Best of 2008 – Definitive Edition

I think only the lucky or the terminally un-opinionated actually fully enjoy reading Top X lists. For the rest of us it’s an experience all too often filled with bewildering disbelief that some idiots voted item X above item Y even though it’s clearly inferior or why poltroons who engaged in voting entirely forgot about item M. The one advantage of public Top X lists is that they have at least the pretence of objectivity as they’re based on public votes. On the flip side this means they’re an indication of popularity rather than quality (as only the naive believe the two are inseparable). Though I suppose “Top X” has always been shorthand for “Most Popular X” rather than “Best X”. I sure do love me some variables.

So, as it’s my first weekend in work in a while, and a saucy mixture of apathy and self-loathing means I’m still working in “da phone” I think I might make some attempt at compiling my own Top X lists for 2008. I never really do well at these kinds of list as I find it hard to make the kind of discrete judgments between, say, 5 and 4. Even worse as my likes and dislikes tend to be mercurial these positions are likely to change. That’s why I haven’t numbered the various entries. I suppose I could go over every item that I bought, played, read, watched, etc. in 2008. But that seems like a) a pain in the arse and b) the content of another post.

I think for the purposes of this X shall be 10. Needless to say if you have not experienced any of the things listed below then you should go out and do so. Because just like your mother I know best. No really, I do. I suppose in the interest of transparency and accuracy I should note that not all of the items listed below were created/released in 2008, some of them I simply only came across in 08 or are still being released in 08.

I’ve left out a list of both top ten books, comics and albums because frankly the output in those sectors hasn’t really wowed me. In regards to books the size of my “to read” pile is rather obscene so it’s probably not the literary world’s fault. With music though it’s simply that this year has been, well, shite. While some of it is ok for background listening or one or two plays very little of it has made it into “heavy rotation”. I’m still listening to a lot of 2007 stuff (mostly Boxer). There has been some good stuff in 2008 (Blitzen Trapper, The Gaslight Anthem, etc.) but I don’t think I could compile a top 10. And the less said about comics (and by comics I mean American or English titles) the better.

Well this was meant to go up a week or two ago but was tragically delayed by me playing Persona 4 which pushed little big planet out of my video game Top 10. (And was then further delayed by my completion of Uncharted (Too easy) and Ar Tonelico (also too easy) and then even further delays by Street Fighter IV). I should also note that most of the screenshots, art and whatnot below were used for my own amusement value rather than as representative samples.

Top 10 Games of 2008


Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3: FES (PS2)

Persona 3 CoverPersona 3 Gameplay

Persona 3: FES is an expansion which incorporates the original Persona 3 and in addition to adding a great deal of content (both game play and storyline-related) to the main game, includes a continuation of the story entitled The Answer, making for an extra thirty hours of game time. It also contains extra costumes and a new weapon synthesis system, twenty-three more Persona, and a “hard” difficulty setting.

I’ve been a fan of the shin megaten series and its spin-off’s for quite some while now. The mature nature of the stories and the novel game mechanics always make for an engaging experience, while the difficulty appeals to the old hardcore crpg player in me (ah levelling). So it’s no exaggeration to say that I was really looking forward to Person 3 being released in English. However when it was released I decided I’d hold off on playing for it in favour of waiting for a fan produced “UNDUB” to be released (an UNDUB is the English game with the fmv’s and sound replaced with their Japanese equivalents). By the time the UNDUB came around FES had been announced and as I was playing other games at the time I thought I would hold out for FES, and then when FES came around I again waited for the UNDUB to be done. So while it was released in April of this year I didn’t get around to playing it until June (the European version was only released in October).

But I have to say it was well worth the wait. It is one of the best RPG’s I’ve played on the PS2 (which is saying something considering its superior crpg catalogue). I loved the atmosphere, the characters, the story and the mechanics. The entire package was so well done and so well presented that it was extremely hard to find fault with it. The Social Link System and the way you play through each day really adds a wait to the characters decisions which is often missing or more abstract in other rpg’s. I suppose I could find one or two faults with it, but to be honest they are more issues of preference rather than actual problems.

The game offers excellent value for money, on my first play through I had easily clocked up over one hundred hours, and that’s without taking into account the additional game “The Answer”. I would heartily recommend this game to fans of crpg’s, its one of if not the best RPG’s released this year (I’m hoping Persona 4 which is released tomorrow will be as enjoyable).

Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm (PS3)

Naruto CoverNaruto Gameplay

As with most long running and successful manga/anime series there are a lot of Naruto games, a lot. And also as usual with shounen stuff the majority of the games are fighters. However for quite some time the best of the Naruto games have been the Naruto: Ultimate Ninja series (Naruto: Narutimate Hero in Japan). Starting on the PS2 the series has three games covering the entire length of the first part of the story (and including playable versions of nearly every character that appeared – the third game had 42 playable characters and featured all of the alternate forms for the various characters who have them) and then a further two games covering the original series and adding in the material and characters from Naruto Shippuden as well (it also expanded the roster massively as it included new characters as well as pre and post timeskip versions of old characters, something like 70 playable characters appeared in the fifth game).

So when they announced that they were extending the series to the PS3 in 2007 I was certainly excited and looked forward to it. And then I promptly forgot all about it (no doubt because I’m so terribly busy). The next time it popped up in the Mickosphere was in July when the demo appeared on the US Playstation Store. One short download and furious battle later and I was hooked. As soon as I managed to drag myself away I pre-ordered the game and then watched in horror as the release date was pushed back not once, but twice. However last week the game arrived and a week and fifteen or so hours play later and I’ve unlocked all the playable characters and completed about 40% of the missions.

Having played most of the Naruto games across most platforms I would say this is probably my favourite, while I do miss the massive rosters of the older games I’m sure these will come in tie. The best thing about Ninja Storm is the fluidity and dynamic of the fights, one of the creator’s said that they were aiming to remove the borderline between the anime and actual gameplay and I would say they have succeeded. The fights feel and look like the fights from the anime and this is what makes the game so great.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PS3)

MGS4 CoverMGS4 Gameplay

Ah Metal Gear Solid, I have fond memories of loading up Metal Gear Solid one in Dublin Street (“back in the day”) as we all sat around and oohed and ahhed at the Playstation 1 being pushed to the max. I don’t think any of the other games in the series have had the same kind of impact on my as that first game, certainly MGS 4 is the only one that’s come close. Two, as I’m sure most right thinking people will agree, was a terrible disappointment and ultimately pretty shitty. How they thought letting you play as Snake for the first half (even with the mullet) and then forcing you to play as the whiny androgynous Raiden for the second half would engender awe in the audience is beyond me. Unfortunately I didn’t play three (other than the monkey sub-game) and as such can’t comment on it (though from all reports it’s excellent.

I found Metal Gear Solid 4 to be a very enjoyable game, playing through almost the entire sixteen or seventeen hour first run in one mammoth session. There are very few games that engender that level of interaction these days. It really is one of the few games I’ve played that actually felt next gen, that felt like it wasn’t just the same old gameplay tarted up with better graphics. So the gameplay side of things certainly delivered. I also really enjoyed the story, while it does have one or two glaring “MGS-ism’s” it’s not really any more or less realistic than a lot of current mainline fiction. While I enjoyed the story all the way through the ending and then the subsequent debriefing (particularly the debriefing) provided an excellent epilogue and denouement which not only formed a fitting end to the entire series but by revealing previously un-noticed or unconfirmed interactions improved the overall story of MGS 4 itself.

If you’re a fan of the series I heartily recommend it. Though if, like me, you cant instantly recall the full details of what happened in the previous games and who all the characters are then I strongly suggest downloading the (free) MGS Database from the playstation store and refreshing yourself on the series before beginning MGS 4.

Devil May Cry 4 (PS3)

DMC4 CoverDMC4 Gameplay

As a franchise Devil May Cry has certainly had its ups and downs – the excellent first game was succeeded by the abominable second game which was both a) embarrassingly easy (which isn’t really acceptable in this style of game) and b) featured an interpretation of Dante almost the polar opposite of that presented in the first game. The third game I didn’t play but it was by all accounts excellent. However, much like Metal Gear Solid, the poor quality of the second game had sickened me on the franchise and I never bothered with the third instalment.

What brought me back into the DMC fold was the excellent anime series, as soon as I finished viewing it I went online and pre-ordered the limited edition version of DMC 4. A purchase with which I am entirely satisfied. DMC 4 oozes the kind of style and general sense of “cool” that made the first game so intriguing, to this it marries excellent gameplay and a wealth of replay incentive. It also manages to avoid the “Raiden” issue, by making Nero both fun to play and not an embarrassment. If you were a fan of the first or third game, or just a fan of this style of action game I would heartily recommend a purchase.

