Versus: Ten Epic Animated Duels

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You know that moment when two people come face to face in a confrontation where only one is going to walk away under their own power if they’re lucky? There’s some primal instinct hidden in human psychology that lives to see that moment and the resulting fight for life that inevitably follows unfold. It just gets our blood pumping.

Film and television is naturally a perfect outlet for satisfying our need for bloodshed and conflict without anyone actually getting hurt. Everybody has their list of memorable one-on-one fight scenes from film and television, but what about animation?  After all, with animation the possibilities for epic beatdowns are literally without limitation.

I’ve assembled an Unreality fight card featuring some of my favorite match-ups from over the years and I’m putting on show for you guys.  Note that there will be spoilers and let’s get ready to ruuuuuuuuumble!

The Undercard

 

Jin vs Sara

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Setup– In Samurai Champloo, Jin is a ronin samurai hired to help a girl find her father, and Sara is a blind musician serving as an involuntary assassin, the shogunate having coerced her by kidnapping her child. Once she finally gets Jin alone, she reveals that she has been tasked with killing him and his friends.

Match-up– Jin is the epitome of calm, cool, and collected with flawless katana technique.

Sara uses a yari spear and is an extremely talented fighter. Also, she is blind -which in Japan gives you samurai superpowers- and believes she is fighting for the life of her child.

My Prediction– Jin has been pretty unbeatable and unshakable in addition to being a primary protagonist. Got to go with him

Let’s do it.

Winner– Sara by TKO.

Post-fight Analysis– Jin seems to have little trouble fighting a woman, but even if he did, Sara’s lack of desire to kill Jin would have canceled it out. After getting owned by the blind shamisen master, Jin goes into survival mode and desperately cuts the ropes holding the bridge together, sending them both into the river below. Seeing that Jin was clearly on his last leg when he chose to risk the fall, I’m ruling this one a technical knockout for Sara.

 

Raven vs. Terra

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Setup– This duel from Teen Titans was a long time coming. In the show’s adaptation of The Judas Contract the Titans take in a troubled teen who proceeds to win everyone over and alienate longtime member Raven. Turns out Terra was working with Titan’s nemesis Slade (Deathstroke) all along and her betrayal shatters the team.

Match-up– Raven sports various demonic powers including flight, sorcery, and telekinesis. She’s arguably the most powerful Titan.

Terra has earth powers that allow her to control and levitate any sort of rock or soil, making her a powerhouse as well.

My Prediction– Raven for days. This is her time to prove herself and save the day after she was the only one to sense that something was off about Terra. Plus, she’s a (sometimes literal) beast in combat with powers that border on limitless.

Let’s do this!

Winner– Terra via smothering

Post-fight Analysis– It was rigged! Having the fight take place in a mud pit gave Terra a massive advantage. Coupled with her intelligent use of taunting to intensify Raven’s frustration, breaking her concentration (the basis of her powers) she had this one in the bag from the start.

 

Chun-Li vs. Vega

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Setup– In Japan’s classic Street Fighter II film -an extremely rare instance of a good video game adaptation-Interpol agent Chun-Li is on the trail of M.Bison’s Shadowlaw organization and Vega is dispatched to get her off of it…permanently. As she brushes her hair after a shower, a concealed Vega makes his move.

Match-up- Vega is an agile assassin who fights with a claw and favors aerial and rolling attacks. He wears a mask to keep his beautiful face protected. Yeah, he’s that much of a pretty boy.

Chun-Li is the original female world warrior with mad kicks that are too fast for the human eye to follow once she gets going. She’s as acrobatic as Vega and always a fan favorite.

My Prediction- I played this one out in arcades for years. Once you get Vega’s patterns down, he’s a pushover. Chun-Li.

Do it.

Winner- Chun-Li via Lightning Kicks

Post-fight Analysis- Vega’s surprise attack caught her off guard, and he stayed on the attack and kept Chun-Li on the defensive. But once he paused to gloat (or more likely to catch his breath), Chun-Li turned the tables by attacking his face. After Vega lost his composure due to his vanity, he was done.

 

The Main Card

 

Anakin Skywalker vs. Asajj Ventress

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Setup– In the awesome original Clone Wars miniseries Count Dooku holds a battle royale of the killingest killer aliens he can find. Ventress is the last one standing so he trains her and sends her to take out Anakin Skywalker. She follows him to an abandoned world and confronts him.

Match-up- Skywalker is the chosen one. Destined to be the most powerful jedi, he has the training and experience of a jedi master even as a padawan. Light saber and force powers come standard.

Ventress has less training than Ani, but she is nearly as powerful and is not held back by any jedi code. She is one of the biggest survivors in Star Wars mythos and more than a handful for anyone with dual-wielded sabers and a high fight IQ.

My Prediction- As much of a doof as Skywalker is, he is a strong bastard when push comes to shove. Got to go with the star of the series.

Time to rock.

Winner- Anakin via rage mode ground and pound

Post-fight Analysis- God damn I love that fight. If only the CG Clone Wars show was half as good. Ventress’ killer instinct has Anakin on the defensive for much of the first half, but unlike most fighters, when Skywalker loses his cool he becomes even nastier because he forgets the jedi code and plays for keeps.

 

Wonder Woman vs. Aquaman

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Setup– In the Justice League animated series our heroes investigate a sea monster attack, and end up tracing it to the interesting combination of Doctor Fate, Aquaman, and Solomon Grundy. Fate sends the combatants away in pairs and the Atlantean King finds himself facing the Amazon princess.

Match-up- Wonder Woman has super strength, flight, advanced combat skills, a magic lasso, and is skilled in using her indestructible bracelets to deflect attacks.

Aquaman has the usual enhanced strength, plus (in this version) a blade for a hand and a telepathic rapport with sea creatures. Naturally, he’s god-tier in the water.

My Prediction- Kevin Smith said it best: “Wonder Woman is a goddess. Aquaman is a guppy.”

Touch gloves and come out fighting.

Winner- Aquaman by drowning

Post-fight Analysis- FIX! Aquaman is a character many people don’t take seriously, and the classic way to get respect for such a character is by having them beat somebody out of their league with crappy writing. Arthur puts up a great fight on land, but Diana has him outclassed until Aquaman tackles her off of a cliff and into the water. Apparently WW forgot she could fly there. Just saying.  She avenges herself in the recent film The Flashpoint Paradox.

 

Alucard vs. Father Anderson

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Setup– From Hellsing Ultimate. One is the most powerful vampire of all time working for British Protestants to exterminate monsters, the other is the ultimate vampire slayer created by the Irish Catholic church. That’s a lot of reasons to fight, right there, but Anderson is menacing Alucard’s master and student as well.

Match-up- The limit of Alucard’s power is unknown at that point, but basically, he’s invincible, immortal, and has two sweet guns loaded with holy bullets.

Father Anderson is a blademaster with a healing factor and something I’m going to go ahead and call Bible-page telekinesis.

My Prediction- Two invincible guys again, but I’m a vampire man, so Alucard.

Time to get it on.

Sorry about that lame editing on this video. Blame the uploader. The entire scene is better, but much longer too.

Winner- Alucard by disqualification due to Anderson leaving the arena

Post-fight Analysis- This is a pretty epic meeting between two polar opposites but a mere precursor of what’s to come. Alucard is taken by surprise by Anderson’s tactics and healing factor and literally loses his head. But being an immortal creature of the night with unlimited power has its perks and once Anderson realizes he may not have the means at his disposal to finish the fight, he bows out…for now.  

 

Hulk vs. Wolverine

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Setup– In Marvel’s coolest straight to DVD animated film, some Canadian villages are smashed and Hulk has been sighted in the area. After doing the math, Department H sends in Wolverine to put Big Green down.  These are two of Marvel’s toughest, meanest, and most popular draws, so this match-up is an obvious and frequent crowd pleaser.

Match-up- HULK IS STRONGEST THERE IS!

Wolverine is the best there is at what he does. Indestructible, lethal, and as mean as his namesake with adamantium claws. Would not f**k with.

My Prediction- What part of “strongest there is” did you miss? Always bet Hulk.

Get ready to smash.

Winner- Hulk by judge’s decision

Post-fight Analysis- The fact that Hulk has no means to permanently put an end to Wolverine (and vice versa) means that every pretty much every fight between them is going to the judge’s scorecards. Wolvie got his licks in, but by the end of the round he’d clearly taken the worse of it, even being KOed once. Almost no one can handle an enraged Hulk.

