I’m a minimalist. *looks around at the stacks of books and physical media* Ok I like to think of myself as a minimalist. Ideally my environment has minimal clutter and things sorted nicely and put away neatly. My brain likes the organization even if the organizational skills are lacking. For example, I don’t mind stacks of papers as long as they’re stacked neatly. Should they just be in a stack on my desk? Is that actually an effective way to organize? Absolutely not, but the fact that they aren’t spread out works for my brain. I’m also not afraid to get rid of things that are taking up space. I love a minimal email inbox and to that end I keep lots of small folders that things get filed into or otherwise they are deleted. My work inbox currently has 20 emails and I’m already making a plan to get that number cut in half.
What the hell does this have anything to do with Pokémon? The same rules apply to catching and keeping Pokémon. I don’t want a cluttered box full of duplicates that I’m probably never going to use. Ideally I catch a Pokémon once, fulfill their slot in my Pokédex and then battle any additional duplicates of this Pokémon. Traditionally I haven’t been into breeding Pokémon or hunting for IVs or Shinys, mostly because I didn’t know about the latter things until the arrival of Sword and Shield. I’m also not playing to catch all the Pokémon and play the series as a more traditional RPG. I assemble a team, enhance them as best I can, and plow forward through the story and battles. I’m here for the type match ups and turn based battling and usually dump the games after I finish that story. Even as a kid I would continue to power up my team so I would continually steamroll the Elite Four over and over. I just never had a need to have multiple Pokémon and liked the look of a clean PC inbox.
That is until Pokémon Legends Arceus. Arceus shifts the Pokémon formula by making catching and collecting Pokémon just as important as battling Pokémon. You’re part of a research initiative run by Tram Galaxy to catalog and understand the Pokémon of Sinnoh region. Arceus takes place in an early era of Pokémon, based on Hokkaido during the Muromachi period, before the industrialization of Pokemon cities, gyms and leagues. Team Galaxy are new colonists to the region and come with advanced technology (Pokeballs and other tech conveniences) as a way to capture and study Pokemon. They have made a peaceful alliance with the region’s tribes, the Diamond and Pearl clans, who have coexisted with Pokémon in the wild and have never before used devices to capture them (more on this later). Your protagonist, who’s from our present and sent back mysteriously into the past (????), will partner with members from all the groups to go out into the wild settings to fulfill Galaxy’s requirements of studying Pokémon and settling great Pokémon that have gone berserk.
This overarching mission is given to the player as tracked activities in your old school Pokédex. To fully understand each Pokémon you’ll have to fulfill a unique set of tasks that range from capturing x amount, battling x amount, catching x number of varieties and sizes, catching them at certain times of day and much more. This means that you can tackle these tasks however you want. Prefer to go the more passive route? Complete the catching checklist tasks. Would rather not bother with all the Pokeball throwing? Pull out your Pokémon and battle. It doesn’t matter what tasks you choose from the Pokémon as they all work to raise your Pokédex level and also translate to exp for all the Pokemon in your party. That means if you’re like me you’ve been sticking to the catching route and bringing home ridiculous amounts of Pokémon.
It helps that catching is the best part of the game. The more open world areas allow you to explore and sneak around to capture any Pokémon you’re looking for. Arceus rewards you for sneaking up on a Pokémon and catching them unawares, a horrific move as the creature realizes that it’s being abducted from its home (more on this later). Regardless I’ve had a great time finding the right paths and Pokeballs to use when trying to complete my Pokédex. That also means I’ve captured multiples of 5 for just about every Pokemon I’ve come across. Every time I go to switch up my party I get freaked out at the unordered menu that appears before me. Which Ponyta did I want to take out again? Was that the Haunter that was with me before? My usually tidy inbox has become overrun with multiples and also rans of some of my favorite Pokémon. They’re all nicely displayed at the town stable where the Pokémon run around together in a fenced area. I’m getting concerned that I might be pouring too much Pokemon into one place and that maybe we haven’t thought through how this storage might scale.
Arceus also surfaces a lot of the weird ethical issues that are inherent to the series. There’s the weird setup of the story (no not the time travel) of the colonists essentially introducing captivity to the indigenous people. The two clans have done just fine with Pokémon before and have even befriended them without the use of Pokeballs. You would think this would cause concern from the tribes but instead they seem to think it’s just a neat new technique. There’s a lot of “o thank you new colonists for your insight” rather than questioning just what the ramifications of their mission might be. I can only question what the impact of me removing all the natural animal life for a given area would do. My Pokeballs and I are devastating the ecosystem one Great ball at a time.
I’m still having a great time with it despite the weirdness of the story and my OCD around my Pokémon inbox. The new open world and mission based template is an exciting addition to the Pokémon template that requires you to engage with its systems in a whole new way. I’m having an amazing time capturing and collecting Pokémon where before it was merely a formality to create a battling team. It’ll be interesting to see what pieces the next mainline games, Scarlet and Violet, take from Arceus. Sword and Shield experimented with condensed open fields whereas Arceus has created an entire game around them. Running around the open world and completing my missions almost makes me forget about all my other irritations.
Out of all the Kingdom Hearts games, this is the one that I’m most interested in playing. I’ve never touched it before, same with Re:Coded and Dream Drop Distance, and the fact that it’s a card game has always piqued my curiosity. You don’t get much gameplay variation across this series so it’s exciting not knowing what to expect. But also maybe there’s a reason they don’t mess with the gameplay too much after this one.
Having started it there’s a lot going on here. Running around a 3d space, deck management, playing higher value cards and keeping an eye on your health has proved difficult for my brain. My brain wants to hit attack and block but the game’s telling me to play the cards! I feel like a fool. I’m hoping I can adjust a little and get more into the swing of things since I’ve only played an hour. The story is the part I’m really interested in here with the introduction of Organization XIII and the weirdness around losing memories. It’s an intriguing idea but so far has only been to kind of revisit what happened in 1. Also hoping that the dialogue changes from some variation of “what happened again?” and “what are we doing?” That said I most definitely popped for Axel, love that dude.
Anyways, here’s hoping my pessimism subsides over the next series. You can watch episode 1 now:
This year has been busy, just a constant stream of things to work on. One thing after another has meant that downtime and creativity have been sparse, used up meeting deadlines and keeping all of life’s plates spinning. The lack of free time and energy for this blog and other video projects (would love to do more let’s plays and streaming). I also realize we’re only 6 weeks into 2022 but it’s always annoying when you don’t have time to do the things you enjoy.
But I was roused from my stupor when the Nintendo Direct today contained a wild announcement; Live A Live is being released in the US for the first time! At least as a Remake, moving the older game to the new 2D-HD aesthetic. Live A Live has lived on in its original form through the dedicated work of fan translators and for people who want to experience that can access it online now. An official release is still a big deal and it seems like Square Enix is putting a lot behind the remake. Some background for this cult hit: Live A Live is a unique Super Famicom RPG from 1994 that was never released outside of Japan (I wrote a small bit about it in my 2021 wrap up). This game was directed by the legendary Takashi Tokita, who had directed Final Fantasy IV previous to Live A Live and would go on to create Chrono Trigger and Parasite Eve. Artists were brought in to create the seven scenarios and characters that would make up the game which included people like Gosho Aoyama (Detective Conan). It also has an amazing soundtrack composed by Yoko Shimomura who wrote songs for Street Fighter II and would compose Parasite Eve, Legend of Mana, Xenoblade Chronicles, and a small game named Kingdom Hearts. Just take a listen to this, the song that Toby Fox took the name for his famous track from (and is forever buried in my brain):
But what is the game? Instead of one long RPG story, you’ll play seven different scenarios that cover a variety of different fiction. There’s Western, Horror Science Fiction, and Kung Fu stories that all reference movies that rub alongside more gaming referential ones like a street fighter inspired scenario. Each scenario only runs about a few hours meaning they never overstay their welcome. They all share a similar, active time and grid based battle system. You’ll still select moves like other turn based RPGs, but each move has a different attack pattern and distance in which it can be executed. Some you’ll have to be directly next to the enemy while others you can attack along a diagonal path. Moves will also range in their execution time meaning you may have to wait a few seconds for your character to unleash an attack or a healing spell. What this means in battle is that you’re having to adjust characters’ positions so they can avoid enemy attacks, use their attack moves or have a buffer zone to charge up. Battles are also unique in that damage doesn’t carry over meaning that health resets once it’s finished. In practicality that means battles are a bit harder than other RPGs. Enemies can also hit really hard (even the low level ones) so you usually have to find a way to move into attack range and move out before taking damage.
Even though they all share the battle system, each scenario’s gameplay is distinct and utilizes RPG mechanics to evoke their individual settings. The science fiction and western scenarios barely have battles and instead use the top down perspective to have you navigate and interact with the environment. The ninja scenario allows you to tackle the fortress you’re invading through lethal or nonlethal means and has branching paths for you to either sneak past or fight all the enemies. These scenarios twist RPG mechanics by deprioritizing stat growth (ie increased health and attack) and instead making navigating and interacting the environment the main part. You’ll still get traditional RPG missions (the other future science fiction story falls in this category) but the variety between the seven scenarios makes revisiting the classic structure refreshing. It’s like you’re playing AAA RPG maker games all together in one package. The game then wraps it all together with an 8th scenario that ties together all the other ones in a fantasy overworld filled with micro dungeons. Those dungeons also reference the genres from each section and experiments with them in a more traditional RPG/dungeon crawling way. There’s even a really cool final battle choice that I shouldn’t have spoiled in my 2021 wrap up but that I’m going to avoid spoiling here.
It’s a really special game and there’s a reason that people familiar with Live A Live were immediately activated by the announcement. I didn’t realize how much of an activation phrase it was for me and yet here we are. My only hesitation comes from the new remake portions. I’m not a huge fan of the 2D-HD aesthetic and I’m concerned how big story moments will be rendered. I’m also curious how they’ll change the gameplay as I’m assuming they’ll try and smooth out some of the rough edges in moving around the battlefield, which in my opinion added to the tougher pacing of the battles. The inclusion of voice acting is a neat wrinkle and hopefully they can stick the landing. That’s probably the purist in me talking and they’re not big enough red flags to make me avoid it. To be clear I will be buying this. I would even buy the legendary edition that’s only in Japan (I want that bag and physical game!). People just need to play this game and releasing it to a worldwide audience makes it even more accessible. The new price point is high but worth every goddam penny.
It’s wild how much of a template a PS2 game from 2002 set. A weird experiment of mashing two very distinct franchises together hit big and spawned a long lasting video game franchise and a dedicated fan base. Playing the game it’s not hard to see why; it’s a Shonen anime that balances on a fine tightrope of suspense and mystery. The Disney worlds bring you in but the focus on the series’ metaphysics and mythology is Kingdom Hearts true staying power. The story in the first game, revolving around forces attempting to control people by accessing the power that creates souls, completely caught me off guard when I was young. It was fascinating replaying it and finding where my memory had filled in gaps or placed higher importance on things in the 15 years since I first played (the unreliable nature of memory is a very apropos way to start the series). Kingdom Hearts is very story light leaving the back ¼ to do all the heavy lifting. The majority of it is traipsing through Disney movies and barely seeds some of the big back half reveals. This exact storytelling method continues to run through all the rest of the series. It’s amazing too that the gameplay loop is almost identical with each new iteration getting mostly nips and tucks on the battle system (save for Chain of Memories). It’s a strange and imperfect game but one that’s effective at establishing characters and reasons for investment.
