2020 EOY Final Fantasy Gaming Culture MMO Video Game Playthroughs

2020 Games: Stories That Matched the Tumultuous Year

A lot of people point to the 2016 US presidential election as the moment when they were “radicalized,” the moment when they realized that the systems in place were fundamentally flawed and action needed to be taken against them. I definitely wasn’t unaffected. I was a couple years out from graduating college and the election proved I needed to start learning way more. It wasn’t until the literal wheels came off this year that everything coalesced. Video games were primed to be the perfect quarantine activity and served as my favorite hobby by far this year. The video games I played this year seemingly reflected 2020. They revolved around misuses of power, systems made to oppress and the hollow pursuit of justice in a broken world. It was a weird meld to suddenly see my own worldview reflected in the games I picked up. Part of that could be attributed to my new interest. The other could also be that I was finally paying attention.

My top 10 2020 games (plus 2 more Final Fantasy’s for good measure) held together a tumultuous year and expanded my brain in the process. The year in the industry was fucking broken in too many ways to count, a continued surfacing of industry wide problems with work, abuse, racism and government defense marketing. But these were bright spots amidst all that uncertainty. I’ve grown so much in playing and writing about many of these and can’t wait to continue doing so. I’m feeling sappy which to me feels like a coping mechanism for an upcoming year that will feel much the same. I’m taking solace in the fact that games haven’t lost their luster and how much joy they bring me:

Final Fantasy Corner

My favorite game of All Time?: Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy X Yuna

This game means so much to me and I am so glad it 100% holds up. Final Fantasy X marked a turning point for me and games as I realized that the medium could facilitate exciting stories. I’ve found it hard to beat this one, a ragtag crew fighting institutional oppression and reckoning with what it means to make large scale change. It has a great turn based system prioritizing using all of your party members to exploit enemies weaknesses. It’s like Rock Paper Scissors finding which character would effectively beat the enemy. I think a lot of people decry it’s old school approach to random battles, but the battle system works so smoothly that it never feels overbearing. I was immensely surprised by my change in mindset around Tidus and Wakka, two fan hated characters. I found Tidus’ mannerisms much more consistent in my play through this year. He was a star athlete back in Zanarkand so he knows how to effortlessly engage with people and that’s through relentless positivity. It also masks his deep trauma and emotional abuse from his father Jed which becomes pivotal to the climax of the plot. The game smartly ties the player’s victory with Tidus’ emotional growth. I see why people were annoyed with Wakka; he’s essentially the skeptic and devils advocate. In this case that role is flipped on its head as Wakka reckons with his history as a devout follower with the actions of the party that directly oppose that. I found his arc of squaring his spirituality and trauma with the reality of the world and the lies he’s been fed extremely compelling.

Final Fantasy X also holds a special place in my memory as it was the first time I’d played through a game exclusively with a friend. Every day after 7th grade we’d head back to his house to play the game and write new chapters in stories we were working on. There was so much freedom and creativity as we wrote stupid inside jokes into the stories of our comedy adventure novel. I was also being thoroughly wowed by my first JRPG and was so excited to work through it each day. We continued on this ritual eventually playing through Final Fantasy VII and Kingdom Hearts. It’s made me a lifelong fan of these series and RPGs. It’s also a time that I refer back to when I’m feeling creatively stifled and shut down. We were making stories for ourselves and having a blast doing it. And that’s my motivation for my hobbies (writing, podcasting) as a whole; do it because it makes you happy. I’m so happy that I was able to rekindle some of that feeling in 2020.

That Old/New MMO: Final Fantasy XIV A Realm Reborn (Patch 5.3)

Final Fantasy XIV
Dukes up Alphinaud!

I feel like I sounded pretty negative in my write up for a game I really enjoyed. I think it’s very easy to point out its shortcomings especially when this base game came out (A Realm Reborn that is) in 2013. The new 5.3 patch served as an improved on-ramp for new players like me, an admittedly Herculean task to help slim down and improve a decidedly large game now. I haven’t reached the point of calling this the “best Final Fantasy” as long time fans point to, but it has been an enjoyable ride through a more story driven MMO. In comparison to WOW, the story is better woven through the quests and includes a lot more cutscenes and indicators for the main path. I like this model more than WOWs even if it did take some of the momentum when there was back to back cutscenes (especially at the end/early patch story content). Raiding with other players was fun also, even if partying with more experienced players made it feel like they were just running me through it rather than strategizing to overcome difficult enemies. I am especially grateful it was all free; I’m still working through the game’s extensive free trial which includes its first expansion. So far, Heavensward has been an improvement over ARR and am excited to continue my Monk’s journey. 

The Actual Top 10 2020 Games List

Virtual Island Living: Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Early camp life

Just like seemingly everybody, I too embarked to a tropical island with Tom Nook and co. This version brought big changes to the Animal Crossing formula; a larger focus on crafting and shaping your surroundings than just participation in an existing village. I never dove in the same way others on the internet did (and I voiced my frustrations at being player 2) but it was amazing seeing the island creations that players made. I still had a great time at launch, working with Emily (my partner) to gather materials to expand our island and finding new neighbors to invite. One of these days I will spend an extended amount of time back on the island, but I need to get over my immense guilt of letting it sit there for multiple months.

Get me that new Spider-Man! Miles Morales

Miles Morales

An upgrade in almost every way to Insomniac’s 2018 Spider-Man game. The more concise campaign ends up benefiting the entire experience with a more pared down selection of side quests and activities to play through that never wore out their welcome. Not that Peter was a bad character, but highlighting Miles here provided an essential point of view to the Spider-Man mythos. Miles is excited and nerdy just like young Peter is but with a stronger sense of confidence and purpose. It helps that his group of close relationships are all fantastic and I would say one of my only gripes with the game is that we didn’t spend more time with them. Insomniac would be smart to make Miles have at least equal billing going forward with their eventual mainline sequel. Also the Bodega Cat costume is just fantastic.

