Sunday, May 11, 2014

Twilight's Kingdom Reaction and Season 4 Review (spoilers)

Spoiler Alert
Twilight's Kingdom marked the end of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Season 4, and never let it be said that it did not go out with a bang. The two-part episode featured world-threatening danger, sacrifice, betrayal and atonement, and Twilight and her friends taking a large step toward realizing their destinies.

Oh, and a full-on Dragonball Z-style battle.

In true My Little Pony fashion, it was not the epic clash of Twilight wielding the alicorn magic of all four princesses vs. Tirek and his stolen power that solved the problem. It was not until Twilight sacrificed the power she'd been given for the sake of her friends that the true solution revealed itself. It set up a strong parallel with what Discord had done earlier, though in the opposite direction: Discord sacrificed friendship for power, and came to regret it. Twilight sacrificed power for friendship, and in doing so was able to defeat Tirek and save all of Equestria.

There was too much going on to really pinpoint a single moral or lesson to take away from this, but aside from the obvious issues of betrayal, forgiveness, and making amends, there is the issue that was addressed in the two-parter's only two songs: Twilight's uncertainty about what her role as a princess of Equestria means, and what she is meant to do.

When she first brings this up, the other princesses assure her that her time is coming, which is the kind of "you'll understand when you're older" non-answer that children are spoon-fed all the time, and they hate it. After defeating Tirek and gaining her own castle, Twilight realizes that she had been looking for the other princesses to tell her what to do. After all, her entire life has been spent following Celestia's teachings and the destiny that was laid out for her. It was only after truly coming into her own as the Princess of Friendship that she realized that her destiny is what she chooses it to be.

That is one heck of a lesson.

To address some potential issues:

It does seem that, when Tirek betrays Discord and steals his magic, the draconequus goes down a bit too easily. I know that I, at least, wanted to see what would have happened if Tirek and Discord threw down for real.

Upon further thought, however, I came to a realization: Discord has never used his magic offensively. He can create things, change things, warp physics and bend reality, but he has never actually unmade something. Tirek, on the other hand, is a force of pure destruction. I am not certain that Discord actually knows how to "fight." He has never had to. The only things that have ever defeated him are the Elements of Harmony, and now Tirek, and in all instances his defeat was so quick and so complete that the thought of fighting back did not even seem to occur to him.  

The other major complaint I see regarding the season finale is the Mane Six's new "rainbow power" forms, seen by many fans as a money-grab by Hasbro attempting to sell a new line of toys. Since Dragonball Z references abound in the wake of this episode, allow me to make a comparison: in DBZ, most of the main characters and villains get multiple transformations as their power levels soar ever higher. Goku alone has his starting form, Super Saiyan 1-4, Vegito, Gogeta, and Super Gogeta (including Dragonball GT). Even not counting the transformations not seen until GT, that is five different forms for the main character alone. Nobody batted an eye. 

The difference is that Dragonball Z is seen first as a show and second as a marketing tool. When Goku reaches his next level of power, people don't think, "oh great, another toy to buy." They think "wow, that was cool."

Or, "wow, saiyans should do the marketing for Rogaine."

When it comes to My Little Pony, even the most die-hard fans don't seem to be quite able to put aside the fact that it began as marketing for a line of toys. When new characters are introduced, when new outfits or accessories are shown, or when there is a pronounced transformation, there are always accusations leveled that it's just yet another chance for Hasbro to sell more product. 

Friendship is Magic may have gotten its start as the newest incarnation of a glorified toy commercial, but it has proven itself to be so much more than that. These new transformations are not a cheesy and cheap attempt to sell some recolored ponies, they are the payoff from a season's worth of buildup. 

If you don't want to buy new toys, then don't, but to call it a marketing ploy is an insult to the show, the company, and the intelligence of its viewers. 