Valkyria Chronicles (PS3)

Valkyria CoverValkyria Gameplay

Ah Valkyria Chronicles, quite possibly my favourite game of this year. Which is saying something considering both the volume and quality of games released this year. However Valkyria does so many things so very well that it’s hard to fault any aspect of it. The storyline is an enjoyable mishmash of alternate history WWII mixed with pseudo-science magitech genre tropes and topped off with a clichéd but pathos filled war narrative.

On top of this it has some of the nicest graphics that I’ve seen on any machine, the excellent cell shaded game-engine tied into the evocative menu interface and mission select screen’s creates a really cohesive visual package which ties in well with the narrative mentioned above. Of course even if a game has nice graphics and a catchy narrative its nothing without good gameplay. Luckily Valkyria Chronicles has this in spades.

While on the surface it’s labelled as a strategy RPG this is rather unfair as it plays unlike any other strategy RPG I’ve experienced (and as a fan of the genre I’ve played more than a few). Valkyria Chronicles takes elements from strategy RPG’s, from normal rpg’s, from third person action games and even from first person shooters and combines them into something that actually feels like a new type of game rather than a polished iteration of an existing genre.

I think it’s this feeling of “newness” and innovation that makes me rate Valkyria Chronicles so highly. While all the other games here were excellent a lot of them were simply excellent variations on an existing formula. I have to say I am eagerly anticipating the DLC for Valkyria Chronicles that lets you play through it as the “not-Nazi’s”.

Soul Calibur IV (PS3)

SCIV CoverSCIV Gameplay

I was really looking forward to Soul Calibur IV. Much like I look forward to every new game since the franchise’s inception. However unlike the lamentably bad Soul Calibur III, Soul Calibur IV (SCIV) is actually good. Though they have yet again entirely changed Ivy’s moveset? Why do you hate me so Namco?

Like all of its predecessors SCIV looks absolutely stunning, particularly in HD. The level of detail on the models as well as the stage design, textures and lighting really do make this feel like something that couldn’t have been done on earlier systems. Which is always nice, as it’s reassuring to feel one’s investment has been worth it. My expanded thoughts on character design and visual direction can be seen – here. Of course nice visuals are basically just icing when it comes to fighting games. If the underlying system is shit then there’s not much point to it. Luckily SC IV’s system is pretty well balanced, from personal experience no one character really dominates and from the tier lists I’ve seen this holds true for large scale play as well.

The character creation mode is excellent, it takes the basic idea that failed so terribly in SCIII and polishes it until it shines. I have to say that the only reason I went through the entirety of the Tower of Souls mode was to unlock extra costumes for my own terrible creations. The level of detail available for your own creations is pretty deep while remaining workable and it’s also nice to be able to edit the “real” characters so you can have your own “colour” as it were.

Unfortunately, much as I like SCIV, it suffers from the same problems as all the other fighting games I enjoy so much (and of which I just realised I have far too many). The real enjoyment comes from human competition which I have a tragic lack of. Most new games include online play. But at its best it’s a laggy poor man’s alternative to face to face play.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4

Persona 4 CoverPersona 4 Gameplay

I must admit I’m a huge fan of the Megaten series; both the main line and its spin-offs. To be honest I’m probably a bigger fan of the spin-off’s than the main line. Though that may be due to the fact that there hasn’t been an English release for the main line since Nocturne (which is quality). Of the spin-off’s the
Persona “branch” is certainly my favourite. And considering Persona 3: FES is one of my favourite RPG’s ever I’m sure you can imagine how much I was looking forward to Persona 4. I even imported it from the states just to get the limited edition artbook (Which as an aside is the only artbook I have that is retarded enough to put pictures on the images).

I think in some ways that this anticipation worked against Persona 4. Persona 4 uses a more polished version of the engine used in Persona 3. So it looks extremely similar and plays more or less identically. It also uses the same social link system, fusion system, etc. On a mechanics level Persona 4 certainly feels like a direct sequel to 3. Thankfully like a good sequel it takes the little imperfections in the original and polishes until they shine. However this similarity is slightly jarring as the storyline and characters in Persona 4 are so very unlike those in Persona 3. While Persona 4 is by no means “light” it certainly doesn’t overflow with the pervasive darkness of Persona 3. And it took me a while to grasp that as it felt so much like Persona 3.

Another point of comparison is that Persona 4, while a hefty play experience by RPG standards (1st playthrough is easily 50+ hours), it simply doesn’t have as much stuff packed in as the expanded Persona 3: FES. It feels odd to hit fifty plus hours and feel a little disappointment that you’re almost finished the game. It also has a slightly reduced level of detail in character and monster statistics (three physical stats rolled into one).Though it expands others (e.g. the main character now has five personal traits). Not a huge thing, but something that stuck in my mind. Edit: Wrote this yesterday and in the wee hours of this morning realised I may have been slightly wrong, I wasn’t as close to the ending as I imagined, oh plot twists and additional dungeons how you mock me! My playtime is now in the high sixties and I’ve still to finish the final dungeon and I left out two bonus dungeons. So yeah 70+ hours seems to be closer to truth for the first playthrough.

Now this may read as if I’m slamming Persona 4. I’m not, it’s an excellent game. I outlined the above so anyone moving from 3 to 4 can bridge the cognitive disconnect quicker than I did. Persona 4 is an extremely enjoyable game. While the story isn’t quite as esoteric as some of the other Persona games it feels much more finely crafted. Not so much in regards to plot but rather with the manner in which it ties into the games mechanic’s and in particular the various “dungeons”. Due to its somewhat old school mechanical aesthetic the Persona games can often feel like your playing two different games at once – one the general rpg and the other a grind heavy Wizardry clone. I know that when playing Persona 3 I’d sometimes play for a few hours of just random dungeon crawling. This is never (or very rarely) the case in Persona 4 where each “dungeon” is tied intricately to the plot and where every floor has at least a reminder of why you’re fighting your way through it. This kind of attention to detail makes the entire game feel like a much more organic experience.

Mechanically the game doesn’t break hugely with traditional JRPG’s. Though it is nice being able to control each character. The main mechanical appeal of the Megaten games is finding and fusing your persona’s/demon’s/etc. and this game has it in spades. However, like most RPG’s, it’s the characters and the story that form the main appeal and Persona 4 certainly doesn’t disappoint in this regard.

The story is well crafted and excellently plotted, it feel’s a lot like an expanded version of one of the mysteries from something like Detetcive Conan, Majin Tantei Nougami Neuro or one of the more outré Holmes’s stories. I may be biased as it’s a genre I’m extremely fond of but I found the story and the mystery to be really enjoyable. I also liked the majority of the characters, from the supporting cast Nanako is like a freaky pathos generator), to the enemies (Shadow Kanji ftw) to the PC’s themselves. It’s the first time in a while I’ve wanted to include every single PC in the party.

Oh needless to say this game is entirely unrelated to Persona 3 (beyond a cameo or two). I really can’t decide which of the two I prefer. While this is a sequel it feels so different that it’s almost impossible to compare the two. If you’re interested in getting into the Megaten series then I’d probably suggest starting with this and then going back to Persona 3: FES as this is more accessible to a general audience I think. On the other hand the gameplay enhancements may make going from 4 to 3: FES a little painful.

*SPOILERS*

When I play an extra three or four hours for the “true ending” I don’t want it to be the fucking same as the “good ending” but with a fruity animated footnote. Would it fucking kill Atlus to let a Megaten game have a happy ending? Just let him stay in the fucking town. Also where the fuck are my alternate costumes? Considering nearly everything else is improved from FES this is a bizarre cut.

*SPOILERS*

Dokapon Kingdom (PS2)

Dokapon CoverDokapon Gameplay

Dokapon Kingdom is the cutest game of complete bastardry I’ve ever seen. It’s an odd rpg/board-game hybrid where the players try to free Dokapon Kingdom from a horde of monsters while at the same time amassing enough money to become the richest and therefore marry the princess. The game use’s a turn based board game mechanic to determine movement and location and overlaid on top of that is a basic RPG system. The game has some pretty funny elements, most of which rely on one player fucking another player over.

And that’s really where Dokapon Kingdom shines, imagine playing Monopoly only when you land on another player’s square you can kill them and then steal their houses or (literally) cover their head in shit. That’s basically Dokapon Kingdom in a nutshell. While the game can be a little slow to get going it quickly evolves into a free-wheeling game of absolute bastardry. Where often one must leverage meta-game advantage in order to succeed e.g. threaten to stove Patrick’s head in if he steal’s my most expensive town. Tragically such manoeuvring often fails. This of course leads to a deed that requires vengeance.

