Monday, November 19, 2012

Hobbits, Sushi, and Chicken Waffles in Snowy Edmonton

I had a pretty busy weekend in Edmonton and there was a definite eating out aspect to it.  It all started on Friday night with a pretty good dinner out at Nomiya Ramen, Sushi, and Tapas.  The restaurant had a special sushi set on offer that was made up of fresh fish flown in from Japan that day.  I haven't tried most of these fish before as sushi and it was a great change of pace. 
Apparently they do this once in a while for some of their regular customers who want something special that isn't on the normal menu.  As you can tell from the photo above, it looked and tasted delicious with a wide variety of flavours, preparation and textures available.

The next day started as a Food Networkish event as we went down to the Sugarbowl for breakfast.   Their Cinnamon Bun and Chicken Waffle were featured on "You Gotta Eat Here" earlier this year.  There was a short line of people waiting to get in and we lucked out as our wait was under ten minutes.
The Chicken Waffle is apparently a southern U.S. dish and it was surprisingly tasty with maple butter on top.  The oven baked chicken with breading was crunchy and hot on top of a firm waffle.  The food was very tasty and the giant cinnamon bun was a big hit too.

Afterwards we took the old train down to the Art Gallery of Alberta where there were a number of excellent exhibits on at the time (November 2012).
The kids area had interactive musical floor tiles with origami folding.  There was a display of early prints of mythological creatures from the National Gallery.  The highlight was an exhibit of Edo Period Japanese art that represented a Japan in rapid transition.  There were suits of samurai armour, a katana, numerous Ukiyo-e prints from Hiroshige, Hokusai, and others.  There was this amazing human skull with a snake on it carved from ivory that really stood out from many of the other artifacts on display.  No pictures were allowed so I'll make do with a publicly available print from Hiroshige to give you an example of a Ukiyo-e print.  It is amazing that some of these beautiful prints were used as packing material for shipping and they became popular in the west as when people noticed them this way!
Wikimedia Commons (no copyright restrictions)
Some amazing sculptures were being shown in the other galleries with a pair of cool looking mutant deer and an amazing melted wax house you could walk through on the third floor.

Best of all, after the museum visit we hit the Southside Italian Market and the liquor store and found some goodies and drink.  I love how this Flying Monkey Atomic beer is packaged.

On Sunday morning we tried out the limited time Hobbit Menu at Denny's.  I was a little disappointed there weren't any hobbits, wizards or elves present, but at least there weren't any orcs or goblins!
We lucked out again and the food was well prepared and piping hot when it hit our table.  We had the Hobbit Slam and the Shire Sausage Skillet.  The food was not necessarily something out of Middle-Earth but it was tasty.
In particular, the large Shire Sausage was peppery and very yummy - they should have it on the menu permanently.  The pumpkin pancakes were nice too and a good tie-in for American Thanksgiving!  We did find the Seed Cake French Toast too sweet (much like lemon poppyseed cake) - but kids will love it.  You also get a pack of collectable cards with each meal and they are snazzy too.

Afterwards I went to check out the new Microsoft Surface tablet at the Microsoft popup store at West Edmonton Mall and the tablet is a nice little device, especially with the full keyboard.  It is nicely built and if you use Microsoft Office it is great!  Just make sure you download the full version of Windows Office via a free update using Windows Update on the Windows 8 side of the device to get rid of the Preview version from what I've read on the web.  A trip to T&T to grab some Chinese BBQ ended the day out nicely!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

