An article on ANN points out that Japan has made a request to the US government to help stop online distribution of anime. Though probably not mentioned by name, this is in direct regards to the ever more commonplace and open distribution of fansubs.

Now, I do understand their concern. A huge amount of their intellectual property is flying across the net. However, I think that stamping out fansubs would be doing them a huge disservice. Nobody likes to admit it, but fansubs serve a big indirect role in the promotion of anime in the West. Not everyone watches fansubs of course, but some do. Those who do are usually the more “hard core” anime fans who exert influence on the more casual ones. These fans will watch the fansubs, then go out and discuss them on forums, cosplay their characters at conventions, and otherwise raise awareness of the property. Then, when (if) the series comes out in the US or wherever, it already has a base of guaranteed sales and all important name recognition. I don’t think The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya would be the hit it is without the buzz fansubs generated. In fact, Bandai wisely acknowledged this in its ASOS Brigade promotional videos.

This has always been the case with fansubs though, so why is Japan only lately getting its panties in such a bunch about it? Part of it is that Japan is noticing the commercial viability of anime abroad (a market built on the backs of… you guessed it… fansubs). Their bigger problem is that people in Japan have noticed how easy we in the West have made it to download anime. In fact, people in Japan are downloading our fansubs rather than buy the Japanese DVD. This is now hitting the Japanese companies at home, where it really hurts. However, I’m inclined to think Japan wouldn’t have such a problem with out of control piracy if they would stop ripping off their consumers. We may fuss over the prices of DVDs and CDs, but anime in Japan often costs 7000–8000 yen per disc. That’s about $60–$70 US, and often for a lower episode count than the R1 versions. That’s just completely ridiculous, and if I lived in Japan I’d probably be pirating everything too.

Bottom line, and this goes for media companies in all countries: if you want to combat casual piracy, stop ripping off your customers. Simple as that.

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.hack//G.U.

October 22, 2007

I recently worked my way through the final volume of .hack//G.U. I should temper this by pointing out I am a huge .hack fan. I initially bought a PS2 just to play the original games. Ever since seeing .hack//SIGN, I’ve been fascinated by the universe the creators have set up.

In the early 2000’s, a virus known as Pluto’s Kiss cripples the global networks. The only OS that withstood the virus was a little known system called ALTIMIT. Following Pluto’s Kiss, known as the First Network Crisis, world governments heavily restricted network use while standardizing the planet on ALTIMIT. Years later, network restrictions are lifted and the first online game for ALTIMIT is released: a fantasy MMORPG called “The World.” “The World,” then called “Fragment,” was the brainchild of a genius programmer named Harald Hoerwick. Harald based the game’s setting on an epic poem written by Emma Wielant, with whom he was in love. When Emma died tragically, Harald decided that he would create their child from within “Fragment.” He built in an indecipherable black box in the code, without which the game would not function. The purpose of the black box was to gather information about humanity through the players of the game, and use that information to foster the birth of the ultimate A.I. “Aura.” However, the system for fostering Aura’s birth, codenamed Morganna Mode Gone, developed a self preservation instinct and began to go out of control. The resulting effects on the global network became known as the Second Network Crisis. Morganna was defeated through the efforts of a small group of regular players and hackers, allowing the birth of Aura. These are the events of the original .hack series.

For a time, Aura’s influence created a golden age on the Internet, though few people were actually aware of her existence. Sysadmins began to become complacent, thinking that the networks they oversaw would just continue to run flawlessly. A Eventually though, Aura mysteriously disappeared, and network problems began to occur again. Desperate to recover Aura, C.C. Corp began a secret project to recreate her. To do this, they needed the 8 Phases of the Morganna Factor that had been defeated and scattered into The World’s systems by the .hackers. Skeith, Innis, Magus, Fidchell, Gorre, Macha, Tarvos and Corbenik were found and sealed into special PC characters known as Epitaph PC’s. C.C. Corp attempted to use the Epitaph PC’s to resurrect Aura, but something went horribly wrong. A fire broke out in C.C. Corp’s headquarters, destroying The World’s servers and most of its data.

