Monday, April 29, 2019

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

More Deep Meanings

Translation and localization is alway a tricky issue in any media, whether it be books, movies or video games.  Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has its troubles as well in this regard.  Nothing truly major went wrong when adapting the text and dialogue, but as is often the case certain little details fall through the cracks.  I've already gone over Sekiro's name, and the kanji used to write it here, so in this post I'd like to expand on that topic and look at a few other things more closely.

First off is Sekiro's sword, a katana rather than a ninjatō, which bears the name "kusabimaru" (楔丸) in both English and Japanese.  The word "kusabi" when translated to English actually means "wedge"...as in a triangular piece of metal used to split logs.  It can also mean "linchpin" in the sense that axes or sledgehammers are usually put together by slipping the metal bit onto one end of a wooden shaft which is then held in place by pounding a wedge into the end of the stick.  This makes the tip flare out so that the head doesn't fall off.  As for "maru"...many people who have a passing familiarity with Japanese naming conventions might recognize it as an affix for cargo ship names.  However, at this particular time in Japanese history (the Sengoku period) the term hadn't really come into use.  Instead, the kanji "maru" here represents one of it's alternate meanings such as "circle" or "complete"...alternatively, it could also mean "all-encompassing" in the sense that a circle has no beginning or end.  Stylistically,  "kusabimaru" also sounds vaguely similar to "kusanagi" or "grass-cutter" which is a famous mythical Japanese sword culturally akin to Excalibur in terms of legends and folklore.

Another weapon added to Sekiro's arsenal about midway through the game is "fushigiri" (不死斬り), a two-handed sword usually referred to as an "odachi" or "nodachi" in Japanese.  As far as I can tell Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice used the former rather than the latter when referring to the kind of blade "fushigiri" is in texts and dialogues.  The kanji for "fu" is similar to the prefixes "un~", "anti~", "non~", "im~" or "in~" while the "shi" kanji is none other than the symbol for "death" that I'm sure everyone playing Sekiro has seen in big, bright red across the screen more times than they can count.  So, "fushi" is essentially "un-death" or "undying" in English.  The word "giri" is a derived form of the verb "kiru" or "to slay" when translated.  All this means that the weapon "fushigiri" is basically "slayer of the undying" although I can sort of see why the translators decided to go with the name "mortal blade" instead.  Just for those who might not know, there's a popular manga, then anime, and finally a live-action film (released in 2017) called "Blade of the Immortal" dealing with parasitic organisms that grant a limited form of immortality to their hosts.  In essence "Blade of the Immortal" influenced Sekiro in much the same way that "Berserk" influenced the Dark Souls series.  On a side note, I also like how the word "fushigi" means "mysterious" in Japanese, although the kanji are completely different...

Anyway...I hope that was at least somewhat enlightening to anyone who happened to read this blogpost.  None of the information I've shown above is terribly important, but interesting details can enhance one's enjoyment of these kinds of games.  At the very least people in it for the lore might be able to draw deeper meanings should they be armed with this knowledge. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Metroid Origins

Now is a sad time to be a fan of the Metroid series.  Hopefully, the scraped development of what was to be the newest entry on the Nintendo Switch will ultimately lead to something good, but the wait is going to be long.  Let me pose a question though in the interim...what was Samus' life like before she entered her prime?  Yes, that question was a rather roundabout attempt at a pun...but in all seriousness there is actually a pretty good answer to it in the form of a 2018 indie sci-fi film entitled "Prospect."

It's not official, of course, nor is there any actual connection to the Metroid IP.  The main character is a teenage girl named "Cee" rather than "Samus," plus none of the other characters or locations have any affiliation with the lore of Metroid.  That said, the setting is an alien world, there are space bounty hunters, and Cee is a blond caucasian female.

Normally, when I here the words "low budget" and "science fiction" in connection with a movie, I tend to assume it's going to have bad acting and even worse sets.  "Prospect" subverted my expectations though with excellent performances and cool-looking slightly retro-futuristic production design.  I say "slightly" because the retro-futurism on display here is more like what people in the 1980s though the future would look like rather than folks in the 50s.  It's a good match for Metroid considering that the first game in the franchise came out in 1986 on the NES (only a few weeks before James Cameron's "Aliens" hit theaters).  "Aliens" is also relevant in that it and its precursor ("Alien") have been huge influence on the Metroid series.  I won't bother to point out all the similarities mostly because there are far too many to list here.  For those who are curious though I will provide a link here that goes into great detail.  Now, back on topic...

The cinematography in "Prospect" is excellent which manages to be an impressive feat considering that almost all the outdoor shooting was done using natural light.  Special effects shots are understandably few given the tiny budget, but what is shown on-screen looks pretty good.  I really don't want to oversell this film...the story is a fairly simple one when you get down to it.  Even so, I was pleasantly surprised overall.  I think the quality can be chalked up to a talented team of film-makers and a fairly lengthy pre-production.  I believe the two co-directors said that they had been working on the film for something like four years!  Although a decent chunk of that time might have been spent on an indie short of the same name that they made as a proof of concept.  It is available for free on Youtube.  As for the actual film, it can be seen via a wide number of video-on-demand service providers.