In a way, Kingdom Hearts predates some of what would follow the megahit Lost. The audience’s fervor over the next reveal and mystery drove the popularity of that show and that idea of storytelling disseminated out into other media. Kingdom Hearts does something similar; it gives you just enough breadcrumbs to gather an idea of what some of the wider ideas might mean. The significance of Hearts for example are pretty clearly explained as an analogue for souls and the Heartless the monster result of what happens when someone loses their soul. You also get a good idea of how the universe is set up, with individual worlds living blissfully unaware of each other. The Gummi Ship does a good idea of conveying these worlds as individual planets existing in a solar system. Moving from one to the next is akin to interstellar travel and the party of protagonists are visiting aliens. These ideas are established relatively early in the runtime and are clearly laid out. It’s the acceleration of the back half and the way it dishes out complicated subjects that fuels the audience’s imagination.
I didn’t realize how late in the game Hollow Bastion is given how important it is to the story in this game and the series going forward. We learn that the Princesses of Heart have been captured to open a door to darkness, thus granting Maleficent unimaginable power. Riku becomes possessed by a being named Ansem, the cloaked figure we see at the beginning of the game, and someone who has been casually referenced as an important figure. Ansem, as we know him through the collected reports and mentions by the transposed people of Traverse Town, is responsible for a lot of the knowledge surrounding the Heartless. In the end he takes over Riku completely, fights Sora at the End of the World and opens what is assumed to be Kingdom Hearts, a doorway to the darkness where all Hearts originate from. It’s all delivered so fast that it can’t help but get your brain going asking how it all works. How are these individuals marked as the Princesses of Heart and how does Kairi play into that? How did her Heart become part of Sora and why was he able to regain his true form? How did Ansem become a dispossessed figure and find Riku? Was he the one who triggered the collapsing and destruction of Worlds? Just what is Kingdom Hearts and why did it hold light? And just how the hell did Mickey appear in the Darkness?
All of this is told to us over a relatively compressed amount of time. Kingdom Hearts lulls you into a false idea of what the game actually becomes in its ending moments. Emily and I playing through were relatively relaxed replaying through old Disney movies until the gas pedal was pushed all the way to the floor. The fact that the ideas are left relatively mysterious is a canny move and one the series will continue to return to. The full Ansem reports don’t offer much meaningful conclusions other than defining how Heartless and Nobodies (more to come on that one) are made. They’re also full of hints at what transpired in the past and things we may see in the future. References to mass experiments on people and a specific “girl” (maybe Kairi?) add to a puzzle that begs to be solved. Here you are fans, get guessing! The addition of the “Secret Movie” is a great move as well. It’s a fun short that takes the ideas of the Kingdom Hearts universe deadly serious, providing action and mysterious characters. The Secret Movie is designed to be pulled apart, slowed down and each individual shot studied meticulously. This type of fan behavior is commonplace now. The easiest example is the fervor around Marvel movies and their trailers, with fan created videos running down all the Easter Eggs hinting at what’s to come. It also has this in common with the big web comic hit Homestuck (you should listen to the incredible Homestuck Made This World Podcast for more on that) and I would assume shares a big overlap with that comics fan community. It becomes a perpetual machine of forecasting the next big reveal of the next big mystery and the individual works themselves become backgrounded. They’re encouraging the fan behavior to dissect and parse out the vague mystery they placed before them. The events in the games that precede those plot relevant story bits are secondary.
I will note that this is only one part of the fandom and there’s an entire piece dedicated to high level play. The action game elements are rewarding for people to play and challenge themselves on the highest difficulty. Tough as nails bosses like Sepiroth are also important to engaging fans. Kingdom Hearts provides a rewarding experience to players looking for that intense action gameplay. There is a reason there’s a vibrant community built around speedrunning Kingdom Hearts 2 (you should definitely watch this co-op race through the randomized game). Kingdom Hearts offers the opportunity for players to challenge themselves against bosses with high damage, fast and erratic attack patterns and even new wrinkles to the mechanics. The fact that this is part of a Disney mashup game is truly astounding.
The longer the series goes on, the mystery seeding becomes more pronounced and along with the more tangled the explanatory pieces of lore. I’m eager to see how the series hits now that I have a relatively good idea of where everything goes. The present lore of Kingdom Hearts is by no means resolved but it’ll be interesting to see how things land when I know certain bits will get backtracked or re-explained. It’s also interesting seeing how much of Kingdom Hearts mysterious storytelling arrives before this becomes more commonplace and how it’ll inform other media. In many ways, Kingdom Hearts helps establish the template for the widespread fandom interaction we see today. For now though, you can watch our full playthrough of Kingdom Hearts with more Let’s Plays to come in the future.
Video games! The hobby I spent the most time doing this year. I also played way more games than I usually do as well? 2021 was my first time tracking my games played and boy did I play a lot. Add in starting to do more dedicated Let’s Plays with Emily and that number really jumped. It’s funny to notice how my tastes have changed in adulthood and how I seem to be going in the opposite direction of most people. Now that I govern my own schedule I’m able to jump into long RPGs. I finally have the time to cross some off the backlog and keep up with new releases. I really did myself a disservice early in the year by juggling 3 at once but I had such a great time balancing them. My desire to play more RPGs hasn’t slowed down either and my list of games to play mostly consist of them. It’s always good to have balance though and god bless the games that are here to offer tight and shorter experiences. People that complain about dollar value and time played miss the point; not all games need to last forever. Games like Ratchet & Clank are so incredible partly because of their shorter experiences. That’s why they can pack so many incredible variations one after the other. The single biggest change in my taste though is the move away from multiplayer games. The pandemic kind of broke that for me and I instead wanted to play lots of other games rather than getting good at one singular game. That’s why Pokémon Unite was a gift, an easy to pick up and play multiplayer experience. That’s not to say it doesn’t require skill and I made my peace with not being placed amongst the top tier of players. It’s a nice game to pick up and play every now and again.
Games culture this year though is still as rotten as ever. Workers in the games industry are still being assaulted by long hours, mismanagement, and gross misconduct especially towards minorities and women. Watching the Activision case slowly unfold to reveal a completely rotten culture from top to bottom has been, if not surprising, at least solid evidence to point to how the entire system is broken. No AAA developer, or even smaller developers, are immune to poor employee treatment and fundamentally bad working environments. There’s a reason the tweet about wanting “shorter games with worse graphics” went viral. Here’s hoping for more unionization in the space even if that won’t completely fix the issues inherent with modern game development.
Without further ado, here’s a list of games I’ve probably already written about:
Tokyo Mirage Sessions FE Encore
This game sounds very convoluted but it’s actually really straightforward. Take the dungeon crawling and socialization systems of persona, add in Fire Emblem characters and make the whole about the idol system in Japan and you have Tokyo Mirage Sessions. It’s a strange idea to crossover but it feels right at home in the Atlus lineup. This game is like Persona light with the same sort of turn based combat systems built right in. The addition of special moves that layer on top of each other that are activated when you hit an enemy’s weak point means battles are over in a flash. This can also mean the combat gets a bit tedious as by the end you’re looking at a stack of 17 cutscenes all triggering one after the other. The socialization layer is light as well as the game builds in enough time to visit every single one of your friends before taking on the next challenge (no more making tough choices on how to spend your days). The Fire Emblem additions are really more nods to the other games and show up as your party’s Persona’s. The story is similarly breezy, monsters are stealing the talent from people in the real world, but the premise around the different arts in Japan is fascinating. You’ll run through singers, television and film backdrops as the protagonists work through their anxieties about their craft and growing up. It’s all really fun and the concert cutscenes are tremendous. It might be too breezy for people looking for a tougher RPG, but if you’re ok with it, it’s great fun. Too bad the main takeaway from it was the infamous “vagina bones” post.
Kaeru No Tame Ni Kane Wa Naru (The Frog For Whom The Bell Tolls)
Did you know that one of the best Zelda’s, Link’s Awakening, had a predecessor on the Game Boy? I certainly didn’t before Abnormal Mapping played through it, since it was never officially released in the US. The game, which I’ll now shorten to “Frog Game,” takes that same 2d platforming and exploration and completely rips out the combat. Instead the exploration of the world and levels are a giant puzzle. Each piece of the castles and locales are calibrated to have you move through it section by section. Combat, such as it is, is settled automatically. You’ll run into an enemy and an automatic fight will ensue and the winner is decided based on your strength and remaining health. What this means in practice is that you’ll have to hit each enemy with the correct amount of strength and health to proceed in an area. That means your movement has to be paced to pick up strength and health power ups so that you can then proceed forward. You’re also cursed to transform into a frog, and later a snake, that has its own unique spin on the puzzle. I’ve never encountered another system like it and it was very fun figuring out the precise order to move through the dungeons. It’s also a really funny game that keeps the scenarios varied like assisting miners, calming snow monsters or helping out Nintendo developers.
Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury
3D World is such a joy. It’s a fun blend of 2D Mario Platforming with 3D depth of field. Having levels slowly transition from traditional Mario platforming to moving characters on the z-axis plane adds a great new element of surprise. Emily and I had such a blast playing through the levels and we really appreciated the way it helped us along (we’re both not platforming game experts). We’ve found ourselves dipping back into it every so often as we slowly work on grabbing every single star in the game. We’re not completionists so that’s a true sign of a good video game.
Bowser’s Fury meanwhile is a cool experiment on 3D Mario. It takes the smaller platforming segments of modern 3D Mario games and places them in outposts in an open world map. It was fun picking and choosing where I wanted to spend my time and riding Pleasey to the next exploration spot. Using the 3D World power ups and toolset made the levels all the more richer like ice skating down a track and using the cat suit to climb buildings. The big cat Toku battles became a bit grating since they were so frequent. Every other part of this game though was a home run and I hope it informs Nintendo’s future plans.
The biggest complaint about JRPGs is the length. To be fair, most of them are an investment of about 40 hours. What if I told you there was one that had multiple distinct stories from a variety of genres? The fantastic Live A Live is exactly that, 7 JRPG campaigns that cover everything from Science Fiction to Cavemen. One you’re a ninja infiltrating a fortress the next you’re a cowboy protecting a frontier town. They all use the same battle system, an active time battle set on a grid. You have to position your characters in specific locations to launch attacks; some will attack diagonally while others have to be right next to the enemy. Each campaign is only a few hours long so you get a lot of variety before they overstay their welcome. The stories are all fun variations on classic genre touchstones like Alien, classic westerns and even Street Fighter. The game then wraps up with a traditional RPG map where you’ll collect your heroes to finish the fight (there’s even a secret boss rush mode where you play as the final bosses).