The game is also absolutely massive. Over Christmas my brothers and I played it for literally days on end and still haven’t unlocked all the kingdoms that are available. Though we did see tempers fray and tantrums and sulks displayed (I myself am as guilty as anyone else). Not unsurprisingly the Darkling feature tends to generate some bad blood. What this feature does is that if a player is stuck in last place for long enough he hears the whispers of dark regret. If he succumbs to the whispers he can sacrifice all his possessions and money to temporarily transform into a darkling. Which is a super powered killing machine with additional powers that let him completely fuck the other players on an increasingly bastardly scale which ends with the ability to basically reset the entire game (by taking away ownership of all towns). It’s not so much the dirty fucking by the darkling I find distasteful (even though I had to get done three times in a row due to being in first or second place). It’s more that sometimes the player in last place simply gives up and waits for it to happen. Which I find irritating considering that there’s no need to do so as the positions can change so rapidly.

But anyhow, Dokapon Kingdom may be the excuse you’ve been looking for to blow the dust of your Wii and ruin your friendships. It’s also available on the PS2 and as far as I know there’s no difference between the versions.

Dead Space (XBOX 360)

Dead Space CoverDead Space Gameplay

I can’t think of another game that was as scary to play as this. While it doesn’t really match the more, shall we say, cerebral horror of series like Silent Hill it more than makes up for it with generous helpings of the kind of atmosphere and “cheap” shock’s that make classic horror films so enjoyable. I suppose how scary you find it probably depends on how much you fall for the cheap shocks I just mentioned. Anyone who knows me well knows that I tend to react to surprise by screaming (literally) like a girl, so I tend to be less resistant to such cheap shocks. Unless of course one is watching or playing in a group in which case you steel yourself not to flinch no matter what happens. But I feel this somewhat ruins the experience as surely one of the appeals of such horror is to indulge oneself and allow the material to make to you jump?

Dead Space achieves this quite well. The environs in which the game takes place are extremely atmospheric and the mixture of lighting, soundtrack and sound effect is all carefully tuned to ratchet this uneasy atmosphere up as high as it can go. Added to this is a cast of monsters which look like the bastard offspring of Cronenberg copulating with Geiger i.e. they are generally quite unpleasant. You also have to carefully shepherd your ammo and try and overcome your reflex to just blow the shit out of things in order to take advantage of the games much vaunted “strategic dismemberment” system. As a brief aside I strongly suggest playing this game on the highest difficulty setting available as it really does add to the experience (in
all but a few places).

Well that’s all the good, unfortunately Dead Space is not without its flaws. The control system can feel a little sluggish at times and certainly takes a bit of getting used to; there are few things as annoying in a videogame as dying because the controls fucked you. There are also certain sections in the game that are difficult enough to entirely erase the atmosphere, when you die ten times in roughly the same fucking place it rapidly drains any horror out of the experience. But the thing that annoyed me the most was how terribly easy the various boss monsters (and there aren’t a huge amount) were. Considering how well done the average monster was (and often how difficult to kill they were) it was a bit of a let-down when you just
breeze through the bosses.

Above I mentioned that the horror wasn’t particularly cerebral and I just wanted to come back to that again. What I meant was that the actual story being told didn’t cause any kind of “oh noes” response. Unlike, say, Silent Hill, the work of Thomas Ligotti, HP Lovecraft, etc. the story had no intrinsic elements of horror. It certainly wasn’t a happy story. But it lacked any kind of mental hook to leave me feeling disturbed after experiencing it. That being said the story was well done sci-fi horror and had some nice (if expected) twists and the odd moment of real emotion.

Disgaea 3 (PS3)

Disgaea 3 CoverDisgaea 3 Gameplay

Ah Disgaea, certainly my favourite strategy RPG series. Though “back in the day” I ignored Simon warbling on about it and largely ignored NIS games until I chanced to play Makai Kingdom (probably still my favourite NIS game – cant believe they cancelled Makai Wars). Following Makai Kingdom I was hooked on Nippon Ichi’s unique blend of humour, distinct art-style and enjoyable strategy rpg mechanics. So I succumbed (ooh saucy) to Simon’s suggestion and tried Disgaea. Seventy hours or so later I surfaced to realise I was hooked.

Then along came Disgaea 2, and tragedy struck, the main character used a fist weapon. The fist weapon is probably my least favourite (and I would argue the least effective) weapon in the series. While it does contain some useful abilities, primarily the ability to move enemies, they are abilities that are generally relegated to a secondary support character – not the main protagonist. I have to say this little mechanical stumbling block initially but me off the game. But I persevered and I’m glad I did as Disgaea 2 took everything I liked about Disgaea and improved it. While the characters weren’t quite as appealing or memorable as Laharl, Flonne, etc. (Etna is in Disgaea 2) and the story not quite as engaging the mechanics of play were much improved. I’d also have to say that Disgaea 2 was also generally funnier than the original, particularly the bits with the Prism Rangers and Mecha Prinny. Unfortunately after this it was a year until the next NIS game was released – Soul Nomad and the World Eaters. I played it for an hour or two and never played it again. While my expectations may have been to blame the fact that it was entirely different from their previous titles wasn’t the main problem – the fact that it was shit was.

Though all was not lost as a month later an enhanced port of Disgaea, entitled Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness, was released on the PSP. A brief aside, I like games that tell you how long you have been playing, I don’t know why I just do and because I like this feature I try to keep my game time to a minimum. If I’m going for dinner or to the toilet or such I will save, quit and then re-load when I return. Yes it is a little obsessive. Anyhow back to Disgaea on the PSP. Considering I loved the original there was certainly nothing to complain about in the enhanced port. Even better I could play it on the go. Only I’m never on the go so basically I could play it in work. But this meant I had to leave the game running when a call dropped in. Which means my play time is fucking gigantic – fuck you Vodafone. Also the lack of people I know with both a) a PSP and b) the same game made it impossible to try out the ad hoc battle feature. It must be awesome to live in Japan for games like this and Monster Hunter Freedom, etc. where you can just throw on the Wi-Fi in a public place and have a pretty good chance of getting in a game. Anyway it was a year later that we finally saw the release of Disgaea 3. And even better, the main character used a sword.

Disgaea 3 made what felt like pretty big changes to the mechanics of the game. Though it would appear these changes were largely lost on a lot of the monkeys reviewing it. On the other hand its hard to say how big these changes were. When your familiar with something even minor changes seem huge. But I think its fair to say that these were objectively big changes. Of course the mechanics arent the sole appeal of the Disgaea games. The story and the characters are just as important. And Disgaea 3 delivered well on this front as well. While they may not quite edge out the original trio in how much I like them Mao and the gang are certainly a step above the cast of Disgaea 2. To be honest it’s pretty hard to decide which cast I like more, it doesn’t help that the storyline for 3 feels much more “Disgae-ey” than the storyline for 2 (which was good but felt a little uninspired). Disgaea 3 is also probably the most accessible of all the games so far so if you havent yet experienced the series then it would certainly be a good jumping on point.

I’m also happy to see that there is a pretty large body of DLC available for Disgaea 3. At the moment the majority of it is only available in Japan but we’re now seeing it come out on the US Playstation Store. And as I imported my copy from the states (the super collectors edition direct from NIS themselves no less) that suits me just fine.

Honourable Mention: little big planet (PS3)

Top 10 Anime of 2008


FLCL

FLCL art

FLCL is probably the oldest anime in this list, coming out all the way back in 2000, whereas the rest of the anime listed here was produced in 07 or 08. I’m not really sure why it took me so long to get around to FLCL. When it was first released on dub (I wasn’t really into the whole sub scene back then) it got very good reviews and also generated pretty positive word of mouth. So I’m unsure why I never got around to picking it up; probably a childishly perverse urge not to buy in to what’s “popular”. By the time I did decide to pick it up the DVD’s were out of stock and I’m actually unsure if they ever did get re-issued.

However a few years later I downloaded the sub version of via the intarwebz. But again I didn’t watch it and it lay languishing on one of my external drives for a year or two. But a month or two ago I finally did get around to watching it and I have to say that I’m extremely sorry I waited so very long to do so.

Perhaps it was simply the mood I was in or the particular mixture of caffeine and sleep deprivation but I have to say that I’ve rarely watched an anime with the kind of emotional impact that FLCL has. The fact that it does it without being mind- numbingly pretentious makes it even better. Due to the nature of the plot there’s not a lot I can say about it without giving stuff away or making no sense. So instead I suggest you go out and watch this, its only six episodes long and it is so very much worth the time.