 

Spike vs. Vicious

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Setup– These two Cowboy Bebop standouts are former partners in a criminal organization known as The Red Dragon Crime Syndicate. At some point Spike left the Syndicate to abscond with Viscious’ girlfriend, and seeing that the punishment for desertion in that particular organization was death, that wasn’t the end of it. With Julia dead and Spike dead tired of running, he fights his way through the Syndicate’s headquarters to settle the score once and for all.

Match-up- Spike is a jeet kune do fighter and bounty hunter who is good with a pistol and represents the ultimate in anime cool.

Vicious is a brutal crime boss who will do anything to get what he wants and wields a katana to complete the classic Japanese sword vs. gun battle.

My Prediction- I’ve never seen the swordsman prevail in one of these, so Spike.

Bring the noise.

Winner- Draw

Post-fight Analysis- Brief but intense. Spike gets the kill shot on the quick-draw exchange, but is mortally wounded himself. He has just enough in him to make it down the stairs for the most memorable exit in anime history. See you, Space Cowboy.

 

Spider-Man vs. Venom

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Setup– Comic rivalries don’t come more classic, and Spectacular Spider-Man was the best Spider-Man. After Peter Parker rejects the black suit symbiote, it senses the loneliness and anger in his former friend, Eddie Brock, and forms Venom with him. Venom then stalks Peter and kidnaps his love interest, Gwen Stacy.

Match-up- You know the drill. Venom is stronger, more durable, unconsciously knows all of Spidey’s moves and capabilities, and has all of his abilities and then some.

Spidey is smarter, faster, and more experienced, but has to worry about harming bystanders and rescuing Gwen, which is a serious disadvantage.

My Prediction- Always bet on the red and blue. Spider-Man.

Fight!

Winner- Spider-Man by forfeit

Post-fight Analysis- While Venom clearly has Spidey licked in a slugfest, Parker’s insight into the psychology of his opponent allows him to manipulate the symbiote into abandoning its new master. The symbiote latches onto loneliness and uses it to control the host, and Parker’s realization that he’s got friends and family supporting him allows him to reject and contain it.

 

The Main Event

Avatar Aang vs. Fire Lord Ozai

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Setup– The final confrontation from Avatar: The Last Airbender was the culmination of a show that gave us three seasons of outstanding battles. Aang spent the three seasons learning to master all of the elements in preparation for this final showdown. Having failed to stop Ozai from obtaining the power of a passing comet that supercharged his powers, the inexperienced Aang must stop the out of control Fire Lord from decimating the planet. This is the exact definition of an epic battle.

Match-up- As Fire Lord, Ozai is the most powerful fire bender in the world, completely ruthless, bent on world domination, and has the ambition and experience to do it.

Aang is the Avatar, meaning he can control all four elements, but he is inexperienced with three out of the four. His trump card is the ability to go into an “avatar state” which puts him on another level. But at the time of this battle, he had lost the ability to enter it due to a blocked chakra in his back. His pacifist philosophy also puts him at a disadvantage in combat.

My Prediction- Hard not to pick the title character, but how cool would it be if a kid’s show just decided to teach its fans that life isn’t always fair? Still, only a fool would bet against the Avatar.

It’s tiiiiiime!

Winner-Aang via energy bend

Post-fight Analysis- Ozai got overanxious and accidently unblocked Aang’s chakra, unlocking his Avatar State god mode. In Avatar State, the entire planet is an Avatar’s weapon so good luck with that, bro. Faced with an opponent who won’t quit until he is dead and a personal philosophy that forbids him from taking a life, Aang finds a way to stay true to himself at great personal risk and bends Ozai’s chi to take his powers away permanently. Ultimate epic victory.

 

Now that’s a fine night of animated fights if I ever saw one. Thank you for joining us, and feel free to share your commentary in the comments section. Suggestions for possible future installments are also welcome.

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5 Shows to Change Your Mind about Anime

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At one point I was toying with the idea of making a list of anime clichés that I’m fed up with to post on this site. Then it struck me that there isn’t really a ton of anime love on Unreality in spite of the focus on geek culture, and it just seemed wrong to come here and bash an entertainment medium whose flag I proudly fly when I could focus on the positive instead.

While Japanese animation certainly has a lengthy list of tropes that are often instantly off-putting to Westerners and become tiresome after a while even to the hardcore fans, there is no shortage of series that buck these trends and create something really unique and special that can and should be appreciated by a wide audience.

The fact is that the genre as a whole has an image problem in the West the likes of which comic books and video games wouldn’t trade places with in a million years. As much as I hate to give them credit for anything, Disney’s wide distribution of Studio Ghibli’s films has been a step in the right direction, but outside of those family films most people picture lame kiddie toy commercials like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh or pornographic hentai and the occasional nondescript teenagers-flying-around-in-giant-robots show when they hear the word “anime”.

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The truth of the matter is that Japanese animation consists of thousands of titles covering every possible genre and inventing several along the way. It’s a medium as varied as film and television, and in much the same way the best you’ll ever find is the stuff you have to dig for. Relying on American television to air high quality anime is a losing game, with Toonami/Adult Swim being an occasional exception.  Assuming all anime is like Naruto or Dragonball Z is the equivalent of watching Jersey Shore and concluding that all American television must be for like-minded meatheads.

So today I’m going to try and spread the love a little bit by sharing some of the coolest and most interesting titles of the past several years. Anime shows that shirk the clichés of giant robots, nerds with ten different kinds of sexy girls fighting over them, ridiculously prominent breast physics, over the top powers, childish depictions of romance, and the like.

These are some true originals that stick to the basics of great fiction: great characters with great stories; and they often contain complex themes that you seldom see even in the most sophisticated Western series. If that isn’t something you are interested in, then you are doing life wrong.

Eden of the East

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Here’s the concept on this one: an eccentric wealthy man selects eleven individuals, gives them each ten billion yen and asks them to reverse the plummeting fortunes of Japan in any way they see fit. He also gives each of them a cell phone linked to an AI supercomputer with pretty much unlimited power that will do anything that they ask.

It’s an interesting idea to begin with, but the creativity and originality this series exhibits is stunning. The Seleção (as the chosen are called) are wildly varied and their strategies range from serial killings to terrorism, philanthropy, and political power grabs, to name a few. But the series’ protagonist has the most interesting strategy of all.

Akira Takizawa’s vision for a better Japan is one where it harvests the capabilities of Japan’s NEETs (Not in Employment, Education, or Training…essentially, losers) to rebuild the country’s political system and separate it from its troubled past once and for all.

Eden of the East is the name of a cell phone app that acts as an online pooling of knowledge where you post a picture of anything or anyone and everyone updates it with anything they know about it, like a visual Wikipedia. This turns out to be an important tool in Takizawa’s quest and the immense conglomeration of knowledge resulting from small individual contributions serves as his inspiration.

So Eden of the East as a narrative is kind of a celebration of our generation’s mastery of technology and an illustration of the potential of even the biggest losers among us as part of something bigger than themselves while maintaining the importance of the individual. The series began with a thirteen episode television series and was concluded with two feature films, all of which are currently available for streaming on Netflix.

Nana

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One of my biggest complaints about anime (and Japanese pop culture in general) is their typical portrayal of romance. Too many idealized yearning platonic romances going on there for sure. There needs to be a realistic medium between nasty hentai and grade school puppy love, but too often there isn’t.  I need something I can relate to once in a while. And if it could have some seriously rocking music involved and make me laugh my ass off that would be a bonus.

Nana is one of the most compelling shows I’ve seen in years. Two young women from different walks of life meet on a train to Tokyo, each chasing different dreams. One wants to be a rock star, the other seeks romantic fulfillment. They are both named Nana and end up sharing an apartment together. It’s often not the grand gestures, but the smallest coincidences that change your life forever.

This series is extremely relatable for young adults. If I had to compare it to any existing show, I’d have to go with HBO’s Girls, because I feel like both shows come from the same place of portraying their characters as extremely flawed individuals who are nevertheless deserving of love as they struggle through life grasping at any semblance of happiness they can find. Nana is probably the closest thing I’ve seen to real life in animated form.

