Jack is Back – impressions

Samurai Jack

After 11 long years Samurai Jack is back! Announced way back in December of 2015, the Genndy Tartakovsky animated show made its return on Adult Swim last March 11 to much fanfare. Kids who grew up watching the show were ecstatic that they were finally getting a conclusion to the epic tale of Samurai Jack.

Picking up where the previous series left off, Season 5 doesn’t seem to skip a beat. Episode 1 begins with a short reintroduction to the character of Samurai Jack. Immediately apparent is that this Jack is no longer the same samurai from seasons past. He no longer appears the calm, serene warrior that originally faced off against Aku. 50 years have passed since the last episode. Jack no longer ages, a side effect of his being sent forward in time. He appears gaunt, weary of the years that passed him. He is constantly haunted by phantoms of his past. Visions of his father and mother terrorize him, cursing him for being unable to defeat Aku and save them. He has also lost his sword, the spirit of the samurai. He appears very much to have given up on his quest.

This first episode simply serves to reintroduce us to the character and the series. The episode even starts with him fighting giant beetle robots similar to the first enemies he faces off in the original series. Later on he faces off against one of Aku’s droid assassins. Both of these fights are inconsequential, but it serves to reestablish the themes of the old show, such as the visuals and the familiar sound effects. Meanwhile, the show introduces a new enemy to Jack. A mysterious cult, known as the Daughters of Aku, is training in the shadows intent on killing Jack. Not much is known about them though they are shown to worship Aku like a deity and believe Jack to be their version of the “antichrist”.

This episode of Samurai Jack feels both familiar and very different at the same time. The direction, art style, and sound effects remain similar to the series’ past. However, the tone is very different from before. Where in seasons past Jack is driven by a manifest destiny to defeat Aku, this new Jack is haunted, broken after failing to defeat in his mission so many times.

Samurai Jack has always been very good at showing without telling. Jack has gone through so much that, despite not physically aging, he appears to have changed so much. He dons armor and arms himself with a pistol and a polearm. He goes into battle riding a motorcycle armed to the teeth with a machine gun and spiked wheels. With his mask off we see that his hair is unkempt and he now sports a beard. Everything about him shows that he is not the same man we last saw in season 4.

The shift to Adult Swim is also evident in the show. Despite the violence of Jack’s fights, the old show has always been PG friendly. Now, the show is obviously much darker in tone. When the Daughters of Aku are introduced, we see their cult leader giving birth to septuplets who she dedicates in a dark ritual to Aku. The children are then brutally trained in the martial arts by the Daughters, physically beaten and abused in order to wipe any trace of compassion from their hearts. We even see them kill their fellow cult members during the final stages of their training. Most notable of all is when they are commanded to “Kill!” the Samurai after they complete their training. All previous 4 seasons have never shown death nor said the word “kill” outright. Sure it was implied before that Aku killed Jack’s family and their subjects when he laid waste to their kingdom, but we never see any character draw blood onscreen. In just 20 minutes, S05E01 managed to perfectly establish the show’s new direction.

This only being the first episode, it’s too early to say if the show will be able to deliver on the expectations of so many fans. What’s promising, though, is that Cartoon Network has pretty much given carte blanche to Tartakovsky and his crew to make their vision of Samurai Jack’s ending a reality. Had this one episode been made 11 years ago, it would surely not have been greenlit for airing I can assure you. It certainly gives me hope for the rest of the season and I’m more than pumped for the next episode.

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Short ones: I wish I was more artistic

When I was very young I used to dream of becoming a cartoonist. Something about creating characters and bringing them to life and entertaining people greatly appealed to me as a child. I remember attending drawing classes and art workshops to try and learn how to be an animator. Try as I might, however, I lacked the skill and dexterity to draw well.

In high school, I enrolled in piano lessons because I wanted to learn at least one instrument. My extended family is musically inclined. All my first cousins, both on my father’s and mother’s side, all have some proficiency with the piano. My cousins often shared how our (paternal) grandfather would drill into them piano lessons when they were growing up. Sadly, I didn’t have much luck in piano lessons either. Maybe I lacked motivation or was just uninspired but I could not bring myself to practice reading notes and playing pieces every day like one needed in order to get proficient.

Growing up, I attributed my lack of artistic skills to my personality. I was often shy and withdrawn, preferring to keep to myself rather than engage in group activities. Artistry is an expression of oneself. There’s an element of vulnerability when showing off one’s artwork or playing music. That’s something I never got comfortable with. Also, I was just never very talented.

