One of these days I really will catch ‘em all

The Pokémon series has a cycle it has run through since it began that Black/White 2 breaks, and I hope this becomes the new standard for the series. The cycle goes a pair of games with a few cosmetic and roster differences, Red/Blue or Diamond/Pearl. Those games are followed up by an improved third version of those games, Yellow or Emerald. Black/White 2 is something different. It is not the enhanced “Gray” edition to Black/White, it is a true sequel. There is a lot to the game for those who bought Black or White but who are not buying every Pokémon game because Pokémon. While it does push the boundaries with the incremental improvements, it does push against some problems that the series has mostly avoided until now, and for the first time gives me some concern for the direction this series is taking. Still, the massive amount of content lets me comfortably say that this is the best Pokémon game yet.

One of B/W’s biggest selling points was its regional Pokédex. B/W2’s is also a highlight, but for a different reason. Much of B/W’s charm was in how the Pokémon available in the main game were limited to just the ones new to this entry in the series. As a result it was the freshest Pokémon experience is some time, and it gave players a chance to get to know the new ‘mons that hasn’t existed since Red/Blue. B/W2 could not repeat that without a regions worth of new Pokémon, so Game Freak went the opposite way with it. B/W2’s regional Pokedex has around 300 critters in it. Each area has tons of Pokémon. While many of the routes are the same as they were in the last game, the new monsters make them a different experience. One of the best parts is that I’ve discovered that the Gen. 5 Pokémon are probably my favorite since the original 150.

While there are few improvements to the system, there are plenty of new frills. Pokestar studio makes the usual pageant-esque mini-game fun. Each movie is like a puzzle battle that must be solved. There is an achievement system in the way of medals. The new areas are mostly well designed, with straightforward main paths and plenty of side trails. There is really just a lot to this game beyond the usual collect the badges quest. I do need to make sure to note that the player character designs are just awful

B/W2’s biggest deviation from the formula is in its story. It is a sequel, and a sequel to a game that already focused more on story than any Pokémon game before it. The structure is still the same, with badges to collect and an Elite 4 to battle, but there is a lot more going on around it. Team Plasma has split into two factions, with one attempting to atone for their crimes in the previous game and the other dropping the “free the Pokémon” rhetoric and just flat out focusing on conquering the world. The problem is that with the increased focus on story, the player characters remain nonentities. To keep the one of the series biggest draws, the player characters must remain nonentities. So the game has to balance the big role the player must play in the story, with the fact that they can’t really be an active participant. It is the old problem of the silent protagonist. I have no problem with a silent protagonist, not when the game calls for it. When the main character is supposed to be the player, like Pokemon, then it only makes sense not to give them a set personality. Even giving options isn’t perfect, unless someone thinks Sheppard from Mass Effect accurately spoke for them. The Pokémon series has long succeeded in making it feel like the players Pokémon adventure, that is a big part of more personal attachment to the players own caught and chosen Pokémon. In Black/White2, the rival trainer gets to be the hero; he is the one with grudge against Team Plasma and is trying to stop them. The player just shows up and helps. The trouble also shows up with the returning characters. Cheren and Bianca are both around, Cheren now being a Gym leader and Bianca helping out the Professor, but the player character is nowhere to be found. I don’t have much of a problem with where the storytelling in Pokemon is right now. It is strange that the story is becoming more important, but the player is at best a side character. I just hope that the series doesn’t continue down this road. That would force them either abandoning the conceit that the player is the main character or making the main character take an even lesser role in his own story.

I thoroughly enjoyed White 2, and I can see myself returning before too long to catch all those legendaries available in the post-game. This is Pokemon, even with the slight changes everyone should know what they are getting into. Pokemon White 2 is the perfect way to cap off the DS’s life.

What I Read in September 2012

The number of books I have read fell this month, down from my average of four to just two. I guess I did read several terrible eBooks that I will not be writing about, but as far as real, worth thinking about books go, I only managed two. Anyone who has been following my monthly posts won’t be surprised by what book they are, since both are from authors I have been reading a lot this year. One was another Maisie Dobbs books, Messenger of Truth and the other was a Japser Fforde book, The Big Over Easy, the first of his Nursery Crimes series. Next month is not going to be much better, as it was more crap with again only a few real worthwhile titles in the mix. Still, I think I will easily make my goal of fifty for the year.

Messenger of Truth

Jacqueline Winspear

The fourth Maisie Dobbs book has her investigating the apparently accidental death of an artist. While I am still enjoying the setting of this series, I am starting to care less for the characters. It feels like there is desire for forward movement with the characters, but that gets in the way of the mystery and not enough time is devoted to them for there to be any progress, but too much is spent of them for me to feel satisfied with how little there is. I still like the mysteries, though. Also, I am willing to concede that some of my frustration my come from reading the first books at such a rapid pace. Maybe they are better with a little time in between.