I’ve written twice about Fantasian, Mistwalker’s fantastic throwback JRPG. It’s probably my favorite game of the year, a perfectly tuned campaign that I devoured over 60 hours of. The craziest part is that it was all on my phone and has set an unreasonable standard for mobile games. Fantasian has flown relatively under the radar minus a very active and helpful Reddit community (thank you for all the help and advice). I hope that this gets a release outside of Apple Arcade so more people have a chance to play. Suffice to say here’s some great things:
Beautiful and detailed dioramas with lots of variation
The FFX battle system, a personal high watermark of RPG combat
Dark Souls is definitely hard and requires a fair amount of repetition to fully understand the combat and how to approach/defeat bosses. The series reputation is earned but it obfuscates the most interesting parts of the game. Learning and exploring the environments was so rewarding and piqued a part of my brain that I rarely used in games. Through repetition I understood where all the enemies were and how to effectively navigate through them. The variety of secrets nestled throughout the maps were a great bonus and added to the rich texture of the world. Lodran has a sense of place and doesn’t require you to understand every little piece of lore to make an impact. Every location from Blighttown to Anor Londo feels lived in or used to be lived in. The fact that I even remember all these locations says something (my mind is bad at retaining specific details months later). I meant to get through other games in the series before Elden Ring but my list of games went too long. I really need to boot up Dark Souls II soon though…
Final Fantasy VIII is about overcoming your trauma by opening up to other people which means a lot of people on the internet deride it as being too saccharine. It’s also a game about generational trauma, cycles of violence and abuses of power and the effects that has on our protagonist’s generation. Put it another way; this game rips. The odd child of the PlayStation 1 era Final Fantasys has a mixed reputation with detractors calling it over complicated and derisively too anime (have you played any of the other games?). It’s a fantastic game though, a hybrid of fantasy and future settings where children are trained as soldiers in large military academies. Squall is an angsty teen, another part of the game’s reputation, who’s closed off nature is undercut by his running guilty inner monolog. He wants to open up to people but he’s running away from himself and he uses his negative self image to stop from processing his trauma. Over the course of the game Squall and his friends learn to reckon with their pasts and others pasts as well, understanding how they’ve failed and how that’s threatening the world around them. There’s also the tender romance of Squall and Renoa but also missed connections across generations. It’s really affecting and the various courtships across the game reflect the personal growth that the characters go through.
The active time battle system from FFVII is given a twist with the draw and junction system. Instead of learning magic you’ll receive spells by drawing them from enemies in battle or found in spouts throughout the world. It’s a lot like a card system where you collect spells like Firaga and Haste. You receive a limited supply per draw so you’ll balance using your turns to redraw spells and attacking enemies. These spells are also used in the Junction system, where you equip your characters with spells to buff their stats (ie slot blizzard in attack). You’ll also equip summons, “Guardian Forces or GFs” in game, to also affect stats and abilities. It can seem pretty complicated but there’s optimization options to help automatically slot magic (or you can also manually tool each party member). It wouldn’t be a modern Final Fantasy game without big set pieces and this has incredible moments from the opening invasion, secret cities, escaping a prison that buries itself in the sand and much more. Final Fantasy VIII wraps up with a wild dungeon, a gothic castle where you have to solve puzzles to unlock your abilities. Don’t believe the haters; VIII is a top tier RPG.
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
The reigning action platforming king has returned. These games are perfectly tuned with fantastic gunplay and huge set pieces and Rift Apart is no exception. Rift Apart has you running across galaxies and playing with dimensions as Ratchet & Clank find themselves separated in an unfamiliar dimension. This allows the developers to play with their established franchise, throwing tons of winks and nods through the inverse copies of favorite characters (glad Mr. Zirkon opened a bar). The best part is the addition of Rivet and Kit, the alternate versions of Ratchet & Clank. Both characters anchor a surprisingly emotional story of Rivet overcoming past trauma and Kit’s reckoning with her robotic design. It’s still light hearted fun but emotionally resonant in the ways the best children’s blockbusters are. You’ll still be blasting tons of enemies and unlocking strange and wild weapons. Some of the giant set pieces are staggering like grinding and fighting a large robot on a mining planet. This is one of the best games to come from an already fantastic series.
A new slice of the VII Remake focusing on Yuffie! Music to my ears. The DLC shifts the combat from bouncing between characters to controlling just Yuffie and she’s a one woman army. She’s unbalanced in a fun way, able to control all the elements with her abilities through melee and ranged combat. She gets a companion, a new character named Sonon, that is AI controlled and can be called on to activate synchronized abilities. The two chapters that make up the DLC take place alongside the main game where Yuffie and Sonon move from the Slums into Shinra Headquarters to retrieve Materia. Along the way Yuffie excitedly bounced from fight to fight like a plucky Shonen protagonist without the more grating side of the braggadocio. She’s a great character and refreshing from the more self serious party of the mainline game. That doesn’t mean the dense lore of VII isn’t there with the addition of characters that were previously in the side sequel Dirge of Cerberus. It’s a small taste of what’s to come, but that shortened experience really highlights what makes the Remake special.
A MOBA with shorter games? Easy to pick up mechanics? Enough skill ceiling to keep you coming back? O I see those have existed for some time, but they didn’t have Pokémon. I’m so glad Unite was good mainly because it kept from picking back up my DOTA 2 habit. Whenever I have a free moment, it’s easy for me to pick right back up and jump into the fray with Blastoise. It’s so approachable that I don’t feel discouraged spending time away from it. The matches are also quick enough that losing doesn’t immediately kill my mood. And who doesn’t love playing as Pokémon? The continued support and new additions make this game all the richer. Big downside though; still rotten with microtransactions and pay to win incentives. A Free to Play game this very much is.
Two very big horror chickens, Emily and I, we’re so enthralled by this spooky addition to one of the greatest games ever made. It’s the fastest we ever recorded a Let’s Play and each day we were chomping at the bit to unravel more. The new haunted setting with its wood architecture and dilapidated structures brought us in just as hard as the planets of the main game. It also made us incredibly on edge for the majority of it as the dark tone permeated throughout the station. The story and a-ha moments were just as impactful even as it told a relatively smaller story (hard to match the main game’s story of a galaxy). The clues were spread a little too thin though and we found ourselves bashing our heads a lot. Overall though it was well worth the trip back into Outer Wilds. My favorite part? Us accidentally running head long to embrace the very things that cause the jump scares. We learned our lesson about approaching strangers.
Who knew that the best Ace Attorney games would be set in the past. The western release of the Japan only 3DS games are an absolute delight. The story of Ryunosuke Naruhodo suddenly finding himself on a path to becoming a lawyer is a lot of fun and the most ambitious Ace Attorney story to date. Each case subtlety builds intrigue in ways that aren’t readily apparent when you’re playing them. Past Ace Attorney games have had interconnected cases but these games build off each other. These games are also the most overtly political, questioning the actual “justice” of a budding legal system. I was caught off guard with how overt the politics were in the game and some of my misgivings from the first game were even addressed in the second. I don’t want to make these sound super serious; the series’s comedic charms are still very much here and even more refined. The characters are really what sells these games, from the ridiculous criminals (shout out to the Skulkin Brothers) to the Sherlock Holmes analogue (hilariously localized to Herlock Sholmes to avoid litigation). The new jury system also adds a hilarious flavor with a rotating crew of local people. Not to mention these games look great as well and seeing the characters react and move in 3D added excitement to the proceedings. My only worry after sinking 80 hours into these; that aren’t more of them to play.
The Metroid Series: Super Metroid, Metroid Fusion & Metroid Dread
I had never played a 2D Metroid before this year and I am so glad I fell down the rabbit hole. I was initially skeptical about playing Super Metroid since I’m really bad at platformers and don’t have a ton of experience with ones from the SNES era. It sunk its hooks in me quickly and I found myself voraciously playing through it over a weekend. That’s one of the nice things about these games; they’re short. These Metroid games keep the pace up and never overstay their welcome. They don’t feel slight either, allowing you to investigate and explore the areas for secrets and power ups if you’d like to. Finding items requires you understanding Samus’ skill set and implementing your knowledge, making it super rewarding. All three games are absolute classics and some of the most fun I had playing games all year.
A game in the time honored tradition of “this game is so good and you should play it blind.” I don’t want to spoil anything too deeply here, I’d rather save that for it’s own dedicated blog. I will however rundown the high level details; this is a deck building roguite where you are playing as a person who’s playing a card game with a mysterious stranger. Their face is shrouded in darkness as is much of the cabin that you’re in. As you continue to play the game and get farther and farther, the game starts bringing in puzzles and lots of new twists to the gameplay. Those twists are exciting but the act of just playing the card game is a blast. The game will subtly point you towards different strategies and mastering the rules of the game is rewarding. Inscryption also lets you break the game in fun and novel ways. This game had me laughing at all the weird ways I accidentally backed into a game breaking strategy. Of course every time you get your feet under you something strange happens…
Inscryption is also packed with wild lore, so much that it’s spilled out into an ARG. The video game itself is exciting enough all throughout its surprisingly long run time. Even if you’re not a fan of card games, Inscryption has enough gameplay twists to keep you satisfied.
Nier Replicant Version 1.2247…
I was among the large influx of people who discovered Nier and Yoko Taro through Nier Automata. It exceeded my expectations, an action RPG that played with gaming conventions with weird explorations of humanity through sentient machines. I’m not sure why I didn’t jump immediately on the Nier rerelease when it came out earlier this year but I’m glad I ended the year on it. It was strange seeing characters that would repeat in Automata show up in this game and made me have a larger appreciation for the lore of this series. I found the story just as moving and was surprised how distinct it was from its sequels. Replicant is all about found family and what it means to practice forgiveness for others and ourselves. The main trio of Nier, Kaine and Emil all come together through their shared trauma. The kindness they show one another allows them to show kindness to themselves even when they’ve committed heinous and violent acts. Nier is about how the world shaped these people into weapons, either directly or indirectly, and their own culpability. It’s about moving forward and processing your grief in an unjust world. Nier also explores themes like man’s inhumanity to man, man pushing nature beyond its breaking point, what constitutes personhood, the human desire for more life, the beauty of life and shared humanity. Even when the story itself is relatively straightforward there’s ample thematic material to mull over. And all of this takes place in a Zelda-ish action adventure.
Part of the appeal of Nier Automata was the way it played with video games as a medium which is something that was incorporated from the original game. Playing through Replicant I found the same sort of playfulness if slightly less polished. The side quests are fun variations on traditional RPG quests, whether that’s unreliable quest givers sending you on wild goose chases to avoid you or having someone’s toxic relationship unfold each time you exit and revisit a village. These are nestled in among the more standardized versions of fetch quests so when the changes arrive they call attention to themselves. They’re commenting on the way you interact with NPCs in a RPG, the same way Weiss (your magic book) chastises you for going out of your way to grab every side quest. When you think a simple gathering of fruit is going to be simple, the quest giver lays an unexpected tragedy at your feet. The farther along the game goes, the more the townspeople refer to you as “that guy who will do any errand.”
The main quest has wider genre variations. Rescuing villagers from the Forest of Myth requires you to enter a text adventure where you are solving riddles to free them from a magical virus. Your first visit to Emil’s mansion is straight out of Resident Evil. It locks the camera in fixed angles and the entire setting is monotone. Paintings change, sinks fill with blood, and random stone people litter the landscape. There’s also a dungeon with a Diablo style camera view as you slice and dice your way through it. The enemies even rely mainly on shooting “bullet-hell” like blobs that you have to avoid and attack. Nier is a game and series that loves games deeply and enjoys using different pieces and building them into it like Legos.
