Onirim

In 2010, a little card game caught my eye. Onirim was a small, pocket-sized box that held one of the most addictive and engaging single-player card games I’ve ever played. I gave away the game to a friend shortly thereafter, encouraging her to play it, and thinking that it would be easy to re-acquire. Well, it wasn’t. It took four years for the game to go back into print, but it was well worth the wait.

Now in a significantly larger box, Onirim’s 2014 rerelease includes the same core set as well as its full slate of seven expansions, making it the definitive edition of the game. Players are tasked with finding and opening the eight Oneiric Doors, gates within the land of dreams. Unlocking a door is as easy as creating a set of three cards of the same color, without having consecutive cards bearing matching symbols. You can also open a door if you draw its card and have a corresponding key in your hand. Beware, though: Nightmare cards also lurk in the deck, threatening to undo your progress. If you open all eight doors before the deck runs out, you win. But if even one remains locked when you must draw a card, you remain trapped forever.

Onirim is relatively unique in that it is designed explicitly as a solitaire challenge. The core game is challenging but still winnable with a little experience and skill. Where the game becomes interesting is in the addition of the expansions, which introduce additional effects and twists. For example, one expansion requires you to open the doors in a specific order. Seems like a pretty simple change, right? Well try saying that when you need to open a green door next and you have a hand full of blue cards. The expansions can be added in any combination, making the game as easy or as difficult as you choose.

The game is not without its drawbacks, of course. First, there is a lot of shuffling involved; it rivals most deck-building games for number of shuffles per minute of gameplay. This makes it slightly prone to damage to the edges of the cards early on; worse, the deck size is not conducive to the use of card sleeves, meaning the only solution is caution. The game also has an annoying tendency to either be too easy or completely unforgiving. While it is a game predominantly based on strategy, player choices can become frustratingly obviated when streaks of Nightmare cards show up. Fortunately, the game’s lightning-fast pace smooths over most of these concerns; if you had a bad deal, you’re only stuck with it for about ten or fifteen minutes.

It might seem a little odd for a solitaire game to be considered a must-own for board game enthusiasts, but Onirim is one of those rare titles that combines challenging gameplay with simple mechanics and fast play. Unfortunately, the game’s popularity in the United States has made it scarce yet again, but with a bit of patience you should be able to track down a copy. I can’t recommend enough that you do so. Onirim is a solid fifth-gear choice.

Daigaku Z: Itadakimasu

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

One of the things that most college students do is expand their culinary horizons. Most of the time this takes the form of trying something different in the dining hall, but on occasion this includes finding a favorite take-out place and becoming a regular there. Depending on which campus you’re on, this can also include the resurgence of food trucks, which offer low-cost specialized meals. Pittsburgh is blessed to be part of this renaissance, with vehicles such as the Pittsburgh Taco Truck, Oh My Grill, and Mac and Gold being well-known and well-regarded when they come around. I’m fond of food trucks as a concept, especially in how the Taco Truck implements it, because they increase the variety available in an area relatively easily and create a sense of their appearance being a special event.

Except they’re not legal in Oakland, which is where the Pitt campus is. So instead we have three ancient trucks that were grandfathered in when the ordinance was passed, and cannot move from their spots. I ate at two of them this week, and quickly realized why Oakland might outlaw food trucks.

That said, there are plenty of very good permanent places to eat in and around the campus so that one never really gets too bored. Last semester, most of the 4pm recitation class invaded the Korean tea house Chick’n Bubbly, where there’s great bubble tea and very good small meals. Very close by on Oakland Avenue is my personal favorite, Oishii Bento, where one can find Japanese meals alongside the expected Chinese standbys. A little further away– closer to Carnegie-Mellon– there’s Lulu’s Noodles, which I really enjoy whenever I’m out that way. And I would be remiss in failing to mention the distant yet worth-the-trip Ramen Bar in Squirrel Hill.

Then again, even if you’re not looking for Asian food, Oakland has a lot of variety right in front of everyone’s face. Schenley Plaza is home to Waffalonia, a Belgian waffle stand that is much better than I make it sound. It’s also home to the incredibly controversial, yet very tasty Conflict Kitchen, who serve up meals with a heaping side of empathy. For something a little closer to home, though, there’s also the Burgh-renowned Pamela’s P&G Diner, or the Burgh-infamous Primanti Bros. sandwiches.

Of course, even with this map of the world on our plate, it’s important to remember that a masterfully-made meal is made even better with the company of good friends and a pleasant conversation. I’ve been to all of these places alone, and I’ve been to all of them with friends. They’re only truly great when I’m not alone, and I’m pretty sure that’s not a reflection on the food.

So let’s eat.

Daigaku Z: Borrowed Trouble

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

As the second semester of my language study begins, I’m reminded of a rather interesting incident that happened during the very first time I studied any language. This would be from high school, when I went into learning French under the tutelage of the eminently capable Mme. Blair. Being fourteen years old, naturally I gravitated towards certain words more steadily than the ones that, necessarily, I would have had I been in any amount more mature than I was. The most infamous of those was vomir, which as you can expect means exactly what it sounds like.

This leads us to the French word demander, which similarly appears to be analogous to the English word “demand”, but in fact carries a very different connotation. I imagine that you are demanding an explanation as you read this, but je vous demande a little patience– that is, I politely ask for a little patience from you, even as you aggressively assert your requirement. While the words come from a similar linguistic root– the Latin cognate– they are what’s known in linguistic circles as “false friends”, or words that appear identical but carry diverging meanings in different languages. Odds are that you’ve run into this situation in a cursory study of Japanese yourself: the gerund form shite (to do) looks remarkably similar to an English word that I don’t think needs any further introduction.