The only activity I ever showed any aptitude (or at least interest) in was writing. Granted my efforts were mostly limited to writing short stories (both original and the occasional fanfic) and opinion pieces (reviews and blogs), but I like to think that I must have some degree of proficiency in it. Unlike music or drawing, writing afforded me a way to express myself without the vulnerability that comes with playing in front of a crowd or displaying an art piece. Sometimes when my head feels too crowded, I have to let out my thoughts by writing them down.

That isn’t to say I don’t regret never learning to draw or play well. I envy anyone who is musically or artistically talented. I’ve friends who are very logical and intelligent yet also artistic and free spirited. Some of them can sing, act, draw, compose, make films, you name it. Their art can reach and touch others in a way that my words never could and as a result their lives just seem so much more colourful and complete when viewed from the outside. It makes me feel very one-dimensional when compared to some of them.

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Artist – Seikachu

Short Ones: Air Con Rant

This will be a really short one as this is just something that’s been bothering me ever since I started working corporate.

Like most offices, relies on air conditioning to keep everyone inside cool and fresh. Instead of a centralized cooling system, our office is equipped with multiple individual air conditioning units to keep the air cool. Therein lies the problem. Everyone obviously has their own temperature preference and of course not everyone will be pleased by what setting you turn the air con on.It’s been said before that air conditioning at workplaces is sexist, at least in corporate America. It was something about how men in America intentionally lower the temperature knowing that women have a lower tolerance for the cold so as to oppress them. Now, I don’t know how much of this is true (I don’t live in America and I’ve never worked there once) but I doubt anyone would have such a sinister motive behind keeping the office cold.

My opinion on the matter is simple. It’s fairer to keep the temperature cold rather than to warm up the room. Why? Because when one feels cold, one can always put on more layers to keep warm, whereas when a co-worker is warm, he/she does not have the option to shed clothes in an office setting. I mean, I wouldn’t mind it if I could work in my skivvies but I’m sure plenty of people would take issue with that.

Where I work, I usually retain control of the air conditioning unit closest to my desk.Personally, I like to keep the thermostat as low as it can go (I sweat easily and this is how I stay cool). The stations next to me, however, are all occupied by people who get chilly if you so much as blow them a kiss. They actually have their air con set to FAN, meaning not only does it not cool the air at all, their unit actually blows hot air from the outside. Let me reiterate that. It blows HOT, TROPICAL AIR from the outside. Jesus, talk about a waste of electricity.

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So here we see the dilemma. We now have to air con units competing with each other,one is trying to control the temperature inside the room while the other is essentially a giant hair drying trying to make our office as arid as the Sahara. For fuck’s sake, if it’s really that cold for you, put on a jacket and turn off your air con. Don’t make it worse for the rest of us that have sweat problems. Again, I’d like to point out that I can’t undress in here. No one wants to see that.

Short Ones: Mandatory Multiplayer?

On our last podcast, we discussed whether multiplayer was a necessity to extend the life of video games. I’d just like to double down on the topic again on this post.

On the surface it seems that multiplayer indeed extends the lifespan of a video game. Many examples abound to support this: StarCraft, Halo, Call of Duty, to name a few. A couple of posts back, I talked about how I got caught up in the multiplayer craze. I mentioned how I’ve logged in more than 100 hours in Overwatch despite essentially playing “the same experience” over and over again. However, is it fair to say that multiplayer is guaranteed or even necessary to prolong a game’s life?

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It makes sense, though, why publishers decided to tack on MP modes to these titles. Video games are expensive, so purchasing one is quite a heavy investment. One of the metrics we gamers use to judge if a product is worth a buy is the number of gameplay hours we can squeeze out of a game.Obviously, a game that’s 100 hours long must be better than a game that’s only 7 hours long, right?

If we look back at the last generation of video games, there are a number of titles that run contrary to this philosophy. Bioshock 2, Spec Ops: The Line, and even some of the Assassin’s Creed games featured multiplayer modes and yet no one plays these games anymore. In their case, they were all single player oriented and their main selling point was their stories.

There are also a number of titles that have gone beyond their expected lifespans without the use of multiplayer. Case in point is Skyrim. TES V was released way back in 2011 and yet its user base is as strong as ever. In fact, the game is so strong that Bethesda decided to release a re-mastered version of it titled “Skyrim Special Edition” just last year. Skyrim is a strictly single player existence yet its community has kept it thriving for over 5 years already. Bethesda’s Creation Kit that they released to the public has kept the game alive by continuously providing the game with new mods that add fresh content to the game. Because of community created content, it’s easy to crank out hundreds of hours on Skyrim more than was originally designed. Time will tell if Bethesda’s other flagship title, Fallout 4 will also stand the test of time but if Skyrim and its prequels, Fallout 3 and New Vegas, are anything to go by, mods will keep Fallout 4 alive for a long time, without the need for multiplayer.