JRPGs and the Japanese Gaming Industry

Over the last year (2011-2012) there seemed to be a bumper crop of gaming articles about the death or decline of the Japanese gaming industry.  A few Japanese game developers even said their own industry was dead and the Western media seemed to pick up on that like a bunch of vultures circling a crawling man in the desert.
Megaman / Tostzilla
On this subject, I definitely think:
  • The Japanese gaming industry has shrunk.  They don't produce as many traditional console titles, but they seem to be jumping on the mobile gaming platforms pretty good.
  • Japanese gaming doesn't dominate gaming like it did at the peak of the Nintendo Gamecube and PS2 in 2006, some 6 years ago at the moment. The next generation consoles hit them hard.
  • The Xbox, Xbox 360, the first person shooter (e.g. "Halo") and the massive amount of innovative game design in the West did overwhelm them. But it is one island nation versus the world.
  • Japanese game developers follow their own tropes and memes.
  • Japanese games didn't keep innovating in general like games being developed in the West.  They have tried and tested franchises that work for them.  e.g. Are you still playing Megaman, Mario, Resident Evil, Metal Gear, Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest?
  • Japanese BIG game development budgets are smaller than Western BIG game development budgets.
  • Japanese games are well, "Japanese."
  • I think you either like Japanese games or you don't for some people too.  I like all games in the genres I play.
With this in mind, I don't think Japanese gaming is "dead."  The industry certainly isn't the same international powerhouse it was, but it still produces games that satisfy and entertain.  I can believe that Japanese developers are now developing more for the Japanese market first - after all it is their strength.  This certainly doesn't help them compete internationally with what sells best now, but nations rise and fall all the time.  Their games are still relevant to their primary audience and it was lucky that all of us overseas got dragged along for a fun ride.

Japanese game developers could certainly innovate more, but getting kicked in the head is a good wake up call for change.  So right now, they maybe behind, but they have tried both successfully and unsuccessfully to break out again.  Best of all it is certainly early in the game as everyone is getting kicks to the head.  I think the entire gaming industry is undergoing a massive change right now and we have front row seats or maybe a few rows back in the old theater where the view is better.

Traditional game sales everywhere have been pretty much declining and mobile gaming is expanding like crazy.  The Tokyo game show this year showed that Japanese game makers are starting to make big moves in this space.  Apple has killed traditional gaming and Nintendo with cheap or free game apps that reach out to millions.  I have to admit I've been playing a number of games on the iPad and really liking it and the free to cheap price point.  I like JRPGs too but I can't say that I've played every one of them or even a large fraction.  In fact, the longer the game, the less likely I am to finish or start playing it now - I can't afford the 40 or more hours and grinding is a waste of time.  After all I need to write the next installment of Exocrisis Blue too and enjoy life in general.

Note:  I've never even finished Final Fantasy VII, but I finished  Final Fantasy XII and XIII (part one).  Most of the JRPGs I've played are on Gameboy or Nintendo DS systems (Pokemon is great!).  The PS2 had a lot of my favourite games on it from Katamari Damasi, Persona 3 & 4, Dragon Quest VIII, etc.  I did buy a Playstation III just to play Valkyria Chronicles which was an awesome tactical / story-telling game. I was also a hobbyist level designer for Half-Life myself with a number of level sets and I pretty much played more western RPGs on my PC prior to buying consoles. 

Like the boom in anime that died out in 2008-2009 all things change.  Japanese soft power has peaked in its cultural exports of video games, pop music, anime, and manga.  However, the cultural artifacts are now part of our culture.  We create based on these ideas and they are still relevant to fans and people who don't even realize it (see Wreck-it Ralph as an example). In a way this is good as the true fans still appreciate a Japanese product and the Japanese will innovate in their own way and time.  They are not dead, just resting with their eyes closed, while building mobile games which are cheaper to build.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Six Favourite Science Fiction Anime

A great deal of anime are science fiction or fantasy oriented.  The setting might be a primary or secondary school (which half of anime seem to be set in), but there are these out of this world or speculative elements that kick the anime the extra step to avoid the normal 9 to 5 of reality.

Gundam 00 - pretty cool SF too, but see my Gundam post instead.

In this post I'm going to talk about six, out of hundreds of scifi anime, that I found entertaining because they had some very nice hard SF elements to them.  This means the science is "good" and stories are entertaining.  All of these shows were released on DVD in North America.  There are many other quality shows like Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Last Exile, FLAG, Appleseed (CG), Denno Coil, Ergo Proxy, Stein's Gate, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Zipang, Kiddy Grade, etc., that are also be worth writing about! Space Operas are another SF category worth a post at some point as shows like Gurren Lagaan, Heroic Age, Xenosaga, Macross, Space Battleship Yamato, and Crest of Star/Banner of Stars fall into this category.  Gundam is pretty fun SF too, but I would put it in its own category as it is GUNDAM!