In Latinate or Germanic languages, this kind of drift is understandable if somewhat strange. But in the case of certain other coincidences– such as the English “name” being similar to the Japanese nominal namae, which means the same thing– it can border on the baffling. These situations are instead known as “false cognates”, where two words in two unconnected languages are similar. That’s all fine and good when discussing relatively mundane words, but Japanese makes things much more interesting in many more interesting ways.

Recall that during the last semester, we discovered that Japanese society as a general rule is synthetic– not in the sense of being artificial, but rather in the sense of being synthesized from its own history combining with the customs and traditions of its neighbors here on Earth. This goes double for the language, as well. While we like to think of English as the reigning champion of taking loanwords from other languages with reckless abandon, Japanese takes it two steps further by not only appropriating words, but abbreviating them and then giving sometimes wildly new definitions to the abbreviations.

Take that most ubiquitous of Japanese shopping staples, the convenience store. Known over there as a konbini, they’re slightly more involved than your basic 7-11 in America; they are clean, well-stocked stores where most everything that could be needed at a moment’s notice is available. Certainly not what your average American thinks of when hearing the full expansion of the phrase. But then you get into places like soaplands, which are about as far from squeaky-clean as my imagination is willing to take this sentence; these serve as areas where one can receive “service” from particular types of ladies. Hell, even the word service means a vendor or provider going the extra mile to earn your custom.

It’s not all seedy bathhouses and microwaved noodles. Likewise, the false friends aren’t limited to English loanwords. The sentence particle de in Japanese is used to mark an adverb-like modifier of a verb; for example, densha de itte! means (roughly) “Let’s go by train!”. In French, and in fact a lot of Latin languages, de is a possessive marker– directly translating in English to “of”. That linguistic function is served, in Japanese, by the word no. Which, of course, in English is a response indicating a negative.

If anything, the whole mess has done one good thing for me. It’s taught me that the Great Engineer of the Universe put the French and the Japanese on opposite sides of the planet for a very good reason.

Daigaku Z: The Revenge of Context

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

Welcome to the second semester, kids. The gloves are officially off, even if the bitter cold of January means they’re more necessary than ever.

Rather than my previous approach of taking on more work than I could handle and then dropping out of a class, I decided I was only going to take the bare minimum to qualify me for full-time status. With the daily recitation classes for language class, that actually means just three courses plus getting my “writing-intensive” requirement out of the way. That said, I gotta say, I picked some real winners this time around. The other two courses on my plate this semester are a meatier Japanese Culture and Civilization course and the scarily-titled Pragmatics of Japanese. I don’t really have a good handle on the professor for the culture course; as of this writing we’ve only met once and most of that was spent fooling around with Google Earth, until it got derailed entirely when the professor started talking about Perfume.

The Pragmatics course, however, is an entirely different animal, and deals with that most wonderful of aspects of any language: context. The first thing that needs to be said is that every single language has a dependence on context and also has wildly differing rules for how that context is established, built upon, and violated. I’m not using the negative connotation of “violated”, but rather more in the sense of McGraw and Warren’s “Benign Violation Theory” of humor: breaking the rules of language or context for an intentional effect. Since I’m looking to study Japanese humor as a side to my classroom instruction, you can see why I would think that a course all about context would be beneficial to me.

The thing is, though, my background is in computer science and software engineering. I didn’t have to take very many language or literature courses during my first degree, even though I was at what most people consider a “liberal arts” school. Worse still, I frontloaded a lot of those courses into my freshman and sophomore years, which meant that by the time I would be looking for a break from constant coding, I no longer had the opportunity to. About the only thing I can think in my existing background that really prepared me for this was the very first class I ever took at Gannon: a course on composition, writing, and rhetoric. That course shaped me so much, it’s not even funny (ironically enough).

So in order to understand what pragmatics is in Japanese, it would be good to know what they are in English. I could go into a long and drawn-out discussion of the topic here, but it’s probably better to say that this sentence itself is an example of the sort of thing that pragmatics handles. At first blush it doesn’t seem connected to the previous one: that sentence sets up an expectation that I’ll tell you about pragmatics, but then the sentence in question just kinda meanders its way to a point that doesn’t explain much of anything. The sentences that follow it in this paragraph are in contrast exemplary of the other side of the coin; they explain plainly their connection to both the “meandering” sentence and the first one of this paragraph. In the end, though, pragmatics isn’t necessarily the content of the sentences, but rather the mental logical leaps the reader (i.e., you) has to take in between the sentences to get at the whole picture.

Confused yet?

Where things get interesting is that the study of language pragmatics is, to put it into technological terms, reverse-engineering language such that rules can be determined from what evolved naturally as the language was used and developed. Take a classic Pittsburgh error like the word “need”. By itself, as a noun, it signifies something that is both required and lacking– stuff like food, water, shelter, companionship, etc. etc. As a verb it indicates a state of lacking something: I need food, I need water, etc. But in combination with an infinitive verb, it indicates that the verb must be done by the subject: I need to eat, I need to drink. If you use a past participle (an -ed verb) to indicate that a verb must be done to the subject, standard English rules say you must include the infinitive “to be”: the donut needs to be eaten, the car needs to be filled with gasoline. Pittsburghers drop that infinitive, shortening the phrases to “the donut needs eaten” and “the car needs filled with gas”. People who grew up learning that truncation find it to be the most natural thing in the world; to most Americans outside of the Three Rivers, it makes little to no sense. It’s not like Sam Pettigrew (first elected Mayor of Pittsburgh) just up and changed the language one day. It just kind of happened.

