7 of Hearts: A couple of thoughts on Collectathons and a few on Yooka-Laylee.

It is recieved wisdom that the collectathon genre of video games had its heyday back in the 1990s with games such as Super Mario 64, Donkey Kong 64, and the Banjo Kazooie series. As the name suggests, collectathons are a particular genre of games that revolve heavily around collecting various items scattered around the game, usually with a heavy emphasis on 3D platforming mechanics.

While the genre has fallen out of the limelight, it has definitely had a noticable impact on later games, particularly ones by Nintendo; both Mario Odsessy and Breath of The Wild (the latter of which I have a lot of thoughts on, good and bad) borrow heavily from the genre with their wide open areas filled with secrets to find. I’d go as far as to say that a lot of modern free-to-play and live-service games such as Destiny 2 use a lot of the same mechanics. The main difference between a live-service open world game like Fallout 76 or Destiny and Donkey Kong 64 is that Donkey Kong 64 didn’t drip feed you the content in order to keep you playing (and hopefully spending money on microtransactions).

The late 90s were also a formative period for me in terms of gaming; I was born in 1992, so collectathons (specifically Mario and Donkey Kong, but also all kinds of cheap and quick tie-in games, such as a PC game of Rugrats in Paris and a Gamecube game of Spongebob Squarepants the Movie) were some of my introductions to gaming itself. The genre feels nostalgic to me. They were also great for kids who might not be able to afford to buy many games, since the focus of them tended to be that they are big, and expansive, and crucially can take a long time to play.

There’s one crucial itch that collectathons scratch however, one that I think they really excelled at, and that’s giving the player a constant feeling of progress and completion. Because there are so many collectibles in the game, you are constantly getting that endorphine boost from obtaining them and completing objectives on the micro- (unlocking that door), meso- (completing a level) and macro- (completing the game) scales. This, combined with the general low difficulty levels, makes the genre really good for playing when you have depression (as I’ve been struggling with). It’s a task designed to be completable that provides clear feedback and a sense of accomplishment, and on bad days that can be really comforting.

I recently completed Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and so I was interested in finding another game that could fill in those days where nothing else is going to get done so I might as well lose myself in a collectathon, and so I picked up the game Yooka-Laylee on my Switch.

Yooka-Laylee (or Y-L from now on in this post, because I can’t be bothered to write out Yooka-Laylee all the time), like Breath of the Wild, was released in 2017. Published by Team 17, it was developed by Playtonic, a group formed by former developers from Rare, the company that made Donkey Kong 64 and Bango-Kazooie. The game is in general a throw back to the golden age of collectathons, as you might expect from the team that created some of the key games of that genre.

Honestly I don’t have that much to say about the game itself. It is very much a game spilt between two time periods. The characters all have weird, quirky designs, usually with a punny name attached to them, with the titular pair, the reptial Yooka and the fruit bat Laylee being a pun on ukulele. Sometimes this works nicely, like the World 1 boss Rampo, a giant stone face at the top of a ramp that you need to make your way up using the game’s main movement mechanic (a legimately charming move where Yooka rolls into a ball and Laylee runs on top of him, allowing the pair to move more quickly while making a fun squeeking noise). Sometimes it just feels weirdly stale, like the floating, talking clouds or the skeleton explorer.

Like, I can see where they are aiming but…I dunno, maybe it’s just because I’ve seen a lot of quirky games, and if I was coming to this fresh as a kid they’d seem really unique, but they still feel like the kind of designs people reach for often in this kind of game. And, for that matter, in quirky, brightly coloured children’s properties in general…except that brings us to the final class of character designs which are definitely not for kids, such as the character who you buy upgrades from who is a…Trouser snake. Literally, he’s a snake curled up so he’s in trousers named Trowzers. Then there’s the plants you meet (who are some of the few female characters in the game) who ignore you unless you are transformed into a plant, and then flirt with you while giving you tips. The game doesn’t seem to know what tone it’s going for. Are you appealing to adults or to kids? I think they’re going for both, but they don’t land it.

This tone problem carries on with the writing as well, particularly with Laylee. She’s abrasive and makes sarcastic and often cruel comments to other characters. I honestly kind of want to dislike her, but at the same time she is coupled with Yooka the chameleon. Yooka has no character. Well, I mean, he does, he’s the one who goes along with all the weird collectathon tasks that get thrown at them, which is technically a character trait I guess, but still. He’s so bland I prefer Laylee, the character who keeps making me go “…wait why am I doing this?”

