Children of a Dead Earth

So, the other day I was reading the Tough Scifi blog, a blog dedicated to Realistic Space Combat (a subject longtime readers will know I’m fascinated by) and there was a reference to a new game called Children of a Dead Earth, which I clicked on out of curiosity. What I got surprised the heck out of me.

For years, I’ve searched for a game simulating realistic space warfare using actual physics, weapons and tactics that make sense based on what we know of how the universe and space combat could actually work. (No shields, no FTL, no space dogfighting, etc.) Mostly I wanted a game to simulate the actual physics involved, just to see how the whole thing would play out.

Well, Children of a Dead Earth IS that game.

The title comes from the idea that in this setting (which is our own solar system in the future) the Earth has been rendered lifeless, but not before Elon Musk and friends managed to get us out to Mars and colonize space. So it’s a conflict simulator between system powers, and there is a single player campaign all about this very topic. (Although primarily the game is meant to be a “Sandbox” game where players set up scenarios themselves, build their own ships and weapons, and blow the crap out their enemies.)

Now, one of the things about realistic physics is that it involves a lot of math and advanced concepts, which is why this is a very niche product. However, the game has done a great job of making it all very playable, reducing the math to mostly visual sliders and readouts and keeping the game fun instead of tedious. In fact, they’ve made it so playable it might just reach a wider audience than you’d expect, which manged to get it a Very Positive overall rating with 79 reviews on STEAM, which is where you can buy it. You can watch a playthrough here to decide if this is something you’d be interested in:

I have to say, they managed to make it as visually appealing as they could while staying realistic as well. The ships aren’t ships as in the Starship Enterprise, but structures with a cone of armored plate around them. Lasers are invisible, but railguns and coilguns are quite visually impressive and just plain cool to watch in action. And I find the strategic elements that physics brings interesting as well, since it’s primarily orbital combat and you have limited fuel for maneuvering. (Basically, if you don’t think ahead, you’re in deep trouble.)

This game really ups the Space Combat genre in a new way, and provides Scifi authors with a new tool to see how the battles that they’ve got in their books would actually play out. In fact, it shows just how complicated and interesting space combat really can be, which can add whole new layers to tales of future conflicts.

Rob

Volton: Legendary Defender Review (Very Lite Spoilers)

I just finished watching the first season of Netflix and Dreamworks’ new attempt at rebooting Voltron, and I have to say I was impressed. This is no surprise, since the people behind the reboot are the same team and studio behind Avatar: The Legend of Korra, and they bring their trademark style of character, action, and humor to the project. So what did I like and didn’t I like?

Likes

  • The animation is beautiful, and they’re not afraid to mix different styles together and do tricks like dropping to black and white line drawing at certain dramatic scenes. They’re very in control of the medium, and even though we’re looking at a mix of CGI and 2D animation, it all blends very nicely.
  • The story is overall well written, and while it starts a little rushed it picks up quite well as it goes along. While each episode stands on its own, there is a clear overall story and progression, and they deftly avoid falling into the “Voltron fights monster of the week” trap. (In fact, I was shocked by how few monster battles there actually are.)
  • The monster battles that happen are extremely well thought out and well choreographed, not “fight>fight>fight>blazing sword>end” but requiring the characters to think each monster through as a problem, not just as an obstacle to their goals. (Which makes the monsters more scary and actually intimidating.)
  • They made Hunk, Lance, and Pidge into distinctive (and very loveable) characters who all have a purpose in the story and aren’t just sidekicks.
  • They’ve expanded Zarkon’s forces into an actual race, The Galra, and treat them like an actual military force and even gave them bits of their own language.
  • The shift towards an active role for the team instead of passively sitting there waiting for the next monster to attack.