I highly recommend checking out either or both version for fans of sci-fi films like "Moon" (2009), "Enemy Mine" (1985) and for individuals like me who would love to see an origin story (unofficial as it is) for Samus Aran that's better than anything Nintendo has made up about her. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Tenchu Souls


I've seen Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice compared quite a bit to Dark Souls, Demon's Souls and Bloodborne.  What I haven't seen much of though, is comparisons to the Tenchu series.  Maybe because it's an old IP that hasn't had a sequel in over a decade...or maybe it's because the best entries in the franchise were back on the PS1 (and as such have bad controls - and even worse graphics - by modern standards).  Either way, the fundamental gameplay in the Tenchu series is a very close match to Sekiro...not much of a surprise when you consider that all of these games were created by one developer, FromSoftware.
Basically, both Sekiro and Tenchu have stealth mechanics which the player can utilize to pick off enemies one-by-one.  If that fails, they can always fall back on face-to-face combat or retreat and try stealth again.  Punctuating this loop are occasional (mini-)boss encounters wherein the player must fight without the benefit of stealth.  Even little details like the grappling hook, sub-weapons, and support item shops can be found in both games.  A few of locations and objectives are also very similar:
  • Buddhist monks turned into undead cultists...check! 
  • Important "flower" item on top of a mountain...check!
  • Difficult to navigate forest with sniper archers...check!
Some of the enemy types as well:
  • Hard to stealth by dogs...check!
  • Big, fat dudes with clubs...check!
  • Naginata wielding women...check! 
The last boss in the original Tenchu, much like the last boss in Sekiro, is ridiculously hard as well.

Of course a lot of the above are just staples of the genre and setting.  Sekiro might copy a bit, but it also improves on the concepts of Tenchu in pretty much every way.  The environments are far more detailed, the animation is far more fluid, and the world is interconnected rather than a sequence of compartmentalized missions.  In terms of audio, music in Tenchu is surprisingly good.  Sekiro definitely outdoes it with regards to sound effects though.  Voice acting is hard to compare...Sekiro allows for the original language which is almost always the ideal way to play a game.  That's not to say the English dubovers are bad...it's just that inevitably some things get lost in translation.  Meanwhile, the original Tenchu is a shining example of so-bad-it's-good voicework.  The sequels attempted to improve the quality of the English voice acting, but the results were pretty mixed.

So, if I were to compare Sekiro to any other game, my first pick would be Tenchu.  After that, I might go with Legend of Zelda in that both it and Sekiro use non-numerical RPG mechanics and a semi-open world design.  Only after those would I then try to draw comparisons to BloodborneDark Souls and Demon's Souls are, at most, fourth on my list of related games.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Shining Example

I've been on a Sega Classics binge recently so bear with me as I dive once more into another 16-bit oldy.  The Shining series is a bit of an oddball as far as franchises go.  It originally started as Shining in the Darkness, a traditional dungeon-crawling fantasy RPG similar to the first couple of Bard's Tale games.  I must confess that I never got into this one, nor any of the later entries and spinoffs for the Game Gear, Sega CD, Dreamcast, or Nintendo DS (depending on how you count them, there are over 30 games in total!).  Instead, my enthusiasm was limited to the quasi-sequel and it's follow-up; games simply entitled Shining Force I and II.

Something that made Shining Force standout was it being one of the first Strategy RPGs to appear on consoles outside of Japan.  As far as these kinds of games go it's pretty barebones, but considering it was debuting largely to an uninitiated audience I think the degree of complexity feels about right.  One of the more fascinating aspects of the game is how scripted the A.I.'s actions are.  Oftentimes it's done purely for visual appeal; reserves deploying into formation or vanguards closing ranks as the player's units approach.  As a consequence of this the A.I. can feel like it is pulling punches by having its units dance around rather than attacking.  However, there are times when it can be extremely ruthless by going out of the way to target spellcasters, healers, badly wounded units or the main character - who, if slain, causes the the entire fight to reset to a pre-battle checkpoint.  On the plus side players get to keep any experience points earned before the battle-ending blow was struck.  Still, it can be frustrating to have to redo an entire 30 minute combat encounter all over again.  Especially since any other defeated character on the player's team can easily be brought back afterward (no permadeath like Fire Emblem).

The story is about as simple as they come in a fantasy setting; the return of a thousand-year-old evil, a hero of light to stop it...you know the drill.  It's almost painfully generic, but to counterbalance that somewhat the setting is an interesting mix of Narnia and Star Wars with some funny little NPC interactions that make reading the sparse game text worthwhile.  Personally, I rather enjoyed the trials and tribulations of "Guntz," an armadillo-like demihuman decked out in a cantankerous suit of steam-powered armor.

This might sound a bit strange, but Shining Force II (also for the Sega Genesis) had nothing to do with it's direct predecessor story-wise despite being almost identical as far as gameplay goes.  So, if a Shining Force player is looking to revisit with their favorite characters in the next installment, they have to play Shining Force Gaiden on the Game Gear in Japanese...or, in English, as part of the collection Shining Force CD for the Mega CD.  Even back then Sega had a knack for screwing up their own IPs.  Many of the spinoff games aren't just different in terms of story, but also genre; replacing strategy with action or even rogue-like elements.  Needless to say, the Shining series is a bit like the Sonic franchise in that would-be players are probably best off picking out the few gleaming gems from what is mostly a pile of dross.