What was left of The World was fused with another game in development to create The World R:2. R:2 was a bit more lawless than the retroactively named R:1, as PK (player killing) was enabled and quite heavily practiced. Meanwhile, rumors are springing up about players falling into comas, much as they did during the events of the Second Network Crisis. One of those players is a young woman named Shino, apparently PKed by the mysterious player known as Tri-Edge and afterward falling comatose in real life. A young man using a PC named Haseo vows vengeance on Tri-Edge, and begins to hunt down PKs in order to gain information. In the process, Haseo becomes a legendary PKK (player killer killer) known as “The Terror of Death.” Eventually Haseo is able to confront Tri-Edge at the very place Shino was PKed, but is easily defeated. To make things worse, Tri-Edge uses a mysterious ability to revert Haseo’s PC back to level 1. However, Haseo does not fall comatose and vows to start his quest anew. Events regarding how Haseo and Shino met, up to the point he fights Tri-Edge are detailed in the anime .hack//ROOTS. The .hack//G.U. games properly begin right after Haseo is reverted to level 1.

As you take on the role of Haseo, you’ll quickly find that there is a lot more going on in the G.U. games than there was in the original series. One big addition is when Haseo is roped into becoming master of a guild called Canard. Through your accomplishments and play data, Canard’s guild rank increases which gives you access to more and more useful features. You gain increased storage space, and the ability to perform numerous functions from platforms in the fields without having to return to town. You also gain the very handy steam bike for getting around. You can take on a number of quests from the local Quest Shops, most of which lead to an ongoing sidequest through the game. There’s also the arena, which is central to the plot of all three volumes, but also good for raising your job levels.

On the topic of jobs, Haseo uses a multiclass PC type known as an Adept Rogue (Multiweapon in the Japanese version). In Haseo’s case, you start with the Twin Blade class, and through Job Extensions gain access to the Edge Punisher and Flick Reaper classes. These can be switched on the fly simply by activating an attack skill from another class. In vol. 3, you also gain an illegal job extension to a unique class called Twin Gunner. In this form, you use two pistols with bayonets. It’s a fun class that strikes a nice balance between Twin Blade’s rapid attacks, Edge Punisher’s high damage, and Flick Reaper’s mobbing ability.

Combat is fast-paced, based on keeping combos going in order to trigger a Rengeki, where you can use an attack skill for extra damage. I found that your A.I. controlled party members aren’t quite as bright or useful as they were in the old games, and you don’t really have the fine control over their actions you did before. It’s not that bad though, they’re really there just to distract a couple enemies for you since you’ll be doing most of the work anyway. Healing, thankfully, is carried out well, almost too well as anyone set to heal will be anal about recovering every last point of everyone’s HP even if it’s not the wisest use of items or SP. During fights, a Morale meter will fill, eventually allowing you to trigger and Awakening attack. Awakenings take one of 4 forms. Originally you have Beast Awakening (increased speed and attack power for a duration) and Demon Awakening (casts a large multi-hit spell on the enemy party). In vol. 2 you gain Divine Awakening, which allows you to do massive damage with an aura weapon depending on your affection with your party members and your timing in a little mini game. Vol. 3 replaces Divine with an illegal Avatar Awakening that allows you to use Haseo’s Avatar to perform Data Drain on enemies.

Use of the Avatar usually happens in special Avatar Battles. At this point, the game almost becomes a Zone of the Enders style mecha shooter, where you as Avatar Skeith square off against another Avatar or one of the entities known as AIDA. When you get the enemy’s HP to zero, you have a chance to attack them with Data Drain to win the battle.

