Blue Skies during the Dreariest NiGHTS

There’s this weird aspect of my personality that I’m not sure if any normal person has, but I’ll describe it anyway: associating doing or enjoying something during a specific time of year. Like, I like to listen to certain music, or watch certain movies, or play certain games, or go out to certain place at a time of year arbitrarily designated by the pleasure centers in my brain. For example, it’s Fall, heading towards the Winter. It’s cold, windy, raining or snowing. The sun goes down at 3 PM. This is the time where my music playlist is almost exclusively the dreamiest of Dream Pop, the gaziest of Shoegaze, and the spaciest of uh, Spacy shit. It’s the kind of music you can vibe to while wearing more layers of clothing and constantly underneath a blanket when you aren’t up and moving around.

I do this with games too. Strangely enough, this is the period of time that I most associate with Sega. Mostly Sonic Team, but I might as well lump in the whole company because I have a few notable inclusions. This very specific time in Sega’s life: the twilight of their days as a first-party developer, is something that I am utterly obsessed with when the temperature outside begins to drop. Ironic, given how most of these games are set during the sunniest days of Summer. Now, I’m sure one of you out there is saying, “well, you probably feel this way because Sega consoles tended to come out during that time of year to capitalize on the holiday shopping season.” Or maybe pointing out how several of the games I’ll be talking about (and some that I won’t) take place at the end of the year, or even have their own holiday-themed expansions. That’s probably true, but I prefer liking these games and their aesthetics during this time due to feeling warm and fuzzy, and not your “facts,” okay?

The period of time in Sega’s existence; that Saturn era, before the days of the Dreamcast, and the end of an era, where all these games had themes and message of hope. Characters doing the right thing because it was the right thing to do. Characters being friends and shown having lives outside of whatever adventure the player would take them on. Games with worlds that you could conceivably chill out in.

Basically, stuff that is like a playable version of those gallery drawings from Sonic Jam:

There’s something cute about Sega characters just hanging out. And hey, maybe it turns out that I like playing these cute games during a time where culture pressures you to spend time with your family. I don’t, and never really did honestly, have much of a family to speak of. In recent years, I’ve supplanted “family” with “close friends.” What do we do? We laugh, we joke, we have fun, we spend time being happy together, regardless of what life might throw our way. I don’t want to say that playing these games feels “cozy,” because the internet ruined that term, so I will say “warm” instead. These are games that, no matter how outlandish they might get, give me that same feeling of loving your friends.

500 words in, I should probably actually start talking about some of these games. I’ll start with Sonic R. Now, I am not for a second going to pretend that Sonic R is any good, because it’s not; it’s a barely playable disaster where the simple act of moving in a straight line is an impossibility. It took Travelers Tales a while before they started making good games. Now, having just trashed the game, I’m not bringing up Sonic R because I enjoy playing it (I don’t). I like looking at Sonic R. I like listening to Sonic R. I like the idea of Sonic and his friends having a foot race for the sake of having a foot race, even if Sonic has a distinct advantage over the rest of his friends (in theory anyway, since all of the characters control like shit, regardless of acceleration). A Sonic game with incredibly low stakes, where everyone involved is having a fun time in these gorgeous environments and listening to some amazing EDM is by no means a bad idea. It’s just too fucking bad that the part where you have to actually play Sonic R is dreadful.

(Some of the amazing music I mentioned.)

All that being said, I still like to load the game up and give it a quick Grand Prix or two before I switch over to one of the other games I’ll be talking about. Despite all of its problems, I still love knowing that a game where a bunch of friends play together exists on my Sega Saturn.

Sonic R is essentially, a game about children playing (yeah, there’s Robotnik in there, but who cares, he’s always a non-issue). It’s cute. Now we’re going from children playing, to children struggling with their own insecurities.

NiGHTS Into Dreams (stylized as found) is a rightfully beloved Sonic Team release. Most people react to it with confusion, wondering just what the fuck exactly NiGHTS is. I imagine the expectation the world had for it, as I had going in, was that it was another platformer. It’s not. It’s this unusual, genre-defying game about flying around while collecting as many points as quickly as you can. If anything, NiGHTS uses that “gotta go fast” concept more than Sonic ever has.