Rage against the machine: Treachery in Beatdown City

Treachery in Beatdown City: Cop Pepper Spray

Have you been frustrated with the police and government this year? Did you want to punch nazis? Were you looking for any outlet to vent your rage? Well this is the game for you! A throwback to old school beat em ups with a turn based skill system thrown in then tops it with a healthy rage and skepticism at political systems. Your crew of three fighters (good news, no cis white men here!) works their way to City Hall getting caught up with other people’s petty bullshit or outright hostility toward their existence. It’s really funny too, perfect for a good laugh and the easily accessible screenshot button on the Switch. Tremendous way to channel frustrations in a way that’s aligned with the current hellscape.

Monster in the office: Control: AWE

Control AWE Dr. Hartman

I love Control. It’s mix of 90’s and X-Files era government skepticism and other worldly events played so well as you navigate through a literal bureaucratic nightmare. I played both expansions this year but had such a blast with AWE (“Alan Wake Expansion” cleverly retconning that game’s events as an in-universe “Altered World Event”). Remedy makes the nods in the base game to Alan Wake literal as this serves as a direct follow up to that game, with the titular character guiding Jesse from the liminal space where he’s trapped. Turns out there’s an entire annex of the “Oldest House” that’s been turned over to the monster form of Emil Hartman. Jesse can’t directly damage him adding a big sense of danger when you get trapped in puzzle rooms with Dr. Hartman, making you dodge between light sources to stay alive. You’ll also find plenty of company memos and documents chronicling the shuttering of the department and tapes adding the Bureau of Control’s on the events of Alan Wake. It’s the Control you know and love with all the dark office humor brought along.

Crushing capitalism & found community: Kentucky Route Zero 

Kentucky Route Zero Characters

I saw this long in production game referred to as the “next great American novel” and I couldn’t think of a more accurate description of Kentucky Route Zero’s atmosphere and goals. A surreal portrait of the American south KRZ highlights the literal cost of debt on worker’s bodies and the strength and fragility of community. The game is essentially a journey across the Kentucky landscape, but instead takes you through abstract highways (“the Zero”) and vast underground caves and rivers. You’ll meet a variety of characters and the point of view shifts between them to show how each of them struggle to find a place within the capitalist system. It’s a story both of the moment and eternally poignant, highlighting the crushing pressure of debt on people and communities.

Sysphous has nothing on me: Hades

Hades Orange Shade
Here’s to you my good shade!

Dying over and over again has never felt better than Hades. The controls are so goddam tight and as I was pushing myself against the difficult learning curve I never felt that the game was being unfair. I kept beating my head against the wall and made incremental progress with each run. Once I finally escaped it felt like the bandaid ripped off and it was an incredible feeling to understand all of the intricacies of the game with such detail. Supergiant’s immaculate writing makes even the runs where you make zero progress feel impactful. Talking with mythological figures (Achilles, Nyx, Hypnos and many more Greek legends) felt like checking in with friends. As you play more you become more familiar with them and each character has their own story path to complete. It’s incredible that a run based game has created something that makes you want to keep playing it that isn’t directly tied to empowering your character in combat.

If I could push back time: Star Renegades

Star Renegades

Another rogue-lite that feels really good to play but for completely different reasons. This run based RPG places you in a Terminator-like future where you bounce between planets to fight back the evil machine aliens. Each map consists of 3 days and each days consists of picking 3 places to explore. The turn based battle system is unique as it makes time a literal factor. The enemies actions are placed on a linear timeline at the start of each turn and your job is to strategize how to push their actions back and completely off the timeline using your characters’ individual moves. Once you’ve successfully pushed them off the timeline you’ll “break” the enemy (accompanied by a big sound effect and lettering) and they’ll be open to even more damage. The further you go the more complicated the fights become and it feels so good to string together a big combo with your characters. The runs themselves can be a little long but that didn’t stop me from sinking tons of hours into this overlooked gem.

Take a picture, the end will last longer: Umurangi Generation

Umurangi Generation Holo Dancer

The pitch for this game is simple; take a series of photos that fulfills a checklist of requirements on a discrete level. Some of these requests are pictures of graffiti, people, or random objects scattered throughout the level. There’s a timer to find them but it’s not important unless you want to complete the bonus objectives (gates access to new items). The biggest challenge then is finding your photo subjects and finding the best angle or lens in which to take the picture. Once you complete the checklist, a new level unlocks and you move on.

Train Cafe

This game is so much more than that. Umurangi (meaning “red sky” in Maori) uses environmental storytelling to show a world on the brink of collapse. The first relatively normal level, taking place on a building rooftop, suggests somethings up as there are little blue jellyfish scattered around (that you are penalized for taking photos of too). Eventually you find yourself in the middle of a war zone, dilapidated cities, and underground shopping centers that show how the world is succumbing to Kaiju attacks. This isn’t escapist sci-fi; you’ll see images of UN troops and their failure at addressing the conflict and memorials to the fallen. It’s really amazing how many world details you can glimpse through movies posters, newscasts and graffiti placed throughout the closed off levels. The Macro DLC (a must play) coalesces the main games ideas into a more aggressive tone. You’ll visit an arcade/club where the rich go to escape, an underground collective, and eventually a protest against the occupying UN forces. That last level is so evocative after the last year of BLM protests showing medical stations and collective action at work (you’re even penalized for taking photos of protestors). When it eventually goes wrong, it’s haunting and the way the final moments change the camera removes any passivity between lens and player that might have existed. It’s truly a game of this moment.

2020 Vision Poster

The soundtrack is just perfect. It traffics in lots of golden era house, jungle, electro and all kinds of dance music goodies. It matches the vibe of the game (Dreamcast era specifically) with a perfect specificity. It also just happens to cover my favorite genres of music ThorHighHeels hit this one out of the park.