With that, Season 4 came to an end, and what a wild ride it's been. Coming as it did after Magical Mystery Cure and Equestria Girls, each of which garnered a mixed response at best, the season started off strong and restored faith among the fandom with Princess Twilight Sparkle. From there it was a mixed bag as new writers got their first shot at the series and old favorites continued cranking out the quality we've come to expect. Season 4 may very well be my favorite, and it certainly included my two favorite episodes to date (Pinkie Pride and Twilight's Kingdom). It had its low points, perhaps more than other seasons (Castle Mane-ia, Daring Don't, and It's Not Easy Being Breezies come to mind), but it also took the series to new heights in terms of animation quality, music, and storyline.

Some episodes were quite reminiscent of Season 1, as the ponies explore who they are and what it means to be a good friend, as seen in Rarity Takes Manehattan or Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3. Others took the show in entirely new and unexpected directions, such as Bats! wherein we saw perhaps the first real disagreement between the Mane Six. There had been problems before, certainly: not being sure of how to solve a problem, being under spells or mind control, or being fooled by an outside force, but this was the first time when all six were on the same page but had distinctly different ideas of what to do about it.

Directed by Tim Burton

Overall, Season 4 was an intense combination of nostalgia and new ideas, highs and lows, and good and bad (but mostly good). The impact of the new writers was evident, but as the season went on it was obvious that even the newcomers were becoming more comfortable and proficient with the characters and the world. In Castle Mane-ia the characters sometimes seemed like caricatures of themselves, while by later episodes like Leap of Faith they were fully fleshed out as the ponies we've come to love. 

After Magical Mystery Cure and Equestria Girls, I entered Season 4 with cautious optimism. I will be entering Season 5 with full-blown elation.

But for now...

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Missamja, Part 1

Missämja, an agent of chaos, sees a world that is strangled by order and smothered by creation. Humans, the planet's caretakers, are slowly killing it as they endlessly propagate and try to bend the world to their will. Missämja has worked in secret for millenia to combat the overabundance of order and creation in the world and restore it to its natural, chaotic balance. She is going to save the world, even if she must destroy it to do so.

Missämja (working title) is an episodic story that I will be posting chapter by chapter here on my blog. To read the story in its entirety, click the tab at the top of the page, which has links to each chapter finished to date. Catch the first chapter after the break.

This world is dying. The people in it have become fat and lazy, growing ever more complacent even as their planet slides toward ruin. The Earth is so caught up in its own rules and orders that its people do not believe there is any other way to live. Not all; some see what is happening, and a few fight against it. They try to wake up the others, to make them all see what is happening, but they are too few, and too weak.

When I say too weak, I really mean too poor. This world is enslaved by its own greed, and the one true god is the Almighty Dollar. Those who might take action to stop the world's doom instead choose to hasten it in the name of profit.

Luckily for mankind, though they have forgotten the old powers, the old powers have not forgotten them. Order, chaos, creation, destruction, these things exist in many forms. It is my belief that order and creation have gained much too strong a hold on this world, leading to stagnation and overpopulation. Agents of destruction are attempting to fight back with war, disease, and natural disasters, but creation is overpowering them. I hope that by introducing enough chaos into the world, I may indirectly aid them as well.

Chaos, of late, has taken a liking to its old Norse name, Loki. It says the name has a nice sound to it, and the fact that the name essentially sprang from the ether with no clear etymology appeals to chaos. I sometimes wonder if it created the name itself.

My thoughts do have a tendency to wander. I was talking of money.

What is money but a number on a page? There was a time when it was backed by gold, something of actual value, but humanity has long since discarded that idea. Now it is simply a convention that they accept because they know no other way. What they do not realize is how quickly, how easily their carefully crafted tower of nonsense can topple. Money is nothing.

Time is nothing. Hours, days, weeks, years, these things do not exist. What people believe to be time is nothing but an arbitrary set of numbers imposed upon the natural flows of creation. The lion on the plains does not concern himself with what day it is nor where he needs to be at a given time. He has no schedule save the turning of the heavens and the rumbling of his stomach. His life is chaotic and free.

Truly, is there any creature so arrogant as a human? With their artificial rules and regulations, numbers and formulae, they try to create reason and meaning in a universe that is devoid of it. In chasing this impossibility they run themselves to death.

I will stop them.