Y-K is very self-aware, with a lot of references to the fact that it is a game; characters refer to levels, special moves, and the villains in particular are constantly mentioning “the next game” (which has been announced). The game opens with Yooka and Laylee relaxing in their new home, the remains of a pirate ship coincidentally directly outside Hivory Towers,  the corporate base of the big bad (a capitalist bee named Capital B). Their initial dialogue almost made me wonder if I was missing a game in the series. There’s no real introduction to the characters or why I should care, even by the standards of collectathons. I at least get why Donkey Kong wants his golden bananas back and to rescue the other kongs. The introduction to the game’s main goal, collecting the pages (or Pagies) of The One Book, is just that Laylee happened to find it in the pirate ship. She doesn’t know what it does, and honestly neither do I even now (there’s some vague mention of it being able to rewrite reality or something?), but off we go to save them from Capital B’s evil machine to suck in all the books of the world!

(Since I messed up the flow a bit by only mentioning Capital B in the last paragraph, I will say he’s a perfectly servicable villain for this kind of game. The parody of corporatism isn’t exactly subtle here; he is introduced in an actually pretty funny scene revealing a gold statue of himself in the lobby of Hivory Towers while berating his right hand man, Doctor Quack, a duck driving around in a gumball machine. I don’t get it either, but along with the saptient shopping trolleys in the third level, he’s one of the few designs I think really stands out.

While exploring the main hub of Ivory Towers, you sometimes get Capital B popping up and saying things like “Thanks for taking out that last minion, now I don’t have to give him a raise!”. It’s a nice bit of characterisation, but most of his lines could have easily come out of a particularly dull set of Dilbert strips. No, that’s unfair. I’m not going to compare the writers to Scott Adams, they don’t deserve that level of slam. And yes, I’m aware having a two paragraph long bracket break here also messes up the flow of the writing. I just don’t care.)

Still, all of this could be ignored fairly easily. I wasn’t coming to Y-K looking for deep writing, or even shallow writing. I was coming to it looking for fun platforming challenges that give me small bursts of that wonderful feeling of completing something.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Y-K actually fufils that very well. It isn’t bad, it’s just medicore. A lot of this is due to the awkwardness of the camera, which is definitely a throwback to the 90’s era of collectathons. This isn’t a good thing. Some of it is due to Yooka feeling overally responsive; there’s a lot of moments when I’m trying to do some precise jumps that get ruined due to what I think is a small change on the joystick, and that would be a small change in something like Mario, sending Yooka and Laylee skidding off a platform. Some of this might just be porting issues for the Nintendo Switch however.

The level designs are also not great. Part of the issue is that with the exception of the first level, they mostly just look the same throughout. Probably the worst one for this is the third level, set in a swamp that is supposed to be a maze, which has a constant murky green aesthetic and no real centrepiece for the level to help position yourself around. Furthermore, with the exception of the bosses, there’s no real variation in the enemies you face. There are bees floating around on metal platforms that shoot projectiles at you, there are jellyfish in the water, there are eyes which possess objects to attack you and every level has it’s own reskin of the default enemy, and that’s about it. The closest you get is some enemies wear hats, and they take two hits to kill. This adds to the feeling of homogenity the levels give.

It isn’t all bad. The second level features an area called the Icymetric Palace, a pun that actually really landed for me since the inside changes the game from a 3D platformer to an isometric viewpoint. Isometric games have a fixed camera position, angled away from all the axes of motion; up/down, forward/back and left/right, or the X,Y and Z axes. In Yooka-Laylee this is particularly welcome because it means you are no longer wrestling with the camera, removing one of the biggest issues with the game.

I do enjoy Kartos (“The God of Ore” as Laylee jokes), an old mine cart you can play a good old-fashioned minecart minigame with in each level. These are just really fun, simple games where you jump around collecting gems (again, with a fixed camera angle).

Another cool mechanic is being able to use Pagies to expand worlds. When you first unlock a level (represented by “Grand Tomes” that you can enter the pages of), you can’t access all it has to offer. However, if you have collected enough pagies, you can use them to expand the Tome, and thus open up new areas to explore, most notably unlocking the boss fights of the level.