NiGHTS is also a game about two kids, Eliot and Claris, who are struggling with their own G-Rated issues. Eliot wants to become a star Basketball player, but gets absolutely wrecked by a rival team, while Claris wants to become a singer, despite suffering from severe stage fright. While all this is happening, a creature known as Wizeman is plotting to take over the dream world, which will have consequences for the real world, and it just so happens that Eliot and Claris have the ability to stop Wizeman. In doing this, both of them overcome their shortcomings and realize their dreams of shooting hoops and singing. It’s cliched; “the power was inside you all along, and all you had to do was believe” is something that you’ve seen in just about any kid’s movie made since the 1970s. But there’s something to how NiGHTS pulls this off. You’ve heard the term “Disney Magic” before, right? I’m going to coin the term “Sega Magic” here. That company had many talented teams of great artists, great musicians, great programmers, and two or three madmen that were capable of directing them into some of the most timeless works in the history of the medium, despite the repeated incompetence of the suits at the top.

Like, fuck me, this is a game about teens overcoming mild adversity in a cutesy video game that’s rated E for Everyone. Yet there’s this part of me, without fail, that has a bit of an emotional reaction every single time I reach the end. That final level, where the two teens no longer need to use NiGHTS as their androgynous avatar anymore, and are capable of flight and the ability to stop the Nightmaren on their own. The song that kicks in as soon as you take to the skies, flying around this clock tower full of ascending balloons and falling stars, the entire game leading up to this point, is incredible.

You make it to Wizeman, and you defeat him, realizing your true potential. Eliot lands that slam dunk. Claris sings her heart out, impressing an entire casting crew. Then there’s that extra ending you get upon finishing the game with both characters, where they meet up in real life. It’s all very sweet and genuine; this wasn’t just something made to be pushed out the door so Sega could recoup their staggering losses during this period. NiGHTS Into Dreams very much feels like it was made with love, by people who gave something of a fuck.

And then it happens: that credits music kicks in. NiGHTS is a very short game that you can probably run through faster than actually reading this post, but it leaves a mark on you in that brief time. I am an adult in my 30s, and this ending still gets me emotional. Dude, I am literally crying while writing about this right now!

Maybe if you’re a normal member of society, NiGHTS is nothing more than a cute way to pass an hour. But maybe for people like me, who deal with insecurities and self-doubt, who oftentimes feel like their best is never good enough, it hits different. The fact that this game has two protagonists to illustrate that, holy fuck, you are not alone, hits different.

For all the emotional weight that NiGHTS has, there is one more trick up its sleeve to turn me into a blubbering mess that will try to power through the rest of this piece despite my inevitable ugly crying.

I’ve mentioned before that my familial relationships are non-existent. As such, Christmas was never a fun time. That holiday merriment quickly degenerating into drunken fighting, people throwing shit, then everyone screaming at me (or worse) because I was small and didn’t have the resources or knowledge to become emancipated. You combine that with my own cynicism about capitalism and religion, and I fucking hated Christmas. I still kind of do, honestly. The dumbfuck racists continuing to lose their minds over “Happy Holidays” because giving the most half-assed recognition to Jewish people is a step too far, I guess. The endless conveyor belt of identical Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel where two affluent white people fall in love thanks to the spirit of the season. The constant push to Buy Shit. My ideal Christmas, and one that I successfully managed to have last year, is one where you get together with the people you truly love, and you reflect on the year that was. All the good, all the bad, and all the things you want to do in the next one.

Christmas NiGHTS Into Dreams is a small expansion to NiGHTS. The story to this one is that everyone is way too fucking busy and way too fucking stressed out on Christmas. People are pushing each other to get that popular gift that’s in limited supply due to artificial scarcity. Just an excess of good old American Spending. So Eliot and Claris take a short trip through the dream world again, and when they return, everyone has finally chilled the fuck out.