It will make you smile and laugh, and then it will rip your heart out before putting its arms around you and telling you everything will be all right. For me, Nana was that rare rollercoaster ride of emotions and human experiences that seems to sum up the meaning of life, which is to say that it is whatever you make of it. And like I said before, the music is freaking awesome.

Black Lagoon

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Picture Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and John Woo collaborating on an animated series, if you would. That pretty much sums up Black Lagoon; one of those shows you feel bad for the rest of the world for not knowing about. It’s a rare merging of style and substance that makes you want to rave the second you get off of the couch after watching it.

A Japanese businessman, Rock, gets kidnapped by a crew of pirates while on a business trip. Instead of paying the ransom, his bosses decide to cut their losses and exterminate him along with the kidnappers, lest his knowledge of the company be used against them. Our hero develops a bit of Stockholm syndrome and ends up joining the crew of the Lagoon Company: pirates, smugglers, and escape specialists extraordinaire. But can Rock maintain his soul’s innocence while running with the devil?

The figurative devil in this case comes in the form of Black Lagoon’s poster girl, Revy –nicknamed “Two-Hands” for her prowess with dual pistols. She’s psychotic, foul-mouthed, reckless, and made entirely out of badassness. Her complicated relationship with Rock (who she alternately despises yet reveres as some sort of avatar of hope) forms the cornerstone of the series, but almost every character to play a part in this series is instantly memorable.

For a show with the tagline “Violence, swearing, bravado, and gunplay” on the box, Black Lagoon delves into some depressing philosophical territory. It’s not just cool and filled with some of the best action scenes around; it’s actually kind of brilliant. After being out of print for a while, Funimation re-released both seasons on Blu-ray and DVD and the follow-up miniseries Roberta’s Blood Trail, a complex tale of vengeance from one of season one’s standout characters, was just released after years of waiting. After shutting up, they took my money.

Paranoia Agent

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Spare a moment of silence for the late, great Satoshi Kon. After a spotless career of insanely creative animation, we lost him a few years ago. His films included the incredible Perfect Blue (Black Swan was originally conceived as a remake of it), his beautiful tribute to the history of Japanese cinema, Millennium Actress, and the critical darling dream journey, Paprika. But even more than those masterpieces, his television show Paranoia Agent is among the most underrated and conceptually brilliant animated works of all time.

While on the outside, Paranoia Agent appears to be about a talking plush dog and a kid with a baseball bat who is terrorizing a city, the genius is that these two things are in actuality two sides of the same coin. After all, mainstream media performs two functions for our government: to keep us distracted, and to keep us scared. As long as those two things are accomplished, we will do as we are told. And that’s just one of many themes that presents itself over the course of the show.

The series follows several characters, most of which suffer from some form of psychosis. One episode I particularly enjoyed features a woman with split personalities who leave threatening message for one another on her answering machine. That is just a whole new kind of creepy. Another episode follows an eclectic group of internet friends who made a suicide pact but can’t find just the right way to off themselves. Talk about twisted humor. There’s even an episode about a kid who can’t differentiate video games from reality.

In spite of having aired on Adult Swim, this is a show that failed to take off in America, and that makes me sad. It has one of the most cerebral black comedies you’re ever likely to find and it’s a crime that it’s out of print at the moment. But it’s still very findable online…

 

Death Note

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What would you do if you were given the power to anonymously kill any person whose name you knew? In the internet age of incivility, it’s a chilling thought. In Death Note, the protagonist, Light Yagami (who takes on the pseudonym “Kira”), decides to do the world a favor and eliminate crime by putting the literal fear of God into them after he discovers a notebook that will bring death to anyone if their name is written inside of its pages.

Naturally, this opens up a Pandora’s Box of moralist debates and calls into question the meaning of the word “justice”. As the number of mysterious deaths rises, a special team is put together in an attempt to find the source, and that’s when things get good. After all, Light’s own father is a policeman on that team. The complex mental chess match that unfolds between Kira and his mysterious pursuer “L” -who doesn’t use his name for obvious reasons- in particular makes up the core of the series and keeps the viewer in perpetual suspense in a way I’ve seldom seen.

While most of the rest of the anime on this list are somewhat obscure outside of fan circles, Death Note was a massive worldwide hit. The manga was even banned from schools in places because after becoming an irl meme where students made their own Death Notes to wish death upon one another and their teachers.  It is also only anime I can think of offhand with a successful live action adaptation.

The show is a stone classic and is pretty much universally loved. I have personally made addicts out of multiple people at my work, who have passed it on. It’s just one of those shows that comes along once every so often and can do no wrong.

For some random and less intellectually dense honorable mentions I’m going to give props to the vampire-fueled horror action of Hellsing Ultimate, the sweet rock and roll of Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad, the romantic sci-fi comedy Please Teacher, the twisted samurai tale Shigurui Death Frenzy, and the ninja warfare of Basilisk just to name a few more personal favorites.

This isn’t even anime’s final form. In fact, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Animation is the most imaginative of all possible variations of visual entertainment because the only limit to what it can put onscreen is the human imagination.  Nobody does animation consistently better than Japan, and the biggest reason for that is that nobody ever told them it was only for children.

The medium is struggling again in America. After a massive influx, the industry tried to grow too fast and the result was companies going out of business, and numerous titles going out of circulation. It’d be a real shame to see anime retreat back to Japan simply because the general public doesn’t know what they are missing and the fans are pirating because they are too impatient to wait for the American releases.

So do both of us a favor and take a few of these guys in. Almost all of them have outstanding English dubbed versions, so subtitles aren’t an issue. There’s an entire world of fantastic animated films and shows for every taste out there just waiting to be discovered. Unless you’re too chicken, of course.

Can Valve’s Steam Machine Rock the Console Market?

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Before you scoff at the question, look at the above image. Now, list a series of Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft exclusive franchises that you’d rather play. Now, consider the following: a lot of people do not like to game on the PC due to the number of potential headaches and extra cost. But what if a beloved gaming company with a history of doing no wrong found a way to bridge that gap?

For the tech-savvy and financially stable gamer, the PC has no shortage of benefits to earn its users the title of gaming’s “Master Race”. These are the arrogant bastards who jeer at the squabbling between us filthy console peasants whenever they deem to gaze down upon us in our squalor. The ones who heard Valve’s announcement that they were releasing a “Steam Box” that would act as an online download-only gaming console fueled by their revolutionary Steam game download service and broke into hysterical laughter at the very notion as the ordered yet more upgrades for their suped-up desktops so that they could play the latest and greatest games at maximum resolution.

For those not in the know, the beauty of Steam is that it allows gamers to download old games and new without worrying about going to Gamestop to see what’s available, standing in line at those midnight releases, or any other issues that arise from physical media. Older games go out of print and rise in price as physical availability decreases. Downloads don’t have that problem. Steam’s sales are legendary for kicking off gamer feeding frenzies by slashing prices on popular games to negligible amounts.

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But those of us who are working with cheap laptops from Target and Wal-Mart primarily for online browsing purposes and don’t want to deal with headaches of installation, upgrades, and various other issues, this could be a great way for Valve to bring more gamers into their fold. It’s a win-win.

I, for one, am really looking forward to seeing what kind of price point Valve comes up with. If it’s comparable to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, they could definitely pose a threat in my household to both Sony and Microsoft. With so many games at my fingertips and such exceptional price points, it could almost make other consoles seem outdated. Boasting benefits of both console and PC gaming, price could be the only possible downside.

Now let’s get back to those exclusives. If they were to pull support away from their new business rivals (and it would be silly not to) then we are talking about several system-selling gaming franchises right off the bat. Left 4 Dead is one of the better multiplayer games of all time, as is Team Fortress. Portal is one of the most legendary puzzle games out there, and then there’s Half Life 3, a title so eagerly and long awaited that its inevitable confirmation has become a meme unto itself. How many gamers would choose these franchises over God of War or Halo? Plenty, I reckon. And with strong third-party support all around I can see the Steam Machine grabbing a decent share of gaming enthusiasts jaded with existing consoles.

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And on top of the potential strength of the concept itself, Valve has decided to further innovate with a whole new type of controller that does away with the traditional mouse/cursor keys/analog sticks in favor of dual trackpads along with other features that make it seem like the true next generation of console gaming. I really, really like this idea. It will take some getting used to, and it will be interesting to see how they use the touchscreen in the center to get around the lack of a keyboard but this definitely has my attention. You can read about the full range of features here.

