Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Final Fantasy Renaissance?

After a decade spent in development, Final Fantasy XV is due for release finally in just over a month. Another new console Final Fantasy, World of Final Fantasy, will be arriving even sooner at the end of October. A little further off, the long-demanded Final Fantasy VII remake is at last going to be a thing too (maybe?). After some pretty fraught years when the series was clearly relegated to B-tier status, we may be coming upon a Final Fantasy renaissance. Or if Final Fantasy XV underperforms, this may be a last gasp for the series, the developer, and the JRPG genre.

Personally, I already know I won’t be playing Final Fantasy XV. I’ve watched the trailers with the Japanese male model protagonists, and the image they’re pushing with this game just has zero relevance to me.

By no means am I implying that I've outgrown the series. The truth is, I’ve been playing a ton of Final Fantasy lately. It just so happens that all of that gaming has been on mobile platforms, where I would say Final Fantasy truly is experiencing a renaissance.

Final Fantasy Record Keeper

I recently updated my blog post about Final Fantasy Record Keeper to better reflect how awesome the game has become. Read my full review or check out some of my videos for a better sense of how it works, but, in short, imagine one of those JRPG coliseums—one where you can team up all of your favorite Final Fantasy characters to take on classic battles from throughout the series. From the gameplay to the visuals to the music, it’s a veritable best-of edition of Final Fantasy, and, more than anything else bearing the name in the last decade, it has helped to remind me that, once upon a time, I loved this series. No, there isn’t much of a plot to Record Keeper, but, through the battles, longtime fans get to relive some of the best moments of past stories, which is probably better than having to slog through a new, terrible story.

I’ll add that right now is also a great time for newcomers to jump in. A recent update to the game made the gacha lottery mechanic far more generous. Now, any time you spend 50 mythril (or, alternatively, about $30) to enter the 11-item drawing, you are guaranteed to pull at least one 5-star relic. Furthermore, there is currently a beginner-themed banner offering enhanced odds to pull the most useful weapons in the game, and, on top of that, you get to select an extra 5-star armor to go with your 11 other items. This means that, for the price of 50 mythril (which can be earned in about a week or less), you’re guaranteed to receive at least two 5-star items, with a pretty good chance that one of them will be among the best in the game. The game now even starts you off with one 5-star item completely free. When I started playing, it took me about a month to obtain my first 5-star, a Danjuro dagger from FFXII, which carried me a long while after. If you were to start now, you could pretty quickly have an entire party armed with 5-star gear and be able to tear through the early-game content.

Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius

Pretty much everything Final Fantasy Record Keeper gets right, Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius gets wrong. My understanding is that Brave Exvius is essentially a Final Fantasy-themed re-skin of developer A-Lim’s hit free-to-play mobile RPG, Brave Frontier, and its origins in that unrelated franchise may explain why it doesn’t feel very much like Final Fantasy.

Like Record Keeper, the big draw of Brave Exvius is its inclusion of a ton of Final Fantasy characters to collect and rotate into your party. The difference is that, in Brave Exvius, you can only obtain these characters via the gacha lottery, and the odds of pulling your favorite are slim. Brave Exvius further dilutes the pool by including a bunch of characters that would not be on anyone’s radar. Maybe some fans will be mildly pleased to finally play as Giott from FFIV or Lani from FFIX (though probably not after you’ve pulled your third useless Giott). But the lower ranks are populated primarily by generic “original” characters created just for this game. Unless you have a ton of real money to burn to bypass the odds, chances are you’ll be spending weeks, if not months, playing with a garbage party of no-name commoners before you finally win any of the famed heroes of Final Fantasy lore. Before long, you’ll wonder why this game even bears the Final Fantasy name, except to tease you.

Even once you acquire some name characters, the actual experience of playing with them is disappointing. In Brave Exvius, the weak characters (which includes most of the name characters) are hopeless and interchangeably so, because what they all have in common is that they can’t use the few key abilities that make the strong characters good. And the strong characters still are not fun to use, because these good abilities are merely better versions of the numerous crap abilities in the game. Basically, you just hope you get a strong character (which may not be a character you otherwise like), and then you use the same ability over and over again. Everything else is a waste of space. The battle system itself is turn-based, not taken from any previous Final Fantasy, but simplistic enough to feel familiar to any JRPG veteran. It’s not inherently flawed, but the game balance so far has not been conducive to tactical depth or tension.

In its favor, one could point out that, unlike Record Keeper, Brave Exvius actually includes most of the elements of a full-fledged standalone RPG. There are dungeons and towns to explore, and there is a story and lots of dialogue. I personally find that these things bog down the mobile experience. I don’t have time to go on fetch quests, and I don’t enjoy wandering around using clumsy touchscreen controls and getting caught in random encounters en route to a dead end in a dungeon. As for the story, it’s laughably poor and nowhere near worthy of the Final Fantasy name. A mix of dull cliches and asinine banter between the two dimwitted male leads, it feels like any random uninspired C-tier JRPG from the 32-bit or even 16-bit era.

The only bright spots to Brave Exvius are the music and the hi-res graphics, which are all brand new. The art style is colorful and cartoony. It doesn't do much for me personally. It doesn’t offer the nostalgic appeal of Record Keeper’s SNES-style sprites, and it also bears no resemblance to the art of Yoshitaka Amano or Tetsuya Nomura. Basically, Edgar and Sabin in this game don’t really look like Edgar and Sabin to me, which further contributes to the perception of Brave Exvius as an “impostor” Final Fantasy.

Mobius Final Fantasy

Unlike Record Keeper and Brave Exvius, Mobius Final Fantasy is developed internally by Square Enix, and immediately it comes off quite a bit more ambitious than the other free-to-play mobile games. The 3-D visuals, evocative of Final Fantasy X, are perhaps of the caliber of last-gen console graphics, though lacking the variety of a full-budget release. There are also fully voiced cutscenes. Perhaps what really sets it apart, though, is that, unlike Final Fantasy Record Keeper, Mobius Final Fantasy actually has a story and, unlike Brave Exvius, that story actually feels like a real Final Fantasy, albeit stripped down.