Surprising meta fiction:  Final Fantasy VII Remake

Final Fantasy VII Remake Push Up Contest

I thought I knew what this game was, but boy was I wrong. The lead up to this shot several warning flares; the remake would be split into multiple games, first focusing only on Midgar and replaced with real time combat rather than turn based. I didn’t trust that a compelling story could be made out of just the beginning of the game and I’ve been burned by Square combat (hello FFXV). Not only did they completely nail those last two parts but they effectively built out the world and added a meta layer over the whole game. Remake becomes a commentary on remaking games and devolves into KH levels of abstraction where you literally fight alternate timelines made manifest. That last part has proven divisive, but the final fights and ending effectively adds another mystery layer on the future of these remakes. It feels like they’ve blown off the doors of the story and I honestly have no idea what to expect for the future installments.

Final Fantasy VII Remake Combat

That wasn’t even my favorite part with real time combat that actually makes good use of pausing to input commands. Square has been trying to do this since 2001 (!!!) and never has it felt this good. Even on normal difficulty the game is punishing and requires you to switch between all the members of your party to take down enemies. The long fights never feel sluggish and winning fights is incredibly rewarding. The expanded scope of Midgar is more uneven with boring puzzle and side quest design. The character moments are a huge high point especially the extended role of Jesse. Formerly relegated to minor Avalanche member, here she gets an entire story arc and her grounded nature and flirtations with Cloud are charming. I guess my only detraction is they never added a “Part 1” or any sort of signifier to this game? If there was backlash to the misleading title it seems to have gotten drowned out. This is probably the game I thought about the most this year and it would’ve been my GOTY if not for:

Paradise Killer

"Perfect 25 Is Coming" Poster

I love mysteries and detective fiction and when games can pull that off it’s an absolute delight. I initially thought this game was more along the lines of a visual novel (something closer to Phoenix Wright) but was blown away when I picked up the real thing. Here is a detective game where you actually do the fucking work, exploring an open world looking for clues to solve your mystery. You’ll uncover more mysteries the more digging you do and it’s up to you when you want to bring your evidence back to the judge for the inevitable trial. All of the characters are pitch perfect for a murder mystery meaning there’s some sort of dirt on everyone on the island (even Crimson Acid but she’s more mask off than everyone else on the island so there’s less evil machinations going on and more “I’m going to get mine” vibes). I loved interacting with the characters and nothing was more exciting than suddenly hitting on a nerve that completely changed the tone of a conversation. I was a real goddam detective figuring out who murdered the syndicate. 

Paradise Island Full Map

Did I mention that this all takes place in an artificial world? That’s built to resurrect alien gods that gave people power? And that this is the 24th time they’ve tried to create the ideal “paradise?” And that you and the other cast of characters are all immortal? The setting and character names are all outlandish (in the best way possible) which makes exploring every nook and cranny of the island exciting. Finding out details of the lives of regular people, the background architecture and logistics of Paradise and the conflicting ideologies of its rulers all prop up the games excellent exploration of power. That the system is rotten doesn’t come as a shock but exploring how certain people benefit from it was always intriguing. Which leads to Paradise Killer’s amazing end trial, less of a send off checklist of solving the murder and getting the “true” ending. Instead you’re tasked with doling out “justice;” you hold the power to condemn people. One person may not have been directly involved but do their actions still warrant a guilty verdict? Does someone’s intention matter? Do any of them deserve to go free for their compliance with the world’s events or is this entire trial a sham? The open ended nature of the trial means that you decide what actually matters, whether that’s handing out guilty verdicts or letting people go free. It was a refreshing end to a genre that’s usually closed off with the inevitable reveal of the murderer. I absolutely loved my time with Paradise Killer.

Lydia Day Break
2020 EOY Anime Star Wars TV

2020 TV: Exploring Space & Piloting Mechs

Spoiler warning for Clone Wars, The Mandalorian, Mobile Suit Gundam, Gundam Wing, 08th MS Team, & Space Runaway Ideon

2020 was the year I finally got off the new show hamster wheel. I didn’t try as I usually do to keep up with every new series that came out. I lost the drive to be in the zeitgeist with every new streamable thing instead picking and choosing when and what I wanted to watch. Once quarantine started and the “Tiger King” had officially left the cultural consciousness, I settled more on rewatching old favorites or discovering older shows. Some of this is due to the general climate; I really want to watch “I May Destroy You” but at the time of its release my brain was not in a good place to handle heavy subject matter. I did watch at least a few newer shows. I finally sat and watched “What We Do In The Shadows” which is absolutely the funniest TV comedy on right now. “The Last Dance” entered my life for ten blissful weeks of Michael Jordan and 90’s nostalgia even if it had largely stopped being interesting by the end (we’ll still have the Jordan memes). And while “The Queen’s Gambit” has officially entered the oversaturation zone I had a phenomenal time with. Mainly I sidestepped bingeing new series because I officially broke the valve on my anime watching. I had been slowly dipping my toe back into anime over the past few years after ostensibly swearing off it in high school. I’ve found that I can wrap my head around the good and bad of the genre better than when I was younger and liking anime was much closer to something of a personal identity. I’m still not right with a lot of the gross horniness that comes along with the genre but I’m much better at identifying that line within a given series. There are series where women are sexual and there are others where they are sexualized and my brain is much better for learning that distinction.

Instead of this list being the best new shows of 2020, I’m writing about a few different series and universes that I had a great time engaging with. All except one predates 2020 and the majority by multiple decades:

Star Wars: The Clone Wars & Mandalorian

Star Wars Clone Wars

Star Wars is one of those special series that each time a new thing comes out the online discourse becomes absolutely insufferable. There is no better example of a series that should probably be removed from existence than Star Wars. Since “The Last Jedi” the online fan reaction has shown just how awful and abusive fan reactions can be and is the entire alt right movement in microcosm. The Star Wars fandom has a direct line from Gamergate harassment and the Trump presidency at large. The absolute worst thing you can do is bring up Luke Skywalker on Twitter. This is all coming from someone who is a lifelong fan of Star Wars. One of my parents favorite anecdotes is how I pestered family friends for plot information about the original trilogy movies before I was allowed to watch them (this was in the mid 90’s). I grew up with the prequels and loved them as a kid so I have been bought in on the series since I was 3. Still, Star Wars fandom is so incredibly toxic that it would probably be a W for everyone if it ceased to exist. Which makes my Star Wars watching a much more personal experience and not try and lose it over every “The Last Jedi is bad” take. I’ve been able to enjoy the TV shows as I pick my way through them even if I’m largely wary about where Star Wars as a brand is heading.