Undecided

    • The original Voltron used Keith as it’s core anchor, and then slowly expanded on the rest of the cast as it went on. (It was following the formula set up by Gatchaman (aka Battle of the Planets/G-Force) and which is still used in Sentai today, where the Red Ranger is always the default hero/leader.) This new series is all ensemble, all the time, with no clear focal character except a character that the episode might choose to focus on. While this works okay, I found this results in the Hunk/Lance/Pidge trio getting the majority of lines and screen time, while the actual more heroic warrior characters of Keith and Shiro kinda get shafted in terms of story focus. Keith and Shiro start the season as enigmas, and pretty much end there too, in fact Keith is now reduced to being just another skilled but generic pilot, and a boring one. (Imagine a Legend of Korra where they spent 75% of their time on Mako and Bolin instead of Korra, and Korra just turns up to fight.) I’m hoping this is because Keith is now on a slow-burn towards hero-dom and it will be remedied in the following seasons.
    • The new Voltron design is okay, not great, not bad.
    • Every time they form Voltron, I keep having GaoGaiGar flashbacks, because the new Voltron combining sequence is a total GaoGaiGar “homage”. Watch…

Forming Voltron (however, this is the shorter version, there is a longer version which is even more like GaoGaiGar’s Final Fusion)

GaoGaiGar’s Final Fusion sequence for comparison.

Dislikes

  • I’m oldschool this way, but to me Voltron isn’t Voltron without this theme! (Which I’ve been humming since my childhood.) Instead we get a bunch of really lackluster synth music that’s functional but nothing exceptional.

Overall, it’s a very well done show, and in some ways is superior to the original. It kind’ve reminds me of the Thundercats reboot they did a few years back, although that show had a little more depth to it. This new Voltron series is just a simple and fun retelling of the original Voltron story, and I look forward to seeing where they go with it.

Rob

P.S. Here’s your useless Trivia of the day! The original Voltron series wasn’t supposed to be translated from Beast King Golion at all. It was supposed to be translated from another series called Daltanius, which also featured a robot with a lion component. However, during pre-production World Events Productions asked their Japanese partner to send them tapes of “the one with the lion” and Toei Animation accidentally sent tapes of Golion instead! WEP liked Golion so much they decided to translate it instead!

And now you know…the rest of the story.

DNA Podcast Episode 009 – Clap if you love Gamera!

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In this episode, Rob and Don are joined by their friend Chad to discuss all things Giant Monster! They discuss why the genre has an enduring popularity, and then delve into their favorite Giant Monster films and guilty Daikaiju pleasures. Finally, they talk about the future of Giant Monster movies and what it would take to revitalize the genre in the 21st century. All this and Moby Dick helping teens solve crimes at sea are discussed in episode 009 of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

Review- Dragon Blade (Jackie Chan) (Mild Spoilers)

I just finished watching Dragon Blade, and I have to say I have really mixed feelings about it. It’s a giant pile of awesome ideas and potential wrapped in a badly directed and mismanaged package. The core idea is great- a team of Silk Road mediators in Han Dynasty China lead by Huo An (Jackie Chan) have to keep peace among the 36 different tribes that control parts of the Silk Road which runs between China and Rome. One day, a Roman army shows up on the Chinese border city of Wild Geese led by Commander Lucius (John Cusack) on the run from Rome because they’re fleeing with their lord’s youngest son to keep his elder brother from killing him. The Romans and the Chinese are the two ends of the Silk Road, but this is them meeting for the first time and lots of cultural conflicts and misunderstandings ensue.

Great stuff, and the first half of the movie is actually pretty good with a nice mix of comedy, action, and some cool scenes where each side gets to show off what they can do. It was made for Chinese audiences, but the Romans are played as strong and heroic, and Cusack and Chan are fun to watch together, regardless of how awkward the English dialog is. (And it’s REALLY awkward- this movie needed an English re-write badly, the lines sounding like they used Google Translate on a Chinese script.) I especially enjoyed the portrayal of the Romans as builders and engineers as well as warriors.

However, then the second half of the movie hits and it turns into a nonsensical mess that pretty much squanders everything the first half built up. Things and characters appear and disappear, and stuff happens that makes sense but was never really explained or built up to. You can kind of piece most of it together, but you’re left scratching your head as to what the writer/director was thinking. For example, the version I saw has a bizarre flash-forward to modern day at the end that comes out of nowhere and seems to be part of a whole storyline that was left out except for this final scene. Stuff like that.

