Sakura Wars’ uphill battle

If you’re familiar with some of Sega’s (and Red Entertainment’s) prestige IPs, Sakura Taisen, or as known under its official English moniker, Sakura Wars, is a franchise that people sometimes bring up when discussing game IPs that never got a real chance in the West. When it did however, it bombed for whatever reasons. Only the fifth installment was released in the West, and you can imagine how well that went. To make matters worse, if reports are to be believed, even Japan gave a colder shoulder to that entry than the rest of the series. So not the greatest start for this series outside of Japan.

First game hit the shelves in 1996 and was touted as Sega’s most ambitious title for the Sega Saturn. Since then, this particular title saw ports to Dreamcast, PSP and Windows. The game got an expanded remake for the PS2 with the subtitle In Hot Blood. Original release was also a massive success, selling out from stores and selling over half of stock available in a week. It was the fastest selling Sega at the time

Something like Yakuza had to build its fanbase for a decade before it broke through its barriers toward the larger markets. Initially, it was marketed and touted as the spiritual sequel to Shuenmue but since then it has been allowed to flourish on its own. As a concept, it is more approachable game than Sakura Wars. After all, realistic modern day Japan is more approachable as a concept than fantasy version of Taishō period Japan. While it would be easy to simply Sakura Wars as a strategic RPG with classical oriental motif, the fact that it heavily marries its gameplay to visual novel styled story telling and certain level of emphasize on dating simulation, it is extremely clear why Sega would have worries whether or not any of the series’ games would a success enough in the West.

Despite what the sub-culture would like you to tell, Japanese media cartoons and comics are still a relatively small niche in the West, especially in the US. Sure, they’re probably the most stable mainstream than what it has ever been. Everything from dubbing to free streaming has been made to open the access points for people with interest, but even in Europe certain other forms of media are consumed more despite the how much e.g. France and Italy experienced Japanese classics in the late 1970’s and 1980’s. That was the time when the origin of these shows wasn’t made a huge deal, that their source wasn’t something that used to market. The best example of this is still with the US marketing of the NES and its games, where some have come to argue that Nintendo of America intentionally made people think the NES and its games were American products. Perhaps it was because how well Japan’s aggressive business practices did against US businesses, or maybe just to keep things as a cohesive whole. The source didn’t really matter, only that Nintendo’s branding was there and visible.

Kousuke Fujishima was instrumental in realising the characters and designs, balancing the era’s mix of Japanese and Western flavours with the magical steampunk world. Fujishima is know for such works as Oh My Goddess!, You’re Under Arrest and working on characters in the Tales of series. At the time, he was a household name and further drove the franchise’s initial success

Sakura Wars is inherently Japanese to the point of its detriment in the Western market.

My point of Yakuza taking a decade to make a solid fanbase comes is important, as it initially had, and still has, the same kind of wall on its way. However, the constant positive word of mouth and Sega sticking to their guns and releasing all the mainline games, and that one zombie sidegame, and ultimately growing positive press gave the series a pretty good reputation. It also helped that it was called Japanese Grand Theft Auto at some point during the two latest GTA games, which made more people curious about it. more than few fans were made through that.

Sakura Wars has none of this backing it up. While it has a small and dedicated cult following in the West, that’s all it has. Japan on the other hand treats the IP with silk gloves, though later games in the series simply didn’t have the selling power the earlier titles had. Sakura Wars is an expensive franchise to make with all the animated cutscenes, all the voices that need to be paid, the illustrated works and whole multimedia thing it has going on with cartoons, comics, figures and whatnot. It was designed from grounds up for Japanese markets only. It’s cultural ties are its most prominent element after all, specifically designed to invoke certain emotional response from the Japanese consumers. This is similar how Ciel Nosurge uses Shōwa era to directly invoke nostalgia from its older players. The Western audience has no links to this age in any form outside historical oddities. It becomes a double-edged sword in the Western markets.

Imagine if some US developer would make a fantasy RPG set in a romanticised version of the American Civil War with romance partner elements akin to Dragon Age. Whatever its success would be in the US, both European and Asian markets would not have any connections to the era and treat it as some kind of self-centered, bolstering product. Similarly, a British developer could make a similar product of their great colonial days, and it would have the same reception. This would be similar how Sakura Wars presents its idealised fantasy version of the Imperial Japan that no longer exists.

This carries even to the music of the series, with its main theme is a mix of Super Sentai opening song and 1949’s Aoi Sanmyaku‘s theme. Most of the character songs later in the franchise has been intentionally designed and composed to be nostalgic period pieces with characteristic twists. However, the main, ‘Geki! Teitoku Kagekidan’, or ‘Attack! Imperial Floral Assault Troop,’ has been the most repeated song in the franchise and is the most iconic representation whenever the series represents itself. Project Sakura Wars, the upcoming game, even uses a new variation on the song, further emphasising the fact that this is a new game.

Compare the two song here;

The main difference is in the lyrics while keeping the base composition the same. Perhaps I should also emphasise that the Japanese title of Project Sakura Wars is translated as New Sakura Wars. Again, culturally the song hits the times, as it was used to introduce melodic composition back to Japanese mainstream, and was Kohei Tanaka’s first major video game work, and helped him to further his career. I must admit I have an enormous soft spot for Kohei Tanaka’s works, and probably should count as one of his fans. I even have GaoGaiGar DVD box with his signature on it. (He was surprised and asked if I had seen the whole series, and was rather touched to hear that it made me a fan of his other works as well.) Sakura Wars music is one of the more important works for him, and has been used to describe his body of works in Western conventions. But I digress.

Of course, one thing this series is known for in certain circles the most are its steampunk mechas, the Koubu, which the fair maidens use to war against demons

With only one low-selling game in the West, Sega’s best bet to market this game in the West is to tie itself to Sakura Wars’ popularity and status as a prestige franchise within their home market.  The series has always shown strong national and historical pride despite its fantastic nature, which probably will rub some small groups the wrong way. Unless this time the rule is that North Americans and Europeans can’t show national pride, but others can. The gameplay elements, with its strong emphasize what Sega has coined as ‘dramatic adventure,’ naturally will get the dating sim label, which still carries the whole ‘dating sim=porn game’ stigma that’s been around since the early 1990’s. To the same extent, no matter what the hardcore VN fans tells you, the general perception is still ‘VN=porn game’.