Welcome to the NHK

NHK Screen grab

I avoided watching this for quite a while because while I found it intriguing I had the feeling that it may make for depressing viewing. A week or two ago I decided to go ahead and watch it and while I found it extremely enjoyable and engaging it was often rather depressing. Possibly because it cut a little close to home as the protagonist is a NEET and hikikomori.

After watching the anime I’ve picked up the manga which I believe differs somewhat from the anime and also the novel upon which both are based. I suppose in summary it’s a story about damaged people trying to help one another deal with modern life.

I wrote the above back around March when I first watched it and I have to say that it’s an oddly pervasive show. I haven’t really been able to forget it, I suppose that’s the problem or appeal with material that strike’s “too close to home”. It’s hard to properly process it until one has transcended their own situation. I have still to read the novel or manga, again because I fear it will be rather depressing.

Seirei no Moribito

Moribito art

This was an immensely enjoyable fantasy show. Unlike “traditional” anime fantasy shows which tend to incorporate a large number of iconic elements and tropes from JRPG’s this show was clearly its own thing. This unity and uniqueness of vision gives it an initial boost above the general herd. What keeps it there is an enjoyable story with intriguing three dimensional characters (I spent the first half of the show trying to figure out who was the bad guy, only to end up being wrong – which isn’t usually the case with standard formulaic anime).

The animation quality is excellent and the choreography of the fight sequences is well done. It actually made me think that spears could be cool weapons too (though I’m now unsure, is the spear more of a phallic object than a sword or not?). Actually even if fantasy adventures aren’t your thing I’d recommend it just for the spear action.

When watching the end you should probably keep in mind that the series is an adaptation of one book in a series. When I first saw the ending I was a little disappointed, but when you realise the ending isn’t the end per se then the fates of the various characters involved makes more sense. I haven’t read the book but it’s been said that the anime has expanded coverage of a number of characters and their background relationships, while the book itself is aimed at a somewhat younger audience. The series of books is currently been translated into English so I think I may pick up the first volume and see.

Shion no Oh

Shion screen

I really enjoyed this as it cleverly ties together strands from a number of other shows and genres I like into a coherent and enjoyable whole. It’s somewhat reminiscent of shows such as Hikaru no Go. But while it maintains the tournament stylings and atmosphere it interleaves it with an enjoyable murder mystery (and I do love me some murder mystery). The animation quality is nice and most of the characters are engaging and well executed.

I feel I should write more. But to be honest there isn’t a huge amount more to write. It’s simply a good enjoyable series.

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann

Tengen art

I have no idea how I missed mentioning this before, I suppose leaving three to six month gaps in between blogs will do that to you. And tragically it’s been too long since I’ve watched this to really give a detailed description. But what’s most important is that the feeling this series creates still resonates now just as strongly as it did when I finished watching it almost exactly a year ago. If you’ve been reading my entries for a while then you will, I am sure, have seen me write about the “Fuck yeah!” factor one experiences when watching super robot anime and that “Fuck Yeah!” factor is what Gurren Lagann is all about. Really it’s done so well that its more of a “FUCK YEAH!!” factor when you’re talking about Gurren Lagann.

If I wanted to wank lyrical about postmodern representations of the super-real in terms of mecha anime I’m sure I would have ample material to work with here. But I can’t manage to work up to that kind of bullshit with no purpose other than intellectual masturbation.

So to cut right to the heart of the matter, Gurren Lagann takes everything that’s great about super robot anime and (to use a tragically tired phrase) turns it up to 11. Each episode is packed with a frenetic exuberance that is as infectious as it is entertaining. Even if giant robots aren’t your thing you should watch this. Even if you watch nothing else that I mention here you should watch this. Why the fuck are you still reading? Go and watch this.

If you remain unconvinced watch the first minutes of episode one. If by the time it has played for 2 minutes and 58 seconds you are not entranced, then frankly, you’re dead to me.

Strait Jacket

Strait Jacket Wallpaper

Strait Jacket strikes me as something of an odd choice, I mean I’ve watched other shows which I would be forced to admit were probably superior (e.g. Kurenai, Kannagi, etc.).That’s not to say the Strait Jacket is bad. It’s a very nice looking well plotted action-horror. Its main failing is that it’s unfortunately only three episodes long.

But the real appeal of Strait Jacket, and the reason it made it into this list is how well the world presented resonated with my tastes. I still can’t stop thinking about the world it presented. While some elements feel cliché they are integrated with great aplomb and the whole becomes something much greater than the sum of its parts. The possibilities of the world presented are frankly wasted on a three episode OVA. Unfortunately the ongoing ten book series on which the OVA is based is only available in Japanese. Oh and if your going to watch this avoid the edited film version and make sure you get the original three episode ova version. You have been warned.

Kyouran Kazoku Nikki

KKN Screen

The basic construction of this series is a little odd. One get’s used to seeing mainstream entertainment stick to fairly similar genre patterns, sometimes subverting these tropes and sometimes sprinkling some flavour from a complimentary genre (e.g. action comedy). However KKN is odd in that it attempts to blend an impressive range of genre’s that one doesn’t often see together. Now sometime’s when you mix lots of colours together you get brown, but in this case it’s done and works surprisingly well. It makes for an engaging viewing experience as the show moves from slapstick comedy to heavy drama seamlessly. The pace of the plot and these rapid changes of emotion make for an extremely entertaining show.

All of the characters, while generally fairly outré, are well characterised and appealing. None more so than Kyouka, the main protagonist or at least the common focal point of the show. As I said above it contains a number of elements all of which are well executed and integrated. The comedy in particular is extremely funny, while some of it does rely on being passably familiar with other anime or Japanese culture the majority of it should be accessible and amusing for any audience. An example of said comedy can be seen here – this is an edited selection from the “Christmas episode”. But it exemplifies the kind of odd humour that permeates the show.

While the humour alone would be enough for me to recommend it the action and in particular the drama are also great. The drama in particular is rife with pathos. It deals with some pretty heavy elements in a pretty competent way. Though now that I write that I begin to wonder; are these things actually well done? Is it really good at invoking pathos or have I become emotionally unstable? Sometimes the latter seems more probable as I find myself reacting strongly to material which I objectively feel shouldn’t really be eliciting the responses it does.

Yakushiji Ryoko no Kaiki Jikenbo

Ryoko art

As I mention elsewhere (at possibly tedious length) I am a big fan of mystery stories, particularly those with an esoteric or supernatural element. Unfortunately it’s not a genre that seem’s to produce a particularly large body of material. So when one comes across an enjoyable example of the genre it is cause for celebration. I have to say I really enjoyed this show, the titular character Ryoko Yakushiji is extremely well realised and is certainly one of the main draws for the show as I see it.

As a slight tangent I find that anime and manga adapted from novel’s (light or otherwise) is often of superior quality. I imagine this is because the pre-existing material makes for an excellent frame around which to construct a suitable representation in another medium. However, wankery aside, this series is well worth a watch if you enjoy mysteries. Most of the cases are presented as one-off encounters. But as the series progresses the over-arching background plot is revealed and most of the plot threads from earlier episodes are fully resolved. The animation quality is also quite nice, perhaps not as stunning as some big budget shows but it’s certainly above the “average” standard of animation one see’s. The series is also (regrettably) only thirteen episodes long, so it’s not a huge investment in time to check it out.

Unfortunately for those wanting more Ryoko neither the light novel’s or the manga has been translated. It’s actually surprising how few light novels’ get translated into English considering how big they appear to be in Japan. And it’s not as if they’re something like visual novels (which would appear to be sales kryptonite to the average western consumer). There are some fan translation projects going for the bigger light novel series such as Shakugan no Shana. But to be honest reading said fan translations too often feel’s like rubbing sandpaper across one’s eyes. I suppose prose is much harder for fan translators than dialogue.

The Tower of Druaga: the Aegis of Uruk

Druaga Screen

The bit where the main party hits the corridor of traps is one of the funniest things I’ve seen. As the name may imply this anime is based on the long running series of Druaga games by Namco. I have to say that while generally enjoyable anime based on video games is often pretty hit or miss. On the one hand you have awesome stuff like the Streetfighter movie and on the other hand you have stuff like Ragnarok – which wasnt as rubbish as people said, but it certainly wasnt awesome. This anime is certainly up there on the same level as the Streetfighter movie.

The animation in this is lovely looking and is enhanced even further by being in HD (I have to say Ive now got used to HD anime, I really like the crispness). But it’s really the story and characters that form the appeal. The characters all feel “real”, while there is no huge attempt at in-depth characterisation none of the characters presented feel two-dimensional; which can be a problem with genre pieces of this nature.