Christmas NiGHTS is even shorter than the original game, only having one level, but it manages to make yet another mark on you emotionally. It has a simple message: just be fucking nice to each other.

Sonic R is the gaming representation of an afternoon playing with your friends, which is why I didn’t have nearly as much to say about that, and NiGHTS is a representation of something that can be applied every day, not just the holidays: be fucking cool, dude. Love one another. Maybe it’s the literal decades of military-funded murder simulators and dudes with their heads up their asses trying to deconstruct the platformer genre, but it really doesn’t feel like games like get made anymore. It’s sad.

Now what if all these themes of togetherness and doing the right thing came together in a game where you fought fires instead of your insecurities? That’s where Burning Rangers comes in.

Sonic R, NiGHTS, and Burning Rangers are these bright, colorful games with great music and this sense of hope to them. Peace, love, non-violence, things that are lacking in a lot of games. I know I rag on the whole “wholesome” thing, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love extremely positive stuff like this.

I love Burning Rangers because it’s this game with a very serious theme (firefighting), but playing the game itself, it is this fun, breezy adventure where everyone gets to go home at the end. You rescue people from industrial accidents, and the only enemies aside from nature are service robots gone haywire and out of control plants. Aside from hope, these are all games with well-defined heroes. The members of the Burning Rangers are a bunch of good people doing the right thing just because. Eliot and Claris are kids with dreams. Sonic and his friends fight Dr. Robotnik to prevent him from industrializing the world. They aren’t “heroes” in the sense of being cops or soldiers, where the level of heroics is subjective based on which side of the gun you’re on. No, Sonic Team decided, this gun will shoot water, and will be used to help people, rather than hurt them.

There’s something to this positivity in the face of the Saturn being an absolute sales failure internationally. I’m sure there were a lot of people at Sega shitting themselves, worried about the status of their jobs. Yet, here are these games that all say, “fuck adversity! Let’s face it head on together!” Burning Rangers was one of the final games released for the system. Everyone was hitching their hopes on the Dreamcast, sealing the Saturn’s fate for good. The final gasp of life from a dying console, full of hope, rather than regret. I have to respect that.

 

Decades have passed, and Sega has had its ups and downs in the subsequent time since. They no longer make home consoles, and Sonic Team has changed staff, becoming this directionless monster releasing terrible games. This Blue Skies aesthetic has all but disappeared in order to appeal to the nebulous concept known as the Modern Gamer. This magical era of the Saturn is a faded memory that fades further and further over time.

Then, as if willed into existence by fucked up weirdos like me, Sega decides to handle the publishing duties for a fan-made Sonic game.

Sonic Mania is a far too late answer to the question: What If The Saturn Had A Real Sonic Game? The enhanced color palette, the fluid animation, the “Sonic CD but better” music, it’s a spiritual Saturn game.

Mania is a game that Gets It. This is Sonic and his friends going on an adventure to stop a mad scientist from destroying nature. There’s no Shounen An*me bull shit that’s been the way of things since Sonic Adventure 2. Again, it’s colorful, the music is cheery, and the message is “stand together to face some fucked up shit.” Even more again, I love it.

This game also nails something I mentioned earlier better than the other games so far: having a game world that looks inhabitable. Not that you couldn’t live or work in the areas outside the race tracks in Sonic R, or that you couldn’t possibly inhabit the dream worlds of NiGHTS, or the futuristic locales of Burning Rangers, but they’re aren’t the same. Green Hill, Press Garden (act 2), Mirage Saloon, Studiopolis kind of, all have this “lived in” vibe. Like, this is a world that needs to be saved, and not just a series of obstacles for you to clear to get to the next zone. That’s awesome.