Still, as a certain Youtuber told me in a chat why he didn’t get into the series was because, and I quote; “Does that actually have gameplay? I sat down once for an hour and they just wouldn’t shut the fuck up.” Oh gee, another PS2 RPG!” This isn’t all too rare a reaction to the series from the two decades I’ve followed the series from the sidelines. Sony made a similar notion, as an yet unnamed company tried to localise the ports of the two first Sakura Wars, but were rejected by Sony when they categorised the series as text novels due to sheer amount of text compared to the game play.

Yakuza is the game franchise that showed Sega that inherently Japanese products can succeed in the West. With their newfound courage and willingness to serve a niche audience is always welcome, and perhaps there’s some hopes that they’ll keep expanding if the series becomes a cult hit. Then again, Yakuza visually doesn’t look cartoony and sticks its legs into more realistic graphics and setting over girls with magical powers controlling robots to defeat demons. One more thing that makes it easier to sell. Nevertheless, there is a niche for the series. If Fire Emblem can find its niche despite its low acceptance first, all Sakura Wars needs to do is to be present and have a new entry available.

While Sakura Wars had massive initial success, the fourth game was a rushed job and gained rather negative reception, while the fifth pretty much ended the series with completely new set of characters and new setting. In few ways, Sakura Wars is like Virtual-On in that you can follow the last truly glorious days of Sega end in misery

This isn’t enough as is though, it also has to stay true to its nature to keep that niche. Capitulating to trends, removing game play elements, censoring anything either during development or in overseas version or removing any cultural motifs among numerous others will impact how that niche will view the game, thus affecting how the word of mouth will treat the title. They also need to do translation and localisation in-house and follow Yakuza‘s later steps, as Sakura Wars; So Long My Love has the usual NISA quality of translation and buggy coding. The PS2 version came with two discs in the West, one with faithful translation with Japanese voices, and one that had NISA’s less-than-accurate translations with extremely subpar English voice acting. The Wii version is based on the second NISA-fied disc, so you might burn it. Sadly, the Wii version was the only version released in Europe, making Sakura Wars initial entry in the PAL region doubly worse. Then again, starting with fifth game in the franchise might not be a good idea. A soft reboot on the franchise probably was the best move outside complete modern remake of the first game.

There is hope for Project Sakura Wars to be best it can, seeing the development team is using lessons learned from Yakuza how to present the game, but it was also mentioned that battles would be easier to go through in order for new players to have a better time. This interview with Famitsu is rather good representation how carefully the new entry is approached, but perhaps it also the text between the lines is telling how they’re putting more effort on story segments over gameplay, which will only raise the wall for the mass audiences. People who play games for stories, games like Persona 5, probably would like their direction.

Sega will have to deal with Sakura Wars being inherently anime and Japanese, which are probably its biggest obstacles in the larger markets while being one of major selling points to sub-culture niches. The best way to build toward an expanding market is up start with a  cult-hit. I wish this series would see some decent success in order to ensure further longevity of the franchise and more localised entries, despite its niche status in the West. It’s an expensive endeavour for Sega, but perhaps the market niche is large enough now for this new Sakura Wars to bloom in spring 2020.

In the meanwhile, you can visit Japan and play that Pachislot machine.

Review: Muv-Luv Kickstarter goods

The approach to this review will not be anything different from any other review I’ve done thus far. No special treatment, no kids gloves on; I will approach this as any product reviewed in this blog thus far. It’s only fair towards you, the readers, and the staff behind the Kickstarter. However, I won’t be reviewing all the KS goods. I’ll be concentrating on the main dish most people probably got through their backing; the Kickstarter physical package, the Codex and the Destroyer Class plush. This will strictly discuss the items themselves, not their translation or such.

Let’s start with the physical package.

This is also the image that was used on Alternative‘s original DVD release. It’s honestly the perfect choice for this

At first appearance, the package seems pretty on-par. Despite using thin cardboard, the appearance isn’t half bad. The decision to put the description and all copyright information to the bottom is an interesting take, as now its reversible to every other direction. This breaks how commercial boxes are designed, which some perfectionists might find jarring, as now the box doesn’t flow well with other software boxes.

However, visuals aren’t all. While the box still feel sturdy in hand, the contents inside are loose. The image above is just before I opened the box, and I could hear and feel the items inside rattling back and forth. This isn’t great to any extent. A box like this should have necessary support inside to keep items in their proper places during transit, as now no matter what sort of stuffing is used around it the items can be damaged. So, let’s open this one up and see what’s inside.

You could fit another booklet in there or something

This is exactly what I didn’t want to see; items rattling around in an oversized box. Because the box is made thinner cardboard, the same some DVDs have around them, it loses most of its structural integrity when opened. I can feel the CDs being lose inside their jewel case, let’s open that one up to see if they’re damaged. The case’s cover is nice choice though, but the back cover should have been revised. Maybe drop the song titles here completely and have them inside in an insert.

Oh. Ooooooohhh…

Luckily, only one of the CDs were loose, but the discs’ printing is not up to quality. While the chosen images are good in themselves, for whatever reason the images are lower resolution than the text, which itself is sharp. The typeface and font chosen for the CDs ends making these look like something printed at home. Furthermore, these discs should have been labelled as numbers, e.g. Muv-Luv Alternative Original Soundtrack Disc 1, not Volume 1. The fact that OST is used on the discs like this, and the fact that there is no kind of information who composed the songs, makes all this feel like a homebrew compilation.

As for the games themselves, the front covers are what you’d expect and look good. Nothing to say about these, but the back covers are another thing. There’s too much text on them. Even when these VNs are long, the descriptions should have been cut in half and with heavier emphasize on images. To use Sweet Home as an example, the flavour text is two whole sentences, being straight to the point. The word homebrew creeps back to my head with this, as things like Minimum Requirements should be on the box. Actually, they’re not seen anywhere on the packaging.

The discs however are rather standard, overall speaking. There’s nothing to mention about them, though I would’ve expected more legal text on all of these. Perhaps printing a monochrome image on the disc similar to âge’s Japanese releases should have been brought on to the table, as its much easier to make them look sharp rather than what might end up looking like a sticker on a disc.

I must mention that the disc I have for Muv-Luv seems to have been damaged somewhere along the way, as it has a strange arc on the underside. Despite this, the disc seems to be readable. There’s also a weird discoloration, as if something had spilled all over it inside. This might be a quality control issue, and I’ll be sure testing this disc further down the line.