The plot could be considered a very loose reimagining of the first Final Fantasy. The amnesiac player character in Mobius Final Fantasy is referred to as the “Warrior of Light,” and there is also a Garland, a Princess Sarah, and a Chaos. There are also numerous references to other Final Fantasy titles, but the game doesn’t lean on nostalgia. Mobius Final Fantasy feels like a new addition to the Final Fantasy canon, and that is something I can respect. Mind you, I’m not saying it’s an especially interesting tale, but the telling, in keeping with the rest of writer Kazushige Nojima’s oeuvre, is gloomy and introspective, and there are elements of mystery and intrigue that are at least more compelling than anything in Brave Exvius.

The battle engine is also mostly original, and, as with the story, I respect the ambition, though I don’t love the actual experience. The combat is quasi-card-based. You can equip up to four ability cards to take with you into battle, and these will cover your spells, healing, special techniques, basically anything other than regular attacks. Once in battle, these abilities in turn are powered by elemental orbs that are randomly drawn each time you perform a regular attack. When it works, it can feel quite strategic, and you’ll pat yourself on the back for knowing when to play which card to win a round in the minimum number of moves. At other times, it will seem like the game just refuses to deal you the right orbs, and you’ll curse the randomness of it all.

Currently, the game’s undoing is that the battles take too long and occur too frequently. The pacing, in terms of both the plot and the leveling system, is plodding. Your gameplay progression can be measured in the number of job classes you’ve mastered. To even unlock most jobs, you have to pull from the gacha system. One positive is that there are no “doubles"; the gacha will never deal you a job you already own, so you’re guaranteed to eventually get the job you want. Honestly though, unlocking a new job class just isn’t as exciting as unlocking a new character, so this isn’t all that enticing to begin with. Then, even once you get a new job, in order to level it up, you have to grind through thousands of tedious battles to gather the right materials.

I’m still keeping one eye on Mobius Final Fantasy, understanding that it just came out and might take another month or two to get going, but right now the story is too limited and the gameplay far too repetitive for me to actively invest my time in it.

Evolving Together

Three free-to-play mobile games may not seem like much of a renaissance, especially when only one of them comes recommended. But, like I said, Final Fantasy Record Keeper has helped to remind me that I really do love this series. Some of that is nostalgia, true. But a large part of what makes Record Keeper work has to do with how it departs from the Final Fantasy games of my youth. I have outgrown the series as represented by Final Fantasy XV, but it isn't because it has become overrun with sullen pretty boys. At least, that isn't the only reason. At my age now, I can't see myself ever having the time to invest in another console Final Fantasy. And that's why I'm so pleased to find the game evolving, in its better mobile incarnations, into something more considerate of my circumstances—something I have on hand at all times but can play in short bursts without it taking up all my time. Even just five years ago, the idea of one of my favorite video game series going mobile is something I would have fought. Now, I find that Final Fantasy on mobile is the Final Fantasy comeback I'd been waiting for, and I'm excited to see more.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Evo 2016 - Street Fighter V Preview

It’s that time of year again. This weekend, July 15-17, thousands of fighting game players from around the world will gather in Las Vegas to compete at Evo. This year, however, we will have a brand new game as the main event. After a good seven-year run, Street Fighter IV has been retired, with Street Fighter V taking its place.

With the game only just having been released in February, the competitive scene is yet in its infancy, many of the Street Fighter IV veterans still struggling to find their way with new characters and new mechanics. On the one hand, this means we may not see the same high level of polished play and depth of competition that we saw the last two years with Ultra Street Fighter IV at Evo. On the other hand, a new game is more exciting to watch for the simple reason that the competitors themselves are more excited. There’s much more room to grow as a player at the beginning of a game’s life than at its end, so it’s more fun and not as much of a grind.

But Evo is especially exciting this year because 2016’s season so far has provided a real narrative heading into the tournament. For the first time since—well, since Street Fighter IV’s worldwide debut in 2009—we’ve had a serious rivalry brewing, with two players, Japan’s Tokido and South Korea’s Infiltration, clearly ahead of the rest of the field. Four times these two players met in grand finals this year: three times in Premier events (next to Evo, the highest tier of tournament on the Capcom Pro Tour) and once in the prestigious Red Bull Kumite invitational.

The Road to Evo 2016

I’ve said before that, nine times out of ten, the fittest player is the one who wins. Pretty much from the moment he made his Street Fighter V tournament debut at Final Round in March, Tokido has looked like that guy. Immediately you could see that he was playing much more cleanly than anyone else. With his immaculate Ryu, he was the only guy who seemed to arrive at Final Round with a complete game, as meanwhile other players were still kind of just mashing their way through with Ken. And, just like Momochi in 2015, like Bonchan in 2014, he had that gift of seemingly being able to make his opponents move in slow motion. Usually, this is the effect you get when one player has been playing the game a crap-ton more than his opponents. He has become so familiar with myriad scenarios and has honed his perfect responses to be instinctive, such that he can basically play the game without having to think. That’s why his opponents, who are thinking hard, look like they’re moving so much slower. Alternatively, you could say it looks like this player can see into the future—a phenomenon that players back in the day used to describe with the term “psychic DP (Dragon Punch).” In my experience, the only way to beat someone like that is to show them something they haven’t seen before, something they can’t just process automatically.