As far as G.U.’s story, it’s a lot more character oriented than the original games. Focus is on relationships between the characters, especially Haseo getting over being a lone wolf and learning to rely on others. There is of course some romantic tension as Haseo develops a relationship with a girl called Atoli, while at the same time struggling with his remaining feelings for the comatose Shino. Each character has an interesting personal angle that you can learn through the game, or through the email exchanges triggered by sending greeting cards. I just wish you got enough greeting cards to send each card to everyone. The overall tone of the story is darker as well, to match the look of the game. I think it did a good job of differentiating itself from the original, while still maintaining its ties as part of the .hack universe. A number of characters return or are hinted to return. Piros the 3rd is back with the same name and an even more tacky PC. It’s heavily hinted that Endrance is Elk and it’s almost flat out said that Yata is Wiseman (he even had a second PC that looked like Wiseman). Zelkova is hinted to have ties to the old cast, and given his hacking prowess he could even be Helba, but that’s purely speculation.

There’s a lot to see and do in the G.U. games. For fans of .hack, these are a no-brainer. For anyone who was a little bored by the original games, give these another look. The story moves on at a brisker pace, and there’s more stuff going on to keep you occupied. While not the best RPGs ever crafted, .hack’s strength is in the universe it weaves. The more you invest into story, delving beyond the games into the other media of this “multimedia project,” the more rewarding the whole experience is.

Link: The .hack Wiki

Bleach: Shattered Blade

October 17, 2007

Wow, so where have I been for a week and a half? Well, I haven’t been playing Bleach: Shattered Blade that whole time. What’s been dominating my life is .hack//G.U. vol. 3. However, I have played Bleach enough to form some thoughts on it, being a straightforward fighter.

At it’s core, Bleach: Shattered Blade is just like any 1-on-1 fighting game. Each character has an array of basic moves and special attacks. As is required with any anime based game, you’ve also got a super move that triggers a cutscene. What makes Bleach interesting, though, is that this is an early attempt to translate this tried and true gameplay to the Wii’s innovative control system.

The primary gestures used are a side to side swing, a downward chop, an uppercut, and a stab. These are all meant to emulate the swords that most of the characters fight with. Holding A while performing a motion gets you a fierce attack, while holding B will trigger a special move. Blocking and dashing are managed by the C and Z buttons on the nunchuk. Shaking the nunchuk charges your spiritual energy and eventually triggers your power up form, where one or more of your special moves will trigger your super.

The effect of all this rapid remote swinging is a tired arm, but the illusion comes off better than I thought it would. I really only expected that you’d shake the controller for a generic swing similar to Zelda: Twilight Princess. The fact that you have horizontal, vertical and thrusting attacks was a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, the revolutionary (read: difficult to program for) nature of the Wii takes its toll a bit as the game will sometimes do a completely different move than you wanted. Nowhere is this more important than during “clashes” where you compete to win the clash using a rock-paper-scissors method using slash, chop and stab. Frequently you don’t get the one you wanted, but it’s all blind luck there anyway so it doesn’t really matter.

Overall, Bleach: Shattered Blade is a decent, though not great game. The story is a little forced, and it lacks the music from the series (which is a big letdown). It’s a good early effort by a third party developer, in this case Sega, to marry traditional gameplay with the Wii’s unique controller. It makes me curious to see what Nintendo themselves comes up with for Super Smash Bros. Brawl. If you’re a Bleach fan, this is probably your best bet to fill your Bleach gaming urge (those street brawlers for the PS2 are crap in ways I can’t even describe). If you’re eager to see what a fighter is like on the Wii, you’re probably better off to wait for SSBB, but this can serve to kill you some time until December.

Gundam 00 – First Look

October 7, 2007

The latest entry in the long running Gundam franchise debuted Saturday evening on MBS and TBS in Japan. Gundam 00 is directed by veteran anime director Mizushima Seiji of Fullmetal Alchemist, Shaman King and others. Character designs are provided by Chiba Michinori & Kouga Yun. Music is provided by Kawai Kenji, famous for his work on the Ghost in the Shell films, with the theme song provided by JRock mainstays L’Arc~en~Ciel.