The Mandalorian premiering last year was certainly big for me. Here was an expensive live action Star Wars tv show that wasn’t about Jedi or Skywalkers. I was definitely excited but even more surprised when the show launched. To paraphrase Gita Jackson at Vice Games, the show is largely “about going to different planets and a new western is taking place.” I was taken aback that this wasn’t a show made in the style of “prestige TV” but rather cable adventure shows from before the advent of streaming. The first season especially eschews every episode pertaining to one long form narrative and instead has majority one off adventures. Mandalorian is a great in a B-tier action sense, which is 100% a compliment. I don’t need a large scale space adventure, give me the lone wolf and cub as they stumble upon different societies in space. It’s messy but in a charming way. Once the Darksaber was introduced at the end of season 1, I knew I finally had to jump into Clone Wars.

Star Destroyers

Clone Wars is similarly structured, albeit slightly more kid friendly and with much larger seasons and arcs. The series covers the interstitial war that occurred between episodes 2 & 3 and retroactively makes the prequels better. Emily and I just started a rewatch of the series starting with the prequels (I don’t care if you don’t think this is the correct watch order) and I was ready to embrace these movies after finishing two seasons of Clone Wars. They’re not as bad as I remember but boy are they boring. Clone Wars gets to benefit from the exciting parts of those series, namely the world building, and expand upon it with interesting stories. We get a look into what it means to be a clone trooper, smaller planets caught up in the wider Republic politics, and clever foreshadowing of movie plot points. The show gets to include all the cool Jedi found in the background of the Prequels and added the unstoppable cultural juggernaut that is Asoka Tano (very fun character). Even the characters from the movies, especially Anakin, benefit from longer form storytelling. Stories like the ones that center around Obi Wan’s romantic feelings for a politician he protected when he was younger make the Jedi orders rejection of Anakin’s love affair even more hypocritical. Also just having Anakin be a reckless general and actually having fun makes for a much more engaging character than the mopey edge lord we get in the movies. Since I’m at the risk of overselling the show, the 22 episode seasons do mean there’s plenty of lag. Some stories are very slapstick, goofy, or plain unengaging like a three episode King Kong riff. I’ve heard the best is still yet to come, so I’m excited to move further into season 3.

Bo Katan & Mandalorians

Clone Wars also benefits by having the main focus be on characters from the movies. This allows the show to avoid weird character guest appearances which was a major problem I had with Mandalorian season 2. Before I get to that, I do want to say that I think this season was a total improvement over season 1. The directing was better across the board so the action scenes were a lot less hokey. The individual stories were all interesting starting with a real winner of space cowboy in Boba Fett, a misdirect that unfortunately doesn’t stick long term. They even included an extended look at the ongoings of the fallen imperial army with a tremendous episode featuring a space Bostonian. They made smart ties to the Clone Wars tv show too with Bo-Katan and her crew from the homeplanet of Mandalore. My favorite episode of the season “The Jedi” evoked classic samurai films to great effect (but unfortunately casting noted transphobe Rosario Dawson).

Where the season gets messy though are those aforementioned cameos. We were teased Boba Fett at the end of season 1 and we get him returning here as a badass warrior, which is hilarious given that his biggest moment in the original trilogy has him immediately ending up in a sarlacc pit. I did enjoy his introduction episode, a fun action set piece directed by someone who knows a thing or two about B-movie action scenes Robert Rodriquez. The show couldn’t escape the feeling of nerd wish fulfillment. Here is the Boba Fett fans have been fantasizing about since his first appearance in Empire Strikes Back. This cool guy in Spartan armor must be an all time badass right? He even looks like the star of this show so bring him in! It unfortunately connects the show all the way back to the movies which it had been so clever to avoid. The movies all suffer from this inertia that everything revolves around this small set of characters. People have made many jokes through the years of just how small the universe is since things always involved the same dozen characters. Mandalorian proves it’s exactly that small with Boba and then the eventual appearance of Luke.

The Mandalorian Boba Fett

This is where the nostalgia gets real messy and opened up the floodgates (literally). People were so hyped that they got to see badass hero Luke swoop in again that it reignited the whole Last Jedi harassment again. Disney has catered so much towards fans and it makes the fandom even more irritating. They want their Star Wars myths preserved, Luke in this case being a total hero rather than morally compromised in Last Jedi, and Disney seems to be cementing that. Really this exacerbates the aforementioned small galaxy problem and makes the storytelling so much less interesting. When your plot is building toward a character showing up, it makes it hard to care about the characters you’re spending time with. It cheapens the whole experience and that’s before you realize half of this season was a backdoor pilot. Disney has instead backed away from the onslaught of Star Wars movies to jam 10 (!!) new tv shows onto their platform (not including other movies in development). It makes you wonder how much narrative they have that can be unique and also cater to the very loud group of fans. Much like the Mandalorian, I will probably enjoy some of it. On the other hand, I’m already tired of it all. 

Mobile Suit Gundam Series

Gundam Wing Protagonists

Here’s where the anime reintroduction officially began. I started to listen to Abnormal Mapping at the beginning of the year (specifically their Outer Wilds episode, amazing game and episode) and slowly started to listen to their wider podcast network. For $1 on their Patreon you get the Great Gundam Project where they watch every Gundam series in release order. They happened to also start covering Gundam Wing this year, one of my favorite Toonami era anime. They also pair all of the Gundam shows with a backup anime to watch along with, which led me to Space Runaway Ideon (more on that later). Needless to say I was very excited to jump back into Wing.

