Hello everyone, welcome to this very updated blog’s roundup of media I really enjoyed this year. I figure, with all the chaos in this year, I should reflect on the media I was able to enjoy this year.
I don’t like writing roundups like this because, as anyone who reads this blog would know, I tend to write fully fleshed out and researched posts. It’s just my thing to download ten million books and vomit out a post that’s read by ten people. A roundup like this feels weird to me because I always like to go “I can just do that on Twitter”.
But recently, I’ve been thinking how 2020 felt like twenty years had passed within these twelve months. I’ve started to lose track of time thanks to the pandemic and there’s so many incidents that affected me and my friends. I know I’m going to see 2020 and the next year as years of constant worries for friends and family.
At the same time, there’s been many interesting developments that make me feel a bit more hopeful about the world and the future. While my plans for a PhD in Japan had been postponed until who-knows-when, I’ve started a visual novel collective and joined a pretty interesting Touhou fan translation group. The latter has introduced me to the world of translation and is probably the first space where I’ve ever been paid for my efforts.
Oh yeah, I’ve also learned that I might have stomach problems. Woops.
2020 is a troubling year, but I think I was able to make use of the little energy I could muster for something productive. Media consumption was no exception and I want to end the year on a positive note.
So why not a very unedited roundup of the memorable media I’ve enjoyed this year? Who doesn’t want more recommendations from Kastel, the backlogger who stealth markets titles and makes everyone else’s backlogs worse? I love making people’s backlogs heavy with titles because it’s great to see developers be appreciated for their hard work.
I’ll be focusing on works I’ve finished or at least got really far into. This means I won’t talk about titles like Subnautica, which I adore but haven’t finished yet. Without further ado, here’s a really long post on the memorable media I’ve enjoyed this year:
If there was a visual novel I would love to translate, it would have to be this. Developed and published by Nippon Ichi (Disgaea), Bokuhime Project is about a feminine-looking guy who decides to crossdress to investigate the cause of his sister entering a comatose state.
What a premise.
The title is now another member of N1’s somewhat long array of budget visual novels published on console. You may have heard of the Taisho era yuri-horror-but-not-really-it’s-seishun-drama title, Yoru, Tomosu (夜、灯す), and Bokuhime is its onee-chan when it comes to release dates.
But since these titles are on consoles (there’s some discussions on getting Bokuhime ported to PC, but I won’t get my hopes up) and they are unlikely to be translated (VNs don’t sell :-()), I don’t think they’re discussed much even in English-language communities that do discuss Japanese VNs. Not everyone has a PS4 or a Switch, though paradoxically visual novels sell much better as console titles.
So, it’s sad to say that I might be one of the few people to talk about Bokuhime Project because I think it’s one of the most nuanced otaku titles on this very annoying and fussy concept we call gender.
The investigation takes place in the typical Class S setting: a bourgie rich girl academy. However, it takes the Strawberry Panic shtick further: everyone is vying for the position of princess and a place in the student council. Princesses are the epitome of a cute/beauty trait and their fans (referred to as knights) must stan them really hard against other princesses.
This leads us back to the premise: the protagonist, Ikusa Minato, finds out that his sister was the president of the student council and he realizes he needs to go undercover as a princess to uncover the truth.
He’s aided by his cousin, Erica, who prefers to be called by her handle, Akira. Akira has willingly given up her identity to Minato, so he can roam the school in broad daylight and she can play video games in her snazzy apartment.
This leads Minato living a double life: as Erica, she goes to school as the warrior princess who knows some kind of cop martial arts; as Minato, he’s a student in the night school that was set up to segregate the sexes from mingling with each other.
When Minato-as-Erica joins the student council, he is joined by Rita, a gyaru rival who is secretly a nerd and online friend of Akira’s. The other princesses include the enigmatic and dashing Dahlia, the Yamato Nadeshiko Uran, and the school idol Elmes. Together, they manage the school events and have weird popularity contests to see who’s better.
This feels like a cute slice-of-life deal with very trendy jokes and current references, but the game gets interesting when the scenario starts getting woke about beauty and idols. In the eyes of Bokuhime Project, beauty is self-made. We make ourselves beautiful. Unfortunately, we also tend to forget who was beautiful a year ago in favor of whoever’s hot right now. Beauty is commodified heavily and we can only think of it in terms of tropes and trends. Anything that doesn’t fit our conception isn’t beautiful, even if we know beauty is self-made.