Infiltration did exactly that. Repeatedly. As far ahead of the rest of the field as Tokido was, Infiltration seemed just that much farther ahead of Tokido. If Tokido was playing as though he could see one second ahead, then Infiltration looked as though he was playing from two seconds into the future. Playing Nash in a way that the game’s designers never conceived of, and that opponents and spectators alike were at a loss to follow—patternless back-and-forth dashing, random standing jab checks, springing forth with the offense unexpectedly but always at the perfect moment—Infiltration blew Tokido away at Final Round to claim the first ticket to the year-end Capcom Cup. A week later, at NorCal Regionals, he was not eligible to win a second ticket, but he decided anyway to once more deny Tokido that Capcom Cup spot (it will instead, at season’s end, go to the ninth highest-ranked player without a Premier championship).

At that point, there had been two Premier events so far on the Capcom Pro Tour, and the same guy, Infiltration, had won them both, both times beating Tokido in the grand final. When the two met again a month later at the Red Bull Kumite exhibition, first in the winners final and then in the grand final, it looked like we had ourselves a story. If only the rivalry weren’t so one-sided.

As the season progressed, Infiltration, having secured his Capcom Cup spot, cut back on most of his traveling. Tokido, meanwhile, seemed to finally be losing ground to the rest of the field. At the next two Premier events, Stunfest in May and Dreamhack Summer in June, with no Infiltration to stand in his way, Tokido was instead foiled by his fellow Tokyo players Momochi and Fuudo.

Finally, at CEO, traditionally the biggest tournament before Evo, Tokido and Infiltration were both in attendance, as was Momochi, who, in addition to beating Tokido in multiple tournaments, had managed a stunning perfect record against Infiltration over the course of the Street Fighter 5 Crash team competition.

Sure enough, the tournament would come down to these three duking it out for supremacy.

First, Tokido battled Infiltration in the winners semifinal.

(If you don’t have time for the whole video, just skip to 12:27 for the highlight.)

It looked like Tokido had studied hard for this match, as he confidently won the first game. The scary thing about Infiltration, however, is that not only is he hard to read in the first place, but the moment you think you’ve figured something out, he adjusts very quickly to make sure the same trick doesn’t work on him a second time. Once again, Tokido looked lost, as Infiltration won the next three straight, including one ridiculous sequence of four throws in a row. Was Tokido’s mind completely shattered at this point?

Next, in the winners final, Infiltration got his chance to redeem himself against Momochi.

(You don’t really need to watch this one. The two videos after this, however, are the two best matches of the year so far.)

Maybe people got a little carried away crowning Momochi the new No. 1-man after he won a few games against Infiltration in a three-on-three off-tour weekly event held for Korean television. Or maybe this was another case of Infiltration learning and adapting with a vengeance, because he convincingly 3-0’d Momochi this time.

In the losers final, it was then Tokido and Momochi in an all-Japan Ryu vs. Ken classic.

With that amazing comeback in the third game (6:00), Momochi certainly appeared the mentally tougher, more confident player. Yet somehow Tokido managed to compose himself after that dispiriting collapse to stage an even more remarkable recovery from down 0-2 to winning three straight.

Once more, it was Tokido vs. Infiltration in a grand final.

Coming from the losers bracket, Tokido needed to win two sets in a row against the guy who had had his number all year—indeed, the guy who had just a few matches ago beaten him here. How did Tokido do it? With style, for one thing.

It’s hard to account for how Tokido adapted so dramatically to turn things around. Partly, that’s because I could never account for anything Infiltration was doing in the first place. I’ll say that those parries, besides being incredibly hype to witness, may actually provide key insight.

The parry, when it was introduced in Street Fighter III, altered competitive Street Fighter in a fundamental way. It was a tool that could literally beat every attack in the game, which meant attacking suddenly became the riskiest play at all times. If you could just anticipate your opponent’s next move, the parry gave you the power to turn the tide in an instant. That’s what Evo Moment #37 was all about. In Street Fighter II and Street Fighter Alpha—almost any other 2D fighting game up to that point—Daigo would have been a dead man for sure. But because of the parry, all it took was one godlike read (and some tremendous execution) to turn what once would have been assured defeat into the greatest comeback in Street Fighter history.

As amazing as that moment was, the parry itself remained a divisive mechanic, and it did not return in Street Fighter IV. In Street Fighter V, however, Ryu has a parry, yet it has not affected the game in any fundamental way. It hasn’t even really been a factor. Everybody seems to forget it exists and just plays the game as though it were Street Fighter II. At least, that was the case up until this grand final.

Analysts have been reluctant to directly tie the outcome of the match to the parries, cool as they were. Each of Tokido’s three moments (2:06, 9:31, 12:26) did lead into victorious rounds, but they didn’t really come at tide-turning junctures. But remember that, at high levels (not for scrubs like me, who occasionally just guess right), parrying is principally about anticipating your opponent’s moves. It’s about reading the other player and the situation. It’s about being psychic, in other words. And here Tokido was pulling it off against an opponent who, for so long, had seemed unreadable. There could be no more emphatic way for Tokido to assert that, at long last, he had well and truly ascended and figured Infiltration out. As I watched the turnaround in that grand final, returning to that idea of Infiltration playing from two seconds into the future, I now visualized Tokido catching and outrunning him mid-race.

The Path to Victory

So what does this mean for Evo? Well, it would certainly suck for me to have written all that only for both Infiltration and Tokido to crash out early. I mean, it could happen. This is Evo, after all. But is Evo really so different from all the other tournaments these guys have dominated?

The difference between Evo and every other tournament is the scale. No other fighting game event draws multiple thousands of entrants to compete in a single game. Before this year, even a thousand competitors at any other tournament was unheard of. Street Fighter V at Evo has over 5,000 people registered—more than double Ultra Street Fighter IV’s record-breaking number from last year.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Infiltration has to beat 5,000 other players. The minimum number of matches for any player to win Evo this year is fourteen. That’s if they can stay in the winners bracket all the way through. Fourteen matches sounds easily doable for a player of Infiltration's caliber, right? But that’s not all.