The mystery in this one is about art and family, and it all of the eventual dead ends feel like possible solutions instead of space fillers until it is time for the mystery to be solved. Despite my complaints about the unsatisfactory state of the character development, there are several big things that happen to Maisie and Billy in this volume. Billy especially get his family more fleshed out. This series continues to be good enough that I intend to keep reading it, but I am still not going to be shouting many praises

The Big Over Easy

Jasper Fforde

This is the first of the Nursery Crimes series, where the denizens of nursery rhymes populate the world of crime noir. It is an interesting set up, and Fforde infuses it with the same wit that is the hallmark of his Thursday Next series. Still, I found myself not enjoying this one as much. I think it comes down to the fact that I have more affection for the classic literature that makes up the in jokes of Thursday Next than I do for nursery rhymes. That being said, I expect this book is more accessible for others since the nursery rhymes are better known.

The Big Over Easy follows Detective Jack Spratt as he investigates the death of Humpty Dumpty. Once he is put back together again, it is apparent that he did not die from the fall, but was shot. So Jack must unravel a plot that involves nearly the entire town and most of your favorite nursery rhymes. I found it slow to get going, but it really picked up steam in near the end as the pieces start falling into place. I do love how Fforde has woven the simple rhymes together to make a somewhat believable world for them to occupy. This book does not rate quite as high as the Thursday Next series, but it has done nothing to diminish my faith in Fforde as a writer.

Better off Ted is better than all of us

I spent the majority of last weekend watching Better Off Ted on Netflix and I feel terrible. Not because I wasted a whole weekend watching TV. I mean, I did do that, but I also did other things while watching it and most of my time is pretty much wasted to begin with anyway. I feel terrible because I bemoan the lack of quality television programs but then I find gems like this on Netflix that I never watched until after it was cancelled. After watching the 26 mostly brilliant episodes I think I might just be including Better Off Ted on my short list of favorite TV shows.

Better Off Ted is something like a crazier version of The Office. Both shows take jabs at corporate culture, though The Office is more focused on the soul crushing dullness of it while Ted is more about a cartoonish disregard for humanity. Better off Ted follows main character Ted, head of a research and development team for a giant corporation, as he corrals his team and tries to please his capricious bosses. His team is mostly a bunch of essentially mad scientists and an attractive product tester. The comedy comes from the problems his weirdo colleagues get into and the crazy orders Ted tries to deal with from above him. Immediately above him is Veronica, the epitome of corporate heartlessness. Also, Ted’s occasional lover.

What really works in this show is the main characters struggle to maintain his humanity and continue to do a job he genuinely loves. His struggle is the same as his attraction to both Veronica and Linda, the attractive product tester. Veronica is all about the job, and there is little personal connection in their relationship. Linda does the job because she must, but is all human rebellion. Ted wants to think that the humanity is more important to him, and as the show goes on I think he proves that it is, he still loves the job. So he flirts with Linda, even approaches as relationship at times, but he can’t let go of the job and he can’t let go of Veronica. This struggle is the moral center of the show, what is beneath the zany humor and crazy science stuff.

The creator of Better off Ted is Victor Fresco, who was also responsible for Andy Richter Controls the Universe, and similarly styled and similarly great show. He also wrote for My Name is Earl, another show I am a big fan of, though its last season wasn’t so good. Andy Richter Controls the Universe suffered a similar fate to Better off Ted, but at least that time I watched it when it was on. I completely missed Better off Ted. It kind of makes me hate humanity when garbage like Two and a Half Men runs forever despite never once being funny and great shows like Better off Ted struggle to get a second season. But I also wish that the advertising for TV shows did a better job conveying the show they are advertising. I missed BoT because I don’t tend to watch that much TV. I can’t watch every show to see if it’s for me, but some shows that I love disappear as soon as I find them.

Still, now I know about Better off Ted and I am glad to have watched it. I consider it a classic. Now I am going to try to find a DVD copy of Andy Richter Controls the Universe, because I didn’t realize that it had come out on DVD.