As well as excellent animation and appealing characters this show also has an engaging storyline which draws the viewer in while providing an excellent mix of action and comedy with the odd bit of drama thrown in for good measure. It also has a nicely done romance story which isnt shoved in the viewers face but grows at a nice pace. I should warn potential viewers that this series does contain one of the dirtiest cliff-hangers ever as well as a plethora of unfinished plot-lines. Of course the sequel is already half-way through broadcasting so you wont have to suffer the terrible wait that I did before finding resolution.

Also I have to say that the Tower and the world itself would make an excellent setting for a tabletop RPG.

Lucky Star

Lucky Star Screen

Lucky Star is a slice of life comedy similar in style to Azumanga Daioh or Pani Poni Dash. I have to say I preferred it to either of them as I found I could relate to it better than Azumanga (which I found a bit too “cute”) and it was less surreal than Pani Poni Dash (though PPD is awesome). I imagine I found it easier to get into as the main character is an otaku and as such a lot of the humour revolves around areas with which Im familiar. As an aside I think anyone, especially any non- japanese, who self-identifies as an otaku would be better of self-identifying as “twat”. It’s just a particularly sad off- shoot of other non-affiliated movements to “reclaim” generally pejorative labels e.g. geek,nerd,etc. Dont waste your time trying to reclaim a label just grow an ego and realise drawing self-worth from a label is a waste of fucking time.

Anyhow, Lucky Star. Im not sure what to say to be honest, I enjoyed the series and it was funny but beyond that there wasnt a lot to it (and Im too tired to think of achingly wanky ways to say “It was funny”). The animation is fairly stylised, which may not be to everyone’s tastes. But like most comedy its the aural rather than the visual that is the main appeal here (though of course if your watching it subbed its still the visual – oh the terrible irony). The voice-acting was quite well done, but then again I cant really speak Japanese so how the fuck can I tell? I have to say I found the OP a little disappointing, while it probably suits the show quite well I was hoping for something catchier. As the first paragraph mentioned a good deal of the humour revolves around satirising otaku culture, so if you’re not passably familiar with said culture some of the humour may go over your head. But that being said I think Lucky Star is accessible enough that even the casual viewer will find it amusing and worth their while.

Top 10 Manga of 2008

As I mentioned above, these top ten’s are not necessarily items that were created in 2008, they also include things I first came across in 2008 or which are still ongoing in 2008. And considering all of the manga listed below was created before 2008 I’ve included the first year of publication after the title of the manga, as well as how long the manga was or currently is.

For those interested in checking out these manga without dipping into their pockets then I suggest you check out site’s such as OneManga or MangaFox where you can read scanlations online for free. Of all the categories I would have to say selecting a “top ten” out of all the manga I read this year was very hard to do.

Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge (2008) (2 Volumes – Complete)

Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge

This is simultaneously one of the most depressing and most hopeful manga that I’ve read this year. If you read my comments on Welcome to the NHK above then it may not surprise you to find out that this came from the same author. While the basic premise of the story doesn’t cut as close to home as Welcome to the NHK the themes and emotions in the story may cut even closer.

It’s really not possible to discuss this at length without spoiling it. So go out and read it, its only eight issues so no matter how slow or unfamiliar you are with reading comics it shouldn’t take that long. I suppose the only proviso is that while it may not be terribly profound it also probably isn’t light entertainment. So keep that in mind.

Iron Wok Jan (27 Volumes – Complete)

Iron Wok Jan

I remember back when I first started watching Yakitate Japan and upon mentioning it to Patrick got mocked about watching cooking anime, the fool. Anyhow there aren’t really that many cooking anime/manga available out there, especially in English. So when I chanced upon Iron Wok Jan I was all too happy to snap it up, as I have learned my lesson in the past I now buy new manga in two or three volume chunks as a) one volume is sometimes not enough to gauge a series and (more importantly) b) if I like it one volume isn’t enough to sate my hunger for more. After reading the first three volumes I rapidly bought the remaining twenty four volumes in short order.

I really enjoyed Iron Wok Jan and my only problem with the ending was that it existed, there was plenty of scope to continue on with this (hence the 9/10. But unfortunately as of now there has been no sequel. While Iron Wok Jan is nominally about cooking it’s much more reminiscent in structure and delivery to shounen tournament series such as Yu Yu Hakusho, etc. The hero (well more of an anti-hero) enters competition or tournament A, meets rival B, comes up with new technique X and triumphs (or fails dramatically depending on the needs of the plots). Iron Wok Jan is basically that but with cooking replacing fighting and dishes or ingredients replacing secret techniques. While that barebones description makes it sound somewhat lacklustre I can assure you that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and is an enjoyable and often amusing read. I would recommend picking it up in groups of three or so as it’s very fond of well done cliff hangers.

Fuck, was just checking something else and discovered that there is in fact an ongoing sequel to this, seems it’s only up to eight or nine. Damn I think I was better off not knowing as there’s little chance of this being either scanlated or licensed. Balls.

I emailed the american publishers of this translation and they said they have no plans to translate the sequel. Curses.

Shijou Saikyou no Deshi Kenichi (2001 – Ongoing) (31 Volumes)

Kenichi

I have to say I really love History’s Strongest Disciple Kenichi. I watched the anime, then I read the manga, then I re- watched the anime, then I reread the manga when the scanlations had progressed a bit. Even with so much exposure to the series it’s still an enjoyable watch/read.

Because a) I’m lazy and b) the anime and manga mirror one another nearly exactly (though the manga does have some extra material – such as more of Kenichi’s awesome father) I’m going to quote my thoughts on the anime.

Story wise it’s a fairly basic spin on the classic shonen martial arts series. What really makes it though is the interesting and appealing characterisation of the protagonists (and antagonists).Another huge source of appeal for me was the fact that in many ways the entire show/manga could be seen as one long training session interspersed with bouts of action and character development side pieces. While this may not appeal to everyone (because some people are clearly deviant bastards) it really appeals to me. I really love those bits in martial art films, books, anime, etc. where after being beaten the hero goes of into the mountains or seeks out a reclusive master to learn new techniques and increase his power. In many ways such training scenes are as enjoyable for me as the fight scenes. And the more mental the training the better it is (e.g. Drunken Master).

As Kenichi contains training nearly every other episode/issue I really liked that facet of it as it mixed all my favourite martial art genre tropes into a nice cohesive whole. It’s also quite an amusing show, though sometimes the jokes do require (fairly basic) knowledge of other fighting anime/manga series.

The anime only covered the first major story arc, and naturally the manga expands on this considerably. The anime covered roughly sixteen volumes worth of the manga and the manga has now reached almost double that number of volumes. I really cannot recommend this series enough.

Majin Tantei Nougami Neuro (2005 – Ongoing) (20 Volumes)

Neuro

My first exposure to the world of “Demon Detective Brain Eater Neuro” was via the anime series that is based on this manga. It turns out that about half way through the anime diverges pretty widely from the manga, which is understandable as the anime needs an ending and the manga is still ongoing. As such there are several pretty large differences between the anime and manga – most of them revolving around the death of Yako’s father and the nature of X. I have to say that I really enjoyed the anime; the anime version of the story was a really enjoyable alternate to the manga.

So anyway after thoroughly enjoying my viewing of the anime I needed more, not necessarily more of it in particular but more fictional mysteries. It’s a genre I really enjoy. But unfortunately, much like cooking based anime and manga, its one that’s not in huge supply. It reminds me a lot of literature such as Doyle’s Holmes or Van Gulik’s Judge Dee. Anyhow after sating my anime needs with material such as Shion no Oh, Tantei Gakuen Q, etc. I eventually got around to reading the manga.

While the first issue or two are a bit of a chore due to poor scanlation (find the Ecchi Trooper versions, they’re much better) once it starts going its really enjoyable. While there are a good few differences, and a good bit of additional detail, the manga doesn’t really diverge from the anime until after the HAL story arc. However the manga is well worth a read, it contains the same mix of humour, violence and “puzzle-solving” as the anime series and expands on it with additional details on all the characters and the world. Obviously it also continues the story and who can resist new material?

Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (2002 – Ongoing) (10 Volumes)

Kurosagi

I spent a week or two reading a variety of psychological/mystery horror material. I started with MPD Psycho, which looks fucking lovely, but has an amazingly convoluted story. All of which seemed to be building to a big climax/explanation. So when I got to the end of volume twelve and found out that a) there were thirteen volumes and b) it was still ongoing I was less than fucking amused. So then I moved on to Vulgar Ghost Daydream and I got to the end of volume nine, and I discovered it was ten volumes long. And lo there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

After that I moved on to Ghost Hunt which I at least knew was ongoing. I have to say that I sort of preferred the anime adaptation. While they are basically identical in terms of story the art style of the manga is a little shoujo (aka shitty). So this finally brought me to Kurosagi Corpse Delivery, which is also ongoing.