Compared to a regional major, the larger number of entrants at Evo traditionally means that it’s longer in the beginning (because of all the extra no-names to wade through in pools), tighter in the middle (because ALL the name players are present, including people who don’t usually travel), and pretty much the same once in the top 8 (i.e. mostly Japanese guys, plus a few other East Asians and maybe one or two lucky Westerners who drew easy brackets).

With 5,000 entrants this year, that beginning stage will be longer than ever, but I have my doubts about the tightness of the pack in that middle stage. Street Fighter V being still such a young game, I don’t think, frankly, that there are even thirty-two elite-level players in the world yet. (Unless there are a bunch of super-good Japanese guys we’ve just never heard of. There are a bunch of random Japanese players registered....)

When you look at it from that perspective—Infiltration only has to win fourteen matches, and the opponents don’t start getting serious until maybe eight matches in (when he might potentially have to face Sako)—then it doesn’t seem like such a mountain for a clearly superior player to climb.

Thus, I’d say Infiltration and Tokido are pretty much locks for the top 8, and I’ll throw Momochi’s name in there too. (I mean, just check that guy’s expression when he plays. He’s not in this to lose, and you can bet he’ll have done his homework since CEO.) I would consider these three to be the co-favorites. Between the three of them, it’s much harder to call, but I’ll say that, after CEO, the ball is in Infiltration’s court.

Standing in the Way

Assuming the current brackets hold (and it sounds like they’re pretty much final, as of this writing), Infiltration and Tokido are actually in the same half of the draw, which means they would likely meet at the start of the top 8 on winners side. Momochi, meanwhile, is in the other half, with Fuudo being his likeliest opponent in top 8 winners.

I’d consider Fuudo to be right behind the three co-favorites. His character, R. Mika, is not as steady, and he hasn’t won a major tournament yet this season. But he has definitely shown himself capable of beating Tokido and Momochi. These guys play each other all the time in Tokyo, so they’ll all know what to do against one another.

For that same reason, I’d consider the other big Tokyo players, Mago and Kazunoko in particular, as threats, not to win Evo, but to potentially spoil Tokido’s run. They’d have to get pretty deep into the bracket before that can happen, but Tokido could be running into random Japanese players as early as his second pool (his fifth match, supposing he doesn’t lose beforehand), and he could potentially face Daigo in the second round of the quarterfinals (ninth match).

Besides Infiltration, Momochi, and Tokido, there are actually two other guys who have won Premier events on the Capcom Pro Tour this year. Phenom of Norway, the highest-ranked player in Europe, won Dreamhack Summer. There’s not enough data to say with certainty where he stands in relation to the rest of the world, but that tournament was attended by pretty much all of the Japanese name players, none of whom seemed prepared for his Necalli. Necalli is not at all a rare character, and Phenom’s did not have any special tricks. It was almost the opposite; he just dispensed with the mind games and kept nailing the Japanese with wakeup uppercuts (the most obvious option, which at high levels is among the least expected). We’ll see if that will hold at Evo.

China’s top player, Xiao Hai, won G-League, his home Premier, which was actually the most recent Premier event, taking place just this past weekend. For some reason, those Asian tournaments almost always have crazy results, so I wouldn’t read too much into Tokido and Momochi’s shockingly low placings at G-League. I don’t know how it went down, because the garbage Chinese stream was garbled or worse for most of the event. All I heard is that, at the end, Xian brought out Ibuki, which is crazier than all the rest of it. Xiao Hai still took it 3-0, though, which is not a huge surprise. As was the case in Street Fighter IV, Xiao Hai can beat anyone in the world but will just as likely fold to second-tier players. Either could happen at Evo.

About that Ibuki from Xian, it’s crazy because that character was only added to Street Fighter V a little over a week ago. One of the exciting things about the Capcom Pro Tour this year was that the game was expected to continuously evolve, not only because players would be learning a new game, but because downloadable characters would be added every month. Capcom couldn’t quite maintain that monthly schedule, and, so far, the downloadable characters have been designed more conservatively to be fairly mid-tier. Still, when it was announced that Ibuki and Balrog (boxer) would be legal for use at Evo—a decision met with cheers from spectators, grumbling from competitors—the fear was that, with the community not having had time to adequately vet or practice against these characters, some mountain man might show up to Evo and bust out some totally broken secret Ibuki tech to score a major upset.

Xian, a former Evo champion, has been fairly quiet in Street Fighter V, and most blame that on his character of choice, F.A.N.G., being among the worst in the game. But if he’s discovered something with Ibuki (and he is exactly the sort of player to find and exploit these things), that could be a game-changer. Sako, the Capcom Cup 2013 champion, is another player that comes to mind. He lives in Osaka, which is more on the fringes of the Japanese scene, so he hasn’t been seen much in tournaments. He has an affinity with the character of Ibuki, having used her in Super Street Fighter IV: AE 2012. And he’s known to be one of the most technically skilled and innovative players in the world.

As for the US players, there was some optimism before the season began that this might be the Americans’ year. There would be no arcade release for Street Fighter V, which cut out a significant chunk of the Japanese competitive scene. Evening the playing field, everybody got their first looks at the game at pretty much the same time via the worldwide beta test. A handful of California players even managed to get their hands on the final version of the game before anyone else. And the game itself was simpler and more streamlined than Street Fighter IV. It was closer to Street Fighter II, which the US used to occasionally win at Evo. All that optimism faded quickly, however, after the top four spots at the first US Premier event ended up going to foreign players.