Valve has also designed its own operating system, SteamOS, to work with its gaming PC/console. Its focus is not only on gaming, but on general media performance without the interference from other programs you can get on PC. And all features, of course, will support consumer modding. You can even install Windows or any other operating system if you’d rather.

Further details are fairly sparse at the moment, which has led to a lot of skepticism from the PC enthusiasts who either doubt that the Steam Machine can be pulled off effectively or flat out don’t understand the point of the concept. It’s possible I’m an idiot who knows nothing about computers and Valve is trying to take advantage of my ignorance to juice me and my ilk. Or maybe there is not a significant market for such a device and Valve will crash and burn for their arrogance. But it’s also possible that one of the best game companies in existence knows what they are doing and are creatively carving out a market share for themselves in an extremely competitive arena. Time will tell which.

Wherefore Art Thou, Koei?

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In this installment of Beloved Classic Japanese Gaming Companies who are Disappointing Me, we have a developer who stood apart from the competition in the 8-bit era and beyond, making their name with brilliant historically themed strategy games. Koei continued to be awesome and unique in the 16-bit era, where they released one of the most underrated RPG’s of all time along with their slew of strategic classics.

But at some point, this trailblazing dev moved away from the things that made them great and became known only for re-releasing new versions of the same beat-em-up title multiple times every year. This week, I’m saluting Koei, and then I’m kicking their ass. Feel free to join me.

The year was 1983 and Nintendo had just taken their biggest step on the path to world domination through video games. That same year Koei released their first game called Nobunaga’s Ambition, based on the Warring States era of feudal Japan.

Being five years old at the time, I can’t say I grasped the concept of a historical strategy game too well, but the memory of watching my older cousins play it stuck with me while I honed my developing gaming skills on the usual platformers and shooters.

Nobunaga’s Ambition served as the jumping off point for the company and the prototype for a series that would help define my tastes in the 16-bit era. The first two Romance of the Three Kingdoms titles joined their predecessor on the NES, and by the time the series made it to the SNES, my body (or mind, at least) was finally ready.

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The Romance of the Three Kingdoms games were turn-based strategy titles that took place in ancient century China during the Three Kingdoms period and took inspiration from the novel of the same name. You took control of a Nobunaga’s Ambition served as the jumping off point for the company and the prototype for a series that would help define my tastes in the 16-bit erakingdom of your choice and had to balance military conquest with territorial cultivation and diplomacy.

There was an unheard of amount of depth in the series and it got deeper with each subsequent game. It even had multiplayer to heighten the intensity of the alliances and betrayals that mark the opportunistic competition between the various factions. It was too perfect to fully explain here.

1991 brought about Koei’s first (last?) foray into the classic RPG genre in the form of Inindo: Way of the Ninja. Did I just say “ninja RPG”? You know it. Why doesn’t EVERY company make a ninja RPG? Nobody knows that. Inindo was one of the coolest games I played on my favorite console of all time, the SNES.

Basically, Inindo was a Final Fantasy-style game set in mythological feudal Japan with open-world exploration and towns full of potential party members like priests and samurai who you could build relationships with. You could take jobs from daimyos as a spy, and later on you could engage in full scale battles leading armies in conquest. It was amazing and ambitious. But I never once laid eyes on a retail copy of it. My local video rental store had a copy that my friend and I took turns renting whenever we could scrape together some cash. So don’t feel too bad if you’ve never heard of it.

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Through sheer luck, I once impulse-bought a Koei title I’d never heard of while I was out of town called Gemfire.  I was convinced if I didn’t buy it on the spot, I’d never see it again. I chose wisely. Picture Romance of the Kingdoms. You with me so far?

Now add a western fantasy theme to that. Motherfucking Gemfire. Another of my favorite SNES games and another obscurity, it wasn’t quite as deep as the Romance series, but it made up for it with wizards and monsters.

You know what else was awesome? P.T.O. That one was another strategy game where you play out the Pacific War controlling American or Japanese forces building up bases and ships and launching attacks. It was an incredibly sophisticated war simulator that ate up a massive amount of my time for a game I never saw on the shelves of a store.

And don’t get me started on Uncharted Waters. A console RPG inspired by Sid Meier’s Pirates! Shut up and take my money, video rental store clerk.  See you next week since I can’t find a place that actually sells this game. Wait. Is there a pattern developing here?

So what we have on our hands is a company that makes exceptionally deep and detailed simulation games rooted in actual history and lets us alter that history. What we have on our hands is a company that makes exceptionally deep and detailed simulation games rooted in actual history and lets us alter that history. And most of those games –only a few of which I’ve listed here- were largely ignored in America in spite of the fact that they were absolutely amazing. Perhaps if they tried a different approach…

1997: Koei debuts their latest franchise, Dynasty Warriors, a fighting game utilizing their cast of historical figures from Romance of the Three Kingdoms. After warming up to the idea of an action format, Koei folded the Three Kingdoms franchise into this new one to create a strategic beat-em-up where you lead the warriors of ancient China into massive-scale battles and recreate the famous wars of that period.

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I first encountered this franchise when the third game came out on the Xbox. I fell in love. It was another home run from one of my favorite developers after a long period where I hadn’t played any of their games. When the fourth game came out, I bought it and it was an instant favorite.

Then Samurai Warriors did the exact same thing with the legendary warriors of feudal Japan, then Dynasty Warriors 5 was a thing when the Xbox 360 came out and I was beginning to get a bit tired of leveling up the same characters to fight in the same battles, then Dynasty Warriors 5: Empires added a little more Romance, melding the two gameplay styles with Warriors– style battles and the strategy and nation-building of Romance and I was back in board.

But when they added yet more spin-offs, I was done. Gundam, Koei? Really? But hey, 18 million copies of Warriors games sold, why quit? It beats making awesome original games that nobody buys, I suppose. Dynasty Warriors Tactics, Orochi, Xtreme Legends, Online, and uuuuuuh…..One Piece (?) were forthcoming in addition to the main franchise, now in its eight incarnation.

Holy shit, that is a lot of games with identical gameplay. Holy shit, that is a lot of games with identical gameplay.People like to joke that Dynasty Warriors is the Madden of Japan, but even the NFL games only come out once a year and don’t incorporate popular cartoon characters into the franchise.

In the meantime, Koei absorbed fellow classic game developers Tecmo to form Tecmo Koei. Tecmo has long been a respected action gaming company, so this was an interesting merger for me. Then Dead or Alive 5 came out completely broken and my interest was no more.

I don’t know how they managed to only slightly upgrade one of my favorite fighters of all time years later and make it so it froze up almost hourly and made me want to bang my head against my console until nothing was left of either. But if they made a Dynasty Warriors game out of DOA characters, as cynical as I am, I’d still probably buy it. That probably makes me part of the problem.

But wait! There was another game coming out for the Xbox 360 and PS3; one of these so-called “historical strategy” games. I remember those! Those were great! Could this be Koei’s return to grace?  Bladestorm: The Hundred Year War was here to plug in the gap with a real-time strategy game that actually focused on using military tactics to succeed in large-scale battles instead of how many times you can push the attack button.

And it took place in Europe with you taking the role of a mercenary and customizing your forces to either pick sides between Britain and France or sell to the highest bidder. Yes!

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Bladestorm was great, fantastic, a breath of fresh air, and it immediately sank into obscurity and received weak reviews as its only media acknowledgement. Bladestorm was great, fantastic, a breath of fresh air, and it immediately sank into obscurity When I bought it at Best Buy, the clerk didn’t believe it existed. I had to convince him to go see for himself that not only did it exist, but that it was for sale on their very shelves. True story.  More Dynasty Warriors coming then, I suppose? Sigh.

While researching this article, I noticed that the 12th Romance of the Three Kingdoms game came out on the PS3. I was initially overjoyed as I just bought one. I have been aching for this series for a very long time now and I’m dying to experience how it’s evolved over the years.

Most of the post-16 bit games were not released in America and the ones that were did not come out on my console of choice so it has literally been a couple of decades. Oh wait…..this one is not coming out in America either. But, hey, at least they’ve got more Dynasty Warriors coming our way! And the fourth Romance game is available to download; that one being the last game in the franchise that I played. You see how my life is?

Koei. We’ve been friends a long time, right? I’ve always supported you at every opportunity. It was you and me against the same-ol’ same-ol’ shooters and platformers back in the day. We were the smart ones.