A squirrel scampering through the branches of a nearby tree catches my attention. Something about its bushy tail and the focused urgency of its movements makes me smile. My mind wanders back a few million years—six or eight, maybe thirteen, I'm not really certain anymore—to the common ancestor that humans share with other modern primates. Some of that creature's descendants would go on to leap and swing happily through the trees, just like this squirrel. Others would walk upon the ground, build their homes and their empires, pollute the air and poison the water, and bring about the end of the world.

I snap back to the present as a passing man makes a catcall at me. I turn to look and find him closely examining my posterior. I am not sure why it concerns me at all, but it aggravates me. My eyes—normally a particular shade of greenish-yellow purple that appears gray to mundane observers—briefly swirl with every color of the visible spectrum, some outside of it, and a few that don't exist at all. The effect is rather like oil on water, with patches of darkness where mortal rods and cones fail to perceive the color of chaos.

The man, who is making no effort to hide that he is looking and liking what he sees, abruptly trips over nothing and falls hard on his face, to the amusement of passers-by. A small offense, so a small retribution, but it is always amusing to see what just a speck of disorder can do.

“Serves you right,” an onlooker shouts. The man picks himself up and slinks away.

I continue to walk down the path, resuming my journey that has no beginning nor destination. I am in a park, if I am remembering the word correctly, a small patch of greenery that the humans have arbitrarily decided should be preserved. I could almost admire the random nature of the choice, but it is not enough.

I hiss in pain as I stub my toe on a rock. The soft boots I am wearing should have protected me from such small hazards, but I recognize this as backlash from the chaos I had channeled a moment ago. Sometimes my abilities turn against me, sometimes not. I cannot anticipate when the backlash will happen, nor what form it will take. It would not be chaos if it could be predicted.

I pass someone on a bench reading a newspaper. On the front page is a story about continuing conflicts in the Middle East. I shake my head slightly; I will admit that that plan backfired. I had hoped, through a drop of chaos channeled into the peoples' respective mythos, to make mankind see how absurd it was to fight over land, a thing that no person could own. All I ended up doing was making two groups fight endlessly over some of the least desirable territory in the world.

Speaking of land and failed plans, I was also responsible for the eruption of Mount Vesuvius some years ago. It was another attempt to make people realize that they cannot claim the Earth for themselves, for the Earth is its own and belongs to no one. How can one believe they have mastery of a place when, at any time, that place could decide to shrug them all off?

Needless to say, it did not work. There were no survivors to spread the tale of the planet's wrath, and later generations took it as nothing but a historical curiosity. I unwillingly remember how badly my powers had rebounded upon me after that incident. I had somehow tripped and fallen into the lava despite being miles away. I may be immortal, but that does not make molten rock any less painful.

I do not wish to make it sound as if my task is hopeless, nor that I am not up to it. Changing the world is not a thing that happens easily nor without setbacks and losses, but I can see progress being made. Wars and rebellions are springing up across the world. There was a successful revolt in France a few hundred years ago as the people came to realize that they were being unfairly constrained by the tyranny of law, and if I am not mistaken there will be one in America shortly. Stories pour in from Europe, Asia, and Africa of uprisings in this country, civil war in that. The world teeters on the brink of change, and it is now my duty to give it a push.

My history is littered with failures and successes, but there is nothing I can do about what is past. My only concern is what I must do now.

I am Missämja, servant of chaos, and I will save this world from itself.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Bit Brigade: The Most Fun You Can Have Watching Someone Else Play Video Games

Bit Brigade shreds games almost as quickly as guitars

Bit Brigade is a five-piece rock outfit based in Athens, Georgia. The band features Bryant Williamson and Jace Bartet on guitar, Luke Fields on bass, Mike Albanese on drums, and Noah McCarthy on... NES?

Yes. Bit Brigade is a band that combines music and video games into a performance art all their own. As Noah blasts at top speed through the game of the night, the other band members provide their own blood-pumping interpretations of every song and musical cue in near-perfect synchronization.

I saw Bit Brigade perform at PAX East 2014, where their chosen game was the original Legend of Zelda. From the opening “press start” screen to the final image of the Triforce of Power among Ganon's ashes—which took, all told, about 40 minutes with Noah at the controller—they kept the audience rocking.