Kid Icarus: Uprising is pretty good

Kid Icarus is something of an oddity in Nintendo’s expansive library of games. It is often remembered as being among the best of the early NES first party games, along with the first Mario, Zelda and Metroid games, but it is significantly more flawed than any of those games. The fact that it is remembered at all, rather than forgotten like Ice Climbers was until Smash Brothers, is a testament to the appeal of the game. However, unlike those other classics, Kid Icarus has gone more than 20 years without a sequel. (There was a Gameboy follow up, but I know little about it) It feels like another great Nintendo franchise that was abandoned before it could blossom. Like Nintendo’s big 3, Kid Icarus started with a well-made if primitive game, like SMB, LoZ and Metroid. The each had a divergent follow up, a sequel vastly different in gameplay and divisive in reputation. Mario, Zelda and Metroid 2 all fall into this, maybe Myths and Monsters does too, I don’t know. Then came the codifying classic third game in the series: Super Mario Bros 3, Legend of Zelda A Link to the Past and Super Metroid. Kid Icarus never got this third game, the one that could have made the series a true classic. Now twenty years later, Kid Icarus: Uprising is not that game. It is a great game, but other than being drenched in the flavor of the NES original it is something completely different.

Kid Icarus: Uprising is a shooter, with the old Kid Icarus characters and enemies painted on. It is actually very much like Star Fox Assault or Rogue Squadron 3, with try to balance flying missions with on foot ones. Kid Icarus is better than either of those two games, though. Each of its numerous missions are divided into a flying segment and an on foot segment. While the flying parts are much better than the on foot ones, the disparity is not so great.

While in flight the game is brilliant. It looks wonderful, with a wide variety of enemies and formations. It is strongly reminiscent of Star Fox 64, both in gameplay and in the chatter between characters mid-battle. The controls are perfect in the air, but they suffer on the ground. While they are highly customizable, the default controls have the player controlling Pitt with the control pad and aiming with the stylus and shooting with the left shoulder button. It is a control scheme that is pure torture for a lefty. It works a lot like an FPS. It takes some getting used to, but they actually work, though there are some enemies that require some finer controls than the system is capable of. (I’m looking at you, Cragalanche.) On the good side of the foot battles, there are the different weapons and the bosses. There are 9 different weapon types and they all play uniquely. The clubs have no ranged attack, but are very powerful, while the bows aren’t as powerful but have homing attacks. Choosing the right weapon for the level and your playstyle is a big part of the game. The bosses, for the most part, do no fall into the find weak point, hit weak point pattern (again, Cragalanche is an exception.) The bosses are targets to shoot. Sometimes they require special tactics, but they are mostly just impressively strong enemies. It is different and fun.

While the gameplay has its control flaws, there is a lot to love outside that. There is a surprisingly deep weapon crafting system and a multiplayer mode I didn’t touch. Most of the extra stuff is similar to that in Smash Brothers Brawl, which is no surprise since the same people are behind it. It gives plenty of incentive to replay and experiment with the game. This is aided by the story. While it isn’t anything more than some cartoony anime trappings, it is wholly enjoyable. The constant banter between Pitt and Palutena and their enemies makes even the most frustrating mission enjoyable. Really, the while the story itself isn’t great, the way it is told really is. They got the characters right, in that the characters are just entertaining in action.

The only sticking point with this game is the controls. If you don’t find them too difficult or too painful, there is much to love in this game. Those controls are an unfortunate sticking point, though. They are useable, but there is no ideal control scheme for how this game plays. However, the graphics, music and the once used to the controls actually playing are great. This is games one big flaw is too big to but it up with Nintendo’s best, but it is still a very good game.

Golden Sun Dark Dawn won’t Shut Up

Golden Sun: Dark Dawn has just about everything I love in a JRPG. It reminds me at times the late NES, early SNES games that I enjoyed. Games like Dragon Quest IV and Breath of Fire. Unfortunately, Dark Dawn wants desperately to be more of a PS1 vintage game instead. It attempts to be more like something from that Tales series by adding tons of chatter. The result is a game that emphasizes its weaknesses at the cost of its strengths.

Golden Sun plays great. The battle system is speedy with plenty of strategic options, most of which are unnecessary due to how easy the game is. Changing stats and skills by swapping Djinns gives the characters and battles plenty of flexibility without costing individuality. If the player desires, they can come up with an intricate, carefully considered set up of Djinn. Or they could just put Djinns on characters of the same element and brute force through the game. Each strategy is valid. The dungeons, and the towns to a lesser extent, are a joy to navigate. Instead of just samey corridors and the like, Golden Sun has dungeon more like something out of Zelda, with the characters Psynergy powers replacing Link’s tools. There is usually a fairly easy straight path through the dungeons, with most of the more difficult puzzles used to screen off treasures and hidden Djinn. I am a sucker for puzzle dungeons and Golden Sun is full of them. Really, the game gets a lot of things very right and is a lot of fun.