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The Importance of Difficulty

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One of the main complaints gamers have regarding mainstream games these days is that most of them are too easy. A big reason for this is that as games become more popular, there is an increasing demand on producers to make the products that are more accessible to consumers. While it’s good to see the industry prosper, it takes away one of the key selling points video games have over other entertainment products: the challenge.

When you watch a TV show, there’s no involvement on your part whether the protagonist lives or dies. Sure, Dora the Explorer sometimes calls for audience participation but nothing you say will actually determine whether or not she catches Swiper the Fox. Likewise, unless you staple your own typewritten pages at the end of Harry Potter, nothing will change the awful fanfiction-esque feel of the epilogue in The Deathly Hallows.

I started playing Castlevania: Symphony of the Night recently, an old classic I’ve always wanted to try because I didn’t have a PSX growing up. Right off the bat, you can already tell the difference in game philosophy then versus now. There’s no handholding here. You’re dropped in the middle of Dracula’s castle and, after being stripped of your high powered equipment, must fight your through the labyrinthine hallways of Castle Dracula with no guides whatsoever. There are no quest markers and no NPC guides, just a world map that gets bigger the more you explore the castle. Whenever there’s a barrier or a missing bridge that hinders your way, you’re left to figure out for yourself how to proceed. Sometimes, the game can be unforgiving, such as when the game leads you to a darkened hallway filled with deadly spikes. You’re supposed to change into Bat Form here and use your sonar abilities to make your way through. But the game doesn’t tell you this; neither does it teach you how to use your sonar ability. The game goes, “Oh you need your hand held? Piss off, I’m busy rendering more monsters for you to fight.” However, this emphasizes the need for critical thinking, not just button mashing, in order to defeat the game.

It’s easy to make a game difficult by just increasing the life bar of monsters or decreasing your character’s stats. This is a cheap tactic because all it does is handicap your player. SOTN is cleverer than that. By emphasizing the need for exploration you empower your player by giving him control on where he wants to go while also challenging him to figure out how to proceed past certain puzzles and enemies. The variety of monsters and enemies in SOTN also adds to the challenge. Unlike Call of Duty where every enemy is the same cut and paste hostile soldier, SOTN has the liberty of adding any monster from any mythology ever.Each of these monsters is different so learning how to defeat them also adds to the challenge in the game.

Video games need to be challenging. Only when games are difficult can there be a sense of achievement.This is where games like the Souls series shines. Not only do the monsters have large health bars and deal lots of damage, they are also varied and have different weaknesses. Fighting each enemy requires ingenuity and experimentation with different tactics and weapons. When you finally defeat one, you have a sense of accomplishment that you managed to outsmart the game’s punishing level design. There’s also the slight ego boost knowing that you beat a game that’s known to be unforgiving and difficult.

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We as humans have within us a desire to conquer obstacles. It is human nature to dominate. That’s why many of us gravitate towards activities that challenge us like taking up sports, engaging in debates, and even competitive multiplayer games. There’s a reason why the e-Sports scene is so huge nowadays. (The recent CS GO ELEAGUE Major had a prize pool of $1 Million. And that’s just chump change compared to what League of Legends and DOTA get.)

Video games need to show their teeth again. We need to be frightened and challenged so that we can roll our sleeves up and tackle them head on. If they’re just as easy as reading a book, I might as well stick to buying novels. At least they’re cheaper.

Assassin’s Creed – why I still care

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My friends and I played a funny game the other day. We put together a list of, in our opinion, the most famous/successful video games of all time. The game was we each had to vote out a game we felt that the industry could do without. In the end, the one remaining game would be dubbed the most iconic and important video game of all time. It had the obvious titles: Pacman, Metal Gear, Tetris, and so on. It was a silly activity that we put together at the last minute. Some of the games included were throwaway titles so that there would be easy eliminations. If we were to do it again, I would compile the list more carefully, with economic and historical data to back up the claims of the game’s cultural influence, but it was fun nevertheless. What struck me, though, was that when someone called to vote out the Assassin’s Creed series, I immediately tried to veto it. Now, I’ll be the first to point out that the AC series is one of Ubisoft’s worst handled franchises. After a series of yearly disappointments, even Ubisoft decided to halt their practice of annual releases for the franchise. Yet, I still voted to keep it within the list. I knew it had no chance of winning the game, what with other juggernaut titles like Mario and Zelda in the list, but I felt the need to protect it. But why?