A lot of people will have heard of this series because of the games multiple play through structure. Nier Replicant has you playing through it at least 3 times with very little variation in those last playthroughs. It’s a rough draft for what Automata refined as Automata created new scenarios for you to run through each time. Replicant can require a guide at times to help sand off some of the rough edges (definitely necessary to complete all the quests). The story content gained from your first repeated playthrough is devastating, laying out a different viewpoint from the main character’s. Nier Replicant can often feel like a gut punch and is written in a way that you can extend pathos to all the characters you come across. Nier Replicant is a rewarding experience because of its unique themes and novel way of exploring them in a video game.
The Great Gundam Project (GGP) became my favorite podcast last year for their insightful criticism and leftist readings of the popular anime series. I had only begun my journey through Gundam last year, simultaneously keeping up with the current podcast and watching the original series. I continued that trajectory even though the big series that they covered were referential to shows I hadn’t watched yet. My watch order ended up being After War Gundam X > Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz > Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam > Turn A Gundam > Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ (currently watching). For the spoiler adverse I would 100% not recommend this. Gundam X and Turn A Gundam are both in communication with past Gundam series which made watching them GGP more enriching. It also meant that I was spoiled on a number of occasions and for series I hadn’t even got to yet. Some spoilers came from the shows but were relatively minor, like Mobile Suits I hadn’t seen showing up in Turn A Gundam (the Kapol hadn’t yet appeared in ZZ for me). Others were integral in discussions of the shows on the podcast like Em, Jackson, and Austin discussed depictions of Newtypes across various series. This didn’t hurt my personal enjoyment of the individual series and watching alongside enhanced my reading of them. For now my watch order will continue to be a bit odd at least until I get caught up through all the ones leading up to G Gundam (watched it as a kid, not especially enticed to rewatch). All of these series are bangers too. I’m kind of shocked how good of a time I had watching different variations of similar ideas play out. The list of shows are all fairly distinct from one another even as they recycle and mine new parts out of core Gundam ideas (Endless Waltz being an exception here). I think I’m probably in the honeymoon period of the Gundam series if duds like Wing and 08th MS Team from last year prove anything. I’m only just starting Mobile Suit Gundam Seed but I’m seeing a lot of potential red flags pop up around some of its ideas like “Naturals” and “Coordinators” (the OP and ED songs rip though).
The ideas that really carry over across these series seem to stem back from Gundam inflection point Zeta Gundam. Zeta was the first big Gundam tv series as the original Mobile Suit Gundam (0079) was canceled and didn’t gain popularity until the compilation movies released a few years later. 0079 introduces an important Gundam idea relatively late into the series; the existence of Newtypes, people with extrasensory abilities that come from being “free of Earth’s gravity.” Depending on the series you’re watching, Newtypes are seen as the next step of human evolution. Newtypes are relatively rare and are often seen in Gundam among Mobile Suit pilots and especially protagonists. The relative importance of Newtypes changes from show to show and sometimes they’re never even mentioned. What does occur regardless of if Newtypes are mentioned by name is the same sort of psychedelia; even without Newtypes most Gundam shows will still incorporate a way to illustrate the invisible connections between people and the universe around them.
A big differentiator between Zeta and 0079, aside from the tone shift, is the knowledge and treatment of Newtypes. 0079 ends on a relatively positive note. The White Base seemingly all awaken their Newtype abilities as they hear Amuro’s voice from across time and space. The entire bridge crew is able to tap into the psychic communication that Amuro had been experiencing and there’s a sense of unity in the show’s closing moments. Zeta Gundam knows the audience has an understanding of Newtypes and immediately starts playing with that through the new chosen boy Kamille as he experiences Newtype flashes in the midst of his no good, very bad day. Zeta is interested in exploring the arms race for Newtypes, both in the AEUG’s utilization of Kamille and the Titans experiments with the new “Cyber Newtypes.” Newtypes are weapons and the other aspects of this transformation, the unlimited possibilities of an evolution in humanity, is ignored. Kamille and Four, the main Cyber Newtype of the show, make for a convincing pair of star crossed lovers. Their instant chemistry at New Hong Kong offers a glimpse at what civilian life could be for the two of them. They’re both isolated among their respective groups even if Kamille is offered the illusion of freedom. Zeta is a dark show though and there is nothing more doomed in the series than a woman. Four’s tragic death at the hands of Kamille signals the tragic fates that await the rest of the female cast. Zeta often earns its darker tone but the motivations of the women go completely haywire in the final stretch. I wrote a bit about that in August and the endings really soured me on Zeta. I still have a lot of fondness for Zeta but it’s the one I’d have the most reservations about recommending.
That statement could completely change by the time I finish Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ as I am about 10 episodes away from the finish. The maligned sequel to Zeta has much stronger character work following the remnants of a diminished AEUG as they find themselves working with a crew of kids from the forgotten colony of Shangri-La. The lack of traditional officers and adults working aboard the Argama means that the “Gundam Team,” led by Newtype Judau Ashta, have more agency over their actions. Judau is the polar opposite of Amuro and Kamille. He has a better understanding of a life outside of the war and even has motivations that are separate from being the best pilot (or being forced to be that). Judau also has the agency to express compassion for others and the Gundam Teams’ solo missions are usually motivated by helping people (this doesn’t always go as planned). Judau is able to do this because he’s not indoctrinated in the same way as Amuro and Kamille. The “get in the robot” pressure doesn’t come from military leaders or Quattro but instead his peers. That means he never has to develop a personal involvement with the military and gets great moments fighting against orders throughout the series.
Judau also literally contrasts Kamille in their episodes together, a kind of worst case scenario for Judau if he ever loses his agency. Kamille is a shell of the person he once was, his Newtype abilities turning against him after experiencing so much loss. Judau’s abilities seem to only awaken when he’s protecting someone, like when he faces Haman Karn to Dhakar. Judau’s intense pressure only exerts itself when he needs it most. His new humanity shows in his compassion and his caretaking of Ple, the young Cyber Newtype. I’m hesitant to dig too much into it as I know there’s future things about Ple that I haven’t seen yet. In the earlier episodes though, Judau’s effortless support of Ple allows her to move beyond the trappings of being a “weapon.” Judau’s humanity helps Ple find hers. I also want to call attention to how refreshing the tone of ZZ is. There’s understandable whiplash at the start as it goes from the dark ending of Zeta into slapstick comedy right from the jump. This eventually settles out into a more balanced tone of light and dark elements, something more similar to 0079’s. There’s a ton of great material showing just how rotten the Earth Federation is and the evilness that comes from people with power and authority. The colony drop on Dublin is a great example, showing the lengths Neo Zeon will go to assert dominance and the Earth Federation’s inaction letting the city be destroyed. Don’t believe the negative press; if you can get past the initial hump there’s a really fantastic show waiting for you.
Speaking of refreshing, I found another ignored series After War Gundam X to be an absolute hidden gem. The canceled series is overlooked in the wider Gundam canon; I don’t even think it rises to the level of hate that other shows get just a more passable “eh.” I was surprised by how much I liked it and how much I still think about it. Gundam X plays with a lot of Gundam tradition in a new setting; a post apocalypse Earth that was ruined from Colony drops from the previous war. Surprisingly our protagonist is not the main Newtype of the show as Garrod Ran is just a normal boy who stumbles into piloting the Gundam. He becomes immediately smitten with Tiffa Adill, a young Newtype with powerful clairvoyance and psychic abilities. Together they join the Freeden and the captain Jamille Neate’s mission of finding and rescuing the world’s Newtypes. Jamille is also a Newtype, one who was part of the Earth military. His mission is one of reconciliation and his character is like if Amuro actually took stock and grew from his actions. The presence of Newtype-ness is strong in Gundam X dissecting how Newtype’s were treated and what it actually means to be one.
In fact Tiffa never thinks of herself as Newtype, just someone who was born with extra senses. She’s also different from the typical depiction of a Newtype as their abilities are usually awakened free in space. There’s a hardline distinction between people with psychic abilities and Newtypes that comes directly from the opposing sides of Earth and Space. The Earth military is up to their usual business of trying to create Newtypes and characters like the Frost Brothers are seen as failures (literally called “Category F”). They both only have telepathy between each other but are incompatible with the “Flash System,” Newtype military tech, of the Earth. The Space Revolutionary Army, the space government, on the other hand believes that they are a civilization of Newtypes and all people born in space are one. Their ideal is reminiscent of Eugenics, believing themselves to be a new and superior race. The climactic confrontation with D.O.M.E. stresses the show’s message; to dispel the idea of Newtype and end the conflicts over them. Newtype is a label, a word used to dehumanize individuals and turn them into tools. It’s used for ideological and military purposes and in fact is just an illusion. It’s a poignant message on a wider Gundam motif, offering a final message on the recurrent state of the Gundam series. Gundam X says to cast off your old preconceptions for how these series should go and open yourself up to new possibilities. Too bad nobody watched it. Also this show has incredible mech designs including my personal favorite the Juracg Cold Climate Type (snowboarding suit!). The character work here is great as well and I loved the entire wider cast (also pro the Enil and Tonya ship).
It’s also just as interesting when a series excludes using the term “Newtype” like in the best Gundam show Turn A Gundam. It doesn’t mean that psychic connection is gone from the series but rather it’s not a focal point. Turn A shifts the setting to a post-post apocalypse Earth where humans have rebuilt society with limited technology. It looks similar to our understanding of turn of the century life, taking place in on the continent of “Ameria” and that has yet to develop industry. There are early cars, propeller planes and some electricity but the majority of work is still physical labor. Instead of people being on colonies, our Spacenoids come from the Moon. Our protagonist Loran is sent down to monitor the Earth and see if it is compatible for the Moon Race to return. There’s a heavy emphasis on connection with nature and Loran is immediately awestruck with the abundance of Earth. There’s a great moment where he exclaims to the Moon how beautiful the Earth is. His ideal life ends when the Moon Race enact their return plan and a conflict breaks out between them and the Earthers their transplanting. Turn A deals a lot with Settler Colonialism, two sides fighting over land and community distribution. It’s really distinct from other Gundam conflicts as the two sides are less coordinated and organized. Ameria isn’t a connected Nation and the Moon Race are led by a kind Monarch. It’s less about warring factions trying to subjugate the other and more about differing ideas on how to coexist or expelling the other people entirely.
Loran is different from the other Gundam boys, having dark skin and no overt psychic abilities. He has a compassionate nature though and that often leads others to use him for nefarious ends. That trait though is his greatest asset. Loran is able to show the cooperative nature of humanity like using the Gundam as a tool for assistance (a bridge for cars to drive over, creating a laundry machine in a river) rather than for war. It’s this wider understanding of a shared humanity that ultimately leads to the Gundams cocooning. He finally understands that weapons of war will always be used for that and the Gundam almost seems at peace. Turn A’s bittersweet ending shows life moving on. There’s no tidy resolution to the world’s problems, just an adaptation to a new normal. I teared up watching the hurt and joy that accompanied the individual characters’ endings (Sochie deserves better). It’s a beautiful show from start to finish.