I never even noticed that I did it until I was 27. And now I’m going to start studying how a civilization on the other side of the world does it.

Buckle up, kids: pragmatics is gonna be a bumpy ride.

Final Fantasy XIV: One Year After Rebirth

There are no second acts in politics or MMOs. We’ve seen this come into play with every game that shifts from a subscription model to free-to-play, every game that’s a sequel to a massively successful prior game, every retool of a controversial but workable gameplay mechanic. There are no respawns for MMOs.

Except Final Fantasy XIV.

A Realm Reborn, the 2.0 version of the disastrously bad 2010 MMO, launched in the late summer of 2013. It seemed destined to fail, because it was trying to thwart not only its own history but the rigidly unforgiving marketplace, which to that point brooked no dissent of “da rules”. In the subsequent year, FF14: ARR was responsible for bringing Square-Enix out of the red, launched one of the most generous upgrade plans of all MMOs, and introduced players to an entirely new world that they had thought destroyed forever. It was nothing short of a cast of Raise for a franchise that was succumbing to its own legacy.

But what made ARR such a fascinating success? Fittingly enough, there are fourteen reasons.

14: A Splendid Story.
Each of the major content patches (2.x-level) has included new additions to the main storyline of the game, continuing to unravel the threads of the Ascian plot. While there’s no additional experience to be gained from completing these end-game quests, players will still find lots to do as the Scions of the Seventh Dawn in Vesper Bay become the Crystal Braves of Revenant’s Toll.

13: An Enchanting Eorzea.
The 2.28 patch introduced a new non-combat challenge for players in the form of the Sightseeing Log. By reading cryptic clues to locations, times, and actions, the players search the world of Eorzea far and wide for specific vistas and scenic spots. Of course, you could just look the answers up online, but you’d be robbing yourself of the beauty of the scavenger hunt.

12: An Incorrigible Inspector.
One of the most notorious NPCs in the 1.0 version of the game was Hildibrand Manderville, Gentleman Hero, Agent of Enquiry. Accompanied by his lovely and pyromaniacal assistant Nashu Mhakaracca, Hildibrand returned to Eorzea in Patch 2.1 to usher in a new era of baffling and ridiculous insanity. His storyline continued in each 2.x level patch to follow, chasing a phantom thief and encountering foes with a plethora of arms… and tentacles.

11: A Dungeon Doubled.
Beginning with Patch 2.1 and continuing ever since, the number of Duty Finder dungeons in the game world has fair near doubled. Most of the early-level dungeons received “hard mode” upgrades– not mere reskins of the existing areas, but wholly redesigned areas building upon the lore and history of each of them. In addition, post-game dungeons such as Hullbreaker Isle and Snowcloak were added, giving players new areas to team up and take down.

10: A Prolonged Progression.
The Relic Weapon quest line, a returning feature from Final Fantasy XI, has been extended and expanded in ARR to become Zodiac Weapons. After upgrading their relics to their Zenith forms, players can embark on a quest to transform their signature weapons into ever-higher tiers such as Atma, Animus, Novus, and so on. Rather than rely on clearing Hard Mode Primals as the Relic quest did, however, each step in the process sends players hunting through the world, re-engaging players with content they may have cleared, or may have overlooked.

9: A Coiled Catastrophe.
The show-stopping “End of an Era” trailer that closed out the 1.0 service life featured the Doom of the Allagan, Bahamut himself, laying waste to the land of Eorzea. In-game, this event– the Calamity– had huge repercussions, but none so strong as the discovery of a hellish subterranean labyrinth called the Binding Coil. Patch 2.2 introduced the Second Coil of Bahamut, four more dungeons in which the secret of the dragon’s sleep are further explored; the Final Coil of Bahamut’s turns were added in 2.4. Moreover, 2.3 added the Savage Mode of the Second Coil, a brutally hard version of the already unforgiving dungeon that offered nothing in return but bragging rights.

8. A Dangerous Duel.
In case you thought that Bahamut was the only big baddie still kicking around the world, each of the 2.x level patches introduced new trials (boss raids). In 2.1, Extreme Primals– harder-than-Hard-Mode battles against Ifrit, Garuda, and Titan– were added alongside Good King Moggle Mog XII. Yes, a three-story-tall daemonic Moogle. Later patches introduced Leviathan, Ramuh, Shiva, Gilgamesh, and Ultros, while adding the Relic Weapon battles against the Chimera and the Hydra to the Duty Finder to ease player frustration. Most of these have Extreme counterparts as well.

7. A Blessed Bond.
Certainly a quirkier aspect of the game is the introduction in 2.45 of the Ceremony of Eternal Bond. The Eorzean counterpart to marriage ceremonies is tied to the introduction of an optional-purchase shop where players can spend actual money on in-game cosmetic items such as metallic dyes or wedding bands. The Eternal Bond cutscenes are nice, to be sure, and a no-cost option exists for players who prefer not to drop dough on a virtual engagement. Even with gender and species restrictions being completely absent, though, it’s not going to be to everyone’s tastes. Still, for hard-core role-players out there, it’s nice to have the option open.

6. A Stealthy Servant.
In Patch 2.4 players were treated to something most other games reserve for paid expansions: a new character class. Rogues are a fast-paced melee damage-dealer class that emphasizes getting in a target’s face and stabbing it repeatedly. When they reach level 30, though, they graduate into the Ninja job, adding adaptability through ninjutsu. The class also serves as a preview of the Doman people’s storyline, which is expected to be expanded upon in the paid expansion in 2015.