 

In the 24th century, things are not nearly as peaceful on Earth as portrayed in Gene Roddenberry’s idyllic Star Trek. Fossil fuels have run out, leading to constant wars between three major factions over the remaining energy sources. In the midst of this chaos, a paramilitary organization known as Celestial Being emerges. Celestial Being’s mission is to end all wars on Earth. Their method of choice: overwhelming force with 4 advanced mobile suits called Gundams.

The series initially seems a lot like Gundam Wing. 4 bishounen pilots descend to Earth in powerful mobile suits and fight for peace. Compared to Wing, though, 00 has a lot more grit to its depictions of war. It also hasn’t overpowered the Gundams too much, as it’s shown that there is a limit to what even the Gundam Exia can handle without backup. I’m hoping the portrayal of the characters won’t be so shallow as it was with Wing, though I don’t think this will be a problem with FMA’s director at the helm.

With only one episode to go off of, I can’t make a real judgement on the series. For the moment, however, I’m going to be bullish on Gundam 00. It looks like it could shape up to be a pretty good outing for the Gundam metaseries.

Buck-Tick released their 15th (!) album back on 9/19/07. “Tenshi no Revolver” is their first album since 2005, and includes the singles “RENDEZVOUS” and “Alice in Wonder Underground.” Oddly absent is “KAGEROU,” the 2nd ending theme from xxx Holic.

“Tenshi no Revolver” follows the fast, somewhat pop-ish style of their last several singles. As I mentioned when I talked about the “Alice in Wonder Underground” single, some people hate this, but I have no problem. It may be “pop”, but we’re certainly not talking about NSync here. There’s a reason why you see Buck-Tick listed on people’s online profiles even though they have no other apparent interest in Japanese music. They’ve managed to garner a worldwide cult following, especially among the goth crowd, with their dark, somewhat bizarre, but still fun style.

The album leads off with “Mr. Darkness & Mrs. Moonlight,” a strange but incredibly infectious piece. I walked around with it in my head for days. After that, we get into the main swing of the album with “RENDEZVOUS” and “Montage”. Things continue at a driving pace, ending with a bang on the last track “REVOLVER.” There are really no bad songs on the whole thing, maintaining a high level of excitement all the way through.

“Tenshi no Revolver” is a great outing from one of Japan’s longest performing bands. As long as you’re not the type that expects a band to be stagnant and never adjust their style forever, “Tenshi no Revolver” is a ton of fun.

Is Apple screwing up?

October 3, 2007

It’s been a while since I talked about anything Apple related. Recently there’s been a lot of fervor among the press and Apple’s user base regarding a few iPhone issues. I’d just like to weigh in here, since I think there’s a lot of overreaction going on.

First, there was the iPhone price cut. Yeah… this one kinda sucked. You know what though, that’s just the way the technology game is played. It may have been a little fast by Apple standards, but it wasn’t that big a deal among cell phones in general. This happens all the time. Whether it happened when it did, or in January, or whenever, the price was still going to be cut. That’s the life of an early adopter, you pay more. We all knew what we were getting into. Apple more than showed its generosity by giving that $100 credit, something it didn’t have to do and no other company would have done. Anyone still complaining, get over it. Sour grapes.

The next is ringtones. This one I will not defend. This is bullcrap. I have to buy a song for 99¢, then pay another 99¢ for the right to play part of the song I already own as a ringtone? And I can’t just drop a file onto the phone like you can do with any other phone, including the RAZR I moved out of? I think not. I already used one of the workarounds that tricks iTunes into accepting generic AAC files as rings (I figure this safer than hacking the phone itself). The problem here is whose gates do we storm with torches and pitchforks? Is this Apple’s doing, or is this something pushed on them by the record industry. My gut tells me the latter, but I’d be damn surprised if Apple wasn’t making anything off the deal too. Seriously guys, don’t tell me it’s a better deal because it’s “only” $1.98. That’s like saying I shouldn’t complain about you kicking me in the balls just because someone else would kick harder.