I blame a lot of this on the director, Daniel Lee, as you can see in this a movie that in the hands of a good director like Ridley Scott could have been fricken amazing, but was instead reduced to a dog’s breakfast of a film.

I give the first half a B-, but thanks to a D- second half, I can only give the film a C- in the end. Which is sad, because I liked so many things in this film, just not the film itself. See it on Netflix, it’s definitely not worth a theatrical price to see, unfortunately.

Rob

Hunter x Hunter (2011) Anime Review

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The manga Bakuman is about two young manga artists (Takagi the writer, Mashiro the artist) who work their way up through the manga industry at it’s top selling publication- Weekly Shonen Jump. Written by two veteran manga creators, it’s a masterpiece on many levels, and at its core it’s both a critque of the industry and a how-to for those who want to become future manga artists. Another way to describe it is if Scott McCloud made his incredible Understanding Comics as a story about a young pair of creators working their way up through the ladder at Marvel Comics instead of in textbook form.

In chapter 8 of Bakuman (“Carrot and Stick”) there is a scene where the two young heroes first meet their editor Akira Hattori, and he tells them that there are two types of manga creators- “the Genius type” and “the Calculating type”. The Genius is the natural creator who draws comics they love and because of their natural talent and passion for their subject matter is able to come up with a hit manga that blows the audience away. The Calculator, on the other hand, looks at it from the audience’s point of view and tries to make something that will appeal to the greatest number of people regardless of their actual feelings about the subject matter.

In a lot of ways, through Hattori the creators are talking about classic writer dichotomy – the Pantser who makes it up as they go along and the Plotter who plans it all out – just taken to an extreme. And, of course, in reality just like that classic writer dichotomy, it’s rare for any writer to be a Genius/Pantser or Calculator/Plotter alone as almost all creators are some mix of the two extremes. Even a Panster will usually at least think about what will appeal to their audience, and a Plotter will generally pick subject matter they’re naturally attracted to and passionate about to some degree. (Few people are good at writing things they honestly hate or dislike, especially if they have any choice.)

As a result, it’s uncommon that you can look at any work and say “that was created by a Genius” or “that was created by a Calculator,” because after all, any work is normally a mix of the two and it’s hard to tell how much of each is involved. There are, however, exceptions to this, and one of those exceptions is something I came across on Netflix a few weeks back when I was looking for something to watch which I exercised- an anime called HUNTER X HUNTER (2011).

Hunter x Hunter is a manga/anime about a stubborn 12 year old boy named Gon who leaves his home village to become a Hunter- a person who travels the world seeking whatever it is they’ve chosen to seek. In his pseudo-modern fantasy world, there are Treasure Hunters, Monster Hunters, Bounty Hunters, Delicacy Hunters, and many other kinds, who brave dangers to find their targets. All of them, however, much first pass the Hunter Exam, which is where the story starts, and get a Hunter License that gives them free access to the world and status as members of the elite. Gon’s (missing) father was one of these great men, and through following his footsteps, Gon hopes to find him and experience the world himself.

Hunter x Hunter (2011, because it’s the second attempt to animate the Hunter x Hunter manga), which can also be read as “Hunter Hunter,” is perhaps the most calculated anime/manga I have ever seen in 20+ years of anime fandom. It started in 1998, and it’s like someone took all the popular elements of the hit manga of the previous two decades, disected them, and then based on extremely careful analysis produced the most planned piece of storytelling I’ve ever seen. I’m not just talking characters and plot elements, I’m talking story, pacing, backgrounds- you name it, there is not a single original element in this story- none. It’s like they had a computer analyze the history of manga and this was the end product.