5. A Refreshing Rebalance.
No game gets it right the first time. There’s always massive game-breakers or exploits that keep developers up at night. In the early days of ARR, that headache was Paladins and Warriors. 2.1 rebalanced the two tank classes in order to bring them into alignment, making them equal but not identical in their capabilities, and made it easier for them to capture and keep enemy attention. In Patch 2.45, Dragoons gained a massive overhaul that dropped a lot of their positioning requirements and increased their magic defense, saving them from being the official representatives of the Floor Inspector’s Union in high-level content.

4. An Exceptional Experience.
When folks see the abbreviation “MMO”, the first thing that comes to mind is the word “grind”. Make no mistake, ARR still is a grindy game; you’ll be repeating content for experience, loot, money, or materials. But each patch has eased the pain of the grind somewhat, allowing experience to be gained more rapidly. Dungeons offered increased experience and gil rewards early on, and the introduction of daily Duty Roulette bonuses gave players even faster paths to level to 50. Coupled with the addition of weekly Challenge Log bonuses, as well as boosts to experience gained while crafting and gathering, players can reach maximum level in all classes with a minimum amount of elbow grease.

3. A Customization Cornucopia.
Everybody loves making stuff their own. Be it the color of armor, the stats on weapons, or the appearance of gear they love, players were given a tremendous amount of control over their gear in the past year. Each 2.x level patch added new gear for crafters to produce, and likewise for players to customize through the melding of materia (something not allowed on the highest-tier gear looted from dungeons). Part of the Zodiac Weapon quest requires players to make tough decisions about what stats they want to boost on their personal weapons. And the Glamour system allows players to equip that high-level gear while retaining the appearance of any other compatible piece of clothing, including dresses, swim trunks, or Chocobo costumes.

2. A Hearty Hunt.
This is sort of a mixed bag, but it bears mentioning because it is a major benefit to players. In Patch 2.3, The Hunt was added to the game, challenging players to seek out and defeat notorious Mark monsters in the world. In return, they would be awarded credits towards high-level gear previously made available through dungeon drops or end-game currency. The gear was bargain-basement priced compared to dungeon runs, and for about a month or so every server was overrun with Hunt parties, massive alliances dedicated to rapidly exterminating Marks for the hunt credit. This was because the credits offered per kill were pretty meager on their own, but they added up when run consecutively. As a way to expedite players’ readiness for current end-game content– which was the intention of the system– it worked. As a way to ensure people actually ran end-game content instead of endless Hunt stalking– not so much.

1. A Protector’s Promise.
The land of Eorzea is watched over by the Mother-Crystal, Hydaelyn, and safeguarded by the Twelve, the ancestral gods of the spoken races. In a sense, though, there is another protector of the realm: lead producer Naoki Yoshida. Having taken over the reins of the game in the midst of the disastrous 1.0 launch, Yoshida took great care to foster openness and communications between the staff and the player base, through Letters From the Producer and Live Letter events. These expanded into the Japan-only FATE events, mini-gatherings where fans mingled with the development team, and their international counterparts, the Fan Festival events. Through these, players were heard and answered, alleviating the concerns that the game was helmed by a despot; in the end, Yoshida has enjoyed a level of adulation and appreciation almost unheard of among any game’s community. Doesn’t hurt that his in-game avatar, the Wandering Minstrel, was behind one of the more touching and stirring events over the summer.

Very few online games offer huge swaths of content in their interim patches; even fewer still do so after having recovered from an almost fatal failure in the marketplace. Still, with the end of the 2.x era rapidly approaching, and the Heavensward expansion looking to arrive in the late spring of 2015, Final Fantasy XIV has proven that there are, in fact, second chances. I still contend that this is the best MMO I’ve ever played, and quite possibly the best MMO of all. I’ll catch you folks in-game.

2014 In Gaming: Z’s Top 5

The year past has been a rather difficult time to be a player of video games. Even the word “gamer” has become passé, tainted by the vociferous minority. Still, despite the efforts of certain people I could name, 2014 has been one of the best years for video games since the halcyon days of the Super NES/Genesis. Bungie released their first post-Halo work; Professor Layton teamed up with Phoenix Wright (finally); Hearthstone tried to do for digital card games what Ascension did for deck-building games; and Freddy Fazbear charmed his way into our hearts and urinary tracts. Those are the big successes of 2014, and more power to them. But they’re (largely) not what I played.

Let’s take a closer look at the five games I played the hell out of in 2014, and why you should drop that Duty disc, stop staring at those gaming monitors and and put your eyeballs on these.

5: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair (NIS America, PS Vita, February/September)

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

I reviewed Danganronpa back in February, and found it to be a thrilling, hilarious trip through a twisted high school. When the sequel came out in September, I was a little busy and it fell through the cracks, but it’s no less fun and no less enthralling; it manages to correct a few of the problems I had with the first game and introduce me to a new cast of defectively apex classmates. Visual novels are still a hard sell in North America, though, so honestly it’s not that much of a surprise if these slipped past you, too. If you love detective games or ridiculous dialogue, there’s no need for despair: just go grab them.

4: Puyo Puyo Tetris (Sega, PS3/PS4/PS Vita/Wii U/3DS/Xbox One, February/December)

Puyo Puyo Tetris

I feel pretty confident in saying that in all likelihood you haven’t played these. This is because there has been a perfect storm of problems making it too difficult to bring into North America: the PS3 version wasn’t available digitally until the summer, and pretty much every other version has some form of region locking or inconvenience. That’s a real shame, because this is probably the definitive version of both Puyo Puyo and Tetris available today. This even unseats my previous favorite version of Tetris (The Next Tetris Online for Dreamcast). I had to resort to ordering yen-based PS Network cards to get the game, and I don’t regret it at all. With the next-gen versions having been released this past month, hope is renewed for a potential North American release… but with Ubisoft having locked up the Tetris license, it ain’t looking likely.