And boy what an uneven show that is. It’s a show that starts pedal to the medal with our 5 teen protagonists touching down on earth to battle OZ. What starts as a straightforward fight against two sides rapidly shifts to changing sides and organizations in power. Also the warring factions fight in giant armored mechs and the protagonists pilot special ones called Gundams. The show really wants to focus on the nature of war, the personal ideologies of soldiers and the machinations of the powerful. Our protagonists quickly find themselves stranded without a purpose as the show burns through an entire series worth of plot in 20 episodes. With so much thematic material covered, the back half of the series is left without a purpose. Wing instead shifts to a message that “war is bad actually” and misguided notions of why war is fought. It all ends with the two sides essentially play fighting and really cool looking fight sequences that are essentially meaningless.

08th MS Team

I remembered at least some of this ideology on rewatch. I remembered it’s intense dedication talking about total pacifism and I thought that this idea extended throughout Gundam. This is a fairly common western conception of the series; Gundam Wing and 08th MS team are by far the two most watched series among US fans because of their Toonami airings (Wing was the first to come over from Japan). 08th runs along a similar ideological wavelength by focusing on the ground troops set during the original Gundam’s timeline. It’s a more on the ground “war is hell” sort of Vietnam story tied up with a star crossed lovers story (people love it, but this part did not land with me). It’s strangely meandering and boring for a series that’s beloved by the fandom. In the end it’s trying to tell a story about finding your place in the world outside of national ideology, which never really landed for me.

RX78 Gundam

These two shows got me interested in watching more so I started watching the original Mobile Suit Gundam from 1979 when it was added to Funimation. The original has a lot on its mind; it’s about the cost of war but also why people fight. It’s about the terrible weapons being deployed for destruction and the Gundam is supposed to be terrifying. Mobile Suit Gundam is also about the mechanics of imperialism (Gundam is a portmanteau of gun and freedom and the Rx78 mobile suit is in the colors of the American flag) and the places caught up in the battle between Zeon and the Earth Federation. This is all wrapped in what ostensibly resembles a Saturday morning cartoon with an overarching storyline paired with climatic mecha battles. It also balances plenty of humor to go with the darker parts of the plot. It’s a tremendous show that stands apart from its later counterparts by having a more nuanced ideology. It complicates the hero’s journey by questioning their reasons for fighting and what forces are influencing them.

Space Runaway Ideon

Space Runaway Ideon Cover

This is a really special show. Space Runaway Ideon aired from 1980-81 and was the series immediately following Mobile Suit Gundam’s cancellation by Yoshiyuki Tomino (Ideon was also canceled). The show still revolves around mecha, this time three truck looking vehicles that form one giant mech. These vehicles are discovered by earthling colonists on a new planet called Logo Dau and believed to belong to what they refer to as the “sixth civilization” (the sixth alien society they’ve cataloged). Before they can understand this new power, they’re attacked by the “Buff Clan” (aliens from the planet Buff) who look suspiciously exactly like humans. The earthlings fight back the Buff Clan and find themselves on the run with this new technology which the Buff believe to be a source of infinite power known as the “Ide.”

Much like the original Gundam this show at first also resembles a Saturday morning cartoon. I struggled with it a bit in the opening episodes as I wasn’t accustomed to this type of anime (less bombastic and melodramatic than the typical 90s fare I saw on Toonami). Why did the two sides have to fight every episode, couldn’t they simply talk it out? That exact question underpins the entire show and Ideon reveals that it’s about how power and nationalism naturally breeds distrust. The struggle for the protagonists is how to handle this immense power and who to trust when you’re literally carting around an atomic level weapon. They don’t trust the conquering Buff Clan who only want to use it to further expand across space and even the Earth military wants to take it for their own destructive ends. It’s less about the alluring nature of power (ala LOTR) and more about how power only brings destruction. The destructive power of the Ideon only grows stronger the more times they engage in battle. In a regular Shonen anime growing power is tied with self actualization and control over yourself. In Ideon, growing power breeds more fear and anxiety and a loss of control. The protagonists quickly realize they have no idea how to bottle it’s increasing destruction as they are continually forced to use it to protect themselves. It can be a pretty bleak show.

Space Runaway Ideon Characters

I’ve already written about my favorite character, the no holds barred teen Kasha, but the show is filled with other interesting ones. Cosmo is the opposite of the anime boy stereotype, a brash and rude teen who thinks he knows the best in every situation. Sheryl plays the role of devil’s advocate most of the time, but her hard rationalizations can prove correct making her needling an interesting counterpoint to the rest of the crew (her final breaking point at the end of the series is fantastic as well). We get the Buff Clan perspective from Karala, a Buff royal who turns to the earthling side after Buff Clan fighting. Her outside perspective makes the rest of the crew naturally distrustful of her and it’s through those interactions that we get a better look into how the two cultures lock people into specific actions and roles that are often opposed to outsiders. Bes, the ship’s captain, starts out as a loud condescending figure before learning to listen and trust his fellow crew members. We also get this amazing scene from him in literally the first episode.

Ideon barrels to an amazing conclusion that shows how national identity locks people into conflict. The Buff Clan and our earth protagonists find they have no choice but to fight, less the Buff Clan soldiers lose rank and status. The show ends well enough, but the follow up movie “Be Invoked” expands upon it thematically. Ideon knows that these characters have no other path but destruction and the movie can be rough watching the violence overtake the ship. The movie ends on a positive note though, a spiritual counterpoint that shows how live beings are connected outside social and national paradigms. Released from the conflict, they are able to be at peace and join with one another before their spirits fly to a new planet to ostensibly try again.