The darker wavy line is easy to spot, the lighter arc near not so much., I have no idea what they are and I am slightly worried

The shikishi, a drawn image signed by the author, that came with the box is pretty great. Sumika doing a Drill Milky Punch is nice, even when it’s just a print and not a real thing in itself. The artbook uses similar typeface and font as the CDs, and doesn’t exactly look the greatest. Everything’s printed on a thin, glossy paper that in itself isn’t terrible, but the cover should have been heavier duty. The feeling the book gives is flimsy, plus it creases extremely easily. Corners will get damaged fast in normal use with this paper too. Because of the thinness, the pages are slightly transparent and the images on the other side bleed through. The images and character descriptions are on-point, though the complete lack of illustrator credits anywhere in the codex is a bit disheartening. Seeing the second and last to last pages under the covers are completely blank, these would have been great places to put them on.

Here’s how I solved the rattling the contents: I added two pieces of cardboard on both sides, and a support structure to keep the CD jewel case in place. To be completely honest, the outer box does feel like something you should throw away, as the package overall lacks any sort of premium feel to it. The added cardboard makes it feel more rigid and gives some extra heft. There shouldn’t be any reason for me to do this addition, but as things stand now, I had to. For comparison, here’s how Senran Kagura Burst Re:Newal laid its contents. Notice the use of sturdier cardboard, how the items are laid and fit perfectly, and the use of supportive thinner cardboard at the bottom of the PS4 case.

 

Well, let’s move unto the second big thing, the long-time Holy Grail of Muv-Luv Alternative source of information translated and recompiled with Lunatic Dawn content; The Codex.

Like some majestic predatory bird

The first impression of the book is nothing short of impressive. I didn’t expect hardcover version of the book, especially considering the number of pages, but first looks can be deceiving. When you stop and look at the cover, it’s not pretty.

On the right, you see the scanned cover of the Muv-Luv Alternative CODEX. On its left you have the same illustration, scanned from Muv-Luv Alternative Integral Works. I recommend opening them in Full View to fully see how badly the covers have been fucked up. Either someone forgot to pit High Resolution mode on in In-Design, or something seriously went awry during data process. Both covers have been printed in low resolution, while the cover text nice and crisp. While a book shouldn’t be judged by its covers, this piece can never be called high quality or premier product. A way to remedy this situation would be to create a dust jacket for the book with high resolution print on the cover.

However, the meat of the piece is on the pages. With some few hours looking through, there appears to be no real concern how accurately things have transferred during translation. There are also welcome changes, like changing Melee Halberds into Close Quarters Combat Melee Blade. While a mouthful, melee blade in itself is more than enough. Back in 2016 I wrote a post concerning the topic, which was comped with a review of TSF’s close combat weapons. I strongly recommend you to read them both if you haven’t. There is one fib that has leaked through, where BWS-8 Flugelberte is described to resemble a halberd, when in reality it resembles an axe. Or a bardiche.

The information itself is great stuff, but it shows that this is a book that’s glued together from multiple sources. The Lunatic Dawn content that’s in the latter part of the book is just bolted on, rather than taken and included into the book proper. The word on the street originally was that the book would need to be completely revised, but in the end it follows Integral Works‘ looks and design with the occasional change in order accommodate English.

Good ol’ Gekishit. Isn’t ‘Play Back’ one word though?

The paper used is similar glossy paper that’s in the artbook. It’s a level heavier, but creases still extremely easily. Despite being heavier and slightly thicker, it still isn’t near heavy matte paper in terms of preventing transparencies, as seen above. Fingerprints will be abound while reading this book. I’m rather surprised that this wasn’t a softcover book similar to Integral Works or Mega Man & Mega Man X Official Complete Works, to which I compared IW to back in the day as well. Codex‘s paper is nowhere as heavy and hefty as the two aforementioned, but the book is third thinner due to the new paper. It doesn’t allow the book to have any air to it either.

Because of the glossy surface and the sheer amount of text, people with poorer eyesight will have headaches while reading this. The typeface selected is just small enough to cause extra strain on the eye. As everything’s also packed very, very tightly in this small size, people who suffer from either vertical or horizontal dispersion in vision, meaning certain letters will lose lines, making reading a chore at best, extremely headache inducing at worst. This is easily alleviated with the use of different typeface or slightly larger font size.

The use of this sort of glossy paper can also be a double-edged sword. While Yakuza 6‘s artbook had the same paper, some copies were completely glued together, some were completely warped and some had ink smudges all over them. The feel of glossy paper works best for single leaflets and photos. When going for a book like this, its still best to consider heavy matter paper first and foremost, as it offers longer life and cuts down possible ink and paper problems down to mere percents.

All in all, the covers are just a damn travesty, sadly. Well, that and one of the pages, p. 353, get repeated on the following opening. While accidents like this sometimes happen, this does sting of lack of quality control.

Lastly, we have the Destroyer Class plushie, one of the things that was suggested very early on due to its role in the fandom. The plushie is based on a very certain background piece in Joshi Eishi Cryska EX.

While the plushie is clearly different from it CG original, this is due to difference in reality and fiction. The overall quality is damn nice, chosen materials feel sturdy enough to give this to a child to play with. Interestingly, the back end has a sack that’s filled with grains rather than fluff the plushie is filled with otherwise.

The grain section is about one-third from the back, starting from the tag on its arse

It’s just a joy to see and have, maybe even the best part of the package in terms of quality. This thing really should see mass production. Clearly, there is a market for BETA plushies.

I’m sure that at this point it’s rather clear what’s the end verdict is. The Kickstarter original products are largely a disappointment in terms of quality. I’m not going to mull over whys or hows, that doesn’t net anything. They are what they are, now’s too late to do anything about it. Other items, like the ones in Yuuko’s Gift bag, have higher quality. Stickers are hard to screw up as are postcards (though mine are rather warped, requiring me to straighten them down.) It must be also mentioned that Valkylies has been corrected into Valkyries with the patches.

Those patches were produced by Cospa, company that produces cosplay goods, including the jackets and shirts that were on the Kickstarter. The pilot jacket may be 100% polyester, but I can’t expect a cosplay clothes company to manufacture clothes like they were actual military wear. The Drill Milky Punch T-shirt is at 100% cotton and I’m wearing it while typing this review. This extends to the dakimakura, which is of standard Japanese productions for items like it, I expected no less.