Kurosagi Corpse Delivery service is sort of a middle ground between the three manga mentioned above. While the mystery doesn’t seem to be as complex as MPD Psycho or Vulgar Ghost Daydream it certainly feel’s more accessible; possibly because the overall mystery doesn’t seem to be the driving force of the plot. The plot is generally episodic (like Ghost Hunt) but with background elements that tie it all together.

However it’s something of a disservice to KCDS (Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service) to describe it purely in terms of other manga. It’s a very enjoyable read on its own terms. Each “case” is enjoyable and builds open the previous ones in terms of both character growth and plot development. The occult abilities and the general world presented are also quite gripping and would make a pretty gameable setting. While the scans aren’t bad I’d really recommend you pick up the real thing. Dark Horse has published up to volume eight so far. The only downside is the glossary at the back. While it contains some useful information I’d sort of prefer for most of the sound effects to be noted beside the appropriate panel.

King of Hell (2001 – Ongoing) (30 Volumes)

Majeh

Well I suppose if you wanted to be anal this shouldn’t be in the list as it’s technically manhwa not manga (manhwa being Korean comics as opposed to Japanese). But I’m not feeling quite that anal. I’m not sure if it’s a reflection on manhwa in general or just on the stuff that gets translated but a lot of manhwa one see’s in English feels like shonen or seinen manga but kicked up a notch. Whereas the Japanese market often seem’s to fetishise, subvert or grow bored of typical shonen and seinen genre conventions Korean manhwa writers and artists just try and make them cool. Based on what I’ve read (Shin Angyo Onishi, Island, Rebirth, Kurokami, etc.) they succeed. Most of the manhwa mentioned take material that may seem a little tired in a traditional manga context and make it seem interesting again. I’m not sure if it’s a question of approach or if it lies in some kind of deeper cultural context but I do know that it makes for a great read.

Anyhow, such mysteries aside, King of Hell is an excellent read. Its plot may be fairly typical of martial art’s based shonen stories. But it somehow feel’s a lot fresher than similar stories of Japanese origin. There’s a certain larger than life quality to the character’s that is very reminiscent of Chinese manhua such as Weapons of the Gods or Storm Riders. This is particularly evident in the freakish competence of most of the main protagonists. I have to say it is enjoyable to read about super competent characters, especially when they have plot driving limits on said competence. As an example of what I’m talking about; there is a realm in the netherworld called Moorim where masters who have surpassed the pinnacle of their art are placed because they cannot be judged. So basically you have a hell chock full of super human martial arts masters. Three hundred years ago a man called Majeh ended up there after his death, when challenged by the inhabitants he effortlessly cut down fifty of them in one go. Majeh has now been sealed into a teenage body and works as the envoy of hell hunting down evil spirits. Majeh is the main protagonist.

If the above sounds like cheesetacular rubbish then you should surely avoid King of Hell like the plague, if it sounds fucking awesome (which it objectively is) then you should definitely pick up King of Hell.

Mahou Sensei Negima! (2003 – Ongoing) (24 Volumes)

Negima

The cover of the first volume is an excellent example of the art style exemplified in this manga i.e. there are lots of high quality and sexualised drawings of girls who are in their late teens. If this gives moral offence to you then you should avoid this. However if you enjoy a good story, excellent action and well done comedy you should pick it up. If my advice isn’t sufficient (and if it isn’t you should cut yourself) then perhaps the author’s previous works would add weight to my recommendation – A.I. Love You and Love Hina.

Saucy pictures aside Negima took a little getting into as the main character’s younger than the typical shonen manga protagonist. Even though I’d watched one of the anime adaptations it didnt really impinge on my reading on the manga as the storylines are fairly radically different and while it seems an irritatingly constant refrain the manga is more enjoyable. It provides the kind of scope that the story, especially considering the huge cast, needs. I suppose the only downside is that both the (readable) english scanlation and official english translation are going quite slowly at the moment. Nothing more annoying than getting twenty plus volumes in and then having to wait several months for an update (because really one volume isnt enough of an update so you have to wait for a big pile to amass and then re-read).

Anyway, Negima is an enjoyable mix of action and school comedy (with occasional romance) which emphasises different elements depending on the story arc in question. The early story arc’s are much more about introducing the characters and establishing links and tend to emphasise the humour (while containing a decent amount of action). But as the story progresses we see the action elements taking the forefront and the comedy aspects falling off. At the same time the romance and drama elements enjoy an upsurge and to be honest at time the drama feels a little over-done. Though that may be a consequence of the manner in which I read it. I’m currently a few volumes behind as I’m waiting for a decent amount to build up before I dive back in so I’m not sure what’s going on at the moment. But I can certainly recommend up to volume 20 as an extremely enjoyable read.

Zetman (2003 – Ongoing) (11 Volumes)

Zetman

I have to say it was struggle whether to include Zetman or Akumetsu in my Top 10 list. But Zetman just barely won out, possibly because there’s simply more of it translated ;). Zetman is a fairly dark superhero story set in a dystopian near future world. In some ways it feels more like “tokusatsu gone wrong” than a traditional american superhero story. Actually it feels very 2000AD, I could certainly imagine it appearing there. Anyway, Zetman is unique not just in feel but also in plotting and execution. The entirety of the story so far takes place in a flashback that’s established in the first two pages of issue one. However the flashback is clearly a framing device for the main story which traces the origins of the two main protagonists and how their fates intertwine.

The pacing and build-up of the plot is excellent and feels a lot like a novel in structure (even more so considering its split into individual but clearly linked “Books”). The characterisation of most of the main cast is extremely well done and the twists and turns of the plot constantly leave the reader waiting with baited breath for the next instalment. I also really like the world presented and the nature and origin of the “supers” involved.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the high quality of the artwork which is really lovely to look at and maintains a consistently high quality throughout the entire run so far.

Angel Densetsu (1992) (15 Volumes – Complete)

Angel Densetsu

Angel Densetsu is one of the best comedies I’ve read. Really, when reading things alone it takes a lot to make me laugh out loud. But while reading this I laughed aloud multiple times (fuck me I hate the Internet, the fact that I would even consider using “lol” in a proper sentence – even ironically – fill’s me with shame).

While the main thrust of the series is clearly comedy it also mixes in a fair bit of action and as the series progresses elements of romance are added. It’s certainly worth noting that the quality of the artwork improves dramatically over the life of the title. The material in later volumes looks almost like it was drawn by a different person. So if the artwork in the initial volume causes some hesitation I urge you to stick with it.

I’ve seen some comments online by people who seem wilfully obtuse in failing to accept the main premise of the story. If you can’t bring yourself to swallow “the big lie” then you’re going to encounter issues with enjoying the majority of fictional entertainment. It’s not as if the big lie in this puts much of a strain on one’s suspension of disbelief.

Flame of Recca (1995) (33 Volumes – Complete)

Flame of Recca

My first exposure to this series was back in ye olde days when I saw the anime version of it. While I enjoyed the anime considerably it was clear that it only covered a small portion of an otherwise much larger story. At the time I searched for a manga translation but to no avail. Cut to several years later and in my search for complete manga I was drawn to the tempting sight of “31 Volumes – Complete”. I must say I was certainly more than satisfied with what I found.

At its heart Flame of Recca is a tournament style story, similar to Yu Yu Hakusho (which is awesome, but watch the anime), etc. Some people aren’t fans of tournament style shonen manga/anime, those people are clearly sick in the brain. I find few things as mindlessly entertaining as watching or reading about groups of people with strange and improbable powers beating the shit out of other groups of people with strange and improbable powers. If you’re not a fan of the genre then you should most certainly avoid Flame of Recca. But if you do enjoy such things then Flame of Recca has much to recommend it. The majority of the characters have fairly unique power-sets and abilities nearly all of which stem from the same power source so you have a nice spread of individual’s with a shared origin to lend a nice cohesiveness to the whole thing.

The main storyline is also enjoyable and engaging and while it might not break much new ground it is executed extremely well. Really that’s the key draw of this series, its a very “typical” shonen action/adventure story executed very well. The quality of the artwork is really amazing, particularly the large spreads. It totally eclipses the quality of its anime adaptation. So yeah, Flame of Recca, read it.

Honourable Mention: Akumetsu

“Swag” Top Ten

Gurren Lagann (Great Impact version)

Gurren 1Gurren 2

One of the most expensive things I bought this year and certainly the most expensive of my generic “swag” purchases. It’s also probably my favourite purchase of the entire year. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that its fucking sweet, its one of the coolest toys I’ve owned since I got the die cast Voltron for Christmas all those years ago (for a very in-depth review check here). The second is that I thought I wouldn’t be able to get it. By the time I became aware of its existence everywhere that one might conceivable purchase one from had sold out of pre-orders. And believe me I looked hard for somewhere to buy it. And as it is wont to do time passed and I largely forgot about it.