We were the ones who appreciated stuff like the awesome history of this planet and military/diplomatic strategy and were down with free-form gameplay years ahead of the concept of “sandbox games”. So what if you never made it as big as the AAA franchises? We had a great time and I spent more time with you then I did them over the years.

But I have one question I’d like to ask you now. Actually, I’ll have my friend ask for me.

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Well?

DO I LOOK. LIKE. A. BITCH!?

Yeah, so maybe historical strategy games don’t sell as well as beat-em-ups these days, but is it really too much to ask that you put out more than one original quality title during a given console cycle?

Maybe use the profits from your ridiculous constant repackagings of your Warriors titles to try something different and creative or at least localize one of the latest in your classic strategy franchises for us loyal North American fans? I hate to see you forget what got you where you are at in the first place.

So where you at, Koei? Nobody is saying that you can’t make any more Dynasty Warriors games, but I want to see that developer I fell in love with as an adolescent again; the one who made intellectual games that educated you, challenged you, and were fun and engrossing all at the same time.

Call me entitled and weird, but I really want to play more classical turn-based strategy games based on history.Call me entitled and weird, but I really want to play more classical turn-based strategy games based on history. Heck, I’d love a solid JRPG from Koei at this point. A remake of Inindo would destroy my brain with endorphins before the thing even came out. Just the reality of it alone would make it worth the price of the game.

And if visibility or lack of interest in history is a problem, a Romance-style strategy game using the Game of Thrones license is so obvious it’s almost moronic that it hasn’t happened yet. If they can afford licensing for One Piece, they can afford Game of Thrones. I don’t want credit for this awesome idea; I just want it to happen. How about it, Koei?

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Video Games vs. Real Life

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Video Games vs. Real Life

It seems unfair to only have one life. We should at least have the option to earn a 1-up. Let’s see how else real life compares to video games

For example, the zombie apocalypse wouldn’t be nearly as fun irl.

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I mean really, being tasked with keeping some kid alive is so much cooler in video games where you can focus on searching for loot instead of worrying about some needy little brat’s safety.

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You always seem so cool when you only see things from your own perspective in games or in real life. But at least in video games, nobody judges you.

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Take GTA, for instance. Wouldn’t it be nice if the entire world forgot everything bad you’d ever done once you went indoors?

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 And I’ve got to say that the ladies have some pretty low standards for what constitutes a great date…

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Then there are those lax law enforcement standards.

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Maybe they’re afraid of being accused of profiling.

Well, you know what they say…

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 But what about those virtual first world problems?

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 But hey, at least fashion is valued over practicality.

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Shoulder and outer thigh protection is, like, REALLY important.

Plus the guards let you get away with murder.

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A lot.

 And unlike in real life, no matter how grave the situation there’s always plenty of time for leisure activities in video games.

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Plus, video games don’t have that sense of guilt for your mistakes.

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They keep trying to make video games more lifelike, but I say life should definitely be trying to be more like video games. Let’s see some more side-by side comparisons of the two.

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[note: this image had some weird shit going on with it so click to view]

But in some ways the two aren’t so different.

Either way, you have to respect your elders.

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And the general goals are the same:

Don’t Die.

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 Acquire Currency.

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 And don’t be afraid to try new things.

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 Old schoolers actually learned important life lessons from gaming.

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Video games: confirming the futility of life since my earliest memories. But at least they give us something to live for.

Bye Bye!

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Five Storytelling Landmarks from this Console Generation

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Five Storytelling Landmarks from this Console Generation

Well, fellow gamers, the smoke is clearing from this generation of console warfare. For nearly eight years we’ve been playing our Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles and arguing about which one was better while Nintendo managed to financially crush them both with innovatively accessible twists on last-gen tech. But one thing we can all agree on is that the games were great all around.

A lot of people initially complained that the PS3 and Xbox 360 weren’t enough of a leap forward to really justify new console purchases. Although the visual differences may not have been staggering at first, I think the definitive trademark of this gen came in the form of in-game storytelling.

In the PlayStation 1-2/Xbox days, storytelling came largely in the form of static cutscenes or text. You played the games and every once in a while you watched a CG movie, and when that movie was done, you played some more. Much of the story was separate from the actual gameplay. But with the smoother capabilities of the 360 and PS3, storytelling became a more fluid art, and companies were able to create better realized worlds with real depth that were stories unto themselves while relying less on cutscenes, keeping the gamer involved at almost every junction.

With the crop of outstanding stories told through games that we’ve been treated to, I don’t think there’s a single credible pop culture critic who could still claim that gaming is not art. We’ve been served powerful political commentary, hilarious satire, deep themes and metaphors, mind-boggling explorations of the concepts of space and time, and experienced the consequences of our actions in new and exciting ways like never before. Here are some of my favorite multiplatform games that have served as example of this.

Grand Theft Auto IV

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Previous to the last iteration of Rockstar Games’ flagship franchise, Grand Theft Auto was known for mainly two things: controversy and mayhem. The idea was to run/drive around a fictional city and just go to town in the craziest way you can think of. There was a story, but it was hardly the focus. I seldom made it to the story mission because I was inevitably distracted by a “rampage” mission or just a random urge to go pimp my ride or pick up a hooker for laughs. It was all about spur of the moment insanity.

Grand Theft Auto IV changed the focus of the game and eliminated a lot the superficial distractions in favor of deeper world, better story, and more interesting character interaction. There was still plenty of mayhem out there to be caused, but the tone of the story was a lot more philosophical and serious while still steeped in the comical satire that the series was known for.

You played Niko Bellic, an immigrant from Eastern Europe who came to America to get a new start and escape his violent past in the country that is supposed to be the land of dreams. Over the course of the game’s Tarantino-esque story, Niko finds out that no matter where you are, people are pretty much the same and he finds himself battling the same old demons with new faces.

In addition to the main story, Liberty City is a wonderland of exploration. I found myself surfing a fictional internet, putting out personal ads and going on dates, attending comedy shows, or just kicking back in Niko’s home watching television (Republican Space Rangers ftw!) among other leisure activities that completely immersed me in the world of the game. You could even call up your friends and go hang out at the bar or wherever to bond with the other characters over darts and drinks, among other activities. It was a level of depth never before seen in a game of this type, and it was amazing to experience.

 Catherine

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Catherine is absolutely one of my favorite games of the last decade. It’s one of those unique experiences that surpasses “just a game” and becomes a part of your personal life. With it, Atlus created one of the definitive stories exploring the anxiety behind adult relationships in any medium and it should not be missed by any fan of story-based gaming under any circumstance. I’m seldom obsessed with a game like I was with this one while I was playing it.

You play as Vincent, a man in crisis. He has a beautiful, dependable, understanding girlfriend, Katherine. She is clearly ready for marriage and is not shy about expressing this desire, but Vincent is terrified that the commitment would mean the end of his lifestyle as he knows it. He begins spending more time at the bar with his friends, even staying there after they’ve all left. A young, vivacious, and seductive girl named Catherine begins showing up and flirting with Vincent and every night, he falls asleep to suffer horrific nightmares based on his relationship fears.  At the same time, mysterious deaths are occurring around town with people dying in their sleep.

The game unfolds in several ways. First come cutscenes portraying Vincent’s interactions in his relationships, where players are often prompted for reactions that influence his morality meter (which affects the game’s ending). At the end of the day, he ends up in the bar where the player can drink and converse with friends, fellow patrons, and bar employees, and answer texts among other things.

Once it’s closing time, Vincent must go home and go to sleep. This is where the main gameplay happens. His nightmares include people he knows in his life and has him climbing obstacles to avoid his fears, which include horrifying representations of everything from children and marriage to sex itself. He sees every other character in his subconscious as sheep, where all of them see him the same way, kind of a literal example of what we all do subconsciously in the waking world. It’s a harrowing and cerebral nightly struggle to make it to the next day alive for player and protagonist alike.

Before moving on to each new obstacle, the player is asked personal questions. The answers on the first playthrough are saved and the percentages of answers given from all gamers are shown, which is a fascinating feature in and of itself given the nature of the questions. There’s nothing else like Catherine out there. If you haven’t played it yet, now’s the time.

The Walking Dead

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More story than game, Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead eschews most traditional ideas about gameplay and focuses instead on the characters, their relationships with each other, and the consequences of their choices in an interactive narrative full of horror, tragedy, and regret.