The experience with the Kickstarter goods, delays and pretty much everything including the end results of the goods probably affected negatively both backers and staff. It would not be surprising if this was the first and last Kickstarter we see, and the rest are done away with less fanfare, which would also mean no physical products would be produced. However, in cases like this, I would always strongly recommend companies and people looking into Limited Run Games, a company that specialises in doing limited physical run on goods. At the time of Muv-Luv‘s Kickstarter, the company wasn’t relevant, but now it has managed to establish itself just fine. For example, they are delivering Shantae: ½ Genie Hero‘s Kickstarter goods. But all this is academic at best. I can only hope that lessons have been learned, but have not allowed to snuff the staff’s spirit.

I’ve got no good end for this review. Shit happens, we will probably never know what, but the end results are in our hands.

 

Three approaches in designing a mecha

The three approaches to mecha design this blog uses is based on their role and function within fiction rather than in-fiction. The first archetype is the Protagonist, a mecha that functions or acts like any human character and is treated as such within the narrative.

The Protagonist mecha as a character serves an integral role within the narrative. Initially they may seem like simple machines, like the eponymous Mazinger Z, yet they exhibit clear-cut human characteristics in actions and behaviour. Mazinger Z sunbathing in the original series Mazinger Z-series is this exact human-like behaviour the mechas are written with.

Here, the symbolic action of shaking hands is not represent the pilots themselves per se, but the relationship and role of the mechas

These type of mecha can also be explicit characters unto themselves, as it is with the The Transformers and Brave-series. These mecha are only separated from their human co-characters is their nature as giant mechanical beings. In cases like Beast Wars, there is no distinction between characters as such, all of them simply are the characters, but share the main characteristics of being human equivalent in different form.

The Protagonist has a unique role within the story. Not necessarily the main protagonist in itself, often sharing that role with another human character or another mecha. The same categories of heroes and villains apply to these as much as they apply to human characters.

In visual design, Protagonists more often than not share a humanoid body with strikingly human face. Heroman, by all intentions, shared all the previously mentioned points; a human-shaped mecha with human face and sits in a prominent role within the fiction as one of the main characters next to the main human protagonist.

American made in Japan

However, there is extremely wide variety of Protagonist mechas which toy with the concepts and ways to realise the main role. GaoGaigar, for example, in itself has no characters outside as it is an extension of Guy Shishioh; it less piloted as it is a giant piece of armour for Guy.

It must be mentioned that most Protagonist mechas are found in media aimed at younger audiences with healthy amounts of toys, and tend to have connections to the Super Robot side of mecha. This is not to degrade from the fiction itself, only an observation.

Naturally, the opposite of human-like characters would be the lack of humanity, as it tends to be the with the second archetype, the Machines.

The utilitarian approach to mecha design has always been there, though it gained most of its popularity in the 1980’s. While Mobile Suit Gundam certainly paved the way for Real Robot as a sub-genre, shows like Armored Trooper Votoms and FLAG have taken the concept to its more natural direction due to lack of needing to sell toys as much.

FLAG‘s HAVWC, High Agility Versatile Weapon Carrier, is equipment.

Unlike with the Protagonists, a Machine has no nature to speak of. To make a blunt comparison, they are toasters. Their use is largely utilitarian. The form is made and designed for a purpose first and foremost, following the necessities over flavour.

The mechanical design is far more industrial as opposed to organic contours, than anything else among the Machines. Take Heroman above for an example. Most of its shapes are round to further accommodate its humanoid visual. While at a first glace HAVWC would fit this as well, its shapes are equivalent that of a car, lines made to increase aerodynamics. Heroman is not exactly an aerodynamic character, and its not supposed to. That is a tertiary concern at best. In order for it to be more aerodynamic in its forward position, it would require some sort of wind-breaking apparatus around its chest to lessen drag.

However, FLAG is an example of the more more adhered end, similar to Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01, which has been described as equivalent of mechanical pornography due to its attention detailed opening.

The Machine comes in many varieties, all of which share multiple characteristics. Mass production is one, where the mecha can be or is mass produced. Scopedogs are a dime in a dozen in Votoms and are easily replaceable. Round Vernian Vifam is another example of a show, where mechas are tools, and the cast goes through numerous units during the course of the show.

Valkyries from Macross, despite often gaining a prominent role as a single unit or a customised main character vehicle, are all from a production line of similar units. While later entries in the series have made an effort to give most characters their own unique snowflake Valkyrie, in the end all of them are more or less faceless machines that showcase no human characteristics, outside the genre-defining four limbed humanoid shape.

Specialist roles are not exactly uncommon among Machines. Full Metal Panic!’s Arm Slaves, while mostly consisting of non-unique units, the units used by the protagonist Sousuke Sagara deviate from this mould in form of Lambda Driver, which allows the pilot to turn their willpower into physical force. This specialist position, be it due to extra equipment, prototype role or simply because the mecha is a protagonist’s unit, is a common trope. This position does not change them into Protagonists per se, unless human characteristics are applied. It is not uncommon for people, fictional or not, humanise their devices to a large degree and treat them accordingly.

Vehicles technically fulfill this spot,

However, it’s not uncommon to see the the aforementioned archetypes mixed either.

The Hybrid approach takes characteristics from both sides of the fence in a happy mid-ground. Perhaps the most well-known examples of this would be the Evangelion units of Neon Genesis Evangelion. While treated as equipment and something that can be mass-produced, each EVA-unit exhibits overt human-like characteristics from in-universe and in their role. EVA-01 is effectively one of the main characters while still serving the role of a toaster. Its design goes for utilitarian, but only in terms how the EVA-unit itself allows this in-fiction. The base design idea was, after all, a monster barely controlled by humanity.

A some sort of purple mom bot

Another method to give mecha character is by keeping the core mechanics itself intact in terms of its role though the use of Artificial Intelligence. Jehuty from Konami’s Zone of the Enders series of games is exactly this.

Jehuty in itself has no conscience or awareness within fiction, no character to speak of. Its actions and behaviour are determined by its pilot and support AI, A.D.A. In principle, A.D.A. could be embed into whatever Orbital Frame would support the addition.