These are all games of friendship, light, love, and fun adventure in these areas that would be so cool to actually be able to visit. This shared aesthetic and themes played at this time of year is magical, and I felt the need to spend way too many fucking words trying to explain why I feel that way, hoping that I was successful in doing so. It makes me feel wistful for the Saturn, like maybe it wasn’t appreciated enough during its time. For the most part, that’s true, but then I have to remember the lack of software support outside of Japan (FUCK YOU BERNIE STOLAR), save data getting wiped out due to those watch batteries in the back that died as soon as you put them in the system, and that I would have been too young to be able to afford imports or to have the know-how to properly mod my system. It’s a shame. But at the very least, we’ll always have these games.

the year in review: 2021

hey, how about i post more unrelated images in long posts?

Once again, I begin a post with a confession: this is a second attempt at making a year-end retrospective. I’m doing this in November, rather than the end of December or beginning of January because I don’t think shit is going to change much in the next month and a half. I was also just generally moody and pissed off, so I decided to write a lot of shit down ahead of time. My original draft was pretty much a big list of every shitty thing that happened this year. 2021 sucked, to put it lightly, for numerous reasons. The problem is that I cleared 2,000 words before I managed to get past June, and that is way too fucking long. The thing is, I’ve been spending the last few months wallowing in negativity, which I hate. I hate being upset! I hate being angry! I hate feeling despair over shitty things! I hate being pessimistic and hopeless! Given the chance, I would much rather see the good in the world. I want to be honest about the fact that shit sucks, but try to find the good that happened this year.

Make no bones about it, I did not have a good year. Bad things happened in the world, bad things happened to my friends, and bad things happened to people I am at least empathetic towards. A community that I’m part of fractured in a pretty bad way. I’ve had a hard time making art this year, unlike last year, where I felt like a machine. Game development has been hard, barely being able to get a three-level demo out. A lack of output due a recurring instance of Bad Brain. I’ve been sick multiple times with different things. There was even a particularly nasty health scare that I’ve kept from everyone until writing it out right now. Luckily, it only turned out to be a bad reaction to a side effect from some medication I was on. Having anxiety while also having a sudden pain in your side and needing to urinate every two hours fills your head up with every worst case scenario possible.

A lot of shitheads felt emboldened for reasons that I do not care to figure out. It has felt like there’s been an even bigger trend of upholding bigotry, abuse, and assault. It has felt like talent or even being a decent human being is a hindrance. It sucks, and has caused a lot of bad mental health flare ups. Before I go into this post proper, I will simply say this: the Western Indie Game scene, whether it be as a critic at some fucking rag like Kotaku or Waypoint, or a developer enjoying that Itch.io front page, is straight up the most evil shit you can ever be a part of. My short run of covering local music events riddled with talentless jobbers with bassists in their 30’s who would openly brag about sleeping with underage fans was less soul-rending than this. More or less being blacklisted from the “Indie” scene is one of the best things that has ever happened to me, and it’s a shame that it took me this long to realize it. And it is also a shame that there are still some good people out there who are having to learn this the hard way; my heart goes out to Wren and Nathalie. Also fuck Dave Chapelle and fuck NFTs.

So yeah, I was not at my best in 2021. The most I was able to get done in any work sense was maintaining the streak of at least one blog post per week. I think to most of you, that’s good enough. In my eyes it’s not. I do apologize for not being able to get cool stuff out this year, especially to those of out there still supporting my criminally-neglected Patreon. To try and not be so hard on myself, at least I was writing consistently, even if the subject was “wow cool video game” over and over. My writing did get people thinking about stuff critically, and even convinced people to check out the stuff I was recommending. That’s awesome. Plus, at least being able to sit here and write about things I like was fun enough. I’ll try and keep the streak going throughout 2022, barring any sudden catastrophe.