It’s rather funny that I’m finishing with the OVA/movie that also deals with weapons of war being destroyed but in a clunkier manner. Gundam Wing is certainly not one for complex ideas and neither is Endless Waltz. The one thing Endless Waltz has going for it though is the short runtime, cramming all the good high melodrama of the series into an hour and a half. And that’s why you come to Gundam Wing; the heightened sensibilities and dead serious attitude. The movie deals with Gundam boys (minus Wu Fei) sending the Gundams into the sun so there will be no more fighting. But wait a faction emerges with Mobile Suits! It’s now a race for them to retrieve the Gundams and save the day. It’s all pretty pedantic dealing once again with how to achieve absolute pacifism and disarmament. If you can go along for the ride though you’re in for a feast of great Mobile Suit fights and dialogue taken directly from soaps (in a good way). I love Endless Waltz for all its popcorn energy especially the new over the top Gundam designs (hell ya for actually feathers and wings on a Gundam). It’s a great time.
I’m very thankful for all these great series and have the feeling it’s only down from here. Maybe that’s a bit uncharitable as I still have older OVAs and Victory to go through. This year was a true Gundam feast though and I’m excited to continue on the journey.
Two separate book clubs, one with friends and one with family, prompted me to make a conscious effort of reading more this year. I’d started to slowly pick reading back up as a hobby in my post college years, dedicating myself to at least one book every couple months. It was a slow process for sure retraining myself to read for pleasure rather than to prepare for tests and assignments. I’ve also started to pick back up reading comics and manga, something that had completely fallen off by my later years in high school. The cost prohibitive nature of buying single issues and manga volumes meant that I stopped reading them without that extra disposal income. It’s been great buying physical volumes again but also having digital options has allowed me to sample comics and read backlogs of them. I’ve been enjoying reading old superhero comics and keeping up with new X-men, which is also the first time in my life I’ve really dug into the variations of that superhero team. Reading manga has really taken the cake and I’ve finally finished the runs of two Shonen ones because of digital subscriptions.
Overall the printed word and illustrations remain just top rate and I’ve found a better way to slot them into my life. Here’s a collection of some of my favorite books and manga that made my year better:
Wizard of Earthsea & Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K Le Guin
I’d always heard good things about the Earthsea books but had never taken the time to read them. After I read my The Dispossessed (more on that later) I knew I had to slot in more of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels. Wizard of Earthsea is pretty unique for a young adult fantasy book, a more intimate and personal journey of self discovery. There’s no saving the world plot, instead the protagonist Ged works to right his mistake and learn to accept himself. Ged’s journey is humbling; he’s brought into the magical world as a wunderkin before his ego eventually gets the best of him. He unleashes forces that he can’t control, that physically hobbles him and continues to haunt him. The novel is concerned with Ged’s mission to overcome this shadowy being as he grows older and learns what it means to confront this mistake and accept himself. I loved the metaphor of the shadow self and Ged’s failing and running away. He runs away, engaging in interesting fantasy stories along the way, until he’s ready to grow and reckon with himself. Having this story be about Ged’s growth outside of a more stock “save the world” plot made it so much more impactful.
The world of Earthsea is incredible too, a large grouping of islands and archipelagos dotted with seafaring civilizations. Ged is a unique protagonist in that he’s dark skinned, revolutionary in 1968 and still refreshing now. The civilization he journeys to is all dark skinned too with a more cooperative ideology interested in engaging work and goods rather than engaging in commerce. Magic also comes directly from nature and is in direct harmony with it. To evoke magic is to pull from nature or command it so there’s a necessary five and take. Everything has a “true name” as well and to learn that name is to have mastery over it. That extends to people too and the ultimate show of trust in another is to share that with someone else. The Taoist themes of balance and harmony fit in perfectly with Ged’s journey, of finding balance with himself and the world around him.
I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the sequel was a completely new story instead of picking up where Wizard left off. I’m a bit over halfway but I’m enjoying the darker tone. Tombs of Atuan could also be described as a coming of age story but it’s more concerned with the structures that suppress and twist people. Tenar, or as she’s known in the Tombs as Arha, is a girl indoctrinated into service for the religion that serves an all powerful god king. She is believed to be the reincarnation of the former high priestess, which affords her more power even though she is enslaved. Her life is solitary; she was ripped away from her parents as a child and her ranking alienates her from the other priestesses. Her journey is concerned with her questioning the structures that keep her imprisoned, even though it doesn’t feel like she is, and learning how to evoke and attain her autonomy. She’s a complicated character and her complicity in the rites of the temple make her morally gray at best. The temple where she’s at reflects the secrets that surround her life, full of dark tunnels, tombs, and labyrinths over which she has command over. So far Tenar’s journey for truth has been a rich one.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin
I’m loving the Earthsea books but this is my absolute favorite of the year. Although it’s considered Science Fiction it doesn’t resemble the same fascination with technology and space that other works in the genre do instead using fictional planets (or rather one planet and one moon) and their societies to explore different societal structures and ideologies. It’s a utopian novel in which the utopia depicted is anarcho-communist, meaning no central government and a cooperative structure to working and living. This structure is found on Anarres, the former barren moon that was claimed long ago for the Communist rebels. It is allowed to live in relative harmony with the moon planet of Urras which has a society that Americans will recognize; capitalist and patriarchal. The governors of Urras moved the Communists to Anarres to maintain their order on Urras when the social movement grew too strong. Both societies now exist peacefully and independently thanks to a trade agreement that ships important resources off Anarres to Urras.
There’s a lot to chew on there and it’s doled out relatively slowly allowing for a deep exploration of how these two societies function. Our point of view is Shevek, an Anarres scientist who has developed a General Temporal Theory that would enable faster space travel. He becomes the first person from his Anarres to travel to Urras, something that is meant with physical violence in the opening pages of the book. The Dispossessed juxtaposes Shevek learning about Urras society with his upbringing on Anarres allowing you to understand the contrasts between the two societies but the contrasts that exist in our modern capitalist society. Le Guin seems to be pointing at another way of life, not one free from hardship but one where individual people are valued more. Anarres’ society is one of cooperation where the greater good is valued more than individual power or social climbing (in fact the latter is seen as derogatory). That also means that people must make sacrifices neglecting individualistic pursuits to help the community in times of need. Le Guin doesn’t paint Anarres as this problem or hardship-free society and takes great pains to elucidate the benefits and comprises that one has to make living in a communist society. The great valleys between Anarres and Urras is the differentiator, as Shevek slowly starts to see the great disparity between the rich and the common people of Urras. The last sections on Urras move quickly but show a dark picture of how the government exerts control over social movements in a way that’s reflective of modern civil rights and racial justice movements. The one place where this book stumbles is it’s discussion of gender, one place where Le Guin herself has noted as a blind spot in her pre-1990s writing. Women are not given the same dedication or character depiction that men are afforded. One chapter on Urras uses sexual violence as a way to illustrate the way womens bodies are used to give women standing in society, but shies away from any true culpability for the attacking parties and is dropped by the next chapter. Otherwise this book is phenomenal and Ursula K Le Guin creates a well realized universe that distills political theory and ideology into a deeply instructive fiction story.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
I was a bit wary before reading this because I’m not a big true crime fiction reader. Truman Capote’s novel is in a sense the ur novel of this genre, a subjective and fictionalized look into a real tragedy. I’m glad that we chose this for the book club as it ended up being compassionate in ways that I wasn’t expecting. Capote uses real interviews, court documents and newspaper articles (with the help of Harper Lee, who got nothing other than a dedication for all her hard work) to piece together a retelling of the vicious murder of a family in small town Holcomb, Kansas. He writes the novel like a fiction story using a third person narration and inserted dialogue rather than the traditional nonfiction approach of laying out facts and using direct quotes. It’s a strange approach, often inserting or creating scenes and events that the actual people he’s lifting from did not care for. It’s a compelling work though, starting with the impact that this heinous act has on the town at large and the interpersonal community at play. That’s something that’s part of the appeal of true crime to people or even works like Twin Peaks. The truly remarkable part is it’s depiction of the killers. Capote doesn’t let them off for their actions but instead depicts their backgrounds and tragic lives that led them there. He sees them as humans in a way that stands against the usual depictions as criminals as monsters. Capote notably came away from his experience against the death penalty and that’s easy to see coming from the cruelty that’s depicted in the final section of the book. Hicock and Smith suffer greatly waiting on death row and the inhumanity of their lockup is vile. The obvious mental illness affecting both of them makes their treatment all the worse. In Cold Blood seems like the rare true crime book that actually reckons with our criminal justice system rather than depicting the lurid details of the crime. The novel shows the need for treatment and the factors that contribute to breeding abhorrent behavior. In our current true crime obsessed landscape, more novels and podcasts should be leaning toward the uncomfortability between the disgusting actions and “justice” rather than glossing over and co-signing any police methods that result in a conviction.
Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut
I would say that Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite author, but I’m really under read on his entire bibliography. I’ve only read about 5 of his books, but that does include big favorites Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle. Thank god that Emily chose Galapagos for the book club as it’s one of Vonnegut’s best books. Galapagos tells the story of the last surviving members of the human race who find themselves stranded on the Galápagos Islands after a cruise gone wrong. The novel is mostly concerned with the lead up to the world ending and peppering in views of these peoples’ lives after the catastrophe. Our point of view comes from the ghost of Leon Trout, son of Vonnegut stand-in/ recurring character Kilgore Trout, as he haunts the cruise ship that he died building. Vonnegut uses these characters to cover our obsession with technology, ineffective human communication, first world mistreatment of third world countries, war, violence and more all in his typical droll and manner of fact writing. Vonnegut’s black comedy shows the hypocrisy of modern living. Take for example the evolutionary endpoint of humanity as seals, no longer having to worry about going to work or learning new languages. This new state is described as a positive as the remaining members of humanity are freed from the shackles of civilization.
Vonnegut toes the line between smart satire and being mean spirited all in the effort of analyzing humanity’s selfishness and self-destructive habits. His handling of race and even queerness can guessture toward racism and homophobia, specifically with the tribe of Kanka-bono girls, but he hits more than he misses. James Wait for example, a swindler and con artist who is queer, is used to critique our vision of poor people and how the lower class is actively created by socioeconomic forces. Throughout the main party’s misadventures and misdeeds Leon continues to reassure the audience that soon humanity will evolve past the need for thinking and “big brains.” Vonnegut’s typically removed and pessimistic writing unexpectedly opens up late in the book. A chapter centering on Leon’s life and his passage to the afterlife is touching, as Leon wrestles with the specter of his father and his wish to continue being a part of humanity. One can imagine that Vonnegut is attempting to reconcile his negative view on the world with his wishes for his son. Even though he has nothing nice to write about people, Galapagos shows that his inspections into humanity are because he cares so deeply for it.
Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo
The movie version of Akira is huge, one of the first to hit big ahead of the 90s anime boom in the US. It’s a cult classic telling a science fiction story of the government using technology to meddle with forces that can’t be controlled. It’s got cool motorcycles, a post apocalypse setting, great soundtrack and slick visual design which includes some wild images like Testuo slowly becoming a giant grotesque baby that swallows people. The story at its center is pretty weak, so I’ve found that while I liked the movie it never really left a lasting impression. The manga however is a true action comic masterpiece.