Playing as Lee, you soon encounter a lost little girl, who you take in. The search for her parents leads you from one hellhole to the next, and the experiences are seldom pleasant and regularly heart-rending. The Walking Dead is one of the few gaming experiences based on a popular media franchise that manages to capture the true spirit of the source material, and it did it on a small budget with an original cast and story rather than relying on familiar faces or pretty graphics to sell it.

Who dies, when they die, and/or how they die are things that are directly relatable to the choices you make as a member of your own ragtag group of zombie apocalypse survivors, and you’ve got to do what is best for the child in your charge. But the right thing to do is not readily apparent. But no matter what you decide, prepare for the worst. There was a time when admitting a video game made you cry would be a source of shame. This is one where you should perhaps be ashamed of yourself for not getting at least a little misty-eyed.

Portal

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Portal, you ask? Portal, I say. Valve’s offshoot from their spectacular Half Life series came packaged with the murderers’ row of Half Life 2, its Episode One and Episode Two extensions, and the multiplayer instant classic Team Fortress 2 and still managed to be the standout game of that set. How? Beauty in simplicity.

While Portal is a simple puzzle game at its core where you utilize a gun that can generate portals to advance through a series of physics-based tests, the clever narrative and razor-sharp humor that permeates it makes this more than a video game. It’s an experience.

While your character struggles like a rat through a maze guided by a cynical passive-aggressive AI promising you cake, you come to realize that perhaps doing as you are told is not in your own best interest, pastry or no pastry. While your character, Chell, is mute, her personality is expressed through her/your actions in defying her captor and seeking freedom rather than captivity/incineration, simply ignoring the increasingly ridiculous attempts to trick or coerce her into falling back in line.

It’s a short game, but Portal is such a memorable experience that it leaves a huge impression. It is compact, but full of creative dilemmas and personality that stays with you long after it’s over; a definitive experience of interactive fiction.

 BioShock Infinite

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Anchoring this list, I’ve got what was for me one of the finest experiences in gaming narratives I’ve ever experienced. Even with all of the hype and shouts of “Game of the Year”, I still feel like people are underrating this one.

Why not the original BioShock? The original was amazing indeed, but what shocked me the most about Infinite is that it completely blew the original away in terms of storytelling sophistication. I loved uncovering the story of Rapture and the political implications along with it, but reflecting on the final act of Infinite, it not only outclasses other games, there aren’t a ton of films or even novels out there that are on its level either.

How often do we get a story that uses concepts of space and time to illustrate human equality in such a way? With minimal spoilers, I’ll just say that if you pay attention you can see that Irrational Games has painted a picture where all of us are the heroes, all are the victims, and all are the villains. It’s just a matter of perspective and opportunity. Today’s oppressed will be tomorrow’s oppressors given the chance, and one simple choice can entirely change the trajectory of your life’s journey and turn good intentions into the road to Hell.

Like The Matrix and other science fiction masterpieces before it, BioShock Infinite does not require any questing for deep philosophical understanding to appreciate its charms. There is plenty of superficial brilliance, thrills, and feels to satisfy anybody looking for a good roller coaster ride. But for those who are looking for something sophisticated enough to keep you thinking for weeks after the jaw-dropping, gut-wrenching finale, there is more than enough food for thought in this video game, and I’ve barely touched on it here.

I’m sorry, am I forgetting someone?

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Yes, Mass Effect was indubitably the best thing about this gaming generation. But BioWare had introduced many of the features in their previous games, so their epic sci-fi trilogy was more of a culmination than a landmark in innovative storytelling. But it deserves an honorable mention anyways because it introduced a feature that will pay huge dividends in the future by allowing saves to be ported from one game to the next, allowing you to pick up where you left off with consequences of your previous actions affecting the story in the sequels as well. I can’t stress enough how great this is and will be.

So those are my picks for the best of this generation’s multiplatform games to advance the cause of games as art and put them one step closer to having the same esteem as film, literature, and television in popular culture. I know you’ve got your own. I’d love to hear about games that changed your perspective on the medium.

Ice and Fire: Female Empowerment in Westeros

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There’s been a lot of talk on the internet in recent times about feminism, almost all of it negative in the sense that there are primarily two camps, neither of which really seem to stand for anything substantial other than opposing one another. Some decry the meaning of modern feminism as a universal capitulation to political malcontentment for often imaginary slights that go to the extent of infringing on the rights of non-females leading them to often react in an aggressive manner. Many feminists seem preoccupied with finding slights anywhere they can, often singling out stylized fiction as a source of misogynist sentiment.

My opinion on the matter is this: rather than tearing down the things people love and turning potential allies into opponents over what is essentially a non-issue, the obvious answer is to build up the examples of fiction that do it right instead. Highlight the powerful women in pop culture to serve as shining examples of empowerment, rather than falling upon those who don’t live up to standards most real people can’t meet themselves.  As an example, I’m going to take one of the biggest literary fantasy franchises, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and it’s television adaptation Game of Thrones, and discuss the sometimes subtle ways in which this story empowers its female characters while retaining believability and real world relatability by acknowledging that there are intrinsic differences between the sexes, and that these differences need not leave one inferior to the other. There will be spoilers.

Now the first argument would be “But Westeros is clearly a patriarchy! How can a woman be empowered in a society where men hold all of the power?” Well, let me put it this way: men may run Westeros, but it is often the women who make Westeros run. There is the illusion of power and control, and then there is the real thing. Not every strong woman needs superhuman fighting ability or to be supreme empress of the world to be powerful or influential.  That is an illusory, unreachable, and uncreative kind of empowerment that is not attainable in real life and therefore impractical outside of fantasy fiction.

As the title insinuates, A Song of Ice and Fire is a story riddled with extreme contrasts and conflicts. In addition to Summer and Winter, honor and deceit, North and South, appearances and reality, Arya and Sansa, burning passion and cold logic, Stark and Lannister, violence and diplomacy, tradition and adaptation, and many more, one of the most prominent contrasts is the roles of men and women in society and the methods each use to achieve their ends. And out of all the characters scrambling for control of Westeros, I think it’s safe to say who the frontrunner is to end up on the top of the heap once the smoke has cleared in the final chapters yet to come.

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Daenerys Targaryen is arguably the rightful queen, being the descendant of the long-standing empire which was deposed by the regime in power at the tale’s beginning. Hers is arguably the most compelling character arc and she is almost without a doubt the most empowered woman in the Ice and Fire series despite (or maybe because of) the fact that her story begins with her essentially being sold into sexual slavery by her own brother in exchange for what he believes will be the power to conquer Westeros.

So what the hell is empowering about a very young teenage girl being sold by her brother to a clan of brutal savages? Well, as with most things in life, it’s not the situation that makes the woman, but what she makes of it. Coming to grips with her situation without ever forgetting who she is, Dany earns her husband’s respect and love while learning to love him and his people herself, becoming a true khaleesi and queen in her own right. With the power now in her hands, the brother who sold his own sister for an army that is now loyal to her and her husband had to essentially submit to her will or die penniless.

But she was still subject to her husband’s whims, benevolent or not, right? Well, things change and Daenerys eventually found herself leading the remains of her new people after managing to bring into the world the first dragons in centuries, thus earning her the title “Mother of Dragons” and the responsibility to bring them and her people to safety. Naturally, she rises to the occasion and eventually becomes a just and capable ruler across the sea from her native home, often using her girlish appearance and mannerisms to trick her opponents into underestimating her to their own downfall.

Legends of her beauty and prowess traveled around the world and now men from everywhere are clambering over each other for her favor as she plots the end game. From forlorn sex slave to benevolent queen and primary threat to the Iron Throne in a few short years; not too shabby for a teenage girl. I can’t wait to see her bring Blood and Fire to the Lannisters’ shore. Speaking of which…

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While Daenerys is largely revered and portrayed as a heroine, Cersei Lannister is one of the series’ primary antagonists. She is remarked for her cold ruthlessness, ambition, and cunning. All of these are negative traits that are not really becoming of an ideal woman. But this article is not about ideal women; it’s about empowered women, and for better or worse, Cersei is one of the most influential and powerful forces in “A Song of Ice and Fire”.