These three approaches are more or less starting points, more or less. While at first it may seem arbitrary to make a category of three, one of which is effectively just combining the first two, they serve their role in setting the proper mindset for design work. That is, the nature of the mecha rather than the end-visual the designer ends up making. That is up to the designer’s own style and research into the subject materials.

For further reading on expanded subjects, such as combiners, basic design tips, controls and similar, please visit the Robot Related Materials section.

Hasbro’s Rangers

Recently Hasbro, the same you company who is in charge of G.I. Joe and Transformers, announced that they have acquired Saban’s Power Rangers and other entertainment related assets. This was almost to be expected, considering Saban cut ties with Bandai a while back, Saban then announced extended broadcast partnership with Nickelodeon with a new season called Beast Morphers, then Hasbro being announced the master toy licensee for Saban’s IPs. The progression of things have been extremely steady, and nobody should be surprised. Hasbro probably will handle the IP better than Disney did, which Saban bought back some time ago.

Why did Hasbro purchase the Power Rangers? I wouldn’t really have a proper answer, I don’t exactly follow what’s going on in the toy industry. However, knowing Hasbro’s history, it’s easy to see them wanting something special from Power Rangers, that they have a niche to fulfill and this IP fits them. They have the more standard boy’s military toys covered with G.I. Joe, Transformers for shape shifting robot toys, Star Wars license for Star Wars… which might actually be the thing they want to cover. Star Wars toys supposedly were shelf warmers with the The Last Jedi, and the SW toys were partially responsible in killing Toys R Us, at least according to Bobby.

If we take this stance, Power Rangers would fit this slot rather nicely. It would allow relatively healthy amount of characters toys to be manufactured alongside different vehicles and role play toys. Hasbro wouldn’t need to pay hefty license payments to anyone, as they’d own the rights. Well, to a certain point. As a reader of this blog, you’re probably aware that Power Rangers is made from the footage of Japanese Super Sentai franchise. The out-of-suit scenes are filmed for the show, while most of the action footage is lifted from the Japanese original. However, with time both Hasbro and Disney increased the amount of original footage they filmed as well as have Toei shoot some footage for the American use only. As such, Hasbro would probably have to pay something for the likeness of the characters to Toei and Bandai at least. That is, unless after Beast Morphers Hasbro decides to go their own way, stop using Super Sentai footage and create completely original content.

Considering how television and streaming services are starting to be full of decent looking special effects live action shows, especially from Marvel and DC, it wouldn’t completely unimaginable for Hasbro to partner with Nick or some other company to produce Hasbro-original Power Rangers to cut license costs altogether. This purchase probably killed all chances for the recent Power Rangers movie to get a sequel, but Hasbro could always have a new one and belong in their shared universe with M.A.S.K., Transformers, G.I. Joe and Inhumanoids. Well possible shared movie universe as well, we’ll have to sit back and see what comes of it, if any.

If Hasbro wants to bring Power Rangers back to its glory days, they have lots of work ahead of them. When the series hit the scene in 1993, it was a massive success, a cultural phenomena and a multimedia behemoth. You could see its influence every which way and sort of brought martial arts back to popularity like it was the 70’s again. You saw its influence on the Old Continent as well, where it took root in certain places. South America already had Super Sentai on their television, so the impact was less impressive, if there was even any. I don’t know about Australia, but I’ve heard that it was moderately popular at least.

But times change, and Power Rangers settled into its role after first few seasons and kept going. We never got to see past the third season, but looking at what the Alien Rangers were, I don’t mind missing any of that. In few ways, Power Rangers is a mainstay in American television and few generations have already grown into adulthood with it.

It would be impossible for Hasbro to capture the thunder in a bottle again, mostly because how saturated the current entertainment media are of super powered heroes and their stories. Power Rangers does have a niche fulfilled there, being aimed at a younger audience overall and the emphasize at martial arts, something that’s been slowly being toned down like no other thanks to Japanese soccer moms wanting Super Sentai and Kamen Rider to be less violent. Hell, Kamen Rider Ghost toned its violence down to the point of the main character fighting enemies by eerily floating around them, but this was deemed to scary for the kids by their mothers and it got changed back to good ol’ punchan and kickan. There would need to be a proper paradigm shift in the franchise in order to lift it from the place it has sunken into.

Whatever the end aim is, money and toys are involved. Hasbro is, after all, a toy company and whatever they do aims to sell toys. If we get good stories out of the deal, like Beast Wars, that’s good. Considering Bandai’s toys with the Super Sentai have been less than stellar for number of years now, with Doubutsu Sentai Zyuogher having immobile cubes as the robot. They’ve become completely gimmick driven. Some of the suit designs have seen drop in overall quality as well in terms of used materials compared to other contemporary shows. It doesn’t help that giant robots is old men’s stuff in Japan, not something that would sell all that well.

Power Rangers has always had a need to produce Western toys anyway, as it is relatively uncommon for Japanese toylines to contain bad guys. This is the opposite to American model, where both sides of the story gets toys. The best examples of this would be Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toylines. MOTU at a point had almost 1:1 ratio between the heros and villains. All this is because of Star Wars, in that kids weren’t just buying toys for the sake of toys, but because the toys were representing the characters. Hasbro has a history of being able do multi-media franchises, as long as they don’t forget that kids and fans are in for the characters, and Power Rangers certainly has characters consumers can connect with.

Well, if nothing else comes from this, I bet your ass that we’ll see Power Rangers/ Transformers crossover toys with the Dinobots at some point.

Fight! Iczer-1 series celebration

These posts were originally posted as a Monthly Three, as well as Iczer-1’s 30th anniversary celebration series. They are now here collected for easier access. This post covers introduction to the history and the Original Video Animations the franchise has seen.


Rei Aran

If one doesn’t find much sources about Hariken Ryu in English (his career with Godzilla gives him a lot of leverage over other of his contemporaries, Aran Rei is barely recognized in any degree. While Aran is known as one of many people who made up the best era of Comic Lemon People, and thus one of those who influenced then-current Japanese popular culture, and to that extension modern Japanese pop-culture, his name is all but lost in the Western front. He was at his most active in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, having an influence over stylistic sensibilities as well as contributing to the OVA scene.

Born in 1960, Aran’s first published work was Fairies of the Star in Comic Lemon People #6, 1982. Whether or not he had released doujinshis before this is unknown. The one work he seemed to like the most and kept working on  between 1983 and 1993 is Galaxy Police Patrizer-3. If any of his works, it is this one that shows how Aran refined his self-taught skills within one decade to a whole new level.