I loved Assassin’s Creed since the first game was announced in 2006. I remember following all the press releases and media coverage that the game had. I watched all the gameplay demos and exclusive interviews with the developers that led up to the game’s release. I loved the series even more when they came out with Assassin’s Creed 2. I loved them all until Black Flag, but by then, even I had started growing weary of their annual releases. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder and I can say that was something the AC series needed. Consumers need time to absorb the game and miss it before being given a sequel. If we always had a sequel every year, you reduce the importance of the series by making so many token releases.

Yearly releases also mean less time to work. Assassin’s Creed is notorious for releasing buggy, incomplete games. Who can forget the horrifying “disappearing face glitch” of AC Unity or the disappearing pirate ships of Black Flag? These are just minor issues when compared to the broken state of Unity’s multiplayer when it first came out. Players complained of the game’s inability to connect to servers or infinite queuing times when finding a game. Imagine buying full retail price for a game only to discover half of it doesn’t even work.

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Another problem the series has is that it began to lose sight of the story it was trying to say. 11 years and 9 (main) games down the line and we still don’t know where the plot is going. The whole Assassin-Templar plotline has just been reduced to an annoying and convoluted backdrop to a more fun sequence of parkour and action. Most of their recent games can be stripped of the Assassin’s Creed theme and it would hardly make a difference.Black Flag comes to mind. Remove the references to the Assassin-Templar war, replace the Observatory with some obscure Mayan treasure and you would still have the same swashbuckling story of adventure and redemption. Syndicate, too, when stripped of its AC elements, would remain hardly unchanged.

Knowing all this, I ask myself, why do I still defend the AC series? Why do I continue to stand by a franchise whose creators obviously have no respect for it and only regard it as their personal money printing machine? Why do I care for a series whose owners have no love for it at all?

The truth is, despite the mishandling of the product, I still care for the plot. I like the story of the beleaguered Assassins fighting for truth and freedom from the oppressive and tyrannical Templars. The struggle between freedom and control resonates with me.

The overarching theme is that though the human race may have been created by the Precursors to be slaves, within each of us lies an innate drive to be free. We saw this best in AC 3. Connor may not have been a very charismatic protagonist but he above all other Assassins best personified their Creed. The exchange between Charles Lee and Connor says it all.

“Why do you persist? You put us down. We rise again. You end one plot – we forge another. You try so hard. But it always ends the same. Those who know you think you mad and this is why… Even those men you sought to save have turned their backs on you. Yet you fight. You resist. Why?” asked Lee.

“Because no one else will!” exclaimed Connor.

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Because I love the story, because I want to see it handled well, and because I believe in its potential, do I continue to defend the series. Even though no one else will.

Short Ones: The Multiplayer Bug

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I think I’ll start a series called “short ones” where I’ll post about random thoughts I’ve had during the day which may or may not actually have a point.

I have a number of cherished games that I played growing up, Star Wars Rogue Squadron, Disney’s Hercules, Prince of Persia The Sands of Time, Halo (the original trilogy), to name a few. One thing they all had in common was they were all single player games.

I love stories: Tales like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Greek Mythology, Star Wars Legends books, and the Warhammer 40K lore;tragedy or comedy, classic or nouveau, stories were something I’ve always been fond of. Video games, to me, are another medium of storytelling for me to enjoy. So when I was growing up I never really understood the fascination my peers had for the multiplayer only experience. They would talk about Battle Realms, DOTA (1), Red Alert, and I just couldn’t relate. I just didn’t see what could be fun about repeating the same conflict over and over again with random people online or in a café.At least games like Ragnarok Online and World of Warcraft had lore to fall back on while you meandered through your 10th forest of the day collecting that quest’s McGuffin.My only exposure to multiplayer games growing up was Counter-Strike 1.6 which I enjoyed as a kid but only when I played with friends. I never played online and I certainly never played competitively. It came as a shock to me now around midway into early adulthood that I find myself obsessed with Overwatch.

It’s confusing. I play the same game over and over again, fighting for the same objective, against the same group of enemies but I never get tired of it. Worse still at $40 for the base game, it doesn’t even have half the content my SP games on Steam have that I’m currently ignoring. And yet I’ve already logged in over 100 hours in just a few months (noob). I’m even streaming my games now so I could show off my successes (haha!) online.

Competing against other players is a bigger challenge than just fighting with the enemy AI. Unlike the computer, humans have a better game sense and coordinate with each other better. You can’t time Ultimates with an AI controlled character. It’s a much more satisfying achievement knowing you outsmarted and outplayed another player. It’s also a huge boost to your ego when you see your ranking climb up several tiers above others’. That trumps any “Achievement” a single player game can give me any day.