The trouble with the game is in the story, or more specifically in how the story is told. The plot, at least the first half or so, is a simple adventure, with youngsters leaving home to see the world and right wrongs and eventually get caught up in some world threatening conflict. The characters are paper thin, which in and of itself are not a problem. There really isn’t much to the cast of Dragon Quest IV, but they were a fun bunch to go exploring with. The same is true of FFIV. Besides what is necessary to the plot, they have little to say. This may be due to cartridge space, but the player is left to fill in some very wide blanks. That contrasts with something like Tales of Symphonia, whose characters are incapable of shutting up. They have tons of scenes and dialogue for their personalities to flesh out their personalities. That doesn’t make the cast of Symphonia that complex, they mostly fall into well used archetypes. The player ofFFIV doesn’t know how Cecil gets along with Yang, but the player of ToS can’t help but know how Lloyd and Raine get along. The problem with Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is that the characters have the depth of the first example, but talk as much as the second. The characters talk and talk and talk but never actually say anything. Cutscenes that should take a few minutes drag on with loads of extraneous banal dialogue.

Still, Dark Dawn is more enjoyable than not. The core of the gameplay is strong enough to carry it through the pointless chatter. This is one of the best games that every got me to yell at my DS. It is so frustrating to have what is normally a fun experience broken up by loads of nothing, but it doesn’t really make the fun parts less fun.

I’ve got the Pokemon Blues

I just now realized, by which I mean I realized about a week ago when I started writing this, that Pokemon Black/White 2 is coming out soon. Thinking about that has caused me to catch the Pokemon bug (Weedle, I think) yet again. Luckily, I did not have to wait for my pre-order to arrive; I still had the post-game of White to play through. I powered through White right as it came out, enjoying the freshest Pokemon experience since I first played Red way back in the day, but the big level jump after the big fight with Ghetsis helped me put it down for other things. But an hour or two of exploring the newly opened areas helped me clear the level gap, and I was on to finishing the game up.

I’m a long time Pokemon fan. I picked up Pokemon Red soon after it came out, using money I got for my 13th birthday in October 1998. I hadn’t heard of Pokemon before, but seeing a commercial or something about it in Wal-Mart prompted an impulse purchase. The crazy around Pokemon was something amazing from my point of view. Since I played it beofer any of my friends, I felt like I had gotten in on the ground floor, that me showing the game to my buddies somehow helped the juggernaut. I played that game over and over. When a friend told me about the cartoon, I did something unprecedented: I got up before school to watch it. My interest faded about the time Silver/Gold came out, but I’ve still played all the games in the series and gotten at least a modicum of enjoyment out of them. White 2 is the first time I’ve ever actually double dipped on one generation. I skipped Yellow, I skipped all of the GBA generation at the time, I didn’t play Platinum. Framing the game as a sequel, though I don’t have any idea how sequel-y it really is, is just enough to get me to buy again. That and my Pokemon addiction relapse.

The post-game in White has actually turned out to be more fun than expected. Sure, I haven’t quite managed to beat the Elite 4 for the second time, but I have explored the rest of the White world and caught all the available legendaries. At first, I hated the huge level jump that occurs after the first run through the elite 4, and I still think that it could have been smoothed out somewhat, but now that I’ve caught up I appreciate the high level of competition available. I should be able to take down the Elite 4, and maybe beat Cynthia, before White 2 arrives in the mail. I hope so. I wish I could finally catch the legendaries in Pearl. I played that game for more than 300 hours, caught nearly every normally obtainable pokemon and played though Sapphire and Leaf Green to get the legendaries there. But for some reason, I never went through the effort of catch the Cresselia or any of the legendary Pokemon in that game. Unfortunately, sometime in the year or two since I last played it, it has disappeared. It’ll turn up, I’m sure.

I’ve also been watching the anime. I did get up early to watch it when it first started, but at that time I was already verging on too old for morning cartoons. I saw plenty of the first 60 or so episodes, but after that I stopped paying attention. I did go see the first movie as part of my younger brother’s birthday party. It isn’t particularly interesting, but it is fine as background noise as I read or level Pokemon or fight with Kid Icarus: Uprising. Maybe my opinion will change when I’m more than 15 episodes in.

I am actually excited for White 2. I plan on changing up my play style this time through. Usually I pick 6 monsters as fast as possible, forming a team that I stick with for the majority of the game. So my starter and the bird that is almost always available right away, then the first lightning and fire (or grass or water, depending) along with something like a fighting Pokemon. This time I am going to trade over this Keldeo I just picked up and use a legendary for the first time since Moltres. It should be interesting.