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Plane elements in Tactical Surface Fighters; F-18E/F Super Hornet

The F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet was an upgrade to the single seat F/A-18C/D line of Hornets. It all goes back to the YF-17 test fighter in the 1970’s, on which the base F/A-18 Hornet is derived from. This base F/A-18 Hornet is a twin engine multi-mission aircraft designed around leading-edge extensions with digital fly-by-wire controls, with single-slotted flaps and ailerons over the whole span of the trapezoidal wings. This, alongside with canted vertical stabilisers give the Hornet an excellent high angle of attack, which was tested by NASA’s High Alpha Research Vehicle. All in all, an aggressive fighter, if needed.

Originally, the Hornet was to have two variants, an attacker and a fighter. However, these were merged into one craft via the Hornet’s multi-function displays, which allows the pilot to change to attack or fighter mode, or both, making the Hornet a proper multi-role fighter. This proved to be valuable asset in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm, where operational commanders had large flexibility within scenarios and were able to adjust to situations with a single aircraft in the air.

The C/D version, the which Super Hornet is an upgrade on, has two variants; C being single seat and D being two-seat. D is more a training variant, while the proper mission-ready D’s second seat is reserved for Weapons and Sensors officer to assist the pilot. As such, it mostly served as U.S. Marine Corps’ night attack and Forward Air Controller.

Overall, the C and D models are block upgrades made to the Hornet in 1987, incorporating upgraded radar and avionics, ability to carry newer and larger variety of missiles and got neat little things like self-projection hammer and a synthetic aperture ground mapping radar. It also got a new ejection seat, the Martin-Baker NACES. 1989 models also had improved night attack abilities with Hughes AN/AAR-50 thermal navigation pods, good ol’ night vision goggles and two full colour MFD’s. An upgrade set that overall increases the effectiveness of the fighter.

The F/18-E/F upgrades were based on this, but where much larger in scale. While avionics, ejection seat and such things from the previous upgrades stayed largely the same, including the computer software, the Super Hornet is about twenty percent larger, has both heavier empty and maximum weights. Due to it carrying 33% more fuel internally, its mission range is 41% higher as well. All this meant that the catapults and arresting systems on the naval vessels had to be set differently for Super Hornets. Unlike the Hornet, Super Hornet was also designed  to for aerial fueling, extending its airtime even further.

The larger frame of the Super Hornet comes from its longer fuselage and increased win area. The oval shaped intake ramps of the Hornet were switched for rectangular intakes, which also also slightly larger. Despite the larger size, the General Electric F414 engines give the Super Hornet 35% additional trust compared to Hornet’s F404 engines. The fuselage was not designed for stealth, but the overall design was to reduce ballistic weaknesses and emphasize the use of existing electronic warfare with innovative tactics its flip-of-the-switch multi-role function allowed.

The fuselage is also considerably smoother than its predecessors, as Super Hornet saw extensive use of panel joint serration and edge alignment to eliminate unnecessary surface joint gaps and resonant cavities. These help to reflect waves away from the craft, and with smaller frontal cross-section than its predecessors, the Super Hornet is hard to pick up by radar. F-22 and F-35 would totally eclipse it with their stealth technology.

The F/A-18E/F saw its first action in 2002 during Operation Southern Watch in Iraq as a bomber . After that, the Super Hornet has been flying every sort of mission, from escorting to  close air support. For the U.S. Navy, they’ve proven a competent and effective fighter, which has made it a possible candidate for multiple countries for adoption. The Royal Australian Air Force acquired 24 Super Hornets in 2007, which was a controversial order due argument made that Super Hornet was inferior to the MiG-29 and Su-30 in the South East Asia. The first RAAF Super Hornet arrived in 2009, with the rest coming later down the line.  Numerous other potential operators are about, including Canada to replace their CF-18 Hornets, Finland to replace their F/A-18 Hornets under HX Fighter Program, Poland to modernise their defence in 2021 and to have something to replace their Su-22M4 fleet, with few others in the line. Numerous bids for Super Hornet has failed across the years.

The difference between E and F variants are, as you’d expect, is that E is a single-seat variant while F is a two-seat variant.

And as usual, the image board original

The history of BETAverse Hornet and Super Hornet are very similar to the real world counterpart. Based on YF-17 from the Lightweight TSF Program, McDaell Doglam refined the fighter into a multi-purpose surface fighter for the U.S. Navy to use. While the F-14 Tomcat was still around, the Hornet began replacing them as U.S. Navy’s mainline surface fighter due to its lower maintenance and better cost-to-performance ratio. This mean that a Hornet had a longer fieldtime compared to the Tomcat, just like with the real world fighter. All in all, the BETAverse Hornet follows the history of the actual Hornet very closely.

The same can be said for the Super Hornet. With the all the upgrades made to the F-18E/F Super Hornet, it’s effectively a 2.5th generation TSF and fights in the same league as the SU-34 Terminator. Shoulders saw expanded thrusters, head section gained upgraded avionics and sensors and lower body overall was increased in order to expand operating time. The Super Hornet has similar performance to F-15E Strike Eagle, but at a lower cost, making it U.S. Navy’s and Marine Corps’ flagship and mainline machine, which got exported to place like Australia. E and F variations have the same seat arrangement as the real fighter.

As for its armaments, the Super Hornet doesn’t exactly have a wide variety to choose from. The American Assault Cannon of choice, the AMWS-21 Combat System, is the standard long-range combat goes by. As a special option inherited from the Hornet is the MGM-140 ATACMS missile container system, which has a neat radar unit on it to help guidance. Luckily, the Super Hornet as CIWS-1A Close Combat Knife over the terrible CIWS-1B.

As for the design, the Super Hornet really goes its way to incorporate some of the fighter elements into the TSF, but due to the size of the shoulders and knees, you don’t recognize it as a Hornet of any sort from the first view. This is due to its front silhouette being too large, whereas the Hornet and Super Hornet were designed to have less bulk. The colour is adopted from a real life Super Hornet, as pictured above.