Then one day as I was browsing through various import related sites I came across a listing for it, it seemed it had just come into stock and some people had cancelled pre-orders. So after some inner anguish (after all its rather expensive for a figure) I broke down and purchased it. And then it arrive and I oohed and aahhed and didn’t open it. I still have yet to open it, not because I have an anal speculatory need to keep things in their box – but rather because it’s become something of a fetish or a talisman. I subconsciously fear that by opening it I will somehow make it crap. Its become Schrödinger’s Toy, with cool replacing death. Currently I’m planning to reward myself with it if I ever manage to achieve one of the many goals I set for myself.

Yoko dakimakura

Yoko 1Yoko 2

Though technically this is a dakimakura cover, oh well. This is probably the most quintessentially “otaku” item I’ve ever purchased. I should point out in advance that unlike the dakimakura designed for more, well shall we say rigorous, appreciation this one contains neither nudity nor a cock flap. And considering that it wasn’t particularly cheap I had no intention of using it as anything other than a decoration. Of course I slipped up badly and during one of the many marathon Dokapon sessions over Christmas Patrick and Sean did lay upon it. So now it’s all fucking creased which is giving me some kind of OCD like obsession with removing said creases. Unfortunately you can’t iron it and hanging doesn’t seem to have done much. So now I’m building myself up to bring it in to be dry cleaned.

The product itself is basically a 100% polyester screen printed pillow-case with a different image of Yoko on each side. The quality of the screen print is very nice and the colours are nice and vibrant. Obviously one needs to buy a large pillow to fit inside it, but an “authentic” dakimakura is relatively cheap to import (relatively cheap compared to the price of normal pillows anyway). It’s also vacuum packed so it expands in a cool manner when opened. In the pics above I’ve included a pic of it on a pillow, I would have included one of my own but as mentioned it’s currently indisposed.

Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Striker S – Fate Figma

Fate 1

I’ve never seen Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS, primarily because I’m not sure if I can sit through Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha again. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of “straight” magical girl shows. However, all that is just a round about way of saying that I bought this figure because I thought it was cool as opposed to the character it represented being cool. It was also a chance for me to test out the Figma line of figures, which I’d heard good things about but had no direct experience off. Also the figure has a gigantic sword.

I have to say when it arrived I was pleasantly surprised by the range of accessories that came with it – two major weapons (energy scythe and the sword), ten hands, two faces, etc. All of them are easy to switch in and out – the only fiddly bit is attaching the jump/flying stand through the cloak into the hole on the back. The poseability of the figure is excellent and even better the rigidity of the poses is quite good (i.e. it stays in whatever pose it’s placed in). While I believe the energy scythe is her main weapon in the series the gigantic energy sword is clearly the superior choice. So all in all I was extremely happy with this figure and impressed with the figma range (tragically my second figma outing didn’t go so well).

Shuraki – 1/8 Needa PVC Figure Limited

Needa 1Needa 2

I’m not going to lie. I bought this figure primarily for its gigantic gun. At that time I didn’t even know you could transform the figure into a slightly creepy “battle damage” version. Though to be honest I don’t know why anyone would as her basic uniform looks both cooler and (god help me) “hotter”. But the comeliness of the figure is merely secondary to her tremendous armament.

The gun has a nice level of detail and contains enough pieces to change it to three or four different configurations. Though I currently have mine set to the largest size possible (as seen in the second picture below) and I don’t know why anyone would do otherwise. The level of detail on the model itself is very nice, as is the quality of the finished piece. Uniform and accessory changes can be a little awkward, but on the plus side once changed they are quite solidly in place. Have I mentioned she has a gigantic gun?

Melty Blood – 1/7 Ciel Robe Ver. PVC Figure

Ciel 1

This is sort of an odd one. I ordered this figure in 2008 but it won’t actually be out until 2009. Still its just so sweet looking that I decided to include it in my 08 swag list. Though after I give the F/UC HORI a good workout this may be dropped down to “honourable mention”.

While I was familiar with Ciel from messing about with Melty Blood Act Cadenza on the PS2 it wasn’t until I played the translated version of Tsukihime that I really started to like the character (which reminds me that I have to complete the “Good” Ciel arc). While Arcueid is still my favourite female Tsukihime character Ciel certainly comes close. As I haven’t received the figure yet I can’t fully grade it, though I’m hoping they throw in some more accessories such as her black keys.

Persona 3 – 1/8 Mitsuru Kirijo Figure

Mitsuru 1

While over the years I had amassed a shelf or two’s worth of figures the majority of them were of american or british origin. As such this figure represented my first major foray into the world of imported Japanese toys/figures. It’s also probably one of my favourite figures, which is why it gets to sit right in front of me on my computer desk as opposed to in the display cabinet with the rest. I don’t know why I like the figure so much. While Mitsuru was certainly one of favourite characters in Persona 3 (which is saying something considering how much I liked all the characters) I hadn’t even played the game at the point of purchase.

I think there’s just something about the character design that really appeals to me (would now be a good time to mention you have the creepy option of taking off the figures skirt?). The character design (Courtesy of Shigenori Soejima) is excellent and while slightly different it manages to resonate with the traditional character design’s of Kazuma Kaneko. Or maybe it’s just that I really like the look of the statues hair (improbable curls are hot?).

Persona 3: Fes – 1/8 Elizabeth PVC Figure

Elizabeth 1

While this figure no doubt looks cool and is pretty high quality in both construction and detail I’m not sure if its possible to really understand the appeal unless you have a) played Persona 3/Persona 3:FES and b) fully completed Elizabeth’s request’s. Usually my purchasing process for figures relies on two criteria i) Do I like the character? and ii) Does the figure look cool? Ideally the two criteria should be about even, sometimes a small discrepancy between the two will still result in a purchase. But a large gap between the two almost always means I’ll pass. This figure is probably the only exception to this. While I think the figure looks cool I don’t think I would be particularly enamoured with it if I wasn’t already familiar with the character. Like Mitsuru this is more a statue than a figure and has no articulation. However unlike Mitsuru it comes with basically no customisation options. The only accessory is the hat. But as I like the figure so much I can excuse that. And as I’m much more interested in display than in playing with it the lack of articulation isn’t an issue.

Actually as an aside no matter how well articulated a figure is its nearly always a complete pain in the cock to a) get them into an iconic pose and b) get them to stay in it. Again the mighty Monev the Gale is a notable exception to this and honestly is probably one of the coolest action figures every produced. I get a mental erection thinking about how cool he is. Yeah I said it, and you read it. And now you cant unread it. Ha, I win. Also Elizabeth is weirdly cute. Yeah I said that too. I’m stroking your brain with my dirty words and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t even stop reading because you want to know what I think too badly (or you’re too bored).

Mega House Air Gear Excellent Model Simca Figure

Simca 1

When I still thought that Air Gear was going to have an actual cohesive plot and not turn into a beautiful looking turd after issue 150 or so I thought that Simca was both a) more interesting that Ringo and b) a much better match for Ikki. Of course neither of those two things really turned out to be true. But considering Oh Greats! inability to write a coherent plot or maintain characterisation I’m not sure if that’s entirely my original predictions fault. Anyhow back when I purchased this figure I had only seen the anime and read the first hundred or so issues. So at that point both Air Gear and Simca were still cool.

I think it’s the hair and the cap that I really like about Simca’s character design. Which made it all the more painful when her hair got cut later on in the series. While I don’t share Dave’s irrational hatred of girl’s with short hair it just totally ruined the aesthetic of the character for me. Of course as Air Gear was turning shit about then I wasn’t feeling particularly charitable. Ok, as it’s clear I can’t go on without getting this out of my system I am going to bitch about Air Gear. I’ll get back to talking about the figure in three paragraphs.

I really enjoyed the Air Gear anime, but much like the anime adaptation of Oh! Great’s other manga Tenjho Tenge it stopped basically in the middle of the story (and cut out the gratuitous rape). So after finally giving up on a second season of the anime being produced I decided to read the manga which is still ongoing.