3: The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth (Nicalis, PC/Mac/Linux/PS4/PS Vita, November)

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

Poop is funny. Let’s just get that out of the way right now, poop is funny and this game has a lot of poop. It’s also got a lot to say about religion, but the message is subtle underneath the hybridization of Rogue-like procedural generation and Zelda-like top-down gameplay. The game is fast-paced and challenging, and is deep enough that it’s a new experience every time you play. The PS4 and Vita versions are a little twitchy in terms of some nasty save-game bugs, but they’re mostly ironed out by the time you read this. I hope. Oh, and one more thing: poop. Funny. Trust me.

2: Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call (Square-Enix, 3DS, September)

Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call

I love music games. LOVE THEM. But ever since Harmonix wound down the production of Rock Band, it’s been really difficult to find good music games. Granted, the Kickstarter to revive Frequency was successful, but there’s something about jamming to music that brings back memories of casting Firaga that really speaks to me. The original Theatrhythm was all right, but had a few hiccups such as a too-strict main mode and a too-small set of on-card tracks. Curtain Call fixes these and grants access to a massive catalog of music almost right away. Plus, including one of my favorite characters from Final Fantasy XIV doesn’t hurt.

1: Mario Kart 8 (Nintendo, Wii U, May)

Mario Kart 8

Mario Kart is one of those games that’s most analogous to pizza: even when it’s bad (ahem, Double Dash) it’s still pretty good. But the game’s notable in the year not necessarily for what it does well– it’s the best racing game since Split/Second— but for signalling the shift in Nintendo’s approach to DLC and titles-as-platforms. The announcement of the two DLC packs, which would include favorite retro tracks not initially included on-disc, completely upended the established paradigm of the games not necessarily obsolescing their past iterations. When Super Smash Bros. announced DLC, we knew it was the beginning of a new era. Mario Kart 8 doesn’t just improve upon its history, it improves upon every game Nintendo publishes thereafter. And not even Luigi can be angry about that.

Dishonorable Mention: Driveclub (Sony, PS4, October)

We live in an era where we no longer expect games to be “finished” by the time they are released. This has resulted in day-zero patches that creep into the gigabyte range (I’m looking at you, Halo). Being a former software developer, I get it. I really do. Marketing writes checks that developers can’t cash. But there is no excuse for a game to be launched broken, to remain broken months after release, and to be actively detrimental to its own sales. Driveclub hits all those rather awful marks. It was announced as a free title for Playstation Plus members, but when the game couldn’t even handle the artificially-suppressed number of paying customers, that offer was suspended indefinitely. And because the game still doesn’t really work online, nobody’s buying it. So it honestly doesn’t matter if the game’s a worthy successor to Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport; if nobody’s playing, it might as well be the entire text of this review pressed into a disc repeatedly.

As always, folks, thanks for supporting OTDT in 2014, and we look forward to serving you in 2015.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS

Super Smash Bros. is a game that, quite frankly, was never meant to be. No, I’m not saying its success was unexpected, I’m saying Nintendo deliberately tried to kill the game before it was even first released on the Nintendo 64. HAL Laboratories was trying to reinvent the fighting game genre to work with four players, and originally it wasn’t meant to star Nintendo’s showcase characters. The budget was small, the marketing was nonexistent outside of a very famous commercial, and it was never actually going to leave Japan if it hadn’t been such a smash hit in-country. But here we are, fifteen years later, and the game that broke all the rules about fighting games is breaking all the boundaries it can.

As with the previous three iterations of Super Smash Bros., players select their favorite Nintendo character or one of a handful of third-party guests, then proceed to cast, kick, pummel, or blast their rivals into submission. Damage accumulates on characters, making them less able to resist the extreme knockback effects of Smash attacks as their counters get higher. If a character is thrown too far beyond the boundaries of the screen, they are out; game modes that define victory as the most knockouts or the least falls are available. In addition to the frenetic multiplayer battle mode, the Wii U and 3DS games offer adventure modes and minigames for players to hone their skills in.

This fourth-generation installment of the series is the first to feature on a handheld console, and it was the 3DS version which released first this past October. Featuring the same massive cast of characters as the Wii U version, the 3DS card includes as its adventure mode “Smash Run”. In Smash Run, players are placed in a massive labyrinth filled with both their rivals and a plethora of foes; the fighters have five minutes to roam the maze, defeating the mooks and collecting powerup markers affecting their base stats. At the end of regulation time, a battle against the rival characters ensues, with random rules and/or victory conditions. Smash Run is a fun idea on paper, but the grunt monsters are too well-defended compared to the flimsy defenses of the other fighters. Worse, there’s no way to know in advance or to influence what the rules of the final battle are; this creates situations where you have spent five aggravating minutes maximizing your attack stat at the expense of speed, only for the battle to be a literal footrace.

The Wii U version dispenses with Smash Run in favor of Smash Tour, a board game conceit more reminiscent of Mario Party or Fortune Street than anything prior. Players roam a board collecting character and stat icons, similar to the setup in Smash Run, but when players collide on the board, a brief battle ensues to swap and steal those icons. In the end, players engage in a stock battle with as many lives as they have characters. Again, it’s a great idea in theory, but players have limited control over which characters they can work with at any given moment, and despite the efforts to balance the cast, sometimes you’re gonna get stuck with duds.