Another area in my life where I felt like I was making an improvement was my fighting game prowess. Making it to level 10 in Guilty Gear Strive, with several trips to the Celestial Realm. Having who is essentially the Daigo Umehara of Vampire Savior tell me that I was one of the best players he had ever come across (despite me getting my ass kicked), was not something I simply brushed off. I haven’t been feeling super great these last few months, and being in a highly-competitive environment where everyone, even the very best, have their bad days, sometimes feels more like self-harm. Like I need to justify my brain saying all the bad, fucked up things about me. “Hey dumbass, you sure are getting your ass kicked a lot! Look at you, still falling for Millia’s mix-ups like a loser! Just like how you can’t do anything else right, and why everyone who has ever fucked with you and your friends are living their best lives, bitch!” I tried getting into Melty Blood Type Lumina while the onset of a Bad Brain Time™ was going on, and I didn’t handle myself well as a result; maybe I can try getting back into it later. But to know, and to sit back and try to be logical, that I am actually pretty fucking good, but also remember that I’m new. I’ve only been playing fighting games with any serious competitive ideas since 2020, maybe parts of 2019. Of course I’m going to have my weak spots, and I’m not suddenly going to be beating SonicFox with my eyes closed and pressing buttons with my feet.

okay, this image is actually related to the text

Maybe that’s the biggest takeaway of this year: that I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Remembering that no matter how fucked the world at large might be, and how shitty things are for a lot of people I love, and that I still have a ways to go in improving myself, I still have good people in my life. There was a lot of cool shit that came out this year. I took a four hour break in the middle of writing this to watch Full Gear with a bunch of friends and had a great time. I’m not trying to be one of those toxic positivity assholes that pretend everything is cool all the time, I’m just trying to see the best in things because I don’t want to be swallowed up in that black hole of despair that I’ve seen so many others fall into. Some this year, even.

Shit sucks, and there’s not a whole lot I do about it; one person can’t change the world. I’m a chronically ill idiot with a shitty immune system who stays indoors because of a virus outside that will never be cured. I can’t fix things, but I can at least try to a better friend? Make things better for my own small group. Keep making things, whether it be a simple blog post, or actually getting some new art out finally, that people enjoy or are moved by the same way I am for others’ work. Admittedly, I’m writing all this from a place of guilt. I feel like shit about the fact that I’ve been dealing with all this negative emotion and indulging the more self-destructive side of me: talking shit, relitigating grudges, getting mad at myself way too easily and letting all those dark thoughts take over. Not that I can’t or shouldn’t be upset about things sucking ass, or that I can’t talk some shit when the time is right, but it can’t be all I feel.

I’ve managed to do a mostly good job of not spraying all my personal shit on here, instead constantly venting privately on Discord, or making the mistake of logging back onto social media, and that ain’t no fucking way to live. Hopefully, this year was a stumbling block. It’s weird, because this is a public post that (being generous here) a couple hundred people might read, but I am writing this for myself. Felt like I’ve spent this whole year suspended in thick gel, and it’s prevented me from being at my best. This is me making this shit public as a way of holding myself accountable that this shit needs to change. Striving to make 2022 a year where I get myself to the consistent level I was at in 2020, only better. Of course, having a chemical imbalance in my brain and having a lot of enemies won’t make that easy, but I have to give it a better effort than I did this year. That’s my goal. More good articles. More finished games. More sprite work. More sprite animation. More 3D modelling. More streams. More doing things that I like, with a lot less of the “oh fuck, is this good enough??????” anxiety that’s arrested me all this time.

If you’ve read this far, you didn’t have to. Also thanks, I guess.

Goddamn

If there is one thing anyone would have learned about me by now, is that I am a very easily impressed person. You pitch me a show or a game or a band with some ridiculous concept that makes me either laugh or say “that’s awesome,” and it gets points with me, even if it sucks. In this case, an an*me about rally racing. Yeah, that sounds pretty cool. Despite my proclamation last year to start watching real life rally racing, I uh, I forgot. As such, it’s a blind spot in my auto sports fandom. So hey, this will have to be a quick and dirty substitute. Anyways, what is this show called?

It is called: “Goddamn.”

Goddamn

Now, if you don’t think I am dropping everything I’m doing to watch a show called “Goddamn,” you clearly do not know a goddamn thing about me. Of course I’m going to watch this! The title is a swear word! That’s funny.