Super Hornet had that smooth surface going on for it, and the TSF version of it almost seems to use this. However, the torso’s many segments, and hanging bits on the skirt armour and slightly excessive raised levels on the arms tell that this wasn’t a main concern. Even Tomcat seems to have smoother surface than the Super Hornet. However, it must be mentioned that the skirt armour does relay some of the fuselage’s smooth look, but that’s about it. Not that TSFs have to concern with stealth when it comes to fighting the BETA, but it’s rather important when fighting other TSFs.

The Jump unit is a truncated and deformed version of the fighter, with the nose cut off. Nothing too special overall, though it is slightly bulky.

Where the Super Hornet made its name for the fans was during the events in The Day After timeline, where it serves as the primary American TSF. Especially notable is how twelve  Super Hornets defended USS John F. Kennedy against a sea of BETA in 2nd of July, 2004. Notable is also their use during the Defence of Seattle and during following events.

Virtual-On Retrospective: MARZ

Previous: FORCE

In the early 2000’s, Sega’s plan was to deliver cheaper and more effective arcade hardware for the Japanese market, which of few would see worldwide releases. NAOMI 2 was given the emphasize over the Hikaru, which was phased out in 2002. NAOMI 2 would last to 2008, with Atomiswave, a Sammy developed NAOMI derivative, running by its side. Around the same time in 2001 Sega developed the Triforce with Nintendo and Namco, based on Nintendo’s GameCube. Two years later, Sega would release Chihiro to the arcades, based on Microsoft’s Xbox. All these arcade machines ran different games that Sega was directly involved and developed, like NAOMI 2’s Virtua Fighter 4 series, Triforce running AM2 developed F-Zero AX, Atomiswave running many fishing and fighting games Sega was part developer and publisher, and Chihiro most known for OutRun 2 and House of the Dead III due to their Xbox ports. Later in the 2000’s, Sega’s arcade hardware would be more or less completely home media derivative, based on normal PC architecture, making some of the modern games running on a modified Windows. However, there was no Virtual-On, on any of these systems.

With Virtual-On FORCE generally receiving lukewarm acceptance from the overall audience, regarding Oratorio Tangram the superior game, Hitmaker would develop a console-only sequel for the PlayStation 2; Virtual-On MARZ.

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Virtual-On Retrospective: Operation Moongate

This post is first in a series of five. You can access all posts in Robot Related Section linked above, or move between sequential post at their beginning and end

Virtual-On is one of Sega’s hallmark game franchises, developed by Sega’s AM3 department. It had everything the arcades required in 1996; 3D graphics that you wouldn’t see at home, unique controls, flashy graphics and fast paced gameplay. When most of the 3D mecha combat games on the market aimed for slow and emphasized on realistic simulation, like Shattered Metal or Mech Warrior 2, Virtual-On hit the arcades with sharp, colourful 3D models in fast paced third-person action with (relatively) easy controls. This is perhaps the best example of East VS. West mentality when it comes to giant robots. Even in arcades, among other blooming 3D games, Virtual-On stood apart with its excellent presentation and unrelenting game play.

 

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To know the production

This is a topic I tend to repeat each year, though for a good reason. A designer who has no idea about the methods of production tend to produce expensive schlock.

That may sound a bit harsh to say, but sadly that’s a reality in many ways. A designer can be whoever, no matter the education, experience or overall knowledge of things at hand. There are many designers, very few master craftsmen with design as their main tool. What ultimately distinguish the two is application of knowledge. Experience can be argued to be a necessary element, but I would argue it is inherently required for a higher class designer.

To use an example from a product design side, customer works are good ones how things just sorta fall apart the moment you get an A4 in your hands with scribbled lines with no cohesion to them. Certainly it makes sense to the customer who drew it, but for someone who has make their design it may as well be Hebrew. A clean presentation of your design with all the necessary information is required.

While that’s enough for a random customer that just pops into your ‘shop and asks if you can make him a steel box, things are different in proper industrial environment. A designer who does not understand the methods and tools used to make their design a reality is, to be frank, out of his league. It’s easy to draw a box and send it forwards without a second though, 3D modelling programs make these things far too easy. However, the moment the worker gets the paper and has to create said box, questions arise. Will it be made from one sheet, with corners bent up and welded shut? Are all the sides separate pieces that need to be cut separately and then welded? Both of these are valid approaches, though only the other saves time, is effective and does not require excessive work put in. Bending would be the better answer here, despite it introducing rounded corners to the product. It’s faster and more material effective, saving money.

An overtly complex design that does not consider production quite literally costs money by forcing more work hours elsewhere in the machine. We can thank the engineers and mathematicians who have to calculate load bearings that keep designers’ “art” in check. You wouldn’t believe the sort of trailer designs I’ve seen.

Let’s apply this to mecha design in a way. Assume that we’ve given a task to sketch up some robot a company were to sell in limited quantities. The things we’d like to take into account in this scenario would be the relative simplicity of the moulds. This being a limited production, minimising production costs will carry long away. The more a mould gets used, the “cheaper” it is on the long run. For a limited production we need to be aware the amount of use the mould get. We can reduce the complexity of the mould by eliminating most, if not all, escape corners from the shapes. While this first seems easy, it’s something that can challenge even a veteran. We’d need to consider the spruces and their setting, and if we could re-use something the company has already produced, the better. Colour of the plastic used is a major factor as well, as certain colours and combination cost different amounts. The plastic itself needs heavy consideration, as not all plastics are equal when it comes to models.

To compare Bandai and Kotobukiya, there are numerous quality differences in both mould designs and used plastics, something that Bandai has fair few decades under their belt now. Revell, another major plastic model company, has seen little progress in how they create their kits for some thirty years now. Their injection kit technology more or less has simply risen in quality while keeping most moulds the same. Bandai’s approach is very much different, where they constantly re-engineer their models for modern age, as Gunpla is expected to be very poseable to the same extent as the robots in the cartoons. Not only that, but the emphasize on creating new moulds when necessary seems to be on the table with them, though old moulds will see lots of use whenever possible. That is not to say that Revell is a lesser company than Bandai when it comes to models. They’re simply playing different audience. One wants more accurate injections kits for vehicles and such, while the other concentrates on wanting to build their own toys.

All that said, in fiction this of course doesn’t matter, if there is no reason. Nevertheless, considering how most if not all series tend to get merch of their in some way, giving a thought how something could be done would be highly recommended. Even when CNC machines tend to be able to do anything nowadays, and 3D printing is becoming a more common thing by the year, ultimately overtly complex design only yield trouble.