And this puts the very concept of crossdressing in a different light. Instead of treating the usual trope of crossdressing into a girl’s academy as a horny and porny setting, the game asks, “How is Minato-as-Erica beautiful?” Because he certainly is but we can’t speak of it as we’re under a very strict heteronormative standard. He too is understood in this examination of what beauty is and this is part of why I think the game would be so nice for trans people to read.
As someone who views themself as somewhat “trans-adjacent”, the themes of the story started to resonate with me very early on. I’ve always wondered why guys couldn’t be called beautiful. Why is that adjective only reserved for women? Meanwhile, handsome’s only for the guys. I’ve seen enough anime girls in suits to call them suave and handsome. These questions being reflected in Bokuhime‘s themes feel validating to me.
More importantly, the final route does something very interesting with gender and trans identity. For this roundup, I would like to not go into spoilers territory, but let’s just say this route is something I would love to translate for trans women especially. I can’t believe the visual novel went for this route and the fact that it was this explicit really made it more important.
I’ve considered writing a full-length post on Bokuhime Project and I even have the materials for it, but I got burned out from writing in general. Still, it’s a game that really stuck with me since I played it. It would be a shame if it remains that only a few people have heard of it, let alone played it. This isn’t the best title on the list because the writing is very rough. However, I have to put this at the top of the list because it’s one of the two titles I really wish people would read right now.
Kuso Game Girl Wateri
And this leads to the other title that I’d like people to play for somewhat similar reasons: it’s obscure, has some interesting themes about gender, and I want more people to play it.
Kuso Game Girl Wateri is a VIPRPG that honestly took everyone by surprise. At first glance, it’s a ksg collection by the creator of The Legend of Windi. Much like its predecessor, the game has snappy flavor text in cleverly designed minigames. You control Wateri who wakes up in a weird dungeon and you activate the opening of the game, which can only be described as the real deal opening to the real deal remake of Final Fantasy 7.
As you go through what feels like disconnected minigames (the developer for whatever reason decided to completely remake Final Fantasy 7 in kusoge RPG Maker fashion) and enjoy the weird quirky humor, you’ll realize there’s actually a clever plot hidden in the seams. The game actually has a very clever theme about nuclear families and family roles, but it takes a bit of detective work to uncover the full scope. There’s a secret ending in the midst of all this and man, I wish I could relive that moment again.
In fact, Kuso Game Girl Wateri is unironically my Game of the Year. There’s something seriously special about a humble video game that takes on the grand themes of society and family while embracing its subcultural roots. Of all the titles I’ll talk about in this post, this game remains the most impressive work I’ve ever tried for the shits and giggles.
I can’t really delve into details without spoiling the fun, but if you love obscure media crap that’s doing something incredible and will never be replicated by mainstream media, then this is a must-play.
If early Russian literature was a punk rock band, then Musicus! would be their cover band. The visual novel is pretty important to the history of VNs since it’s the swan song of Overdrive, but it also is hopeful about the endeavors of art in the music industry and by extension the VN industry.
You follow Kei who’s decided to start his own rock band after a life-changing experience with his mentor, but the premise isn’t that simple. It’s not just about an up-and-coming rock band trying to make ends meet; it’s about the pain and disillusionment of being an artist.
Most of the scenes are down-to-earth as hell. Unlike Kira Kira and other titles of its kind, Musicus! doesn’t shy away from the artists’ confusion whilst performing for a live performance. What does it feel to be under that spotlight when crowds of adoring fans cheer for you? Is any of this real? What does success in the artistic world actually mean?
These questions are later occluded by deeper questions on the meaning of life and death. A heroine gets drunk after a performance and starts talking about how she dreams about death and whether an afterlife exists. Characters struggle under the weight of loss and poverty. Such heavy themes never go away; they’re always lurking in the background.
And yet, you read about how these characters are still trying. It’s trying to answer all of these questions and I don’t know if the game truly succeeded in that front, but it’s an important endeavor.
The way it does it is really interesting: the game structures itself after the many branching paths of life. Each route is a decision Kei makes and he meets entirely different casts of characters who will never appear in other routes. If you’re expecting, for example, the hikikomori girl since she has a character portrait and appears in the cover to appear after the first route, you’re gonna be disappointed. The visual novel takes a lot of attention to depict characters who barely appear once or twice in the grand scale of things because, much like life, the people we meet don’t always stick around. They have their own lives and not everything in life is like a visual novel where a grand route connects all the strings. Characters come and go much like old friends and classmates in schools. Maybe, we’ll meet them again or in Facebook or other cursed sites like that, but that connection will always remain spurious.