And yet it probably is true that the chances of a US champion at Evo are higher than they’ve been in years. That is, one specific player has an outside chance to win. Through a string of victories in second-tier Ranking events, Justin Wong has actually risen to the top of the Capcom Pro Tour leaderboard, ahead of Tokido and Infiltration. Outside of Premier events, which have all been gobbled up by foreign invaders, he has been clearly the best player in North America, almost as untouchable as Tokido and Infiltration. He even extended his dominance to South America, doing in Brazil much the same thing that Japanese players have repeatedly done in the US: making their top local players look like rank amateurs. His character of choice, Karin, suits his methodical style of play much better than Rufus ever did. At NorCal Regionals, he came within inches of beating Tokido, and, while he’s yet to get a crack at Infiltration, many believe he matches up stylistically very well against the South Korean. The problem for Justin is that his local competition is nowhere near good enough to prepare him for the depth of foreign experience he’ll eventually have to fight through if he progresses far enough. As the No. 1 seed thanks to his ranking, he does at least have a favorable bracket. He won’t run into any real contenders until the top 32 (tenth match, assuming no losses), when he’ll likely face either Hong Kong’s HumanBomb or NuckleDu, the next-best player in the US.

After NuckleDu, the rest of the US is pretty free. For a minute, it looked like SonicFox—the teenage LeBron James of fighting games, who has been completely dominant in Mortal Kombat and Injustice (and random other games nobody cares about)—might become both the worst nightmare and the best hope for the US Street Fighter community, as he promised to finally bring his talents their way in Street Fighter V. Unfortunately, his skill in Mortal Kombat X hasn’t quite translated. Still, the kid is a fighting game genius who thrives on the big stage, so I wouldn’t count him out entirely.

The Evo Factor

The other factor that makes Evo different from smaller tournaments is Evo itself—just the gravity of the event. Over the length of the three-day tournament, the tension is only going to build, and then, once the finalists are on that grand stage competing for the most storied trophy in all of fighting games, anything can happen. You could argue that the big names have all been through this before, but the reality is we’ve seen that professionals across all sports and at every level still experience nerves. They’re only human. That’s kind of what makes it great.

Oh wait, Tokido’s a god. One of Japan’s five gods of fighting games, isn’t that what they say? I guess we’ll find out this weekend.

Monday, February 29, 2016

The Vision of Escaflowne – Funimation's Kickstarter

This April will mark twenty years since the original broadcast of The Vision of Escaflowne, which premiered on Japanese television on April 2, 1996. Probably not actually conceived as an anniversary project, but well-timed nonetheless, a Kickstarter campaign went up two days ago to fund the creation of a new English-language dub for the upcoming release of the HD extended cut. The project is on pace to crush its $150,000 goal; as of this writing, with twenty-nine days to go, already $136,388 has been raised by 882 backers pledging an average of $154.63 apiece. That’s pretty cool, if only because it attests to a persisting, modestly sized but clearly passionate, fan base for what remains one of my favorite shows of all time.

Created by Shoji Kawamori (Macross) and directed by Kazuki Akane, The Vision of Escaflowne was, in many ways, the sum, the apotheosis, the quintessence of anime up to that point. The Sunrise production featured giant robots in a medieval high fantasy world, and, maximally broadening its appeal, it centered around an ordinary Japanese schoolgirl as its point-of-view character. The series successfully blended mecha and shoujo like no single anime before it, even as it evoked so many of its predecessors across genres. Far more than a stew of tropes, Escaflowne brought together nearly everything about the art form that so captivated anime fans of the ‘90s, particularly those emerging enthusiasts in the West. Full of action, romance, and drama, the tightly serialized production possessed enough imagination to deliver a hand-drawn otherworld sufficiently removed from reality to be enticing yet mature enough in tone and content to feel relevant and even, at times, profound. Topping it all off, the series was elevated by an incomparably epic score from Hajime Mizoguchi and Yoko Kanno, along with production values that far outstripped just about any television anime prior.

In North America, Escaflowne was one of Bandai Entertainment’s first releases (originally subtitled-only on VHS in 1998) and ultimately one of its all-time bestsellers. It was an immediate hit with the hardcore sect, but it actually took a few more years before an English-language dub was produced for the new DVD format. The dub, handled by Vancouver-based Ocean Studios, first debuted on TV, with a heavily edited “Saturday morning cartoon” version airing on YTV in Canada and (briefly) on Fox in the US in 2000.

Even without a wide-reaching Cartoon Network run, Escaflowne’s success with Western audiences was enough to encourage Sunrise to adapt the story into a theatrical film in 2000, but the series has since largely faded from the spotlight. That’s nothing so unusual, given how quickly the anime industry must move on, with more and more new shows being released every year. For all its quality and broadness of appeal, Escaflowne was probably never unique enough to endure alongside, say, Neon Genesis Evangelion, roughly its contemporary and one of the singular works to still grip audiences’ imaginations long after its run. It probably also doesn’t help that Escaflowne never had much in the way of tie-in merchandise. Even the many DVD releases and re-releases are now long out of print in the US, so I don’t imagine most anime fans of the last decade have ever seen the show.

That brings us to this Kickstarter. With Bandai Entertainment now defunct, Funimation has picked up the Escaflowne license and intends to release the series and movie on Blu-ray. What’s more, this will be the English-language debut of the show’s extended cut.

As the story goes, when the crew was early on still finding its feet with the production, episodes were coming out overlong and then had to be trimmed to fit into the allotted Japanese broadcast minutes. The deleted footage was later restored for the Japanese home video release, but for whatever reason, Bandai’s English version was based on the broadcast cut.

I’ve never seen the extra footage, but from what I’ve heard, it doesn’t amount to more than a few minutes in the early episodes. In any case, the complication is that, if Funimation were to dub those additional scenes in English for this new release, the likelihood of them being able to maintain continuity by bringing together the original English-language cast is probably quite low after all these years (supposing anybody would even want the original actors back). The old DVD audio also probably would need quite a bit of enhancement to make it suitable for an HD release today. It would be easier to record a brand new English dub for the entire series. Of course, it would be even easier just to release it with no English-language track at all, as has become common in the North American anime market. So, basically, Funimation is turning the fate of the Escaflowne English dub over to the fans via Kickstarter.

