ask if anyone is out to get him, maybe because of his brother. Adolf denies all accusations, never mentioning the KR or any of its members. He returns to his office and checks his messages. One of them is a hidden figure who informs Adolf that he is a KR assassination target. He realizes there could be another bomb in his office and sprints out, only to be stopped by none other than Gesicht, who states he has been assigned to protect him from here on out.


Act 29 - Whispering Shadows

Gesicht monitors all of Adolf's activity, checking doors, sampling food, and the like to make sure he won't be killed. It wreaks havoc on Adolf, since he still holds Gesicht responsible for his brother's death. At Adolf's office, he shows Gesicht video obtained by his company at one of Persia's maximum security prisons. After cleaning up the footage (somebody initially tried to erase it), it's revealed to be Darius XIV, the Surpreme Leader of the former Kingdom of Persia. The footage is Darius repeating a list of names. Gesicht realizes the names being listed are those who are being systematically murdered, and one of them is Hoffman...


Act 30 - Three Scientists at Kimberley

Hoffman is abducted by a shadowy individual, who actually turns out to be Epsilon, aiming to protect him.

Back at Adolf's office, a tiny bomb shoots through the window and nearly destroys everything. But thanks to Gesicht's quick reflexes, he manages to contain the blast. That's the last straw for Adolf. He states he'll tell the police everything he knows, as long as they can keep him and his family safe.

Meanwhile, Epison takes Hoffman to a secluded location to meet with Hercules. Hoffman tells them both about a meeting that occurred years ago at Kimberley. Three scientists, all at the top of their field, met to discuss ways to save the Earth from various environmental hazards, as well as improving the quality of life for all humanity. The three were Professor Hoffman, Professor Newton-Howard (who had just recently been murdered), and Professor Tenma.

Tenma, who would not share his research, warns the others that creating a perfect robot AI would mean that a robot would be able to encompass suffering, hatred, and the capacity to make mistakes. He tells them to stop trying to make robots like humans, because something terrible would happen.


Act 31 - The Greatest Robot on Earth

Professor Hoffman reveals that after that meeting, Tenma all but disappeared. Hercules asks if perhaps later, Tenma did indeed create his ideal robot. Hoffman reluctantly says yes.

Meanwhile, Gesicht is taking Adolf to a safe house. On the way, Adolf runs into a standard cleaning robot, who suddenly tells him if he wants to save his family, he has to kill Gesicht. He loses it and starts destroying the robot. Gesicht busts in and shows absolute rage at what Adolf is doing. Adolf asks if that rage is what Gesicht felt when he killed his brother.


Impressions

This volume was intense. Many things are slowly being revealed, and it's interesting to try and piece together who is really behind certain events, and what the true motivations really are. It's only the halfway point, though, so there's much more time for twists and unexpectedness.

Again, it's great storytelling. Saying a lot without a bunch of text can be hard. Urasawa does a great job with it. The old-model dog repair scene was excellent. It was very emotionally powerful. I am looking forward to seeing how all these characters and their stories are connected. On to Volume 5!

March 5, 2016

Videogames: In the Beginning


Videogames: In The Beginning is the story of home video games told by the man who created them. Ralph H. Baer was an electronics whiz and inventive pioneer. He asserts that he is the sole inventor of video games used in our homes. What started as a small side project eventually turned into the mega billion dollar industry we see today.

But please know what to expect if you decide to read this book. It is the story of the man during his time spent with his inventions. It is by no means an anthology of games of that era. Baer only talks about his personal experiences, tinkering, and triumphs. If he wasn't there, he won't talk about it. This leads to an extremely informative piece about the man and his personal work, but nothing else. There's a lot about the Magnavox Odyssey, but virtually nothing about other 1970s or 1980s consoles, of which there are many. The only time he discusses Atari is to bash Nolan Bushnell. Nintendo is mentioned in passing maybe once. Arcade games are addressed, but aren't really important unless it was one he was personally working on. Baer wasn't at other companies or development teams, so they are of no concern to this book. He can be quite dismissive at points, often pointing to the fact that he holds the patents, so there can be no further argument. Again, do not expect a history of early video games in general. Expect a history of what Baer did and thought. The book title is slightly misleading.

He is a very organized man, to put it lightly. He kept documentation, meticulously filed, of practically every semi-significant event that happened during his career. Countless times throughout the book, he will present scans, schematics, documents, letters, memos, pictures, and the like of every topic he discusses. This is a huge feat in itself, since many of these events occurred 50+ years ago. It's a great supplement to the story of his working life. There's also a lot of technical talk interspersed throughout the book. Baer is really writing this book for himself. If you want to read it, feel free, but know that it's really not geared for "how many copies can it sell?" Baer wants his story told his way. He wants all the information out there, direct from the source. And there is so much detail.