If you are familiar with the original Legend of Zelda game, you know that there are about four songs total in it: you have the overworld theme, the dungeon theme, the final dungeon theme, and the credits. There is also the game over music, but that never came up. These same songs repeat over and over as the player goes from the overworld to each dungeon and back to the overworld again, but those who expected a repetitive and boring performance were quickly reassured as Bit Brigade drew on songs from the entire Zelda franchise to keep things going. For me, at least, part of the fun was seeing how many of the tunes I could recognize—most of them, as it turned out. My favorite Zelda tune was and will always be the iconic overworld theme, but other notable selections included the Dark World theme from Link to the Past, the overworld theme from the franchise's dark horse Legend of Zelda II, and Ganon's Tower from Ocarina of Time.

As good as the music is, Noah's playing keeps pace. As fans of speed running and professional gaming know, there is a certain satisfaction in seeing a game played well. A classic game like Zelda, one of the old standbys of Nintendo and modern gaming as a whole, has a powerful nostalgia factor as well. Being very familiar with the game myself, I found myself watching and analyzing McCarthy's playing:

Where are you going? There's a 30-rupee secret room there!
Not going for level 5? Oh, he wants the White Sword first.
Last extra heart/potion room, honestly at this point I would go for the potion. Yup, good call.

Et cetera. I probably don't need to tell most of you what it's like to watch someone be way too good at a game: a combination of analysis, awe, and learning. I imagine it's much the same experience that sports fans have watching their favorite teams (though I couldn't speak from experience on that one).

These two elements of Bit Brigade's performances—the music and the game itself—are impressive on their own, but come together to create a new kind of experience. The real magic is in their teamwork. This could easily degenerate into inappropriate songs and mistimed effects, but they've learned to work together. Each time the music faded out as Noah waited for the right moment to collect the latest piece of the Triforce, it gave the air of a dramatic pause. When he picked it up and the musicians rocked out the fanfare, it never failed to get a huge cheer from the audience.

Unfortunately, as eloquent as I like to believe I am, a performance is something that must be seen to be fully appreciated. Much as I would like to, I can't get all of you tickets to their next performance, so instead please enjoy this video of their performance of Mega Man 2 at MAGFest X:

Monday, April 14, 2014

My Little Pony CCG: A Horse of a Different Color

Pictured: Pre-release promo Nightmare Moon

I played a lot of fun and interesting games at PAX East 2014, including a memorable game simply titled Throw Trucks with your Mind—a review of which will be forthcoming—but the game I undoubtedly spent the most time and money on was the My Little Pony Collectible Card Game.

My Little Pony, as most of you are probably already aware, is a show by Hasbro, targeted at young girls, whose latest incarnation is titled My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Friendship is Magic, the fourth generation of the franchise, first aired in 2011.

While My Little Pony has historically been at best a thinly veiled toy commercial of atrociously low quality, Friendship is Magic's unexpectedly deep characters, surprisingly rich stories, and powerful messages of friendship and positivity have drawn in an enormous fanbase of all ages and genders. Hasbro has capitalized on this unlooked-for market with a wide variety of products, including a new collectible card game (CCG), which brings us to the topic at hoof. Er, hand.

The My Little Pony CCG, which was released in December 2013, allows players to take control of their favorite ponies and use them to solve various Problems that crop up. At its simplest it is a game of confronting and solving Problems for points, with the first player to reach fifteen points declared the winner. This is accomplished by sending characters to each Problem until a certain minimum power level is reached, at which point you are able to confront it.

I don't want to devote too much time to breaking down the mechanics and rules of the game, but just so we are all on the same page, here is a quick rundown:

Each deck contains one main character, 45 other cards, and a ten-card Problem deck for a total of 56 cards. As I said before, the goal is to confront Problems and build up your points. Players begin with their main characters on the field and support them with Friends and various Events and Resources—which if you're familiar with Magic: The Gathering are essentially instants/sorceries and enchantments. The other type of card is the Troublemaker, which can be played on a Problem to prevent your opponent from being able to confront that Problem, and often has other negative effects as well. As you build up your power on the field you are able to play more powerful cards, and as players gain points they both start generating more Action Points (AP) with which to play those cards, giving the game the feeling of build-up that is central to so many CCGs.