Yet, and this goes to the skill of the creator Yoshihiro Togashi (creator of the also hit anime/manga YuYu Hakusho back in the 1980’s) I don’t mean that it’s unoriginal in a bad way. In fact, for what it is, it’s actually very well done, and in fact is almost perfect in a textbook sort of way. Whereas most manga are a rough exercise in creative serial pantsing, with the creators only thinking a few chapters ahead, Hunter x Hunter is extremely well plotted and thought out. Everything happens at a carefully measured pace, everything is introduced at exactly the right time in the right way. The humor is in the right spots, the chapters all end on cliffhangers of sorts, and there’s no sense of it being rushed, it’s a piece of art without a line or comma out of place.

Well, calling it a piece of “art” might be pushing it, it’s really a machine designed for maximum appeal and marketing potential. And, like any machine, there’s a certain cold, mechanical nature to it that keeps it from being in the same class as stories like Naurto, One Piece, and even Bleach, which are also top series from the same era. The creator definitely reaches to those levels, but he doesn’t quite make it because of the calculated nature of it all. It’s like Hattori says in that Bakuman chapter- the Calculator has the greatest potential for a hit and long-term success, but they don’t have the same potential as the Genius has for creating a true smash hit story that excites the audience.

In any case, I’d definitely recommend Hunter x Hunter (2011) as a watch, whether just to enjoy it as a well-told story, or to take it apart as a creator and see how the whole thing was so well put together. Either way, it’s time well spent.

Rob

The Street Fighter

When I mention the name Street Fighter, most of you probably picture something connected with this…

This is pretty natural, since the Street Fighter series of video games is a serious contender for the most popular game series of all time, and is without a doubt the best of the console arcade fighting games. However, prior to 1991’s release of Street Fighter 2: The World Warrior, for almost twenty years people would have had a completely different picture in their heads. This one…

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1974’s The Street Fighter is perhaps one of the greatest martial arts movies ever made. The short version is that at the start of the 70’s Bruce Lee helped to create a martial arts movie boom, and the Japanese company Toei decided to get in on the action by producing a series of what could almost be called Karate Exploitation movies. Kung Fu was big, so they decided to cash in by producing Karate movies, and their flagship film, The Street Fighter, was based around a rising action star name Sonny Chiba.

The Street Fighter was released in Japan, and then worldwide to massive audience acclaim, and if you watch it then it’s not hard to tell why. The movie is shot surprisingly well with a decent budget, the script is just strong enough to keep it interesting, Chiba is charismatic as heck, and the fights are extremely well choreographed. But, on top of all that, the movie has a unique twist- Terry Tsuguri (Chiba) isn’t a heroic character at all, he’s a bastard of the first order who is more like an chaotic force of nature than a lead character. It’s a movie about lesser villains fighting worse villains, and the innocent people caught between them, and that gives the audience something different than the usual good vs. evil fare that tends to fill martial arts movies.

So, if you’re in the mood for some brutal karate action (it was the first film in American history to earn an X-Rating for violence) with a sense of style and one of the coolest theme songs of the 70’s, then check it out here on YouTube.


 

Legend of Korra Finishes (spoiler lite)

And with tonight’s episode, Avatar: The Legend of Korra reaches it’s final conclusion with the end of Season Four.

It’s been a rocky road for what has turned out to be one of the best animated series Americans have ever produced. The show itself was only meant to last a single season, and then suddenly given three more when it turned into a mega-hit, which left the writers scrambling to continue a story they’d rushed to finish at the end of Season One. Then, once Season Two didn’t get the ratings of Season One, the executives at Nickelodeon lost faith it in to the point they pulled it from the air halfway through Season Three due to “low ratings”. (Low ratings on a show that they didn’t advertise, and which they threw onto the air during the notoriously low-rated Summer season. Surprise!) In the end, it only got a fourth season because it was already in the can when Season Three was stuck online-only, and because it still got great ratings in overseas markets.

Despite all this, the writers and producers of Avatar: The Legend of Korra managed to produce a fine show. A series with unique characters that grew and had a life of their own, a setting that actually changed with the story, and some amazing heroic action sequences that could be mind-blowingly good. Korra started as a unique lead, a hotheaded “female jock” who didn’t fall into the stereotypical “strong female lead” traps, and changed as the series went on into a balanced and considerate person. She suffered, and grew from her suffering, and since the theme of the show was “change and transformation”, she exemplified those ideas in the best possible ways.