The man was extremely successful throughout his career. He held many patents that basically gave him and the company he worked for total control over any home video game that hit the market. He came up with the ideas before anyone else (according to him), and has all the documentation to prove his claim. This helped immensely in court cases fighting for ownership of ideas, licenses, and royalties. Even if some ideas weren't used at the time, he still held the patents and would often collect later. He was innovative alone, but also knew who to talk to if he was having trouble getting his ideas to work the way he wanted. If someone else helped him develop something, he won't throw them under the bus. He was definitely a pioneer for the video game industry.

However, Baer definitely has an ego. A huge ego. At times he'll try to downplay his contributions, but a short time later will express annoyance that people are not giving him credit where he feels it's due. He invented a lot of stuff, and is proud of his ideas. I completely understand that. Why shouldn't he take pride in his accomplishments? However, for nearly every invention he talks about, there are at least one of the following things that apply (according to him):

1. It was ten years ahead of its time
2. It worked remarkably well
3. Every single person who saw it was incredibly impressed
4. The reason it didn't take off was because of some corporate moron(s)

This song and dance is fine for the first couple of inventions he talks about, but when I'm still reading the same things fifty inventions later, it's exhausting. And it's not like he wasn't successfully financially or in being recognized for his achievements. He wasn't a minimum-wage drifter struggling to make ends meet. He was Chief Engineer for Equipment Design at a large electronics defense contractor. Video games started as a tiny side project. Many times he talks about how his early success and "internal credit" gave him complete freedom to do whatever he wanted with corporate resources, while at the same time collecting two/three substantial paychecks. The "woe is me" speech doesn't really work when in the next paragraph you state your first royalty check for video games was $500,000 and the company you work for pulled in over $100 million from lawsuits based on your work. He received the National Medal of Technology, was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and has a permanent display at the Smithsonian among other museums around the world. I think he made out pretty well.

Since this is a book written by Baer about Baer, I don't doubt that there are exaggerations. I also don't doubt that some events are retold with a spin in his favor. He does not hold back for anyone or anything. It really gets spiteful at some points. He wants the world to know what he thinks about how his ideas turned out. He's not too worried about sparing feelings or making friends. If he thinks someone was a total asshole twenty years ago, he'll tell you about it. And unfortunately, the very beginning the book is not a good set-up for the rest. Baer expresses his irritation of not being recognized enough, even throwing personal insults at people he doesn't even know. I almost didn't continue, because it was nothing less than a tirade against the internet. In a place where it has never been easier to spread misinformation without any repercussions, he is yelling at the internet to change its tune.

The book itself is a large paperback with blocks of text broken up by pages of schematics or pictures. The layout isn't the greatest, but it gets the job done. The chronology is a little off too. Baer will often jump back fifteen years to talk about something he forgot to mention earlier. There's also a lot of tangential thoughts that just kind of enter whenever they feel like it. It works at the end of the day, but with a little more editing the book could have been much more professional.

Bottom line? It's a great book if you're interested in what Baer accomplished in those early years. If you want to see actual diagrams and have detailed explanations of exactly what he was inventing, then pick it up. You'll never find anything better. If you're looking for a full, unbiased history of early home video games, the absolutely skip this one.

January 1, 2016

Wii U - Year Three Conclusion


More applause.

Another year down. Time really flies, you know? My Wii U collection almost rivals that of the Wii, which seems odd at points. But then after really thinking about it, there was so much shovelware and crap on the Wii, so it just looks like there's more content. I'm glad the sheer amount of garbage went down for the Wii U. Any that really pops up is limited to the eShop anyway, which is much nicer I think.

Some really good stuff over the past year, some worthwhile DLC, and a better amiibo situation (finally).

Favorite games released in 2015?

Retail:






eShop (not including Virtual Console):


Backlog:







Games that should be on the list, but were just an overall disappointment that didn't even come close to reaching their potential:



Xenoblade Chronicles X took up most of my time. I cannot walk away from that game. So close to getting 100% map completion. I think once that happens, I will finally be able to put the game down. Super Mario Maker is also a game I can't seem to put down. And with all the continued updates, it doesn't look like that will change any time soon. No complaints on this end.

Better third-party support this year, but I could still use more. Hopefully the NX will fix some of that. And that is right on the horizon, which is crazy to think about.

I'm hoping this blog will still be active then, too.