It’s truly strange to see how different the two adaptations are despite the movie being directed and written by Otomo himself. The movies condensed nature and release, it came out when the manga was still running, shaved away some of the more interesting beats and drastically changed character relationships. Tetsuo and Kaneda have a brotherly relationship but Tetsuo is more resentful and Kaneda is more petty. The two butt heads in the boyish “masculine” way trying to prove their superior. I wouldn’t call their characterization in the movie good natured but in comparison to their manga counterparts they’re practically saints. Kaneda is an absolute shitheel who early on in the manga basically tells his pregnant girlfriend to get lost. Tetsuo is impotent rage and once his powers start manifesting commits more and more heinous acts of violence. The whole manga has a mean streak; these are rough and tumble characters that don’t care about getting their hands dirty in a society that has completely forgotten about them. That extends from the punk kids to the military brass and there’s a lot of violence and bloodshed all over this series. The manga’s longer runtime also means a much larger cast, including Akira actually being a character and the US military, and a truly wild story. I wasn’t expecting where this manga ended up going with a huge shift coming at the end of volume 3. The beautiful images from the movie are represented in gorgeous comic illustrations. The panels are really expressive and benefit the complex action scenes throughout the series. It’s a fantastic series from start to finish and an absolute must read.
Witch Hat Atelier by Kamome Shirahama
Speaking of beautiful books, this is the most gorgeous manga or comic I’ve ever read. This is the first series by Shirahama that’s been released in English and is a long time artist known for her comic book covers. The images in this series are intricately detailed and bring to life the images of the fantasy setting. There are floating islands, undersea castles and dark caves alongside intricately dressed people. There are multiple points I’ve had to stop and show images off to Emily and the full page art included in the volumes are nothing short of incredible. They’ve more than earned their spot on my shelf.
The story is just as beautiful, a smartly written coming of age story in the “magical girl” genre. Coco is a common girl who accidentally dabbles in magic and encases her mother in stone. She’s then whisked off to a world of magic and joins a witches “Atelier,” ie group of witches in training, to learn how to reverse the spell and understand how exactly she came to be in position of the magic. The series is primarily interested in exploring the responsibility of magic and its impact on the world. Magic is drawn, literally with a pen, meaning that any little misstep can spell disaster. There are also strict rules about how to use it and Coco sees firsthand the dangers of darker magic. Witch Hat Atelier also explores themes around learning, knowledge, class and disability in a gentle way. The compassion amongst the characters can be heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal turns, whether they’re lifting each other up or finding their own limitations. It’s a tender story that isn’t afraid to explore the darker side of life. I cannot recommend it enough.
Naruto by Masashi Kishimoto
The last two series on this list need no introduction and I also wrote a bit about the two earlier this year. I’d rather focus then on just my general thoughts on two of the biggest manga on the planet. Also god bless the Shonen Jump app.
Sometimes you just need that YA popcorn and Naruto absolutely delivers on that front. It’s a Shonen series to a T, with big arcs dedicated to new villains and ever escalating conflicts and powers. Naruto is plucky and determined but in a way that starts out pretty charming since he’s constantly getting the shit kicked out of him. It starts to wear off the more he becomes a god, the problem with most Shonen protagonists that aren’t Goku (no one could be as perfectly head empty as him). Good thing the cast is stacked with great characters. Sasuke is an absolute shit head but also the only one that might understand that people should be skeptical of the structure of their nation? I don’t stump for Sasuke the way others do but I understand that he’s the only one that grasps ideology. He’s right even when he’s wrong. Sakura deserves better as she’s constantly shuffled to the side to make way for the boys. The concept of turning healing energy into immense physical power is great but the series constantly points out how she’s lesser. Justice for Sakura but really justice for all women in this manga. Even Tsunade is measured as lesser to her counterparts even when she’s capable of wrecking shit.
My favorite characters remain mostly the same, Kakashi and Gaara, but Shikamaru has shot straight to the top. An extremely capable and smart layabout? Hell ya man. He’s the most fun to be in action because he’s the only one that uses complex tactics. It’s really fun watching his version of mouse trap payoff. He’s also the most level headed in any given situation and loyal. Everyone deserves a friend like Shikamaru. I’ve always had a fondness for Gaara because I love a villain to friend arc in an anime/manga. His mirror to Naruto is an interesting one; what if people still hated and feared you but realized they could use you as a tool for violence? Even though he becomes a head of state I can’t help but cheer for him. Sometimes we just love royalty. Kakashi is definitely “cool guy” aesthetics but it’s complemented by his ability to nurture his students. He cares for the trio of protagonists and is always there to help them along the way. And the fact that the story of his Sharingan pays off in the final arc is icing on the cake. Another new character that’s become a favorite of mine is Rock Lee. That boy gets treated like dirt by the comic but boy does he make his scenes memorable. His two big fights are incredible and you just want to stand up and cheer for him. Too bad he was always written to be outclassed.
My final thought on Naruto: god the big ninja war is too long. Too many pages dedicated to characters slowly performing their abilities on faceless enemies.
Dragon Ball by Akira Toriyama
I’ve been a Dragon Ball fan my whole life and had never read the full manga series (which covers both the original anime and Dragon Ball Z series). It’s one the funniest series I’ve ever read filled with Loony Tunes energy from start to finish. You can see where Toriyama really wanted to spend his energy, writing random adventures of Goku traveling from place to place and getting into escapades. Arcs like the Red Ribbon Army are so fun as Goku battles silly enemies and engages in comedy farces. Of course Toriyama had no idea how big that first tournament arc would hit, which while also being incredibly funny introduced readers to a different mode of storytelling and one that foreground action. This action is what garnered the series its popularity which is a bit sad in retrospect. I’d be interested in seeing what the series would have been if Toriyama would have had it the way he originally planned. That doesn’t mean the comedy goes away, just that action slowly creeps to take over as the main draw. Despite my reservations on this, I think the Piccolo Jr. arc is probably the best in the comic.
Once it tilts into what was adapted as Dragon Ball Z, the focus on power levels and action take over everything. Maybe it’s because I watched the show religiously but this last half of the manga didn’t really hit me as an adult. The action is still good but I missed the more zany energy of the younger Goku half. Not that there still isn’t comedy, I was surprised at how funny Gohan attending high school really was. A saiyan playing baseball is top tier silliness. Maybe more surprising was that I wasn’t completely put off by the perverted humor. There’s a fair amount of stuff that is gross in here but it’s complemented by a long list of well written jokes. That’s not to excuse some of the more leery jokes aimed at underage girls but it never tilts fully into being completely disgusting or taken seriously. I guess I’m also grading on a curve given the genre, so your mileage may vary. Luckily there’s a whole lot of other good stuff to take with it. Dragon Ball as a whole series is just fantastic and deserves every bit of its popularity, so much that I’m thinking it might be time for another read of it…
A very hilarious realization really helped me free up my movie watching this year; what if I focused on watching older movies? What if there are lots of movies, from a variety of genres, from a before time that I haven’t seen? How wild if that were the case! Somehow my brain didn’t quite wrap my head around that last year but 2021 it finally clicked. Emily and I always watch movies together but I had backed myself into a corner by only compiling a list of violent or intense movies. I broke up this list and started fresh and we watched an odd collection of movies. We even finally watched David Lynch’s Dune! I also found that movies were a more enjoyable activity than watching TV, preferring the experience of one longer story than sifting through a series to dedicate ourselves to.
All in all, I had a fantastic time revisiting old favorites, new directors, classic films, and even a couple new ones. Here’s some of the best times I’ve had watching movies this year:
Thelma & Louise
What a tremendously fun movie. The 1991 Ridley Scott (??) movie about female empowerment and friendship takes you on a journey of just the absolute hellish landscape of America and the cathartic release of not giving a fuck. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon are incredible in this movie, playing two polar opposite characters with deep love and respect for one another. Susan Sarandon’s collected yet aggressive Louise tries her best to control the chaos that she unleashes, creating the plan and path that her and Thelma follow. Thelma on the other hand slowly embraces the chaos, completely blowing the lid off of the narrow confines that the patriarchal society and her emotionally abusive husband (played amazingly by Christopher McDonald; watching him completely unravel is incredible). They play great off one another with Louise keeping things together as Thelma becomes more and more unglued. Together they learn harsh lessons and get one over on all the men they come across. The beauty of this movie too is that all the men are absolutely awful, a society full of drooling and aggressive Neanderthals (minus Harvey Keitel’s heart of gold agent). Even the partners we meet midway betray the pair in some way either to the feds or stealing their money. It adds to the catharsis as the dopey agents struggle to keep up. It makes the often parodied ending impactful, where they make a hard choice for freedom.
Raimi’s Spider-Man Trilogy
I wrote about the first two Spider-Man movies, so I won’t go into them too much. They both still hold up while also being products of their time, superhero movies evoking a classic hero’s journey that stand in stark contrast to modern Marvel movies. They both set stakes for Peter’s personal development at the heart of the movies as he learns to accept responsibility for his powers and his loved ones. The first one is a great setup and Spider-Man 2 is still the best and richest superhero movie to date.
The most surprising part of my rewatch though was how much I enjoyed Spider-Man 3. I wouldn’t say it’s a great movie; it’s still overstuffed and suffocates any rich tension by whiplashing between the various villains. The core of the movie, Peter learning to accept responsibility for his mistakes and grappling with newfound fame, actually really hits. He’s at his most grating in this movie talking down to MJ and shirking his family to embrace the high that comes with being Spider-Man. His “evil” turn, accelerated but importantly not originating from the alien symbiote, is marked by him becoming an elitist asshole. He’s that overconfident nerd who thinks he’s better than everyone and lacks the charisma to fully pull it off. Everyone in the movie is repulsed by his personality change. The derided transformation scene, where he walks down the street in his new black garb, is misunderstood. We’re supposed to be laughing at this wannabe pick up artist and his ridiculous “moves.” The deadweight of the movie was the studio demanded Venom. It’s not Topher Grace’s fault, he mirrors Peter’s aggressive nerd energy, but rather that the villain overtakes the others’ more compelling narratives. Sandman is in line with the first two movie villains, a man who’s bad choices turn him into a monster. He’s sympathetic but gets 0 screen time so his story lacks any narrative punch. Harry’s turn into the new Green Goblin is hokey but right in line with his narrative arc. If only we had more time focusing on his relationship with Peter and how his feeling of superiority over his friend clashed with the reveal of Spider-Man killing his father. Even though the movie is rushed and chaotic, it’s still worth revisiting.
Michael Mann Corner: Thief and Manhunter
I had never watched any Michael Mann movies before, so the new Manhunting series over at WaypointPlus was the perfect time to jump in. Both movies were a treat, distinct visually interesting movies that capture their stories from a more detached approach. They’re unique in that sense and it’s interesting to see that style fully formed in his first movie Thief. I can see why Drive copied so much from it; a sleek neo-noir about a man risking it all so that he can have that idealized home life. James Caan’s Frank is a unique “cool” hero, a no nonsense thief with working class roots. He puts himself in league with people he knows are dangerous but the movie takes its time showing the stakes for him. He wants to have the idealized suburban life but his criminal record prevents him achieving it. There’s a specificity to the way work is displayed; deeply technical and exploitative on the part of the worker. The bosses wanting the job rely on people like Frank to earn them money, not the other way around. There’s a lot going on in this movie even when you can see how it’s all going to unfold. Add in visually rich imagery and an amazing score by Tangerine Dream and you’ve got a stone cold classic.