Planetes is an anime released in 2003 about a crew of debris collectors that work out of an orbital station.  The space debris they collect is all the leftover junk and bits and pieces of mankind's venture into space.  Already, we steer shuttles and rockets clear of the thousands of pieces of orbital junk that need to be avoided as you would hate to hit one of these or have one of these zip through your satellite or capsule at rifle-like velocities.

This show has well scripted stories and the show is very realistic about how it deals with working in space.  There are great characters along with a nice romance between a hardened spacer and a newbie hire who is represents the happy, glasses are half-full type of spunky anime girl.  But it isn't all about debris as there are visits to the moon, a mission to Jupiter (but not to look for the 2001 monolith), and terrorists!
Pacing - this is not a fast paced anime or action oriented.  Other anime with near future themes set in space would be Rocket Girls and Stratos 4 (both with increased fan service - but not over the top, so you can either like it or hate it depending on your point of view).

This anime (released in 2003) is set 200 years after "close enough" supernova basically blasts the Earth and devastates it killing off most of everything.   Mankind has recovered and has re-entered space with far more advanced technology.  Students who qualify can attend one of many space academies to train for a spacer's life.  They also are key to defending the Earth by deploying a massive energy barrier to block an approaching second shockwave that will wipe us out the shield fails.

Stellvia stars the peppy young heroine, "Shima," who has just joined the Stellvia Space Academy and has lots to learn.  The show is vibrant and has some interesting takes on space school.  The characters develop and mature under the tutelage of their instructors.  The show takes an interesting turn halfway through as it shifts, but I found it to be pretty enjoyable overall.  Competing space academies with space races, and lots of interpersonal dynamics make this show stand out.  The great OP by Angela is also nice!  This show has a mecha.

Another show involving a space academy is Infinite Ryvius.  In this show a cruise goes badly wrong and the students end up in a "Lord of the Flies" situation which I didn't like much.

Geneshaft is a show (released in 2001) set in the far future that has some pretty interesting world building going on it.  Humanity is now a species governed by controlled breeding.  The vast majority of humanity is now composed of women in a 9:1 ratio with men.  The few males are in leadership positions as they are more risk takers and aggresive, but each man has an emotionless female minder watching them.  Genetic engineering plays a big role in this show as you can be bred for various attributes.  Even dogs have been uplifted to high intelligence.

The show is mostly about a mission to investigate these mysterious rings that show up around the Earth along with all of the political machinations that accompany it.  I enjoyed the show for the world building first and the other stuff second. I don't believe this show was particularly popular.  There is of course the customary giant mecha called a Shaft!

Starship Operators
Starship Operators is a fun little show (released in 2001) that is full of episodic starship duels.  Each starship duel is similar in concept to having anime superheroes battle it out with their signature moves but using starships instead.  The Amaterasu, the protaganists' ship, is a well balanced cruiser design that happens to be the last free roaming vessel that refuses to surrender to an attacking star empire.  In the series, the naval cadet crew must survive a series of duels with enemy ships, each of which have different strengths and weaknesses.  Lots of politics, good characters, reality TV, and starship tactics in this show. This show is a mecha free zone.

Scrapped Princess
Out of all of the shows I've mentioned I have a real soft spot for this particular anime series that was released in 2003. The somewhat spoiled Pacifica is the cursed or Scrapped Princess who is under a curse that has everyone out to kill her.  Fortunately, she has a wonderful brother and sister who protect her as a fighter and magic user respectively.  The show starts out as a fantasy series with swords and sorcery and develops as you find out more about Pacifica's curse.  I'm not going to say any more because this show is awesome SF!  If you like SF, I highly recommend Scrapped Princess if you can find it. Giant war machines - I hesitate to call them mecha - exist in this show.

Zegapain is another under rated show that aired back in 2006.  It is pretty much pure SF though.  It starts off in the typical fashion where a bunch of high school students attend school, but then it starts to get strange.  There are giant mechas called Zegapains that are piloted by the students to fight evil aliens called the Gards-orm.  The mystery deepens and you find out more and more about this weird world, but it all makes sense later on.  The show involves massive quantum computers and I can only say it is a bit Matrix-like.  I enjoyed this show and thought it was well done with giant mechas and all that.  I was cheering for the characters to win.

Other Six Favourite Anime Posts
I've also written some mecha anime inspired SF. It has received some good reviews. Visit here if you are interested.  I could always use some community support from anime fans!