Cersei’s beginnings parallel Dany’s somewhat in that she was also forced into an arranged marriage for the political gain of the male members of her family. She very much resents being born a woman and the limits placed upon her because of that fact, but nonetheless she uses her femininity and grace to full effect with no small amount of scheming to achieve power; and achieve it she does when she becomes the senior monarch by putting her young son on the Iron Throne.

In spite of the villainous nature she portrays on the surface, there are moments in the narrative where Cersei makes her true intentions clear, adding a huge amount of depth and strength to her character. She was forced into the role she plays by her very birth and refusal to submit to her fate simply because of her gender. Nearly every nasty and vile thing she does is essential to protect the lives of her children, which is something I think any parent can understand on some level.

Because of the patriarchal society she was born into and her refusal to bear legitimate heirs for a man she did not love, her affair with the man she does love (her twin brother) and the resulting offspring have no legitimate claim to the Throne, and if it were discovered to be so, their deaths would be guaranteed. The only way for Cersei to assure her children’s lives was to eliminate the threats and ascend to the Throne, and she pulled it off masterfully. Now let’s talk Wildlings.

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Pop quiz, hotshot: what does Jon Snow know? Well according to Ygritte of the Free Folk, he knows nothing. But he’s learning. The Wildlings have one of the most interesting communities in Martin’s world. They reject the accepted notions of leadership based on lineage, ownership of land based on artificial borders, and politics in general in favor of freedom, fellowship, and practical survival. They are referred to as “savages” by the rest of Westeros, but the truth is that their society may be the most civilized of all from a philosophical standpoint.

Women of the Free Folk are free to do as they will. They are respected as equals in all things, including combat. Being forced to pull their own weight in the communities beyond the Wall that keeps the Wildlings separated from the rest of Westeros, the women are not raised to be “proper ladies” and are forced to be as strong as the men to survive in the harsh arctic conditions north of the Wall.

The closest thing to marriage the Free Folk practice is the tradition of “stealing” the women they fancy from other clans, broadening the gene pool and preventing inbreeding by doing so.  The ladies are encouraged to attempt to kill their kidnappers, making the tradition double as a coming of age test to see if the kidnapper is man enough to convince her of his worthiness before she slits his throat. One has to wonder if all men might not be a little more respectful towards the “fairer sex” if the alternative was possible death.

Jon Snow, as the son of a man who literally lived and died by his honor, is faced with the choice of living up to the responsibilities and oaths he took on when he joined the Night’s Watch or being true to his heart after Ygritte successfully separates him from his brothers. Having fallen in love with her and learned about the Free Folk firsthand, he faces a lose-lose decision between his own people and hers.

In their time together, she was in every way the dominant one in their relationship and even when they are separated, Snow continues to hear Ygritte’s voice chiding him with “you know nothing, Jon Snow”. In a way, everything he does once he leaves the company of the Free Folk revolves around her and the things she taught him. That is to say that an empowered woman’s influence can go far beyond their mere deeds, presence, or accomplishments.

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“But all of these women are extremely flawed”, you say? Well, yes they absolutely are. And so are all of the men in Westeros. Not to mention every real person ever.  Empowerment is not about an unattainable perfection, but about doing the most you can with what you have to work with in the situations you find yourself in. Idealized characters can be a fun diversion but if every powerful female character was Xena or Wonder Woman, who would real women relate to?

Take Brienne, the “Maid of Tarth”, for instance. A woman who is physically incapable of being what most people think of when they picture a proper lady. She’s an Amazonian powerhouse with a mannish build and a face to match, and she has been subjected to a lifetime of mockery for it. She also happens to be one of the most capable, loyal, and honorable people in all of Westeros. But so many never see past her genetics that they mock even her earnestness, thus portraying the tragedy of a superficial society that singles out and mocks anyone who doesn’t (or can’t) meet their expectations of what “normal” is.

Some would say that it is this lifetime of mockery and rejection that has caused Brienne to strive to be the best she can be at everything else; and some may even say she succeeded. Sometimes the rest of the world really is wrong and you are right, and Brienne is that still point in a turning world.

Next argument: “Game of Thrones is full of boobs, it can’t be empowering to women.  Boobs are oppressive because men like them.” Well, some of that is true. Men do tend to enjoy the site of unclothed females and there are many such instances portrayed in the television show, but I’ve never really understood this argument. I can’t think of a single reason why a woman should be ashamed of her body, should she choose to share it or not, and if somebody else should enjoy the sight, I don’t see how that makes it a bad thing. The beauty of the feminine form is timeless and universally acknowledged; I would think that a true feminist would find that pretty affirming. And owning your own sexuality?  There is power in that.

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The Red Priestess Melisandre makes a massive mark when she brings monotheistic religion to Westeros, attaching herself to the rightful heir to the Iron Throne (technically), Stannis Baratheon, and declaring war on the resident gods of the region, The Seven. The “Red Woman” quickly becomes the only person who Stannis listens to, leading people to believe that she has bewitched him, and they might be right.

In a rare instance of blatant magic in “A Song of Ice and Fire”, Melisandre gives birth to a demonic avatar of Stannis which she used to carry out his (or her) will. She confides in another character that she can do this after having had sexual relations with him. So basically, the Red Woman is able steal a man’s essence through the act of intercourse. How many men do you suppose have been controlled by sex at one time or another? Possibly all of them.

Female sexuality is a powerful force in society, and history -both ancient and modern- is chock full of instances of men in power seeking to repress it, often violently. While sex is usually a weakness for men (stupid evolutionary traits!), for a strong woman it can be a force to be reckoned with.

There are too many instances for me to fully explore the myriad ways in which the many women of Martin’s epic often dominate the proceedings in a single article, but I can certainly list a few more for you.  A personal favorite of mine is Margaery Tyrell, after being betrothed to the sniveling boy-king Joffrey, leaving her palanquin to go out confidently amongst the common people, showing them genuine compassion as the fellow humans they are while her “king” cowers inside, afraid of his own people.

Then there are the aggressive and formidable Sand Snakes of Dorn with their bold pursuit of war, defying their more passive and cautious ruler Prince Doran. And the significance was not lost on me when Robb Stark became King in the North, and kept his mother at his side for advice as he went out to war, nor was the end result of his eventual refusal to listen to her due to his masculine pride.

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Speaking of Lady Catelyn Stark, she is one of the most conflicted characters in the story, and therefore one of the most interesting. Like Cersei, the (arguably) bad things she does are done out of love for her children, and thankfully, those children turned out better than the Lannister bunch.

Her daughters, Sansa and Arya, are perfect polar opposites; a princess and a tomboy, respectively. Once they are separated from their family, their paths take very different turns, with Sansa learning the hard way that life is not like a story with a happy ending while using her well-practiced social graces to survive and endure in the most hostile of political environments without allowing it to change who she is while more experienced women crumble, and Arya’s hard-nosed determination and intelligence allowing her to thrive in the gutters and cesspools of the world in spite of her noble upbringing.

The women of Westeros are some of the most layered and powerful in popular fiction, and their greatest power may lie in their very human flaws. Some feminists may argue that Dany’s weakness for bad boys, Sansa’s horrific treatment by Joffrey and inability to change her situation herself, Ygritte’s fate as a mere stopover in a male character’s journey, or Cersei’s descent into madness and subsequent walk of shame rob these characters of their power and pride as women.  I disagree.

I think that the struggles with our weaknesses and tribulations in life is where strength comes from; and in fiction it’s how you separate a living, breathing character that people can relate to and care about from a mere archetypical plot device. Being inspired by the struggles, triumphs, and even the flaws of a character you truly love is where fiction stops being a mere story and becomes relevant to your life.

None of these women are the perfect feminist icon because no such person exists anywhere. But all together, I think George R.R. Martin has created a world where women continue to find creative ways exert their power and influence, or at the very least endure, even when the world is stacked against them.

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Pictured: my vision of a comments section combining feminism with GoT.

What I Want From the Upcoming X-Force Movie

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It has been announced that the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past film will be spun off into a movie featuring X-Force by Kick-Ass 2 writer director Jeff Wadlow. The news kind of got buried under a landslide of Batman/Superman-related hysteria, but yeah, this is happening too.

And what, pray tell, is an X-Force, you may ask? Well, my comic-challenged friend, you surely know the X-Men; Marvel’s marvelous menagerie of magnificent mutant misfit heroes out to protect a world that fears and hates them. X-Force is the dark underbelly of that appealing public image. Originally formed by Cable as a more militant team for the not-quite ready-for-primetime players outside of the official team, in their current form X-Force have essentially been an off the books hit squad that is sent out to permanently eliminate threats to mutantkind. Pretty kickass, no?  