Ideon Be Invoked

Ideon was never a huge hit here, but made a big impact among anime fans of its generation. The most notable influence can be seen in Hideaki Anno’s “Neon Genesis Evangelion.” There’s a direct through line between the two series and you can see where Anno even lifted parts from it. This is especially true for the follow up movie “End of Evangelion” which practically recreates shots from Be Invoked, albeit with a much darker and less affecting ending. I haven’t seen anything like Ideon and I don’t think I ever will. It’s an effecting story interrogating the reasons and structures that keep people locked in conflict and the metaphysical forces that tie us all together.

2020 EOY Movies

2020 Movies: Missed Classics & New Favorites

Movie companies really didn’t have a backup plan for people not seeing films in theaters. The wider movie industry got put in the incredibly weird position of what to do with new releases scheduled for 2020. It seemed like they might slowly roll out movies onto VOD, then the country collectively practiced avoidance and started opening theaters (thanks Nolan), then Warner dropped a grenade and announced that all of their 2021 releases will go straight to streaming (actually thanks Nolan for talking about how this would affect unions). On the one hand I’m extremely excited that I can be safe and watch these movies all for the low cost of my shared HBO Max subscription. On the other hand, I really want places like Alamo Drafthouse to stay in business. The theater model has been slowly teetering since the advent of streaming but it’s tough watching giant corporations take them out at the knees.

As movies slowed down, so did my watching. I found summoning the energy to watch things on my ever growing list harder and harder to do. I had such grand plans to catch up on so many things, but David Lynch’s Dune will have to wait. I was able to do some catch up though and this list mostly reflects that. That said, there were a few 2020 movies that absolutely killed it. Here’s hoping that monopolistic corporate consolidation doesn’t completely kill smaller companies next year:


Emma 2020

Everybody has been talking about Anya Taylor-Joy’s other period piece (for good reason, Queen’s Gambit is great) 2020 started with a different stand out performance. Anya Taylor-Joy gets to play the sheltered spoil heroine of Jane Austen’s novel and knocks it out of the park. Her nonverbal ticks are used instead for Emma’s matchmaking machinations and she absolutely sells the mixture of curiosity and pity in how she treats Harriet. She also encompasses Emma’s deep insecurity and is great when everything falls apart at the seams. This adaptation is extremely funny accompanied by beautiful and eye popping set decoration that’s akin to Wes Anderson. It’s emotional without being too sappy and witty without being too sardonic. 

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Birds of Prey

It’s refreshing to see a “superhero” movie that’s made by and starring women and on a more technical level it’s refreshing to have it mainly have physical stunts. Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad was such an unstoppable cultural juggernaut that it’s great she has such a fun movie behind her. The movie is full of sarcastic and tongue in cheek jokes that never tip over into cheesy or too much. It’s over the top sure but that matches the wild main protagonist or her journey of self discovery (through hyenas and crime mainly). The rest of the Bird of Prey make for a great mismatched crew; special shout out to Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress for being cool and impossibly socially awkward (you don’t get out much at secret assassin monasteries). The only couple of drawbacks is that they don’t get together sooner and that Ewan McGregor doesn’t get more to do. When everything starts flying though, it’s a good violent time. 

The Last of Sheila

The Last of Sheila

After watching Knives Out last year, I needed another whodunit to jump into. Luckily Ryan Johnson put together a handy list which led me to The Last of Sheila. This fantastic murder myster from 1973 also stars some verifiable stars: Joan Hackett, Raquel Welch, Ian McShane, Dyan Cannon, and James Coburn as the smug movie producer who brings them all together. The plot centers around a group of movie industry members out on a Mediterranean cruise at the behest of James Coburn. Turns out he has dirt on all of them and is using that to inform a game that he’s put together for them all to play. When someone eventually ends up dead, the guests have to figure out what happened. It definitely scratched a similar itch to Knives Out; namely that all of these people are easy to root against. Everyone is leaning into their characters too as uneasy alliances and sneaky meetings start occurring. The secrets and reveals are satisfying and like the best murder mysteries leaves the clues hidden just enough to keep you guessing.

Palm Springs

Palm Springs

This one surprised me. It’s not that it didn’t get good reviews, I was just expecting to be more middling and pleasant. I was also skeptical of the premise, I mean Groundhog Day is the reference for a reason. The movie twists it just enough and runs with it to tell a completely different story. The smartest move is having two people stuck in a time warp and starting it en media res. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are a great odd couple. Andy Samberg as Nyles is a burnout who wants to lean into the situation while Cristin Milioti as Sarah desperately wants him to snap out of it and get the hell out of this. There’s plenty of hijinks and time paradox bits around all the shit you can get away with when time restarts. Palm Springs like Groundhog Day is interested in redemption and what it takes to change yourself for the better. Palm Springs though looks beyond love as salvation and instead what does it actually mean to forgive yourself. It has a lot of unexpected heart amidst it’s dark humor (although the best part may be the synchronized dance to Patrick Cowley).



Speaking of chemistry this movie was made so we could go and awe at the two stars’ chemistry. It’s also a fun and mostly breezy thriller, a plot full of changing allegiances and murders that’s coupled with Audrey Hepburn wanting to hook up with Cary Grant as soon as humanly possible. The movie twists through beautiful European scenery as our protagonist tries to figure out just what the hell all these men want and where the hell all her money went. The plot moves along at a quick pace meaning your never getting bored and trickles out just enough info to keep you guessing. But really you’re here to watch two amazing actors at the top of their game hit it off.

The Conversation

The Conversation

A paranoid thriller that happened to coincidentally release alongside the Watergate scandal, I had never seen what HBO Max had listed as “Film 101.” It’s a classic for a reason. The movie is all about civilian spy work, what it means to remove people’s privacy and the complicity that comes with being involved in this line of work. Gene Hackman plays our protagonist who finds that his recent job may lead to a couple getting killed. He plays Harry Caul as a paranoid loner, a renowned industry expert who may have earned that lifestyle precisely because he knows how easy it is to breach someone’s privacy. The movie plays out his fears through dreams and daydreams making it hard to tell if his worries are actually founded in reality. The film sticks purely with his point of view so even when it presents a pretty good case on what happened, it’s conclusion leaves a lot questions open. The Conversation has a big interest in the technology that enables Harry’s work so much that even the middle of the movie is dedicated to an industry convention. It’s almost quaint by today’s standards how the tools that they use require so much technical skill and knowledge to operate and a large scale operation to record a whole conversation. Now ads for crock pots are served to me if I do much as mention a slow cooker near my phone.