I was surprised to learn that Manhunter was not only a Hannibal Lector movie but the first film adaptation. This movie is definitely overlooked, a colder approach to the current pulpier serial killer dramas. This is a movie obsessed with the process of tracking down killers, of Will Graham understanding the Tooth Fairy and the technology necessary to identify suspects. It doesn’t extend that to Tooth Fairy’s stalking and killing like most movies do, instead dropping us in with him in society and interacting with someone he’s interested in. It resists the focus on the violent aspects of the genre and zeroes in the psychoanalysis of Will Graham. William Petersen’s monologues work for me, even with cheesy lines like “you did that, didn’t you! you sick fuck.” The use of color is more apparent in this movie, denoting the difference in environment between Will Graham’s home life and work. Perhaps the most surprising part of all is Brian Cox’s more restrained approach to Hannibal Lector, belaying his eccentricities in his mannerisms more than his speeches.
I’m not usually one for period pieces but this film blew me away. An intricate “upstairs/downstairs” movie about the convergence of several wealthy Britons at the stately manor of Gosford Park that has so many narrative threads coursing through it that it’ll take multiple viewings to track them all. The movie floats between the events of the wealthy visitors and inhabitants and the busy schedules of the servants who tend to them. Gosford Park is brimming with insight whether it’s the gender roles pertaining to each class of society, the pecking order of the individual castes, what information is and isn’t spoken openly about and the importance that that information carries. All of this is performed by an incredible cast of actors, a list of famous names and well known character actors a mile long. I almost forgot that this was billed as a “whodunit” as the murder doesn’t take place until well into the second half of the movie. The reveal lands differently than most other murder mysteries do with a harsh reckoning of how people with social standing cause havoc on the ones that serve them. There’s not a big arrest, just the realization that life goes on and nothing will change.
My Dinner with Andre
No wonder this is regarded as a classic and has been endlessly imitated in TV episodes. This 2-hour conversation is deliberately paced as the two old friends catch up and slowly grapple with their individual shortcomings. Wallace Shawn’s less successful playwright accepts Andre Gregory’s dinner invite with some skepticism; Andre had found success and decided to travel the world. Their conversation mostly pivots around Andre’s exploits as their dialogue slowly hashes out the differences in privilege between the two characters. Andre is able to extend the invitation to Wallace because of his standing but he also does this out of regret, the path not taken. Together they delve into the traps that entitlement and privilege bring you and also the pitfalls that their individual attitudes have brought on their lives. There’s a natural give and take to the conversation; Wallace’s resentment slowly comes out while Andre’s regret over not spending time creating and living with his family. They both envy the other to varying degrees but find themselves renewing their connection through bashing it out. By the end, nothing has changed and no big revelations have dropped. The two characters leave the table enriched by the company and conversation of the other. Wallace heads home renewed from the reconnection with his old friend and I left the movie feeling the exact same way.
Bill & Ted Series
Excellent tidings to all my good dudes. With the release of the third movie last year Emily and I dedicated a full series watchthrough. I still think Excellent Adventure is pretty close to a perfect comedy, two loveable doofesses that are somehow the chosen ones for the hair metal future traversing time to complete a history project. I’ve always loved how the idealized society was built out of a pure “rock on” attitude but without the misogynistic baggage that that actually represented in the 80’s. We also get great set pieces with historical figures running around malls and landmarks. What else could you want?
The pitfall of any successful comedy is a sequel. It’s always hard to continue jokes and try to freshen up a premise that you successfully pulled off. Bogus Journey is a bit of a rough one, complete with new creepy and rapey android versions of Bill & Ted. The movie also shifts from time travel to the afterlife, and while most of it doesn’t land as well the Reaper is a great addition. It ends very similarly to the first one but with them performing a concert instead of a presentation. I found the new mean spiritedness of some of the comedy doesn’t land very well and the rehashes of jokes were not particularly great.
Happy to report though that the long awaited third movie is most excellent. The jump forward in time is a great one as Bill & Teds’ former charm has solidified into a state of arrested development and mixed success in their music careers. They are now up against the deadline of saving the world again but instead are more focused on taking shortcuts in their individual relationships and try to travel time to see how they made up with their partners. The saving task instead shifts to their daughters, who are both reflections of their fathers but with more motivation. They are the best parts of the movie and their mission is a great spin on the older movies plots. It never settles into too much nostalgia and instead peppers in the winks and nods to the originals. Face the Music imparts lessons on growing up, accepting responsibility, and how to nurture the next generation.
Imagine two of the worst people imaginable facing off against each other over stage acts. I have a lot of fondness for this movie even though I think it might unironically be of the mind that hard work requires sacrifice. Let me tell you that all of our magicians are absolute narcissists and making everyone absolutely miserable along the way. This movie also earnestly blends technology and real life magic in a way that its twisty nature doesn’t imply and the hyper reality of it removes anything potent about the reveal. The best twist though is who is actually the greatest asshole and it’s completely unrelated to the wild explanation of his magic act. Nobody’s hands are clean and it’s just a joy watching them put themselves and others through the ringer. No wonder people hate magicians.
No Sudden Move
Another Neo-Noir! This time on the evils of the… auto industry? What starts as a job gone bad slowly morphs to implicate Detroit’s namesake in the snaking tendrils of organized crime. This is a movie of complex relationships as the protagonists slowly find themselves working their way up the social food chain to find who set them up. This type of story is a great fit for Soderbergh but it’s much bleaker compared to his Oceans movies. There’s nothing slick about Curt or Ronald, played by Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro respectively, small-time criminals who fight to preserve their freedom. That doesn’t mean there isn’t humor mostly at the expense of David Harbor’s in over his head office manager Matt Wertz. The whole cast is stacked with greats including a great performance by Brendan Fraser showing off his range as an intimidating enforcer. All of the disparate threads eventually come together to tell a story of corporate malfeasance and the structures that allow them to avoid accountability.
David Lynch’s Dune & Dune 2021
Note: I haven’t read the books so I avoid making any comparisons to the original novel. I can’t speak personally to how close the adaptations are.
I finally crossed a big movie off my must watch list with the 1984 version of Dune. I’m a big David Lynch fan, so I was especially interested to watch a movie that he famously hates. I can see why he’d be resentful of it; he has also claimed that he was denied final cut and that budgeting issues restricted his vision. The reaction was pretty negative and the movie has gone down as an infamous flop. Dune 1984 tries its best to synthesize Frank Herbert’s notoriously complex book into a two hour movie and relies heavily on voice over to explain what everything is. The copious amount of VO can make the film drag, the cinema form of telling rather than showing. There’s some really good pieces here though. David Lynch brings his horror eye to Harkonnen’s and portrays them as extremely sadistic and maniacal. The practical effects are extremely charming as well and they do a great job of creating the sandworm even in its cheesier moments. Kyle MacLachlan is great as well, using his boy scout charm to portray reluctant hero Paul.
Denis Villeneuve takes the modern blockbuster approach and slices the story into two. It’s hilarious how much the marketing hides this; there’s not even a mention of part 1 until the opening title hits (I’ve heard many stories of people being surprised when they went to go see it). It definitely allows for more room to explain the complexities of the universe, even if I was still a little lost on some of the finer details. Villeneuve brings his cold and ominous directing to the universe, something that I think left me feeling detached from some of the more emotional scenes. The modern and sleek designs are incredible, whether it’s the costuming of the Space Guild messengers or the castle on Arrakis. The action scenes are great too, especially the Harkonnen invasion as troops slowly descend from the sky. And who could forget the big worms! I think a big downside is the dour mood over the whole thing. Timothée Chalamet always comes off as slightly removed or pouting, sleepily moving through the proceedings. It flattens his inner turmoil but does help by playing with his likeability. Dune 2021 has more undercurrents of questioning Paul’s destiny than its 1984 counterpart. Overall the new version had me intrigued by the world, I will definitely see Part 2, even if it didn’t blow me away.
The Matrix Trilogy
We didn’t know what we had. This is probably my favorite blockbuster series of all time? How soon I forgot how much I loved them. These movies are all incredible and my rewatch this year with Emily had me pulling a complete 180 on Matrix Revolutions (good!). It’s amazing just how much of a perfect movie the original Matrix is, dropping you into sci-fi action with big helpings of philosophy. It wrestles with identity and how people define who they are within oppressive systems. Neo becomes the One because of his actions choosing to fight and choosing to believe in himself. Over the course of the movie he works to shed his preconceived notions of how he defines himself, how the world contributed to that definition and finds a new family that helps him along. It’s not hard to read the movie as queer coded as Neo learns to assume his new identity. The action scenes all hold up and are every bit as impressive as they were in 1999. There’s literally so much here and it’s a feast to watch.
The more derided sequels are must watches as well. Reloaded expands the universe of the Matrix incorporating programs that have become self aware and the underground ecosystems that govern the Matrix. Neo continues on his journey of self discovery and the main plot deals directly with finding out more about him and the Matrix itself. The scene with the Architect is incredible introducing a repeating timeline where Neo has repeatedly tried and failed to overcome the Machines. I was surprised just how much detail this movie adds to the universe. I had completely forgotten Zion wasn’t in the first movie. The cave rave, which I used to find cheesy, is an amazing tribute to bodily autonomy. The people collectively celebrate their freedom from the Matrix and their freedom within their natural bodies. Reloaded also has the best action scene in a movie ever; the big highway chase. The only thing dragging the sequel down is the increase in CG; the “Burly Brawl” looks much more video-gamey in 2021. Still this movie is the best of the series.
The worst-reviewed third movie is actually great, providing a great conclusion to the series. What is ostensibly the second half of the Matrix Reloaded, it doubles down on Neo’s journey as a Christ metaphor. The opening moments of him in the train station are slower and more tender than the rest of the series. His interactions with the refugee programs, smuggling their daughter because she has “no purpose,” works in the same space as the earlier works questions with personhood. It plays with the idea of who gets to be saved and how we define who gets to be human. From there it’s mostly falling action and big set pieces that are all extremely well done. The invasion of Zion has tremendous imagery, using CGI to depict big mechs protecting against a large swarm of buzzing machines. It evokes the anime imagery that inspired the Wachowskis especially in the “death by a thousand cuts” of Captain Mifune. There’s also a beautiful moment when Neo and Trinity crest above the clouds on their journey to the Machine City. They find that the natural beauty of Earth is still there, obscured by the clouds that humanity caused. This entire series is worth a rewatch ahead of the new fourth movie coming out near Christmas. I’m uncertain about how it’ll be but I’m wildly excited to find out.
I always feel weird writing about music because I have 0 music background and I don’t write on the subject often. I have a lot of passion for it though! It’s just been hard to tap into ever since the start of COVID. I’ve stayed mostly cooped up in my house and experiencing the slow dread of the world which has meant there’s been times where I don’t have the energy for music. I also haven’t gotten back into seeing live music which was always a reliable way to boost my music listening. I’ve had to adjust and am slowly finding better ways to enjoy it. Making time to put on a record or an album after work has been an easy adjustment. Generally setting time aside after work to just listen to music has helped tremendously break up our usual tv shutdown at the end of the day (I need to schedule this more regularly). I’ve got a decent entry level DJ controller too that needs to get some more use. There’s nothing better than mixing favorite tracks together even if I absolutely fuck up the transitions.
One of the best things about writing this list is revisiting all the songs I’ve loved from the past year. It’s a joyous experience, listening back and feeling all the exciting emotions I had when I first heard them. My list is once again comprised of dance and electronic music, save for one very very notable selection. I can’t help it if my brain is just constantly called to dance music and this year has provided so many new artists to my list. It was also heartening to see Bandcamp Fridays continue, so hopefully there’s enough pressure for them to keep going. Please take these songs and dance wildly to them in a club for me, I’ll hopefully be able to join you soon.