I do feel this piece comes off as perhaps more critical than the game actually deserves. The main issue is a constant feeling of mediocrity. It has a lot of fun tools, particularly mechanically with the special moves you can unlock; both Yooka and Laylee get ones that play off their species, with Laylee getting ultrasound and flight based powers while Yooka can eat certain objects to gain temporary abilities like fire breathing, gets some tongue based platforming powers and of course, invisiblity. The problem is that the rest of the game just does nothing with them. The levels are compotent, but boring, like wandering around a town of identical houses. The enemies are bland, the writing just doesn’t quite get to where it wants to be, and the result is a game that I just struggle to care about even though it is of a genre I usually really enjoy.

EDIT: Added in the object possessing eyes to the list of enemies, and also remembered “oh yeah, I liked the Kartos bits!”

 

 

3 of Hearts: 4:17 am April 2nd

The time in the title is accurate as of when I start typing this.

I suffer from depression and anxiety, and tonight I’m awake at a silly time in the morning in no state to try to sleep, so I guess, given that at least here in the UK April’s Fools day has come and gone, I might look at the various ways that bits of media I’ve followed have decided to celebrate it this year.

There’s two major trends I think are worth looking at. The first is simply the existence of Patreon, a site that encourages a monthly release schedule by it’s very nature. A lot of creators drop their work at the end of one month and the start of another because that’s the deadline if you are using a monthly payment model. Patreon as a site is interesting for me partially because it’s an alternative to the standard method of monitization online, advertising, and partially because it has become another example of a business model that is highly sustainable but not one that’s going to enjoy repeated massive growth which is being torn apart by the demands for constant, exponential growth in the market, but that’s for a time that isn’t stupid o’clock in the morning. For our purposes, the position of April Fools at the beginning of the month simply fits in neatly with this existing timeline, encouraging material that is not simply a prank but is also worthy content in and of itself.

The second trend is the pushbacks against cruel pranks. Online content creators often rely on their own brand, and being unpleasant, even for a temporary joke, will reflect on that brand. Furthermore, the existence of this brand allows for an easy April Fool’s joke by pretending to massively change your brand, using it as a way to explore a style or a topic that you wouldn’t usually touch.

Anyway here’s a top…whatever list of April Fool’s for this year. I’m not even gonna edit that once I’ve finished and know how many there are.

1.) “Folding Ideas Pivots To Fortnite”, on Folding Ideas, Dan Olsen’s youtube channel, isn’t really an April Fool’s video. It sort of dabbles with it at the start, but that only really goes as far as the first five to ten minutes, which is a set up for the final idea about the use of Fortnite as a creative platform, and how it doesn’t really work. I don’t know whether I’d describe it as a pretend April Fools joke, or an April Fools joke where the joke is that you expect an April Fools joke and get instead a discussion on the game Fortnite and how it manipulates players to make money.

2.) A lot of larger corporations and brands go for the “Here’s a product we’d never actually create” April Fools. A stand out this year is probably a tweet from the official Doom account, crossing the violent demon killing shooter with Bob Ross’ Joy of Painting, a program that like Mr Rogers I have never seen but that a lot of American internet users tell me is super wholesome. Ross’ aesthetic, though simple, is iconic enough that even I got it immediately, but this one kind of sticks out because Bob Ross famously became the chill, laid back painter in the show because he was fed up of being a drill Sargent in the military, a job that involves shouting and being unpleasant, making the use of the aesthetic here either be a wink to his history, a humorous juxtaposition between Doom the ultra violent game and the laid back show (probably the intended reading), or kind of an awkward joke dragging the aesthetic of the show back towards the militarisation that Ross created it to escape from. I’m too sleepy to say which.

3.) There’s one advert that I saw which appeared to actually be a product that just happened to come out on April First, so it had to make clear “no this is real, we just had to do it now”. But I can’t remember what it is and Facebook isn’t showing me that specific ad again.

4.) In the “Jokes that aren’t really jokes” category, the insect loving Bogleech wrote a review of creatures called Squisherz, in a similar vein to his reviews of Pokemon and Digimon. The framing of the essay is that Squisherz is a forgotten ‘mon franchise contemporaneous of the former two, and the blog post makes repeated references to the show and more specifically the fandom reaction to it. Halfway through I was getting into it as a parody of pokemon in particular, assuming that Bogleech himself had designed the creatures. I was enjoying it, but some of the gushing about the bits of the designs he loves got a bit weird assuming he made them. Like how the book of the Never Ending Story takes a detour to talk about how fantastic the main character, and thus the author’s, imagination is once he starts to remake the world, it was getting tiresome.