But the main draw of Smash Bros. is always the core battle game, and I’m glad to say that there is simply no better fighting game on the market right now. Combining the speed of Super Smash Bros. Melee with the forgiving mechanics of Brawl, the engine in Wii U/3DS is crisp and slick; you never feel like your character is slogging through molasses or that you’re fighting the controls more than your opponents. While the 3DS version is understandably limited to the built-in controller, the Wii U version allows you to use any controller Nintendo had first released in the 21st century. Literally. While the adapter to connect Gamecube controllers is in short supply as of this writing, using more recent controllers such as the Wii Classic Controller Plus or the Wii U Pro Controller is smooth and effortless. Using the Wii U GamePad as a controller was difficult for me, though; I was far more than happy enough to just use one of my classics. And if you’re feeling extra ambitious, the 3DS version can sync to the Wii U to act as a controller on its own. Which is convenient for the 8-player battle mode on the big screen.

Nintendo has done a pretty good job of making the game “future-proof” by promising DLC characters. Mewtwo, the psychic powerhouse Pokemon, is scheduled to be released in early 2015, and is being offered free to owners of both versions. In addition, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is the first game to make use of Nintendo’s new Amiibo figures, which were released alongside the game. (Amiibo functionality is scheduled to be patched in to the already-released Mario Kart 8 early next year as well.) Amiibo are, for lack of any better description, Skylander figures with Nintendo skins. Using the GamePad’s built-in NFC sensor, the figures store artificial intelligence data for the characters they represent, making them capable of learning from human and computer opponents. At Level 1, Amiibo figures are little more than ambulatory targets; by Level 15 they start becoming consistently able to read your moves and challenging your personal style; when they reach their cap of Level 50 they can rival top tournament players. The figures are well-sculpted and gorgeously painted, but the implementation of the system leaves a little bit to be desired. Amiibo level up too quickly, making them frustrating opponents in too short order. There’s no tweaking of the AI possible, meaning that if it learns a bad habit, the only way to retrain it is constant battling. Worse still, the figures’ main selling point– that they can be used across several games– is slightly not as advertised; an Amiibo can only be formatted for one title at a time. While this works well for figures that aren’t in multiple games, such as Marth or Mega Man, some of the more familiar faces like Mario and Peach can’t fight and drive at the same time. In the end, the Amiibo feature is an afterthought in contrast to the extremely well-developed customization of existing characters and Mii Fighters.

It should also be noted that the Amiibo features will be patched in to the 3DS version as well. Why aren’t they there already? Well, ask yourself this: why would Amiibo be added to a system that doesn’t have an NFC sensor? The answer is also why the 3DS version has an aggravatingly long initial loading time: it was programmed with Nintendo’s New 3DS system in mind, which launched in Japan alongside the 3DS version in October. North America and Europe did not get the New 3DS in 2014, and as of this writing Nintendo has not announced a release date for the rest of the world. Presumably the silence was meant to avoid gutting sales of 3DSes and 2DSes, particularly with the one-two punch of Smash and Pokemon hitting this holiday season, but it is still infuriating.

Honestly, though, even with the somewhat quirky nature of the minigames and unlock schemes, at the end of the day this is quite simply the biggest reason to own a Wii U. It’s also a damn compelling reason to get your 3DS warmed up again. Focusing on what Smash does best– fast-paced battles with a horde of your childhood heroes– has made these titles must-owns, and while the extra content such as trophies and Home Run Derby is nice to have, it doesn’t detract at all from the just-about-perfect main game. This game is one that hits Fifth Gear and doesn’t let up.

Daigaku Z: Let It Go

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

Also: The semester is wrapping up and this week is the last Daigaku Z in 2014; I’ll return on January 11th, 2015 with the new year’s start. Thank you again for your continued support– yoroshiku, baby!

We had our last recitation class on Friday; by the time you read this I’ll be studying for my oral exam on Monday. I did something I wanted to do for everyone in that recitation class, some of whom weren’t moving on to the next semester: I bought them all sets of gaming dice in their favorite colors. Some of them reacted with confusion; others, elation. It was a bit of a moment.

But some of us won’t be in the same recitation class next semester. One of us disappeared without a trace about a week after mid-terms, and we all asked about him afterwards, but never heard anything. Others have conflicting class schedules which prevent us from staying united. Maybe it’s simply because I was in a small major the last time around, but the thought of not having some amount of continuity within the classes I take kind of has me uneasy.

During my first degree, I had almost all of my classes with the same group of peers throughout the entirety of my four years there, with only electives being the divergence points. We became close friends in that time, and we are all still mostly in touch with each other. But even before that, my high school was tiny compared to those here in Pittsburgh– I graduated as one of just about a hundred in the class. Even considering the usual cliques and pitfalls of any high school, we were close.

It’s always unnerving to be thrust from a situation where you’re familiar, and where there are those among you who are like-minded, into a literal new frontier. But the important thing to remember is that we are all strangers at first, and that we are all dealing with the same sense of isolation and fear. It will only get worse when we– the class, I mean– all head off to Japan for whatever purposes, because almost certainly we will not all be going together. Some of us may never go. Some of us may never finish learning the language.

It’s one thing to be grateful for friends, and to stick with them even when doing so is difficult. But it’s another thing entirely to cling to them beyond when one needs to, and that’s as much a process of learning as making the friends in the first place. This year I’ve learned so much more about who I want to keep in my life and who I want to let go of– gently, of course, but let go none the less. That is something I am very grateful for.

But it certainly would be nice if they would take the hint the dice were meant to signify, and tell me when would be good to meet up for some tabletop gaming.