So what I’m going to do here is go ahead and list out my picks for the movie team’s line-up, why I think they should be included, how they might figure into the story, and how likely we are to actually see them. Since this is going to spun off of a film that hasn’t been released (or even fully filmed), I’m going to be speculating a bit on Days of Future Past (DoFP) as well.

Wadlow has stated that there are going to be 5 team members, so I’m going to (sort of) limit myself to that number. I’ll open up some more potential plot speculations and general musings after I’m done.

Cable

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Cyclops had Wolverine form the re-vamped X-Force in current comics continuity, but Cable was its genesis and is back leading the team again so it’d just be dumb to assume they’d leave him out. He’s a rare X-Men character that is absolutely begging to be adapted to the big screen and is a fan favorite made entirely out of awesome so expect to see him. But fitting him in storywise might be tricky.

Cable (Nathan Summers) is the future son of Jean Grey and Cyclops. So….yeah, there’s that little problem with current cinematic X-Men continuity. But since DoFP is a time-travel story, this is a prime opportunity to erase the nonsense of X-Men: The Last Stand. Alternately, they could rework the character and have him just be a random future mutant rebel sentinel hunter who travels back or something cool like that. I’d take it.

So movie X-Force should totally be led by the time-traveling techno-organic mutant soldier with big guns and telekinetic powers. Any objections?  Didn’t think so.

Domino

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Every leader needs a strong right hand, and behind every great man is a great woman. For Cable, Domino is both of those things. She also happens to be one of the most underrated mutants in the Marvel universe and would translate really well to a live-action film.

Domino (Neena Thurman) is a firearms expert with exceptional combat skills all around that make her the equal of just about any mercenary out there. But what gives her the edge is her mutant ability that alters probability and makes things always turn out in her favor, making her practically unbeatable by any normal means.

So do we want Dom on this team? So much yes. And it’s almost sure to happen. I was kind of hoping she’s be in DoFP, but after the announcement of the X-Force film, the smart money is she’ll be making her big screen debut there.

Wolverine/X-23

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If the X-Men are forming up a team of their most lethal members to do some wetwork, it’s going to be pretty hard not to picture Logan involved. I mean, the dude is the best there is at what he does. And (say it with me) what he does isn’t very nice. In other words, he dices people up.

Wolvie led X-Force for years after Cyclops decided that the mutant population was too low to eff around with non-lethal methods against their greatest threats and he did a decent job of it. He even acted as kind of a moral center if you can believe that, smacking Summers upside his head when he brought Logan’s female clone, X-23, into the mix.

X-23 (Laura Kinney) was bred and raised by Weapon X trying to duplicate their “success” with Wolverine. She was, of course, the 23rd attempt and the only success. Seeing that the X-Men have tried to civilize/socialize the teen dream killing machine, I can’t believe they never gave Laura a new nickname. Needless to say, Logan feels kind of responsible for her. Her Terminator-esque personality and sex appeal make her an interesting addition to the team.

Wolverine’s appearance in the film naturally hinges on Hugh Jackman’s price tag, gameness, and availability.  They will most likely settle for a cameo in the end, either way. X-23 may be a good candidate to keep in mind for introduction in DoFP and transplantation to present continuity for X-Force. She’s hardcore badass like Wolverine, and boys think she’s hot too. Win-win. I’d  say the inclusion of either is about even money.

Deadpool

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When I found out they were including the merc with a mouth in the Uncanny X-Force comic, I raged. For the record, Deadpool (Wade Wilson) is my favorite comic book character. Why wouldn’t I want him to be on such a cool team? Well, Wolverine HATES him. I mean REALLY hates him. Always has. He’d never have it and it wouldn’t work.

For another thing Wade is a mercenary with no legitimate moral compass, which is to say he almost always sells to the highest bidder. Not someone you want to entrust with the secrets and responsibilities of a black-ops team like X-Force. Lastly, even among mercs, Deadpool is notoriously flaky at best and utterly unhinged more often than that. Not one to be used for potentially delicate or secretive work or watching one’s back. But what do I know? I’m not a comic book writer.

So why am I picking him for this, you ask? For starters, the film continuity doesn’t have the above-mentioned baggage; just the embarrassment of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But Ryan Reynolds was kind of great in the role near the beginning of that one and having established him as a former partner of Logan’s would make him an easy fit for the team assuming they can unwrite the horrendous boss battle at the climax. Plus, in the comics Wade gets along really well with both Cable (arguably the only one who can control him somewhat) and Domino.

I would tend to classify Deadpool as a shoo-in here. Wadlow is on record as a fan and there’s the post-credits sequence for Origins that pretty much promised (or threatened) more from him and the proposed solo film that has been floating around in development hell since. Reintroducing Wade back into continuity this way makes sense and is a great chance to undo the wrong that’s been done and give audiences a much better dose of big screen Deadpool while testing the waters for a film starring him.

Psylocke

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Why Psylocke? See above picture.  If you can say no to seeing that on the big screen, we aren’t friends anymore. Seriously, though, Betsy Braddock has much more going for her than just being the all-time hottest member of the X-Men and a ninja to boot.

I imagine having a psychic on your squad of assassins has got to be a plus. Cable has telepathic abilities, but he seldom utilizes them because he uses up a lot of his mutant abilities holding his techno-organic infection in check so having a full-time telepath on board is a good idea. The fact that she is also a master of combat and stealth who can utilize her psychic powers to incapacitate her opponents makes her a perfect fit for a crew like this.

In addition to all dat cred, Psylocke makes for a good moral center. Much better than Wolverine, I’d say. She’s a compassionate woman whose struggles with balancing the morality of what they are doing with the knowledge that it needs to be done make for an excellent character to have on board.

Bets is another I’m hoping/ expecting to see in DoFP, and I still think she’s more likely to show up there. I reject her crummy cameo in The Last Stand, and she’s a fan favorite so she simply has to turn up somewhere. They’ve just got to drop the whole body swap aspect of her backstory, which is easily done.

Psylocke has yet to be properly utilized outside of the comics and video games (although she has showed up in animated form here and there), and that makes me sad. I wouldn’t bet on seeing her in X-Force, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see her either.

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Honorable mentions that would also be really cool to see include the lycanthropic Wolfbane, Fantomex with his powers of illusion, and the Native American wrecking machine Warpath. Archangel is a nonstarter because we’d need Apocalypse first, but he’d be sweet. Likewise, I really want to mention Age of Apocalypse Nighcrawler because he’s one of the nastiest mainstream comic characters out there. Dude killed Blob by teleporting a shark into his stomach and occasionally bamfs people’s heads right off of their shoulders. I would so love to see that in live action.

Now, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the current iterations of X-Force that are almost certain to form the basis of the film, I really have to recommend the first arc of the revamp, X-Force: Angels and Demons. If you read that, you will see why the movie would be so much better with an R rating. It also has some of the absolute finest art I’ve ever seen in any comic ever and is overall just way more hardcore than what you normally get in a superhero comic.  But it is extremely violent and twisted at times, so be warned.

After the utter brilliance of that arc, the title toned it down a lot to become merely good before being rebooted as Uncanny X-Force with the above-pictured team. Their first mission was to off Apocalypse as a child. Pretty killer concept and one that is full of moral dilemma. I wouldn’t be too shocked if they utilized that as a goal in the film, but I’d kind of rather they establish Apocalypse as an adult in an X-Men film and then maybe try and kill him as a child in an X-Force sequel or something.

Speaking of potential villains, I’d nominate the Purifiers. They are an anti-mutant terrorist hate group dedicated to genocide so there’s no audience sympathy to compromise the awesomeness of the bloodbath. The moral dilemma came not in the wrongness of killing hate criminals, but in the ethics of using X-Men to secretly do it while putting up a moral front for the public. I really like that for an origin story.

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I seriously would not mess with those guys.

I suppose an R rating is out of the question, but I’ve still got pretty high hopes for this film. The concept is a simple and effective one, so as long as they stay true to the characters it’s going to be a hard one to screw up.  Doesn’t mean they won’t, but we can dream. For now, I’m going to go ahead and stay excited at the prospect of seeing some of the X-Men’s biggest badasses wreck shit on the big screen.