Each of the villains represented a different philosophy- equality, harmony, anarchy, and order taken to a radical extreme (mostly in the pursuit of power) and that gave the show a thoughtful edge that challenged the preconceptions held by the main character and the audience. It forced Korra to expand her way of thinking about the world, and in doing so also made the audience question as well. Even if it was all in the service of some great action/adventure stories, it gave the show a subversive depth you rarely see on TV anywhere, much less on a Nick cartoon.

It wasn’t a perfect show, of course. There was the horribly rushed ending during the last 15 minutes of the first season, and then the second season didn’t come anywhere near the quality of the first in terms of writing. (It was very much a generic “evil villain wants to take over the world because he’s evil” plot.) And, while the third and fourth seasons were amazing (and even managed to make the second season look better in retrospect of what we learn later), there was a lot of character randomness as the writers struggled to make characters designed for one season work over four seasons. (This was especially true of Asami, but more on her shortly.) There was also the decision to “break” the link between the Avatar and her past selves during Season Two that I maintain was a big mistake that even the writers felt later on. But, what’s done is done.

And, in the end, it all came together in a spectacular fourth season that echoed real Chinese history, with Kuvira standing in for Shang Kai-Shek and his Nationalist Army. The finale played to the show’s strengths, and the whole thing showed how Korra had really changed the world and herself through her actions and choices. If Korra hadn’t come along, the ending never could have happened, and that’s the mark of a good story- where everything fits together.

Everything except one small piece…

SPOILERS from here on in! Don’t read if you haven’t watched the ending yet and care.

So, first, let me say that I don’t care who Korra ended up with. I’m not a (relation)shipper, and don’t often invest in character romance stories or pairings. In fact, Korra could have ended up with Kuvira, or Tenzin, or even the Ghost of Uncle Iroh for all I care. That said, I didn’t like the pairing of Korra and Asami at the end, and in fact it pissed me off.

When I first saw it, I actually smiled. Both because it was nice to see Korra start a new relationship, and because I was impressed a Nick show would end with such a LGBTI friendly ending. It took guts to end the show that way, and they must have worked hard to slip that past the Suits. (I wouldn’t even be surprised if it’s edited for later airings after a flurry of “concerned parents” write like crazy to Nickelodeon.)

However, something bugged me, and after a bit of thought I realized what it was.

You see, one way to see a story is as an argument. The whole story is an argument for why it ends the way it does. It sets up evidence and puts into motion events that produce the ending we get. A perfect example of that is Varrick and Ju-Li. Varrick starts as a heartless capitalist rogue with Ju-li as his assistant, and then after he loses everything she still sticks with him. When he loses her too and goes on a journey of self-discovery he comes to realize that she is the most important thing in his life, and eventually appreciates her and asks her to marry him. (Something the Varrick we first meet would never have done.) She also grows in her will to be a person, and in doing so, earns his love by not just being his assistant, but by being his partner. You can think back and examine the trail of evidence, and reach the conclusion that this was the proper ending for their story.

Not so for Korra and Asami.

When Asami was introduced, it was as a romantic rival/femme fatale/non-bender character who represented the new technological age and stood between Korra and her love-interest Mako. She was intricately tied into the story for Season One, since her father was one of the main villains, and so when Season Two came around the writers struggled with what to do with her and ultimately stuck with the romantic-rival role. Finally, partway through Season Three, she took on the “best friend/confidante” role, and that’s where she sat until literally the last second of the story when it’s implied she and Korra are starting a romantic relationship.

Now, over-viewed like that it doesn’t look so bad, but in actual presentation there was zero clues or hints of anything romantic between the two of them until the very very end. Like nothing. After more than two seasons of chasing a man and being passionately in love with men, and being heartbroken about losing men, they suddenly decide to run off together. How does that work? This would be like if at the end of Harry Potter, Harry and Ron suddenly decided to run off together after spending the whole story chasing girls. It’s a valid ending, but is it the valid conclusion to the argument the story makes?