Daigaku Z: Secrets And Lies

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

Also: Thanks for bearing with last week’s absence. The semester is wrapping up and next week will be the last Daigaku Z in 2014; I’ll return on January 11th, 2015 with the new year’s start. Thank you again for your continued support– yoroshiku, baby!

I’m not the first person in my family to be enamored of the Land of the Rising Sun. My cousin Patrick is a teacher in Colorado, having previously spent a year in Japan studying the literature of the nation. I’ll freely admit that his ambition– and success– played a big role in my decision to get back to school; then again, this isn’t a column about my massive (and massively exaggerated) inferiority complex about my family.

The reason I mention Patrick is because, earlier this week while I was reading through an assignment for a final project, I happened to rant in his general direction regarding the book I was reading. Kenzaburo Oe’s The Changeling is a book which, at first blush, infuriated me. Initially presented as fiction, the book takes about ten pages before turning into an autobiography metaphorically separated from truth only by the opaque ministrations of a busted-out window. It was a bait-and-switch con job that, if the book hadn’t been required reading, would have caused me to stop reading at the exact moment that the tome went out my very real front window.

Well, that and I bought it as an e-book and I don’t want to replace my reading device just yet. Not the point.

So when I wrote that idle Facebook comment, I honestly wasn’t expecting too much in the way of anything outside of catharsis. Patrick’s response was even-handed and very illuminating, however, and it took me a little while to really get what he was saying. As it turns out, that was likely why I was having so much trouble understanding the book– and probably why the book was on my list in the first place. The project for which I was reading it was my Intro to Translation Studies class.

Culture clash is a very real phenomenon, and nowhere else is it more evident than in the Anglophonic otaku world. After all, we’re a community that can accept infamously incomprehensible statements like “people die when they are killed” and “I have never seen a yeast such as this– it brings me to tears!” at more-or-less face value, because we have knowledge of the context in which these are made (in reverse order, Yakitate Ja-Pan and terminal misogyny– I mean, Fate/stay night‘s protagonist Shirou Emiya). It’s when those statements’ references in their original culture have an unrelated, often unintentional reference in the destination culture, that the culture clash becomes a stumbling block to enjoyment and understanding. In some cases, the dissonance is mild and amusing, such as a character supposedly raised in America using the word “pierce” to refer to an earring (as happened with Momoko in Ojamajo Doremi).

And then there’s Oe’s work, which is representative of a greater genre of work known as “I-novels”. Typically confessional works of autobiography, these are less like the traditional Western term of a roman à clef and more like Dragnet: the stories are real but the names have been changed to protect the innocent– and not-so-innocent. Where a roman à clef is usually considered allegorical where its plot most closely aligns with reality, the I-novel instead (and this is typical of the genre but varied across its writers in its century-plus of existence) uses events virtually exactly as they are, to the point of referencing real-world events. The Changeling‘s protagonist of Kogito Choko is an exact döppelganger of Oe, from his disabled yet brilliant composer son to the titles of his past body of work. The Changeling‘s plot deals with the 1997 suicide of Kogito’s brother in law Goro, known in reality as Juzo Itami– director of Tampopo among other films.

In Western literature, we expect a clear delineation between fact and fiction. Fiction may draw upon reality as a backdrop or as context, but it must never give even the slightest appearance of being anything but made-up. Where fiction blurs the line separating itself from history makes most Anglophonic audiences extremely uncomfortable. A good example of this is Spike Jonze’s 2002 film Adaptation, which fictionalizes the process of its own writing. While it’s a great film and well-constructed, it often can be confusing for the audience to separate what really happened from what never did.

Probably a better example of the dangers of autobiographical fiction, though, is the story of JT LeRoy, more accurately known as Laura Albert. From 1999 to 2007 Albert wrote her work as the wholly-fictitious LeRoy, who was portrayed in public appearances by her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop. This culminated in The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, which has a plot that parallels the trajectory of LeRoy’s fictitious history. When Albert was unmasked in 2005, after the filming (but before the release) of an adaptation of the book, the entirety of the book and “LeRoy”‘s ouvre were thrown into question. As it stands, they’re strong work, but the shadow of deception still lingers over them. For people of my generation, their questionable status is divisive: some of us believe they’re enhanced by being so successful in their ruse, while others (myself included) do not appreciate the dilution of fact into fiction, a solution that once mixed can never be distilled.

The earliest parts of my training as a writer were in journalism, and it was drilled into me at that early age that the reporter must never put too much of themselves into the story. We treat that objectivity as sacrosanct within the news, although within the last ten to fifteen years there has been a subtle backlash against that particular line on the stone tablets of journalistic ethics. So Oe’s work was a very bitter pill to swallow, in particular because there were more barriers blurring the lines than I had signed on for: first Oe’s own obfuscation and then the translator’s decisions to represent the works referenced in subtly altered forms. The fact that the cheesecloth of fictionality covering the account of actual events was threadbare and missing in spots made it very difficult for me to figure out what parts of the whole were real and what weren’t.

In the end, short of actually interviewing Oe myself (which is about as likely to happen as my swimming from Long Beach to Puget Sound by way of Okinawa), I’ll never know what side is which when discussing The Changeling. That might be the point, actually; it’s entirely possible that Oe wrote the book for his own catharsis, and dressed it up as fiction as a way of saying “Don’t take this too seriously; it didn’t happen to you, so there’s no sense worrying about it”. I have a hard time believing that, though, considering Oe’s real-world history of being ardently anti-war and, more importantly, being accurate when writing on those topics: he was cleared of libel in a case regarding Okinawan forced-suicides in World War II when the judge concluded that Oe’s assessments were correct, and holding with the precept that the truth is an absolute defense against libel.