My Favorite Song of 2021 – Sharon Van Etten & Angel Olsen – Like I Used To
Just a perfect song here, 10/10, eminently replayable and the only non-electronic song to make this list. I’m really really bad about keeping up with non-electronic music outside a handful of artists and one of those happens to be Angel Olsen. A good friend of mine continues to keep me in the loop and recommended Angel Olsen to me last year. I was instantly sold on her MY WOMAN album with the combination of her soulful voice matched with blues and rock sounds. Last year’s All Mirrors was an expanded step in a cool new direction, using big orchestra sounds to match the sweeping emotions of her lyrics. So I was excited to see a new collaboration announced that she was personally passionate about. I know next to nothing about Sharon Van Etten, I really need to do my research there, but from this track I bet I’ll be into her music. The track itself, a two woman collab about finding yourself again, is meticulously arranged to hit an emotional sweetspot. It’s a big rock/country ballad tracking regression into bad habits and closing off but finding yourself slowly opening back up. As someone who’s had a very up and down year with my anxiety, this song really hit me and when that last duet hits I instantly melt. Coupled with Angel Olsen officially coming out in 2021, I can’t imagine a sweeter and better song for the year.
Lone – Always Inside Your Head
A new Lone release is always cause for celebration. He specializes in beautiful soundscapes, whether that’s the genre versatility of his albums or the more dance floor focused found on his Ambivert Tools EPs or releases on his Ancient Astronauts label. All of his releases are a must buy and I’ve been enamored ever since his last LP, Levitate, which roared out the gate with mixtures of breakbeat and jungle five years before the current saturation of the revival of those genres. His new album moves things more toward ambient with enchanting results. His new collaborator Morgane Diet makes for a perfect match to the spaced out synths like on highlight Akoya. He also guesstures toward the dance floor on tracks like Inlove2 which starts out similarly ambient before dropping into a 4/4 beat and percussive claps that turn it into a euphoric roller and Tree for Tree, which morphs from light progressive drumming into squealing acid synths reminiscent of old Underworld tracks. Really though this album is about ambient soundscapes with percussive drumming, a Lone specialty. It’s the perfect album to get lost in.
Chrissy – Physical Release
11 tracks of goddam energy and an ode to classic “house,” in all the genre permutations that could be accompanied by that description. The album pays homage to raving and the underground scene, updating classic dance music sounds and using vocal recordings to put the listener in a specific time and place. Album opener Lost In A Dream lays out the ethos clearly with a vocal thesis about celebrating dance music pasts and future before turning into a euphoric breakbeat piano house track. There’s not a dip in energy across the entire LP as Chrissy crosses genres with experiments in jungle (All the True Ravers), acid bangers (Fantasy Pt 2, Virgin Warehouse Location) and disco (Feel the Spirit Move You). Chrissy saves my favorite for last with Lift Me Up, a perfectly tuned piano house track with a beautiful hardcore breakdown. The entire album is infectious from start to finish.
Anz – All Hours
Every now and then a release comes along that guesstures towards all corners of dance music and knocks them all out of the park. Anz’s newest EP is exactly that, a collection of tracks tracking “All Hours” of a party. The opening slowly moves into You Could Be, a sweet crossover pop song with stuttering drum beats and bright synths. The EP starts moving toward later dance genres, touching on garage with Real Enough to Feel Good and Detroit electro slammer with Inna Circle. Anz’s completely rips into big room material with Last Before Lights, a hardcore roller with trancey synths, big dub hoovers, breakbeats and blaring sirens. Whatever genre she tries to tackle, Anz absolutely nails.
Eris Dream – Quivering in Time
My favorite DJ put out an amazing dance album. I was excited when it was announced, her recent productions were all great (especially See You In Snow) and I was hoping it would skew toward the sounds found in her dj sets (yet another chance for me to post my favorite mix of all time). Quivering in Time doesn’t disappoint, a selection of the type of house and NRG rollers that her and her partner Octa Octa specialize in. The tracks are all her own though, using bright synths to match the 4/4 or breakbeat with psychedelic tones. The whole album puts a smile on your face, starting with the opening roller Time to Move Close. The LP is stacked with energetic floor tracks, like the rolling journey of Pick ‘Em Up or the garage inspired stomper Show You Love. There’s plenty of tender moments too, like A Howling Winds slow rolling beats matched with a nature sample or Baby’s stuttering Dub bass topped with a pleading vocal sample. The album clearly succeeds in communicating Eris’ high NRG dj sets and the dance floor energy of what she calls the “Motherbeat,” the divine healing that connects dancers, musicians and the music. It’s a rewarding and exciting listen front to back.
Kaptcha – xenolith v1.0
Dance music has wholly reabsorbed nineties rave sounds, incorporating trance, breakbeats, acid and generally faster tempos. I’ve found a lot to love about the revival but it’s also resulted in a somewhat stale template of big hooks, catchy synths and buzzsaw-like breakdowns. There’s so much more to incorporate and the compilation put out by kaptcha perfectly evokes that old rave sound. The Lisbon queer collective compiles 12 tracks ranging from hard house, trance, gabbed and prog. There’s bittersweet anthems like Europa’s Club of Cute and Angry and St4cey4101’s Crush that are extremely catchy and gratifying. There are intense dance workouts like Kerox’s AMBIENT FUCK, Alada’s Terremoto and Bassbin 23’s (an Eris Drew pseudonym) I Found You (Hardhouse Mix). The back half leans more ambient, evoking prog like Sean Brooder’s Pulse or softer breakbeat on SASHA THEFT’s East Of. By the time Octa Octa’s trancey Forever Gaze, Forever Here closes things out you’ll feel fulfilled and emotional.
Ayesha – Potential Energy
Good lord is this a fun EP. A collection of 4 dance floor workouts from an artist that only has 2 releases on bandcamp (!!) and they are all extremely impressive. I would charitably describe the tracks all have “fuck off drumming,” complex rhythms that are nonetheless propulsive and energizing. All the tracks seem to organically grow in size and potential slowly morphing into more energetic and bigger movers. Take the EP closer Dark Matter, a track that slowly builds into a catastrophic banger with bubbling synths and that same drumming until a third act breakdown. My favorite though is Ecstatic Descent, which uses the same tactic but with brighter bubbling synths and chopped up vocals. When the breakdown releases a little over halfway and drums return even larger, it’s absolute euphoria.
Bored Lord – The Last Illusion
After spending the better part of 2021 diving headfirst into her catalogue, there’s no better pairing than her releasing on T4T LUV NRG (and being their first new artist to release). The Bay Area rave specialist has an incredible ear for matching vocal samples with hardcore, house and acid sounds (I’d suggest checking out Archival Transmission, which are 15 tracks she wrote for bandcamp day in 2020). The latest EP is similarly effective, pulling in house, NRG, garage and acid sounds that fit right alongside the label. Drums really rule the EP like the opener, Everyday 2gether, which throws stuttering breakbeats behind a Gwen Stefani vocal sample or GNC NRG with its squealing acid synths and a tuned up ethereal voice throughout. Women’s Wisdom is a big time roller, with a hoovered bass and 4/4 beat. My personal favorite, So In Luv, takes the UK influence with hoovers and breakbeats with a sweet RnB vocal sample (it tugs at the heart strings in just the right way). Whatever genre permutation she’s tackling, Bored Lord always delivers satisfying and fun rave wonders.
AceMoma- A Future
It is absolutely incredible how much music Acemo and Moma Ready release. Whether it’s separate or as AceMoma, every release is a must buy. They added even more to their respective catalogs, but my favorite release from them has to be their second LP. Unlike A New Dawn, this album isn’t front to back party music but still has plenty of high energy tracks. The release is aptly titled, as the opener The Next Level begins with spacey synths and drum hits before being paired with menacing acid chords. There’s plenty of acid and electro to be found on A Future alongside their usual breakbeats like on highlight Legend of the African Samurai II. There’s a lot of melody to be found even on the big workouts like 1 Million Breaks and Titan. They also work in more ambient sounds, with beautiful tones across Finding Polaris and Time Woven Space. The best parts are where they step outside of their usual palette, like on the propulsive synth on Mycelium Dance and the live drum and horn sampling of A Future. Their vision of modern dance music is truly unique and encompassing.
India Jordan – Watch Out!
India Jordan absolutely stepped on the gas pedal for this release. Watch Out! Moves away from the filter house found on last year’s For You EP with a focus on hardcore and breakbeats. If you’ve listened to their mixes, they usually strike a balance between house and UKG before spedding into rave and hardcore territory. This EP then stands on the rave side of the equation with Only Said Enough thundering out the door with record scratches, frenzied drumming and propulsive bass. The energy is infectious. Watch Out! Continues this sound adding siren breakdowns and piano melodies. After the percussion tool You Can’t Expect The Cars To Stop If You Haven’t Pressed The Button, they move into a sped up filter house tune with Feierabend. India Jordan finishes with And Groove, a sweet UKG mover. After a huge rise in the past couple years, this release feels like a special victory lap.
Skee Mask – Pool
I mentioned AceMoma’s combined and separate output and Skee Mask is standing on equal footing with the two. He followed up one of my favorite albums of all time, Compro, with a LP that expands on that sound and incorporates some of the more dance floor focused permutations usually saved for his EPs. IDM is probably the easiest definition for the sounds on Pool, but with a more varied sound palette. The similar ambient tracks have more lightness to them than on Compro, like the airy synth on CZ3000 Dub and Harrison Ford or bubbling synths and euphoric strings on Stone Cold 369. There’s plenty of breakbeat like on the euphoric, and my personal favorite, DJ Camo Bro and big beat influenced Collapse Casual. And while Breathing Method is the heaviest track to be on one of his LPs, Skee Mask also includes more acoustic samples on a few of the ambient tracks. Guitars on Rio Dub and field recordings on Absence mark new sounds on what have usually been colder and steelier productions. Pool is a gorgeous and unexpected journey from front to back.
Special Request DJ Kicks
Speaking of another producer with an incredible and frequent output, we got the year’s best mix CD that traces his influences from Sun Ra experimentations, Galaxian electro freakouts and some of his recent Jungle tracks. Special Request (or Paul Woolford) is known for his amazing productions but he’s put out amazing mixes including a favorite of mine FABRICLIVE 91. The majority of his DJ Kicks CD is much slower tempo and it’s dedicated to more lush synth and house sounds. The opening moments of waves crashing and radio transmission give way to the disco euphoria of Right Here Right Now (John Morales M+M Remix). He plays with the more melodic part of his sound and influences as house segways into electro. This isn’t banging Detroit electro, but more spaced out and euphoric like on Intergalactic Quartet’s Delta Waves and Acemo’s sparkling Sequence of Life. His own productions mirror this too, like on single Vellichor or what I can only assume is a new pseudonym Ultraviolet by LS1 Housing Authority. Special Request hits even further euphoric highs with his own remixes of classic Hayling by FC Kahuna and u-Ziq’s Twangle Frent. From there it’s high energy time, as the ending moments are filled with jungle which includes all timers Elysian Fields and Time Reaper’s VIP of Pull Up. It’s a fantastic listen and one I revisited frequently throughout the year.