Stop Making Sense/American Utopia

I’m a relatively recent Talking Heads fan. I never really started listening to them until college. Before I had only really heard Psycho Killer and Once in a Lifetime; great songs but didn’t exactly jump out to me. I heard their cover of Take Me To The River and I was immediately hooked. After almost ten years of listening I had never watched their seminal Stop Making Sense. It meets the lofty expectations and then enthusiastically leaps over it. It’s an hour and a half of finely crafted live versions of their discography, updated to inject more energy through double the amount of band members. It builds perfectly as each subsequent song introduces an additional band member. Once everyone’s on stage the energy never dips. It’s 100% danceable and definitely the greatest concert film I’ve ever seen. I was surprised David Byrne’s giant suit wasn’t even the best part of it. 

Not from the stage show, but you get the idea

American Utopia is a slightly different beast. It’s definitely still energetic and exciting, but with 30 years experience and a lot less cocaine. David Byrne trades sporadic dancing for intricate choreography and it’s amazing watching all of the band dance while playing all of their wireless instruments. It’s something I’ve never seen before and watching every be untethered allows for a more dynamic show. American Utopia is a more affecting show emotionally than Stop Making Sense. David Byrne brings in more of his solo work around interrogating his surroundings. He also takes time in the show to comment on racial justice issues (both with kneeling in front of a picture of Kapernick and covering Janelle Monae’s Hell You Talmbout) and wider political issues (reminding the audience the importance of voting globally). I teared up a few times watching it and was so excited to hear Road to Nowhere, a song that was unfortunately predated by Stop Making Sense.

Jupiter Ascending

I had a great Wachowski revival this year. I watched the first two Matrix’s again (both incredible) and revisited Speed Racer with incredible results. I decided to finish off 2020 with Jupiter Ascending, a movie I heard was better than it’s reputation.

This is my favorite movie I watched this year. It’s simultaneously amazing and an absolute mess. You know you’re in for something when the Space Opera has the opening line “I’m an alien” and the character is actually referring to their status as an illegal immigrant in the US. The Wachowski’s put together an incredibly dense universe and fiction filled with stunning ship designs, gothic space castles and greedy intergalactic capitalists. There’s so much detail that every other line is explaining some necessary information for understanding the world. The wider galaxy shown has such amazing structure like Eddie Redmayne’s character Balem’s castle inside of Jupiter and his sister Kalique’s Greek inspired palatial estate on one of Jupiter’s moons. They also put in a clunker of a romance and the plot centers around our protagonist wanting to find true love. They try and cast Jupiter’s (yes that Mila Munis’ characters name) joinery as a rags to riches; she’s literally cleaning houses before she finds out that she’s somehow space royalty. All she wants is romance though and that comes in the form of Channing Tatum as a half wolf man hybrid with jetpack boots named Caine Wise. It’s honestly so hard to pay attention to Jupiter’s earthbound problems when there’s entire plots around harvesting planets for life extending products. Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum have zero chemistry but the movie moves so fast it’s hard for it to get bogged down.

I can’t believe the things that happen in this movie. Mila Kunis controls bees! Our crew gets stuck in space bureaucracy! Channing Tatum literally skates in the sky the whole movie! I want more in this universe because it’s so damn captivating. The ship designs are incredible, especially the capital ships that are inspired by sailing vessels and space mechs with wings. I’m flabbergasted that it reviewed so poorly because it’s so much fun. It’s messy and cheesy but there are too many amazing details to count. This movie was unfairly slept on (by myself included) but it has jumped up my favorites list. The Wachowskis have been received poorly since The Matrix; 2021 is the year we cement Speed Racer and Jupiter Ascending in the all time great canon.

2020 EOY Music

2020 Music: Lots & Lots of Dance Music

The music industry absolutely fucking cratered this year. The coronavirus pandemic showed exactly what everyone knew for years; that it was all built with an incredibly shaky foundation. Obviously the whole capitalist system we live in caved in entirely foreseeable ways. Who knew that by relying on businesses to perform exactly as they are regardless of the situation was a mistake. A government that refuses to support individuals rather than businesses is entirely culpable.

Artists who have to rely on live events suddenly had their entire income disappear meaning they had to rely on song and album sales plus the paltry cents earned from streaming service providers. Virtual events have tried to step in, but those didn’t earn the same traffic, paychecks or occur at the same veracity that a touring schedule did. Bandcamp did its best and started giving artists 100% of the revenue from their album sales on the first Fridays of April, then May and then June. Even they eventually had to cave and extend that through the end of the year (the last one for the foreseeable future just occurred on December 4th). But in the age of steaming, record sales are an imperfect solution as the vast majority of listeners don’t purchase albums. Large streaming corporations on the other hand doubled down on their position that they owe artists nothing. 

Artists still put in fucking work. The releases this year were absolutely incredible. I’ve stockpiled such a large amount of new and returning favorites that it’s been honestly hard to listen back through everything. And somewhat ironically, dance music has been top notch. The majority of my listening has all been dance tracks keeping me energized while I’ve been holed up in my apartment. So here are some of my favorite artists and releases from the year that are well worth your money and attention. And if you can, please support on Bandcamp; it may not change the world or the industry but it at least puts money in the artists pocket.

Haus of Altr & MoMa Ready

To say that MoMa Ready’s label occupied the most space in my brain and music library this year is an understatement. Both his music and wider releases were the tracks I reached for the most. The three compilations are fantastic front to back and occupy a similar genre space that his music does; finding the connecting through line from house to jungle, dnb, techno, and R&B. Smooth house would transition to rough and tumble techno and even hands in the air trance approximations. The compilations also introduced me to a ton of new favorites like DJ Swisha, Kush Jones, and Amal amongst heavy hitters like Bearcat and Akua. He put the icing on the cake with his last release of the year, Haus Psychology, and I haven’t stopped playing Saving Grace since.