But then again, I don’t want to throw the book out the window anymore, either. So maybe there’s something more to it than just truth versus lies. Who knows.

Pokémon Alpha Sapphire

Fall is definitely a time when I think about Pokémon, primarily because most of the games in that venerable series have been released in the autumnal months. As leaves pile up around me I’ll usually be found on a bench, enjoying the chilly breezes and heated battling, collecting, and training. With the release of Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, the long-desired remakes of the third-generation core titles, the rite of fall continues.

Note: While this review is taken from gameplay of Alpha Sapphire only, it will use the acronym ORAS to refer to the game, as most of the features mentioned will be applicable to both titles in the set. Anything specific to Alpha Sapphire will be mentioned as such.

Taking place in the archipelago region of Hoenn, ORAS brings the player back to the gorgeously-rendered 3-D world first glimpsed during X and Y. The story is true to the original, with the player– choosing either Brendan or May as their avatar through the game– traveling the region, battling wild Pokémon, performing errands for adults that they happen across, and along the way saving the world from the machinations of Team Aqua and/or Team Magma. Like the originals and also like X/Y, the story is subtly different between the two versions in order to accommodate the myth arc surrounding the generational mascots, Kyogre and Groudon, as well as to introduce a new chapter revolving around Emerald’s mascot Rayquaza and the generation’s most enduring of its hidden Legendaries, the cosmic Deoxys. However, if you’ve played through Ruby or Sapphire before, you know what to expect, both in a general sense and in some of the specifics.

The Pokémon Company’s general modus operandi when creating a game remake is in full effect here: there are only mild upgrades to the layouts of the routes and trainers along them, in order to maintain a verisimilitude between the old and the new. However, visually and musically, the game is as much a leap forward as the GBA series were to the first and second-generation titles. While it retains the graphical engine of the Kalos-region set from last year, that’s not a bad thing at all– it actually improves upon it by eliminating a good deal of the frame rate drops and other annoyances that plagued X/Y. The improved sound hardware of the 3DS also means that the big, brassy soundtrack of the games comes through in its full orchestral glory. Yes, Vileplume-ginia, there are horns. ORAS also returns to using the touch screen as a strong tool for capturing Pokémon and tracking friends’ synced data relatively unobtrusively; the PSS, Super Training, and Pokémon-Amie apps are now augmented by an area map, PokéRadar-like tool, and Trainer’s Eyes-like news channel. Finally, Pokémon Contests return, allowing players to pit their Pokémon against others in a non-combat competition of style and spirit. With them come also the vast and time-consuming Berry system and Pokeblock creation, which fortunately has been simplified greatly from its original minigame roots.

However, in the process of fixing things, some things that were never broken to begin with got rearranged. All of the cities are redesigned to utilize the new engine’s capabilities, and unfortunately this makes things harder than they should be due to the closeness of the camera (which can’t be adjusted). It can be difficult to tell at first glance what the city has to offer, even considering the now-standard practice of coloring the Pokémon Center, shop, and gym roofs. What’s worse, the solution to this is shown in the first city– examining the town’s name placard shifts the camera to a bird’s eye view of the whole town– and then never utilized again. It took me several tries to wrack my brains around the concept that there was no gym in Verdanturf, and by then I was getting impatient to advance the story and activate new features.

Unlike the refinements between Pokemon Platinum and HeartGold/SoulSilver, some of ORAS feel like a step backwards. While the battle engine is virtually identical to that of X/Y– again, why mess with a good thing– some of the ancillary features such as clothing changes and riding Pokémon are missing. Worse still, the game actually introduces incompatibilities with X/Y that TPC and Game Freak have already said are intentional and will not be patched into the older games. This includes certain new Mega Evolutions and new moves. Despite Kalos’ wide-open spaces and relative freedom to explore, Hoenn feels cramped and rushed in comparison; this may be a concession to the fact that the Gen 3 games still had an over-reliance on HM moves and Gym Badge progress gating, rather than the more natural feel of Kalos’ gating or even Unova’s (as of Black2/White2). Though take heart, hydrophobes, certain Pokémon used for surfing will move faster; and using Latias or Latios to soar through the region is much more expedient than the traditional Fly HM.

As the series starts to wind up its second decade, at this point it’s extremely hard to judge a Pokémon game as anything other than its own thing in and of itself. Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire neatly sum up the difference between something being formulaic and something being generic: a formula allows the developer, and the player, to work within a known and accepted structure to produce new and exciting experiences, while genericness is a failure to do anything new with the formula, and commodifies the thing which it is trying to express. ORAS are, like X and Y before them, formulaic to a T; and for the most part, that’s not a bad thing. If you like the established and almost inflexible formula of “get starter, collect badges, save world, battle rival”, most every Pokemon game will be for you. If, however, you’re weary of the same game being incrementally improved upon year after year, ORAS will likely not spur a rebirth of interest in the franchise.

Where things get weird is that, honestly, ORAS is an implementation of the formula as it stood ten years ago. For a game series that justifies its continued reflection on the past through incessant reimplementation and refinement, ORAS feels like a throwback trading largely on nostalgia mixed with sensory flair. For those who first threw a Pokéball in Hoenn, this game is a must-own as it returns those players “home”. For those who didn’t, however, it’s hard to say whether this is the beginning of a new respect for the region– or merely the beginning of the end for their habit of buying each new core game.

Overall, though, I have to place the games in Fourth Gear (out of six), because they are still solid games, just not solid Pokémon games. It remains to be seen at the moment where the series is headed, but if Nintendo and Game Freak keep up their pattern of annual releases, this January we should see just how long we’ll be staying in the land of too much water.

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