At this point I’m unsure how great an idea that was, while Oh Greats artwork is unarguably excellent and most of his characters are cool and engaging his writing and plotting leave a lot to be desired. While the pace of the story and the nice artwork can mitigate this in the short term over the long haul it becomes annoyingly apparent. The plot starts to wander randomly, nonsensical plot twists appear with alarming frequency and the main thrust of the plot gets bogged down in seemingly random side stories. Also, and I’m unsure if this is simply an issue with the scanlation rather than the original, the actual dialogue itself becomes more and more bizarre and the basic flow of story from chapter to chapter also seems to break down, e.g., in this issue the characters are having dinner in their secret hideout in the next two of them are fighting in a giant satanic temple full of hot naked chicks. With seemingly little or no explanation of how or why. Still as I said above, it looks really nice and I enjoy the basic premise and like practically all the characters (which is upon reflection unique enough) but I just can’t bring myself to keep reading it. It’s such a waste of potential, and I’m clearly not the only one confused by the descent into shite.

Take a look at similar comments over here. Really the most recent comment sums it all up: I’ve been following Air Gear since day one, since the time when it was on hold for like, a year or more, with no more than 16 chpts because no one would scanlate it. It begins GREAT. Great characters, great drawings and, most interesting of all, FRIGGIN’ GREAT idea. How in God’s name did he go downhill and flushed it all down the toilet I have absolutely no idea. This is now worthless and, when the military and obama crap get old he will make friggin’ aliens storm in. This is beyond ridiculous and completely impossible to follow. Battles have gotten ridiculous, too. From “tricks” to “Superpowers” there is a slightly abismal difference which he seems not to have taken into account.

So now that I’ve purged that from my system I’ll get back to the figure. This is much more of a statue than a general “figure”. There is no articulation and the only accessory is the hat. It’s also a complete cunt to attach to the display stand. As a statue though it’s a really nice piece of work, it’s also long out of production as far as I know. It was a right pain in the arse to pick one up. The quality of the modelling and painting is really top notch. The torso in particular is extremely well done, the way the cloth folds is pretty impressive.

One Piece POP Portrait of Pirates Nami Figure Vers. 1.5

Nami 1

Ah One Piece. My first exposure to One Piece was when the boys exposed me to the English dub version of the intro – needless to say while I liked the intro the episode I watched was pretty shite. A few years later I read some of the authors other manga work and thought “Hey this is pretty fucking good”. While checking out what he’d done I came across One Piece (which at that point had hit its two hundred and sixtieth anime episode) again and found out that the English version had been cut to pieces (if I recall correctly the first fifty English episodes span eighty episodes in the Japanese version). Entranced by the promise of both two hundred plus episodes and the very enticing ring of “Uncut” I went about downloading the fansubs for the Japanese version of the anime.

I’m so glad I did. While the animation style takes a little getting used to its well worth it as One Piece is such an immensely enjoyable show. It perfectly encapsulates the sense of wonder at strange new vistas that made Sinbad so enjoyable to me as a child and on top of that it layers some very well executed staple elements of the shounen genre. All in all it makes for an extremely enjoyable experience. If you enjoyed stuff like Naruto or Bleach or you just like an enjoyable action story (about a rubber man who wants to be the pirate king) then you should most definitely check it out.

So anyway when I started watching the anime I watched it in huge six to eight hour chunks day after day. So I became somewhat entranced with the entire thing. And while I liked the entire cast at the time that I was casting about for some cool One Piece merchandise there wasn’t a huge amount of it out there (and even now there isn’t really that much). While I wanted to pick up the statue of Roronoa Zoro (certainly my favourite character – three sword’s fucking rock) the only statue available shows him in (fucking inexplicably) in his Skypiea arc outfit. Which is possibly the worst outfit in the entire series and is one of the very few times he isn’t wearing his iconic bandanna, white shirt and green trousers. I just couldn’t bring myself to buy it. Fuck, out of curiosity I just went and checked and it appears it’s impossible to get a figure of Zoro dressed properly in any shape or form. It’s like making countless Spider-Man figures but none of which is wearing the classic red and blue costume.

So I thought I’d go with Nami instead because it’s a nice looking figure (and she’s hot ;)) and I liked the character. Unfortunately the version I wanted was out of production and I didn’t like either the clothing or the pose of the version two statue so I went off trawling through the interweb’s until I came across the older version still for sale. It’s certainly a nice statue; it has a nice level of detail while still maintaining the unique visual style of One Piece. As it’s basically a statue there’s no articulation. The Clima Tact accessory is nice (and is a cool idea for a weapon). The figure feels a little light but I haven’t had any stability issues with it and the weight obviously has no effect on the visual impact of the figure. Much like Elizabeth though I’m not sure how much people would enjoy this figure unless they’re familiar with the character.

Hori Real Arcade Pro 2: Special Addition

HRAP 2

I have a somewhat unhealthy love for joystick’s (cue innuendo). I imagine it’s because my first “real” experience with fighting games and really video games in general was in an arcade. So while I have, mostly due to lack of an alternative, adapted to a joypad over the years it seems that I harboured a secret longing for little sticks (that’s a freebie). A few years later when I was doing what people unable to pursue their hobby commonly do; posting about it on the internet. I came across various “hardcore” fighting game forums. It was around that time I began to understand the value of a properly moderated forum and a machine which could kill people across the internet.

Anyhow, while perusing these forums much talk was made of using a stick to play and how it was superior to the lowly pad. Of course not any stick would do. It would appear that the majority were custom made and that they must contain “arcade parts” i.e. the same parts that go into arcade cabinets. Such talk stirred in me a longing and then a need to possess one of these things and so my quest to purchase one began. I trawled forums and eBay; I downloaded plans and assembled components. I cracked open joypads and pursued copper wire based solderless alchemy. At the end of it I had assembled a full set of official Japanese arcade parts and a hacked ps2 PCB. Now all I needed was a container to firmly ensconce their greatness. That’s where the problems began.

Because, unfortunately, my woodworking ability means that it’s something of an issue for me to nail two planks together. So making detailed little boxes along with countersinking and dremeling and such was well beyond my capabilities. I could have paid one of the custom stick makers but I wasn’t quite enamoured enough to pay the often ludicrous prices they charge. The only pre-built boxes available were six button ones and frankly I don’t see the appeal of a six button layout. Its eight buttons or nothing my good man (it would appear I’ve been corrupted by the joypad). However all was not lost. A little further digging revealed that one could purchase arcade sticks and then modify them to carry arcade parts. As this would take care of my box needs I leapt at the possibility.

However, it wasn’t quite as easy as that. Certain sticks were useful for modding and others required so much work as to make it impossible (for me at least). As well as that at the time the majority of the sticks were either out of print or near impossible to get. So more digging through forums, auction and import sites followed and eventually I found a source that had the Hori Real Arcade Pro in stock and had a semi-reasonable import rate. I’m sure you can imagine my rage and consternation when the stick arrived along with a charming docket from UPS for the full import duty and their fucking extortionist import fee. However I didn’t care because the stick was in my hands.

So after taking it out of the box and oohing and aahing as appropriate I cracked out the screwdriver and got to work. I replaced all the standard Hori push buttons with arcade standard Sanwa buttons (and honestly you really can feel the difference) and replaced the stick’s (which was already a Sanwa JLF) balltop. I also switched out the four way restrictor on the stick for an octagonal gate (though every month or so I tend to switch back, I just can’t decide which I prefer). Then I booted up Street Fighter III : Third Strike and got ready to kick some ass! And oh god did I fucking suck.

Transitioning from pad to stick is a pain in the hole. You suck on the stick and as you practice more you end up sucking on the pad as well, so you reach a beautiful stage where you play shit on both. In theory you then stick with the stick and ascend to saucy awesomeness – unfortunately I don’t seem to have done that yet.

However I much prefer the feel of playing with a joystick and was extremely pleased with my purchase. So that initial purchase sort of got me hooked. At this point I have four arcade sticks, a HORI HRAP, a HORI HRAP F/UC, an Elecom USB (piece of shit I bought for modding or guest use) and ,the point of this little entry, the HORI HRAP 2 SA (oh and I also have the Madcatz SFIV Tournament Edition stick on order).

The Hori Real Arcade Pro 2 SA is a special edition version of the HRAP 2 which is in turn an updated version of the first stick I bought the HRAP. The HRAP 2 SA comes with all Sanwa parts as standard so is basically arcade perfect right out of the box. It has slightly different internals and case construction which make it feel a little sturdier than the original HRAP. It also doesn’t have the weird peeling plastic issue that is a tad irritating on the original HRAP.

As it already has all arcade parts the only reason to swap parts out if for customisation or aesthetic purposes. So towards those ends I took off the square gate and replaced it with an octagonal restrictor and replaced the joystick balltop with a dark hai meshball (because I prefer the feel and it looks cooler). I also have a spare set of buttons which I’ll pop in as soon as I can find a printing place in Ireland to get my custom joystick art printed.

Listening to: Johnny Cash - I hung my head

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