Now, you could make an argument that Korra wasn’t emotionally in a position or ready to take on a relationship like this until the end of the story. She’s a changed person, and as a result she’s ready to try something new and go in a new and more balanced direction. That would be fair, however, it takes two to tango, and Asami was never shown to have any romantic interest in Korra either. If she had, I could have bought the ending, but we’ve never had even the slightest hint that Asami also likes women, and every piece of evidence in the show tells us the opposite.

So there’s the problem, we have not one, but two characters making total left-turns at the end of the story out of the blue. I can only guess that the writers/producers wanted to do something controversial, or perhaps please the Korra/Asami Shippers by giving them the ending nobody expected to get. Then again, it was the ending that nobody expected because it didn’t make any sense, not because it was socially radical.

For the record, I was rooting for Korra and Bum-ju. (It had just as much evidence to support it.)

Rob

Ghost Hunt

I just finished watching Ghost Hunt on Netflix, and I have to say I’m really sad there’s only one season. In addition to having one of the coolest opening songs of any anime (see above video) it’s a really unique series- a semi-realistic ghost hunting TV series. This is likely because it wasn’t conceived as an anime, but a light novel series by author Fuyumi Ono, and as a result it’s more grounded than most anime. (With the exceptions of File #4 and File #5, which are radically out of place with the rest of the series, and were likely written as filler episodes by the anime production staff.)

For those not familiar with the series, Ghost Hunt is a supernatural thriller anime about an extremely mixed group of spiritualists who are united by their employer, a science-based spiritual researcher who goes by the nickname Naru. Each story is a multi-part supernatural mystery (a novel broken into parts) with twists and turns and unexpected surprises. You can never be quite sure what the real culprit is, and this gives the series a fresh and creepy feeling that most supernatural shows lack, much less anime. The combination of reading on actual psychic research the author has obviously done while mixing it with just the right amount of fantasy helps heighten the realism of the show and makes it feel more solid. This, in turn, makes the whole thing creepier and more thrilling at certain points, and I have to say that it’s one of the very few anime that have ever given me chills.

Anyhow, if you get the chance to watch it, it’s highly recommended. It has its silly points, but they’re really outweighed by the quality of the series. It’s too bad the author didn’t put out enough books for them to do a second season (although rumor has it she might be returning to it soon), especially since the mystery of psychic dreams of the viewpoint character, Mai, isn’t answered during the run of the series. I had to read the comic adaptations of the further novels to learn the answer to that particular mystery.

Give it a look, it’s the perfect Anime for Halloween!

Rob

Cinema Sins: Godzilla 2014

And this is pretty much exactly what was going through Rob’s head as he watched this film…

Star Wars Rebels Premiers!

This past weekend, the new CGI animated series Star Wars:REBELS premiered on the Disney XD app with the first two episodes strung together into a “movie” (which is all of 43 minutes long…). It’s basically the story of how Aladdin comes to join the crew of The Firefly and…err…I mean how EZRA comes to join the crew of the GHOST and fight against the evil oppressive Empire. I wish I was joking, but ever since someone online referred to Ezra as Aladdin, I can’t not see him as Aladdin in space, they even refer to him as a “street rat” during the episode, like they want us to make the connection or something.

As first episode stories go, it’s a confused mess of bad tactics and jumps in logic mixed with lots of action, which means it’s pretty typical and not bad. I’d actually say it’s a better first episode than Clone Wars had, and Clone Wars turned out to be pretty fun series, so I have some hopes for this one. (Having the same creative team from Clone Wars mixed with the creative team for Young Justice gives me extra hope.) On the downside, the core story looks to be another Jedi-Padawan training story, but that can’t be helped since Jedi sell toys and without the Jedi the Star Wars universe is pretty a pretty generic Sci-Fi setting.

I’ll keep watching to see where this one goes. It has real potential, and I trust the people in charge, so it could be a good ride. Rebels premiers on regular TV next week, and with this and the final season of Legend of Korra starting next weekend (officially) it looks like I’m going to have some good weekend TV to look forward to each week!

Rob