The whole campaign is a bit sketchy, and it’s certainly not helped by the evasive answers given by Funimation’s representatives in the exclusive ANN interview that introduced the project. Two points: 1) the $150,000 that Funimation has set as its goal would certainly not be enough to fully a fund a new dub, and 2) regardless, Funimation surely has enough money to budget for a new dub without having to call for direct funding from the fans. Rather, Funimation basically admits that the Kickstarter is more to measure consumer interest (i.e. Funimation already has enough money, but it needs to know whether it’s worth spending on a feature people might not care about) and then, supposing the goal is met, to serve as a pre-order campaign. I don’t doubt that the Kickstarter will succeed and that Funimation will come through with all the rewards promised to backers, but I must say, the $155 reward tier for the complete series and movie would be a ridiculous price for the same product at retail. So there’s clearly a lot of extra money going to Funimation, which they probably don't need as funding.

But hey, I’m happy to know that I’m not the only one that still loves this show, and as long as this dubbed extended cut is getting made anyway, I’m looking forward to experiencing the series anew. Actually, I haven’t watched The Vision of Escaflowne in about fifteen years, so I can’t say for sure if it holds up, but I’ll gladly take this release as an occasion to revisit it!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Ashes to Ashes, Funk to Funky

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: If I could choose any song to be my entrance theme, it would be David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel."

And when I pass, I want "Space Oddity" playing me out.

Goodbye, Starman. You blew our minds.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

I'm Back

Well, sort of.

After three years of attempting to run my own Wordpress site, I no longer had the time nor the inspiration to regularly write new content. And with my being so unproductive, I could no longer justify the expense of the web hosting and what all. So here I am back on my old Blogger blog.

I do still have my domain, and I simply merged all my Wordpress posts into my Blogger blog, in a sense unifying my two sites. The imported posts were all formatted for my Wordpress site, however, which means that a lot of stuff is broken now (pictures, embedded videos, links to my other posts). But many links and videos broke on their own over time anyway, without my ever fixing them, so I can't see myself bothering now to go through and check every old and outdated post. If you see anything that you would specifically like addressed, feel free to leave a comment. Otherwise, it is what it is.

Thanks again for reading. Until we meet again.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Capcom Cup 2015 Preview

Capcom Cup 2015 Preview

Tomorrow is the day—the culmination of not only a season of Capcom Pro Tour battles, but of seven years and five editions of Street Fighter IV competition. Capcom Cup 2015 on Sunday, December 6 in San Francisco will represent the series finale.

The field is deeper now than it has ever been, the level of play at its peak. 32 of the world's most elite players, including six out of six Evo champions, will be vying for an unprecedented life-changing first-place prize of $120,000, as well as the glory of being, in essence, the end-all champion of Street Fighter IV.

Here is a rundown of all 32 competitors in the order that they have been seeded, according to their rankings on the 2015 Capcom Pro Tour:

1. Momochi

The defending Capcom Cup champion and Evo 2015 champion, Momochi was the player to beat at the beginning of the year, and he’ll enter Sunday as still the player to beat.

2. Infiltration

The only player ever to win both Evo and the year-end Capcom world championship in the same calendar year (2012), Infiltration can beat anyone in the world, and he knows it. A matchup nightmare for any opponent, Infiltration used over a dozen characters en route to winning five Capcom Pro Tour events this year.

3. Bonchan

Bonchan won two Premier Tournaments this year and continues to be the most consistent performer in the most stacked region in the world. But his character is definitely weaker than those of other top players, and nobody outside Japan is going to be intimidated by a Sagat.

4. Xian

The Evo 2013 champion was the only player to win three Premier Tournaments in 2015, and he has a history of finishing the year strong. There have been two Capcom Cups to date, and Xian was the runner-up in both.

5. GamerBee

The greatest player to never win Evo, the big trophy still eludes him, though GamerBee came damn close this year. Although famous for putting Adon on the map, having used the character to bully Momochi’s Ken many times over the years, these days it is GamerBee’s uber-cheap Elena that sees the most action.

6. Luffy

The Evo 2014 champion was without rival in his home continent this year; he won five Ranking Tournaments in Europe, while no other European took even one. But the Premier Tournaments were humbling for Luffy, as Asian invaders repeatedly shut him out.

7. Tokido

It took some time for Tokido to adjust to how much Akuma has been defanged in this edition, but he came back strong this year and has been a fixture in Premier Tournament top 8’s. He hasn’t had as much success closing out tournaments, but he’ll still be a major obstacle for anyone whose path he crosses.

8. Fuudo

The Evo 2011 champ still has the best Fei Long in the business, but the proliferation of Elenas has made his character far more vulnerable. To combat the Elena counterpick, Fuudo has added a pocket Seth, which is about as far as you can get from the patient style Fuudo is famous for.

9. Mago

Mago was the hottest player on the tour for about a minute, winning two Premier Tournaments and entering Evo 2015 as the No. 1 seed. His character, the nimble Yang, has proven the perfect counter to Akuma, which isn’t worth as much as it would have been in previous versions, but he also still keeps Fei Long around as a backup.

10. Daigo

The Beast is still the king of long sets, and he also won two Premier Tournaments this year. Momochi has owned him pretty hard through most of their 2015 encounters, but Daigo did win their most recent contest in the 5th Topanga A League.

11. Kazunoko

The irrepressible Yun master was the next-best player behind Momochi through the early part of the season, and he finished the year by taking seven straight games off Daigo in the 5th Topanga A League.

12. Snake Eyez

The most marketable player in the US was recently picked up for a sponsorship by Red Bull. The pressure on Snake Eyez will be huge, as he has been made the subject of an ongoing documentary web series that is set to culminate at Capcom Cup.