There’s a lot of music on my list that I can’t believe came out this year because it felt like I’ve been listening to it forever. This applies to Hooversound, my new favorite label that puts out genres of music I never really listened to before them. The new label by Naina and Sherelle specializes in fast weapons, starting with the BS6 EP from Sinistarr & Hyroglifics. The EP is 5 tracks of footwork that doesn’t dip below 155 bpm. It’s energetic and catchy and absolutely effective at getting you to move. Releases like BS6 broadened my tastes to include faster tracks and when I felt weird being cooped up it was so cathartic to put these on and get lost in dance floor reveries. Hooversound put out 5 amazing EPs this year and much like Haus of Altr, they snuck out a banger one before the end of the year. “You” by Private Caller has quickly become my new pump up jungle track.

Tim Reaper

Speaking of jungle, it’s artists like Tim Reaper that have again gotten me further into a genre that I hadn’t listened to before. MoMa Ready and AceMo had primed for it and Tim Reaper’s take on the genre slotted right in. He’s able to find that similar intersection across genres like in Sequences 2 where a thumping bass line and jittery hi hats coalesce with flanger and lovely house vocals. It recalls some of my favorite house music moments, the euphoric feeling that comes from soulful vocals and upbeat music, only at double the speed. He can still create dark and deadly jungle tracks too. His Truants mix this year was one of my favorites and is definitely worth a listen (you can also support Truants on Patreon).

TRUANTS · Truancy Volume 269: Tim Reaper


Unequivocally the biggest pump up techno EP of the year. It is 100% peak-time and absolutely slamming front to back. The music meshes pummeling bass with sporadic drums that make you want to jump along. Jump-up would be an accurate definition for the music, especially on the False Witness co-produced track Overheat. If it were any other year, the track’s whistles and chopped vocals would cause dance floor upheaval.

India Jordan

India Jordan’s tremendous 2019 continued over into 2020 with their For You EP. It’s title track and I’m Waiting (Just 4 U) are catchy filter house tracks that capture the best parts of the genre. Soulful vocals and a 4/4 bassline mesh together to make two emotive and hands-in-the-air songs. The rest of the EP is dedicated to similar throwback genres; Rave City, Westbourne Ave, and Dear Nan King recall some of the best emotive prog and trance from the early 2000s. The whole 6-track EP is brimming with emotion; these are all songs that’ll make you move and cry in the same instant.


LSDXOXO · Waiting 2 Exhale (Full Mixtape)

LSDXOXO is my gateway into wider pop and club music. For as varied as my dance music consumption can be, other music genres I’m much more picky about (especially pop). LSDXOXO mixes pop songs with techno and ballroom, making bouncy and hyperactive dance tracks. His mixtape Waiting 2 Exhale glides across genres starting off with a bang before slowing down into R&B ballads. Also bonus points for releasing a pack of edits that includes a club edit for Die Another Day.

Vladimir Dubyshkin

This one actually came from a Twitter post by LSDXOXO. Vladimir Dubyshkin released a couple of EPs on Nina Kraviz’s label Trip, so I was expecting more minimally focused big room techno. Instead his music is the bounciest techno you’ll ever hear. It’s joyful techno, most tracks based around a springy bassline looped to perfection. Caught me completely off guard and I couldn’t stop listening.

Eris Drew & Octa Octa

These two have never gone wrong. Every single EP, album or mix is always top notch fun house music in all its shapes and permutations. They’ve reached a legend status in my mind and I’m always incredibly excited when either of them release something new. Which makes their new collaborative Fabric mix something to celebrate. It meets the seal of approval, 69 minutes of positive energy filled with house, garage, NRG and everything in between. I almost forgot too that Eris Drew released her Fluids of Emotion EP this year. They are three slices of emotive house music, especially So Much Love to Give.

Avalon Emerson

The queen of snaking rhythms is back. A new DJ mix from Avalon Emerson is always a cause for celebration and her DJ Kicks includes some great new originals as well. New tracks like Poodle Power and Rotting Hills are the kinds of music she’s known for, drum heavy slow builds with emotive synths, but her cover of Long Forgotten Fairytale by The Magnetic Fields is tremendous electro-pop. That’s not to mention a fun and varied mix with plenty of peak-time moments nestled next to pop breakdowns.

Amnesia Scanner

Obviously I would have loved the last year to not be in the midst of a global pandemic and be able to go to all sorts of concerts, but it’s an especially big shame that Amnesia Scanner wasn’t able to tour out in support of their new album. That’s not selling Tearless short; it’s another great ride through their grimy version of EDM (or Avant-EDM as it’s been dubbed). Just like Another Life, it’s full of trap-like beats with shredding, distorted guitars, high pitched vocals, and grinding samples. It’s sensory overload in the best possible way, which is their bread and butter. What I wouldn’t give to see them perform on a huge system again.

Kelly Lee Owens

Kelly Lee Owens music fits nicely into two categories; orchestral, vocal pop music and banging techno tracks. On her self-titled first album, she split the difference right down the middle with the front half being the former and the more club tracks in the back half. Her new album Inner Song does an even better job of walking that tightrope, nicely segueing back and forth between the two different styles. Her tracks do an even better job of that as well; Re-Wild mixes in trap beats and rising synths behind her vocals and calls to mind some of Purity Ring’s best songs. Opening track Arpeggi walks a balance between the two styles even without her vocals with steadily increasing synths and sparse drumming. My favorite track Night, starts with airy vocals and a driving drum beat before they disappear for a thumping acid bassline. It recalls some of the ideas that Daniel Avery was pulling from for his seminal Drone Logic, which Kelly Lee Owens collaborated on. Just a great album front to back.