Goddamn is a two episode OVA that is itself based on a manga series that only ran for two years. It follows the exploits of Gen Todoroki, a rally driver who has exceptional behind the wheel. Exceptional talent that is only displayed when he isn’t crashing his car, which is all the time. Despite the somewhat minor issue of “not being able to finish a race,” Gen is still offered a spot on a hot new rally team. A young Nikita Mazepin takes notes. The crux of this OVA is his attempt at winning the Safari Rally Kenya Championship, despite sucking and his navigator hating his guts.

The thing about Goddamn’s art style is that it’s pretty inconsistent. Characters can be a bit iffy at times, and backgrounds are extremely flat and simplistic. However, the cars are detailed to such a degree that you would think someone on the animation team was jerking off to it. It’s clear that the budget was spent on making these vehicles as realistic as humanly possible. Probably because these are all actual cars being portrayed here. In fact, the car driven by Gen is a Ford Sierra Cosworth, which also goes a long towards explaining why Gen’s car becomes so thoroughly fucked up as the race progresses (Japanese manufacturers are notorious for not allowing their cars to be portrayed as damaged in any way, which is also why racing games like Gran Turismo don’t feature any real noticeable car damage. Western manufacturers are far more relaxed on this.).

needless to say, a bulk of this post will be screenshots of cars

Another thing about Goddamn is its pacing. On the plus side, something is always happening on-screen, with little in the way of filler (if any at all). A race, a character being introduced, seedy behind the scenes politics with the team owners, there is constant progression. The problem though, is that because this is only episodes, there’s no time for anything to rest. A lot of characters get introduced at once, and good fucking luck trying to remember any of their names. Some I had to go back and re-watch to learn, some I had to look up online, and a couple of them just so happened to have their names on the cars they drove, otherwise I’d have no idea who they were. With that, there is very, very little in the way of character development. This feels very much like a show for people who have already read the manga, rather than the usual purpose of an OVA to get people into a manga. 99% of anyone on-screen at any given time has a personality that begins and ends with “I like racing.”  So you end up with characters like “Joe” and “Arnold.” Though credit must be given to Gen’s navigator, who is named, no shit, Dick Van Dyke. Sadly, he is unrelated to the famous comedian/Amiga enthusiast. His character arc is “being very racist” then “okay the Japanese guy isn’t that bad” in short order.

No, really.

At the very least, because this is a show about racing, you can have two episodes dedicated to a single race and call it good, so that helps the extremely fast pace.

Because of this, I’m not doing the point-by-point synopsis; it’s a race where cars drive fast, and there’s drama because the main characters are trying to win the race. Despite the total lack of other plot development, it’s fun enough. It’s not a realistic take on racing; as Gen and his navigator Rov (figured I would introduce characters as suddenly as the OVA) drive down the face of a mountain without somehow dying or killing anyone else on the way down, and at one point drives head-first into a fucking collapsed tree to try and get another car’s rear out from under it. The kind of goofy shit that you can admire.

At least, you could admire it if the ending wasn’t a giant middle finger telling you that you just wasted an hour watching this fucking thing. Now, I get that sometimes, an OVA will end on a cliffhanger, sometimes even a real downer of an ending. For example, Berserk ended on what could be vastly undersold as a downer, but the proceeding episodes didn’t feel as though Guts was simply spinning his wheels. Goddamn’s ending sees the team getting 3rd place, then having to drop out of the rest of the season, as their parent company has withdrawn from the auto sports industry. In other words, everything that every character had worked so hard to do to get to this point has meant absolutely nothing. That just…sucks. I’m sure the manga is fine, but damn, this OVA is so pointless. Goddamn is an hour of looking at well drawn cars. That’s cool, I guess. But that’s really all this show had going for it, which is a shame, as I’m not sure there are any other series’ about Rally racing, and that’s a niche that can stand to be filled more. What a shame.

I can’t recommend that you see Goddamn. The art is mostly okay and the animation is fine, but the lack of any plot and that dogshit ending really ruin it. You can find it on YouTube. I’m not linking it, because you should find better uses of your time. Yeah, that’s…that’s it.

I’ll finish this by posting more screenshots of cars and blatant product placement to maintain a sense of realism despite a significant lack of it during the actual rally.