It is important to keep both the power level and the color of each card in mind, as many cards require a certain amount of a certain color to be in play before they can be used, and all Problems require at least two colors to confront. Each Problem has two costs: a color-specific cost for the one who played it, and a more expensive but non color-based cost for the opponent. This adds another layer of strategy, as it allows players to pick their battles based on what they currently have available.

The last mechanic worth exploring is the faceoff. When both players confront the same problem it triggers a faceoff, which is a confrontation between the two groups of friends at that problem. Each player totals up the power of the friends at the problem then flips one card from the top of his or her deck and adds that card’s power. Whoever has the higher total wins the faceoff and receives bonus points, at which point the problem is considered “solved” and the characters return to their starting area.

While the goal is the same no matter who you are playing as, each main character has their own playstyle. For example, Twilight Sparkle operates in large part by generating additional AP, while Rarity is devoted more to control-based mechanics like Inspired, which allows the player to look at the top card of his or her opponent's deck and put it back on the top or bottom. I found myself with a certain affinity for Rainbow Dash, which is not surprising as she plays a great deal like a mono-red deck would in Magic—those of you who know me personally know that I am a die-hard Red Deck Wins player. Rainbow Dash plays by sending out a lot of ponies, which she is then able to move around the field quite quickly and easily. Her power builds rapidly, and her movement tricks enable you to make sure you have that power right where you need it.

My concern going into this game was that it would simply be a money grab by Hasbro: a lackluster Magic or Yu-Gi-Oh clone with ponies on the cover, looking to make a quick buck from the fandom. I could not have been more wrong. My Little Pony is a solid game, and the mechanics and overall tone of the game are like no other CCG I've ever played. Rather than a battle, this is a race to solve Problems and correct what's wrong before your opponent can; a competition, certainly, but not a fight. This is shown not only in the terminology used (ponies confront instead of battling, and are dismissed rather than killed, for example) but in the very mechanics of the game, namely in the scoring system.

In Magic the Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh, Kaijudo, Vanguard, or any other CCG you care to name, the objective is to break down your opponents defenses and attack until you are able to deliver the killing blow. In My Little Pony, it is the opposite. Rather than aiming to take away your opponent's points, you try to build up your own. The other part of this mechanic is how Action Points are generated: at the start of each player's turn, that player gets a certain number of AP which he or she can then use to play cards, move characters around, draw extra cards, and a few other things. The interesting part about it is that points are generated based on the score of the highest scoring player. While this is in place mostly to prevent the game from quickly becoming too one-sided, it also feeds into the ever-present feeling that, even though you are competing against your opponent, you are not really enemies. Even though you are doing your best to win, you are helping your opponent as well.

Overall, the MLP CCG is an unexpectedly good game, and a breath of fresh air in the trading card game world. It has some innovative ideas and an atmosphere that's all its own. Is it as good as long-standing games like Magic or Yu-Gi-Oh? At the moment I would have to say no, but on the other hand it has only been out for a few months. Details are still being ironed out and options are still rather limited. The second set, Canterlot Nights, is scheduled to release in May, so I am excited to see where Hasbro and Enterplay are able to take this game with the second set and beyond.

Whether you're a pony fan or not, this is definitely one to keep an eye on.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

It is good to be back

Some time ago, I started this blog with the intent of keeping my friends and followers up to date on my current writing projects and events.

I quickly ran out of ways to make "I'm still working on a book!" sound interesting, and the blog petered out.

I've cleared out the old posts and I'm rebooting it with a slightly altered, or perhaps I should say expanded, focus. Rather than being strictly about my writing projects, it will be about whatever is going on in my life or whatever has caught my attention recently. That can and will include my writing projects, of course, but I will also be writing about games I've played, books I've read, people I've met, places I've been, whatever happens to be enriching my life at the time, in the hopes that it might help to enrich your life as well.

With this new mission statement and a reaffirmation of purpose, I hereby reopen this blog.

I just returned from PAX East, so expect a few articles about games and the like coming up shortly.