The last thing is the iPhone 1.1.1 update. I’m actually more annoyed about the third party apps thing than the bricking. I see where Steve is coming from when he talks about stability on a phone. Thing is, if they just had an option in iTunes that said “Enable third party app support” that warns you when you turn it on, it’s free and clear. They don’t have to support it, but why try to stop people who want to do it? I can only think it’s to prevent you from using VOIP and instant messaging to circumvent AT&T’s services.

Now, for the people with bricked iPhones, I sympathize somewhat. But you know, unlocking the phone is a bit more serious hack than the jailbreaking that allows the third party apps. There are serious modifications done to the phone’s firmware, including the baseband modem that go beyond what a simple software restore will fix. If you perform such a major hack on a device, then go ahead and install a software update without waiting to hear what the effect will be… frankly, you have nobody but yourself to blame. I would doubt Apple did this deliberately. That would be just pure bad PR, and it has been. Obviously they made some changes to how things work, probably to disallow the third party apps, and now you have an incompatibility with the hacked firmware. While it sucks they did that, it has nothing to do with intentionally bricking unlocked phones. What we have is a vocal minority loudly complaining, and frankly anyone who was capable of performing that hack should have known better than to apply a vendor software update on top of it.

Orguss on DVD

October 2, 2007

Way, way back in the before times of the early 1980’s, Studio Nue was enamored with the success of the original Macross series. They decided to franchise it a bit, making two more unrelated series with similar style (think Final Fantasy or Super Sentai). Keeping the “Super Dimensional” bit of Macross’s title, they were called Super Dimensional Century Orguss and Super Dimensional Cavalry Southern Cross. Originally, Harmony Gold had wanted to pick up this full trilogy to create Robotech, but for one reason or another Orguss wasn’t available. Instead, they substituted Tatsunoko’s Genesis Climber Mospeada.

While Macross and Southern Cross (as well as Mospeada) have seen uncut R1 release at the hands of AnimEigo and ADV’s sublicenses from Harmony Gold, the last “Super Dimensional” series Orguss has been in limbo. Other than 17 episodes dubbed by US Renditions in the early 90’s, it seemed the series would never see light in the US. That is, until recently when cable network ImaginAsian decided to air the full series. Also, ImaginAsian is putting out the full series on DVD under the Anime Classics label, sold exclusively through The Right Stuf International (TRSI).

Other than the fact that they’re releasing one of the classics of 80’s anime, the way it’s being released is interesting. The discs (aside from disc 1, which I’ll expleain in a second) go for a scant $9.99 US for 4 episodes. This is absolutely unheard of, especially for a new release.  ImaginAsian has done a few things to make this possible. First, these aren’t produced like most commercial DVDs by going to glass master and then being stamped out in a big replication facility. These are released on DVD-R, the same DVD-R media you burn in your computer. This saves a substantial cost of replication for a small run like this, since they can probably make the DVDs themselves. The other thing they’re doing is charging $3 extra on disc 1 because disc 1 comes in a multi-disc case meant for the entire series. Subsequent discs are sent in just a paper sleeve. I was a bit perplexed, even annoyed at this at first. As I thought about it though, this makes sense. If you’re selling online/mail order only as they are, there’s no real need for a case whose main purpose is to catch your eye in a store. Why not cut costs, material waste, and my precious shelf space by doing it this way? The release schedule is rapid too, with two volumes coming out per month.

I really like this model, and hope ImaginAsian continues to release classic anime in this manner. Also being released this way are Cat’s Eye and Nobody’s Boy Remi. If you’re interested in any of these three series, please follow this link and pick these discs up. I really want to support what ImaginAsian is doing here.