The reason many 1970’s mecha look dead simple and lacking in bells and whistles compared to modern designs is because the production methods have changed and evolved. We are at a point, when it comes to models and such, that we can produce stupidly complex designs at a relatively low price.

However, that’s not the exact same tale everywhere. While productions methods do continue constantly, harsher limitations than what we have in plastic model industry are till in place. We can’t 3D print cards, for example. Foundries still need to produce the raw materials that can be put into use. There would be no reason to build a car’s frame by machining it from a solid block of steel or use a mould to make it whole. The best option still is to make it from bits and pieces shapen into proper form, then welded together.

As for character designs, well, that’s probably something I shouldn’t dabble into outside mentioning how excessive detail does not make a good design.

I wish you a merry Christmas, and hopefully we’ll back on schedule next Friday.

Mecha Design: Selling toys

I’ve touched this on multiple occasions before, but I still need to give it a single, emphasizing post: most robot franchises are there to sell toys. Transformers being the most prominent example of this, with the cartoon and comics supporting the toyline rather being a separate entities based on the toyline. Both the comics and cartoons had to adhere what Hasbro had to say, which resulted in death of numerous characters while loads of new ones being introduced in one panel. Writers can often try to tackle these as challenges, and while that has been less successful at times, it has given birth to a very rich franchise, with Beast Wars still contesting the place for the best written entry overall.

With Transformers, a lot of the things that goes in the designs can work in the toys, and sometimes Hasbro mandates things. However, that being said, Japan still likes to design toys first and foremost based on gimmick ideas to implement in the shows themselves. This is rather clear in modern Kamen Rider, where the themes and gimmicks have been decided beforehand and designed based on these. Sometimes, the concepts can be to counter previous seasons’ concepts, or based on research on what kids may like. The usual stuff really, and this is part of the whole research part when designing something for purpose use; find what it needed and wanted, and then fill those.

But enough intro talk, let’s talk about a Super Sentai mecha first.

These photos are from greenflour5757.blog96.fc2.com/blog-category-53.html I recommend giving it a look, there are a lot more there

Studio PLEX is a company that is under Bandai Namco holdings, and their main task really is to design and realise toys. GoTaurus above is one of their creations for Gingaman, and does exhibit a lot of their design ideas from the get go. I’m sure everyone can see how its transformation is essentially just to stand up. The reason this is of course; toys.

Most, if not all, Studio PLEX designs are not driven by technology, lore or the like, the things I’ve been praising with harsh bias all year around. The very core their designs are driven is to make the toy sturdy for kids to play with, and to look neat and accommodate all the necessary gimmicks. There are no flimsy bits to bob around, no sharp corners to speak of to pop one’s eye out. Real world concerns for child safety and sturdiness have driven the design, but that has not not impacted it. Certainly, GoTaurus may not have the most interesting design, and the relatively low production quality of the toys often can demerit it, yet ultimately the design is very eye pleasing due to the used colours and shapes.

The chains do seem a bit arbitrary, but they work in both modes

It is designed and build with intention. All the joints too are big and relatively heavy-duty compared to modern, more adult-oriented toys, where joints could be build from metal or have somewhat more complex design in a small build. Because the intent and use of Super Sentai toys is very different from what adults want to do with their toys, either just pose them on the shelf or hotglue them, there’s not much put into low-cost production and high sturdiness. At times, it feels it is the exact opposite, with high-cost productions with extreme detailing, but with even one hit or the like, the toy’s bust.

The A3 toyline of Tactical Surface Fighters from Muv-Luv Alternative is a good example how the toys were made with rather  high detail count and decent paint application, but everything else tended to be terrible.

This is, of course, because the TSFs were not designed to be toys in the first place, but that doesn’t necessarily mean their toys need to be terrible. The joints were designed from ground up, and ended up being very loose. The used plastic is either too soft and has warped, or lacks toughness and breaks easily. All these combined make the A3 line very flimsy, and knowing how to repair broken bits is pretty much required. As the line went on, some of these issues were fixed, but in the end the A3 was a disappointment. The franchise moved on to the Plastic Model field, but even there the TSF models were costlier and of lower quality than competition, especially when compared to Gundam models. That may be a bit unfair comparison, considering what sort of gold mine Gunpla is for Bandai.

Speaking of Gundam, while the series is know for its giant robots and relatively good storytelling in general, it should be noted that it is very much driven by its model sales above all. Adults and kids alike find building their own toys fun, after all.

The one core thing that allows Bandai to roll out loads of different sort of varied designs like the above BG-011B Build Burning Gundam is the use of general use frames that you can slab armour on.

A generic frame, nothing specific

Bandai often reworks this frame. Certain series and eras themselves have a certain set frame, which may have an extra part to add a function or the like, but largely what makes the most difference in the model is its outside appearance. Part swapping is easy, as generally Bandai wants to make things modular within the series to a certain degree for their own benefit in mould reuse. It also makes kitbashing easier, when everything uses standardised parts.

Gundam as a franchise is freakish in the sense that it doesn’t serve the toys all the way, despite Bandai being the end-of-all being that dictates the final design. It allows the designers to work within the fiction, and this often results in a design that functions within pre-existing model limitations and fiction’s demands, as the paradigm in Gundam design emphasies using all three at the same time. Rarely you see a Gundam that could not be realised in model form, and even then it’s more common to see a modern redesign that makes them fit that box.

Gundam began to use transformations when the technology became cheap enough for it, and after Macross had made it popular. Looking at the current lineup of Gunpla, we can always see one or two models designed just around the shape changing gimmick. Thus, in a mainline Gundam show, the transformation has to work, toy accurate if possible. Because this mind set shifted only after later, mechas like Zeta Gundam had to come around its complex and nigh impossible transformation schemes (for toys) to the point of Bandai making a Zeta Model that, for in-universe reasons, had a simplified scheme. Namely, the MSZ-006 Zeta Gundam Wave Shooter Equipment Type. Nowadays, moel engineering and plastics have evolved to the point of pretty much anything is possible.

Though even when everything has become possible, it also has a cost. A simple design like with GoTaurus won’t cost too much to produce, but a more complex piece like a Zeta Gundam will due to complex mould needed. Considering the needs of the toy first yields a very much different design than considering the in-world or technological points. Toys, after all, exist.