13. Nemo

The No. 1-ranked player in Japanese arcades, Nemo plays a relentless Rolento. He just never stops attacking (except when he does and then loses). With a full-time job and no sponsor, he doesn’t make it out to the States that often, but the Japanese players all know to fear him.

14. Xiao Hai

Xiao Hai is China’s top player. Sometimes he looks like the best in the world, as when he beats Daigo in the Evil Ryu mirror match. Other times, he looks like a second-rate mediocrity, as when he went 0-8 in the Topanga World League 2 invitational.

15. Justin Wong

Justin had to grind his way into Capcom Cup this year. Playing Elena in recent tournaments, he showed glimmers of his former self—the supreme turtle, who so frustrated Daigo in Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike. If he falls back on Rufus at Capcom Cup, he will not get far.

16. Poongko

In the past, people have sometimes regarded Poongko as more of a showman than a competitor, just slightly outclassed by the more “serious” pros. But when “The Machine” is on, his Seth can make any opponent look like a helpless training dummy, as happened memorably to Daigo at Evo 2011. And Poongko has really been on in the last few events leading up to Capcom Cup.

17. Itabashi Zangief

There are those who say Itazan is not even the best Zangief player in Japan, let alone the world. He’s definitely the most seasoned and internationally accomplished, however, and he cruised through the True Challengers Costa Rica tournament, even against two of America’s best in PR Balrog and 801 Strider.

18. Tonpy

Tonpy is the top-ranked C. Viper in Japanese arcades (or at least was at some point), which does not mean necessarily that he is the best. He did well at a bunch of smaller Asian events, and he has the right character to potentially pull off some upsets on a good day.

19. NuckleDu

Pretty clearly the best in the US in 2015, yet still a long shot to take Capcom Cup, NuckleDu is a fan favorite, in part because he is the only top player with the chutzpah to taunt (repeatedly) during real matches. Expect the crowd to go nuts if he does this against a top international player.

20. Dashio

Japan’s best Seth player. Some think his Seth is more complete than Poongko’s, although Dashio certainly doesn’t have as much international cred. He is capable of beating anyone in Japan, but his lack of experience at the global level may limit him.

21. Keoma

Keoma of Brazil did what no US or European player was able to do this year: he defended home turf against Asian invaders at a Premier event, earning his way into Capcom Cup by defeating Haitani at the Capcom Pro Tour Brazil qualifier. He followed that up by traveling to Europe, where he steamrolled the best the continent had to offer, including a win over Luffy. The guy is a beast—maybe the best Abel player in the world.

22. 801 Strider

Or maybe 801 Strider is the best Abel player in the world. He was the runner-up at a stacked Premier Tournament earlier this year, when he was playing the best he’d ever played—the best any US player has played all year—yet still he lost decisively to Kazunoko.

23. Dieminion

The “King of New York” and the best pure Guile specialist in the world, Dieminion has scored wins over several Japanese players this year. Weirdly, he probably stands a better chance against top international players than he does against any of the other US players at Capcom Cup.

24. Dark Jiewa

An under-the-radar Ken player from Chengdu, Dark Jiewa is good, but he kind of snuck into Capcom Cup early by winning the sparsely attended Abuget Cup in Indonesia. To his credit, he did win it by defeating the rather better-known player seeded right below him….

25. HumanBomb

At different times the best player in Hong Kong and the best player in Australia (also the only top player either region has ever had), HumanBomb now competes for Canada Cup Gaming for some reason. He is probably the best Sakura player in the world.

26. Shiro

The original Japanese Abel player, Shiro is still around, but I don’t think he had a winning record in 2015 against any of the other players qualified for Capcom Cup.

27. Problem X

Problem X has been one of the two best players in the UK (Ryan Hart being the other) for nearly the life of the game. Unfortunately, his first-round opponent will be Luffy, the undisputed best player in all of Europe. Also, scratch what I said about Shiro not having a good record against the other qualifiers; he was 2-0 against Problem X this year.

28. Gackt

Who says Fei Long isn’t top tier anymore? All three of the great Fei Long players made it into Capcom Cup. Though not as famous as Fuudo or Mago, Gackt has at times outperformed them with his comparatively more aggressive Fei Long.

29. Valmaster

Still the strongest Chun-Li in the world and the strongest white guy player in the world, Valmaster is now also the strongest member of Team YP (YouPorn). He’s a great competitor, but, as with Luffy, he was constantly blocked in his own region’s majors by players swooping in from Asia this year. Also, he couldn’t beat Luffy.

30. Misse

They call him “Wanchan-taro” (literally, “One Chance Boy”) in Japan, because all he needs is one chance with his Makoto to take any round in the blink of an eye. Of course, to win Capcom Cup, he’s going to need a lot of rounds and a lot of chances….

31. Dakou

Dakou used to be known for his ability to play nearly every character to a tournament level. Nowadays, he mostly just uses the same cheap characters as his training partner, Xiao Hai (Evil Ryu and Cammy), though less effectively.

32. RB

The wildcard, RB qualified for the 32-man tournament without actually ranking in the top 32 on the Capcom Pro Tour. He ended the season ranked 42nd, but claimed a direct entry by finishing 3rd at a Premier Tournament behind two already-qualified players. Still, he made sport of Europe’s best, and, with a Rolento, a Guy, and a Hugo in his arsenal, he could be a tricky first-round opponent for Momochi.


Who You Won’t See at Capcom Cup 2015


The Capcom Cup 2013 champion hasn’t been around much the last two years. As the winner in 2013, he probably should have gotten an automatic invite into Capcom Cup 2014 (as Momochi received this year), and who knows how that might have impacted things. As things are, he’s been too busy with real life to try to qualify. Still, his shadow looms over the tournament. He basically pioneered both Evil Ryu and Elena as they are played in today's game.