Then at the end, he reveals that the joke was actually entirely different. Squisherz was designed by an artist friend of his for a game called Hyperspace Outlaw, and the piece ends with shout outs slash advertisements for the original creator. It kind of feels like the opposite to Folding Idea’s video; rather that examining how a piece of work is advertised and monitized, it is an advert itself, although yes there is a difference between an indie game on itch.io and what Fortnite has become.

5.) The most depressing April Fool’s joke this year comes from the webcomic Whomp!. The main character, a somewhat parody version of the writer Ronnie, is shown to have lost weight, changed out his colourful shirts for a simple beige pair, and now has a sunny, optimistic outlook on life.

Somehow, despite Whomp being regularly depressing, this is the most upsetting portrayl of Ronnie for me. I should probably ask why.

EDIT: So the next strip after that is the same but with thin Ronnie bleeding from the eyes and covered with glitches. So…make this a multi-part joke, getting steadily darker?

Anyway, that’s my list. If I remember I’ll come back when I’m awake and edit in some links. Happy April Wise day everyone.

4 of Hearts: A short (spoiler filled) discussion of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann.

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (henceforth TTGL) is a 2007 anime created by the studio Gainax, most well known for the earlier anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. Having written this piece I realise that most of it kind of assumes you have already seen Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, hence why this is a discussion not a review. Honestly I could just link to or paraphrase the Wikipedia article on the series to describe the plot but I’ve already put the 4 of Hearts up there and I don’t wanna spend that much more effort on this piece.

One of the things I have always enjoyed is stories willing to just take their premises and run with it, and TTGL is definitely in that category. It is a series that is willing to just keep accelerating, relying on the vague notion of “spiral power” to just bypass the audience’s suspension of disbelief. It is a anime that relies heavily on spectacle and bombast, and that has enough moments in which that works wonderfully that I could fairly easily just list them here as “THE TOP 5 MOST OVER THE TOP MOMENTS IN GURREN LAGANN”, but I don’t think that would be fair. These are not the only good moments of the series, and, since we’re being fair in the sense that means honest and complete, there are plenty of things in the series that just don’t work.

That being said, the bombastic scenes are an important part of the series and it wouldn’t be fair to not mention them here. Kamina stealing a mecha by just climbing into the cockpit and kicking out the pilot, the capture of the giant battleship mecha Dai-Gurren, the defeat of Guama, the siege of Teppelin and the subsequent duel with Lordgenome that is the finale of the first act. Then in the second arc we have Yoko’s defeat of two mecha while on foot, the spontaneous creation of a wormhole to punch a guy out of shooting himself, the formation of Arc Gurren Lagann, Super Galaxy Gurren Lagann and the titular Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, the latter leading into a finale that involves mechas so large they use galaxies as throwing stars against each other. That is quite a lot of iconic moments for a series only 27 episodes long. The animation and the soundtrack carry these well; special shout-outs to the tracks “Pierce the Heavens with Your XXXX” (No I don’t know why it is called that, considering that the XXXX in question is a drill) and “Libera Me From Hell”, a song that takes the most over the top elements of opera and rap and slams them together.

The series also has excellent main villains in the form of Lordgenome and the Anti-spiral. Both have very understandable motives and are powerful enough to enable the ridiculous, fantastic spectacles I mention above.

The final bit of the series that work for me is the emotional core of Simon and Kamina. Kamina in particular is used wonderfully in the short time he remains in the story, and is a surprisingly deep character. While he is most recognised for his massively over the top personality and impulsive actions, my favourite moment for him is the quiet moment he has with Yoko where he explains that he views himself as essentially a cheerleader and source of courage for the far more reliable Simon. Simon’s character arc after his death is essentially Simon coming to realise this for himself, and moving on from his need for Kamina to motivate him, culminating in a very understated moment in one of the final episodes where Kamina’s ghost notes that Simon has finally grown taller than him.

That’s quite a lot of good stuff to write about. If I felt like it I could probably go off on a thousand word tangent discussing how the universe in TTGL, via the mechanic of Spiral Power, responds to depression and feelings of hopelessness verses determination on a level that is literally built into the world, and linking that to the earlier series Evangelion and my own mental health problems.

(Actually, I would like to do that, but I feel that setting the ground work of how I feel about Gurren Lagann is kind of needed for it, but not something I’d want to actually write in that piece.)

The problem is however, despite all of these excellent moments to the series…there’s just so much not particularly good stuff around them that my feelings on the show altogether are kind of neutral, if not negative. TTGL has a very large cast, and it really isn’t sure how to use them, best summed up during the lull that dominates the first part of the second act, when a large portion of the male supporting cast sacrifice themselves en mass in a pointless and not particularly engaging scene.

The female cast members get off even worse; out of the seven female characters, one is a mechanic who at least gets to help out by fixing and over-charging the mechas (a role that could have been used to match with Simon’s arc about how you need both motivation and reliability, but isn’t), three are first defined as being “Kittan’s sisters” and do almost nothing in the second act other than being love interests and one is a member of a pair of twin pilots who end up piloting the titular Gurren Lagann in the epilogue despite doing basically nothing in the series proper. The last two are Nia, who is introduced literally as a throwaway character (she was thrown away by her father Lordgenome), then gets possessed by the anti-spiral, becomes a damsel in distress, and then dies. It is only the last one Yoko who really gets anything to do, and even then the majority of the time she’s being used for fanservice.

It’s much harder to put the failings of TTGL into words than it is to put down the ways it succeeds. It’s just a mess of wasted characters, long boring moments, and tedious moments of perversion. It isn’t that there’s nothing good about it, but rather that they are like choice cuts of meat floating in gruel. If you can rescue them they are great, but I wouldn’t advise eating the whole dish.

On a final note, I think this is part of what made it so popular. TTGL came out right at the same time that video hosting, particular youtube, became popular online. It is a series almost tailor made for youtube; lots of great moments you can cut out of the series itself and just upload on their own. And honestly, I think that might be the best way to watch it. Find some clips of the best moments and enjoy them, divorced of the rather tedious context they are surrounded with.

7 of Hearts: Let’s Go Pikachu and the dichotomies of Pokemon.

The Pokemon franchise has been a long running and consistent companion for me from when it was first released in the UK back in 1998. The first choice of which starter to take (I choose Squirtle), opening my first booster pack of trading cards to reveal a shiny Zapdos, finally leaving Mount Moon after getting lost there long enough to have a Blastoise, first seeing the second generation games when a neighbour down the street had a Japanese copy of Pokemon Gold, first discovering online battle simulators in the fourth generation…honestly, that sentence was originally just going to be three points long but I just kept finding things to add to it.

Pokemon, for those unaware (however many there are left; one of the things I found funniest about the recent trailer for the live action Detective Pikachu movie was how it assumed everyone watching knew the world already), is an RPG game franchise set in a world populated by the titular Pocket Monsters, or Pokemon. It is a mainstay of Nintendo consoles, and is one of the company’s signature games along with the likes of Mario and Zelda, but it isn’t actually developed by Nintendo, being spilt between the companies Game Freak and The Pokemon Company. The player takes the role of a Pokemon trainer, journeying through the various regions of the world, catching Pokemon in devices known as Pokeballs and battling other trainers. The ultimate goal of each game is two-fold; to defeat the Pokemon League, the best trainers in that region (each game being set in a different location in the world), and to complete the Pokedex (an encyclopedia of Pokemon) by catching every Pokemon in the area; hence the tagline “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!”. Usually along the way you must battle a team of criminals, with motives ranging from Pokemon trafficking to awakening Legendary monsters to boil the sea, flood the land and/or rip apart space and time, or in the case of the wonderfully pathetic Team Skull, not get beaten up by random children.

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9 of Hearts: ABCDEFGH – a sort of review of The ABC Murders (BBC, 2018)

A is for ADAPTATIONS
Looking at an adaptation of a work you are familiar with into a new medium is always a bit difficult, particularly if it is a work you are very fond of. First of all, of course, there are some changes that are required simply because of the new medium; in the case of books being made into visual media, this is often the loss of the narration, whether it is from a character or a general omniscient voice. Beyond that, all manner of changes can be made. Thus, when looking at the adaptation, I find myself torn between evaluating the new work on its own merits, and evaluating it as an adaptation of what I am familiar with.

I try to do both, using three simple questions.
1.) Why adapt this work? What is being gained from the adaptation?
2.) What changes have been made, and what do I think they add or subtract from the work
3.) When examined as a standalone piece, what do I think of the adaptation?

With the first question, we are going to need some background context. I am rather afraid I am going to need to spoil the ending to discuss this, so I advise anyone unfamiliar with the story who doesn’t want to be spoiled to turn away here, and come back once you’re read it. If you either know the story or don’t care, click the more button below and let us continue.

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