If Capcom Cup were an invitational produced for maximum entertainment value, Smug would for sure have been included. The only Dudley player of consequence, Smug is an artist with his character, and, more than any other US player, he has the explosive power to knock out the Japanese players. He just doesn’t have the consistency to actually win Capcom Cup, nor indeed to qualify, sadly.

Ryan Hart

The first player to qualify last year for Capcom Cup 2014 struggled all of 2015 and could not scrape together enough points to make the cut. His best shot came at Milan Games Week, where he only needed to finish 3rd and was one win away from doing so. Instead, he lost badly to RB. It’s a shame, because his matches against Momochi last year were the highlight of Capcom Cup 2014.

The Rest of Team EG

Before the game switched to Ultra Street Fighter IV, Team EG’s four US members—Justin Wong, PR Balrog, Ricki Ortiz, and K-Brad—were the four best players in the country. All of them, frankly, fell off somewhat after the version switch, and, this year, they couldn’t stand up to the Asian invaders or even really to NuckleDu and Snake Eyez. Only Justin could still pull out the rare win here and there, which is why he’s the only one at Capcom Cup. The hard truth is that none of the others deserved to make the cut this year, but PR Balrog at least will be missed. He is America’s best big-match player.


When Latif was living in the US, he was the best player in the country. Then he moved back to Saudi Arabia, and we never saw him anymore. This year, he made top 16 at Evo, and, in his only other appearance on the Capcom Pro Tour, he was, just like Ryan Hart, one win short of qualifying for Capcom Cup. He might still have the best C. Viper in the world, but we won’t see it at Capcom Cup, or probably ever again in meaningful competition.

Any M. Bison (Dictator)

Bison did a lot of damage this year, with SD Pnoy, Tampa Bison, and Jeron Grayson all notching wins against top international players. Unfortunately, no single Bison player performed well enough to represent at Capcom Cup. Phenom of Norway came the closest; he was another player who was one win away from qualifying.


What to Expect on Sunday

Japan’s current “Big Four”—Momochi, Daigo, Kazunoko, Bonchan—have been, without a doubt, the country’s best, both within Japan and in international competition, and will figure to be major contenders to win Capcom Cup, with Momochi the odds-on favorite. Aside from one another, their fiercest competition will likely come from the other East Asian powerhouses—namely, Singapore’s Xian, Taiwan’s GamerBee, and South Korea’s Infiltration.

The lower half of the draw is notably more shark-filled, as that is where Daigo, Kazunoko, Bonchan, and Infiltration have all been seeded. Momochi, Xian, and GamerBee will have one another to watch out for in the upper bracket. That works out especially well for Xian and GamerBee, since they have struggled somewhat against Daigo and Kazunoko.

Expect to see a lot of Elena and Evil Ryu. These two are now widely recognized as the dominant characters in the game. The former controls the ground game like no one else, while the latter is an offensive powerhouse and also versatile with no obvious counters. To give you an idea of their significance at the top level, Capcom Cup 2014 champion Momochi, who last year won going with Ken all the way, this year needed both Elena and Evil Ryu to close out his matches in the top 3 at Evo. Daigo, with his Evil Ryu, is the only “pure” user of either character, but, among the many players who have picked up secondary characters to cover their weaknesses, these two have been cheap, popular choices.

The other character meriting consideration as the final member of the top 3 is Seth. Three Seth players—Poongko, Dashio, and Problem X—qualified for Capcom Cup, and a few others came frighteningly close. Even Fuudo now has a pocket Seth. Except for maybe Xian, nobody has really had an answer for dealing with this character’s blistering offense. Instead, they mostly depend on Seth players making costly mistakes with this volatile “glass cannon” of a character, but even his infamously low health is actually higher now than in any previous version.


Early Round Matches of Interest

Daigo vs. Dieminion

This is a classic US vs. Japan matchup between two players who have each been the very best in their respective countries. History favors Daigo, but Dieminion is a studious player who will not go into this first-round match without a plan.

Snake Eyez vs. Keoma

This will be a very tense first-round match for Snake Eyez, who will be shouldering much of the burden of the crowd’s hopes for a US champion. Facing the almost freakishly stolid dark horse from Brazil, he will have to draw confidence from his strong record against the other two Abel players at Capcom Cup, 801 Strider and Japan’s Shiro, versus Keoma’s more limited experience playing top-level Zangiefs.

Kazunoko vs. 801 Strider

801 Strider is one of the hardest-working and most scientific players in the US, which he showed in matches where he systematically dismantled Momochi and Daigo this year. He will surely have a game plan for this first-round runback against the player who denied him a Premier Tournament title earlier in the year. On the other hand, Kazunoko has shown time and time again that strategy means little to him, and, unless it’s Momochi, he really doesn’t care who his opponent is.

Momochi vs. Poongko

If Momochi makes it past RB, his likely 2nd-round opponent will be Poongko in potentially a pivotal match. Poongko is legitimately a major threat to Momochi, having beaten him 5-1 at Topanga World League 2 this year. He’s also coming off a huge win at the Capcom Pro Tour Asia Finals in Singapore last month, where he made sport of Nemo and Bonchan, among others. I can’t quite call him a favorite to win it all—his placings this year just haven’t been consistent enough—but if he beats Momochi, he could definitely go far.


This is the toughest Street Fighter IV bracket that has ever been put together, or that ever will be. The results will be impossible to call past the second round, and expect some upsets even in the first round, especially since the format will not be best-of-5 until the top 16. Unlike other big tournaments, such as Evo, there will be no pools for top players to "warm up" against no-names. From the get-go, every competitor will be thrust into a treacherous best-of-3 match against one of the proven strongest players in the world. And, since most of the seedings have been set in stone for over a month now, every player will immediately be facing someone who has game-planned specifically to beat them. Whoever takes home the cup on Sunday, the amazing assemblage of talent should ensure a grand finale and fitting sendoff to Street Fighter IV.