And that’s what makes this visual novel so powerful. It captures the rhythm of life, even if it is bleak at times. By the end of Kei’s journey, you wonder if life is actually worth living and the game reminds you there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel. That cliche may seem silly, but I think the visual novel fully earned it by asking us to believe in ourselves and passions.
I hope the title gets a good translation because I can imagine it would be a hit for many artists wondering if their efforts are all worth it. A little desire of mine is to continue its legacy through the visual novel collective as well.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin (天穂のサクナヒメ)
Ever since the two-man team Edelweiss announced Sakuna in 2015, I was curious about this project. Cute girl doing 2D character action, Shinto mythological settings, and farming? That sounds like a game developed for yours truly.
But as time went on, the game was clearly becoming more ambitious than the developers hoped. According to people more knowledgable than me, the game was supposed to be a spiritual sequel to Fairy Bloom Freesia. The combat system in Sakuna is practically a more polished system of Freesia and it may not be an exaggeration to call it a “Freesia 2”.
The earliest trailers from 2016 in fact reveal how much the game had actually been completed. We can see that the combat animations were done and the first few levels were already set in place. But anyone who’s played the game would notice the major difference between the final version and the gameplay footage: the farming.
The farming in the 2016 trailer was something you’d expect from a title like Sakuna: farming minigames galore. Press X to some rhythm. That kind of stuff you see in classics like iCarly (Wii) but done better, of course. The mechanic would probably be tied to the combat system or as a way to break up the monotony of fighting forever. It could be something cute and it seemed like an interesting addition to what looked like a solid combat system.
But the final version went beyond that: the farming mechanic is extremely in-depth and way better than the combat system. I think this is why the game had already sold over 500,000 physical and digital copies because as it turns out, rice farming actually kinda rules.
You play as the lovable rascal kami, Sakuna-hime, who’s been banished to an island full of demons. She’s joined by a wild yet comfy cast of characters: Tama, a blade familiar and now uncle to Sakuna; Tauemon, a deserter-turned-bandit; Kinta, a war orphan; Myrthe, a missionary preaching the faith of Formos; and Yui, a loommaker kid who likes Kinta a bit too much. Sakuna must farm rice and rid the monsters from this island.
The premise may look humble, but the mechanics that undergird the story are the highlight of this work. Like most action RPGs, Sakuna has a light RPG system attached to its slow and deliberate combat system (there’s no animation cancels, i.e. no changing actions midway) and you can level up to overpower the enemies.
But the way you level up is remarkably different from other ARPGs because you farm.
As the marketing attests, “rice is power” and the farming mechanics are tied to the RPG system. It’s unlike other games that mix farming with combat (ex. Rune Factory franchise) because farming and combat are treated as separate systems; you fight to advance the plot and dive deeper into dungeons while farming gives you the cash to buy more goodies. In Sakuna, farming is literally how you git gud.
The attributes of what makes rice good are linked to the usual RPG stats: taste is linked to strength for example. If your rice tastes like shit, you won’t gain muscles. As a result, you can’t go hoe a’ blazin’ into new dungeons without farming first or you’ll just get inevitably owned by rabbits.
You’ll need to sit back and learn how the farming mechanics work. If you’re familiar with farming games like Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons or even Farming Simulator games, throw that information away. That’s some babby Disney shit. Sakuna is real deal shit because it asks you to consider temperature, water level, and the kind of fertilizer the soil needs.
There’s a lot of manuals to read and in the beginning, the game is really rough. I remember trying to control Sakuna planting rice and just being confused by the movement. I wasn’t sure what the right amount of water was, so I always veered to the “not enough water” side because I didn’t want to drown my rice. I wasn’t sure what the fuck I was supposed to be doing.
But as I went through the different phases of rice harvesting and got my first batch of white rice, I began to see something unique in Sakuna: mastering the awkward control systems is extremely rewarding in and of itself.
You see, each stage in the rice farming involves a minigame of sorts. The controls are intentionally un-game-like as they don’t conform to any recognizable control scheme. When you plant rice, you are always moving backwards but also veering off to one side or another; this takes a certain degree of precision to work with the control scheme. It takes a while to get used to these minigames, but the effort is so worth it.
As you get better with the farming — aided with quality-of-life upgrades — you start going through the planting and other phases very quickly. The results are there to see: your rice is getting better and Sakuna can slam enemies with her rake harder. When you fly through a dungeon, you know that this came from the time and effort you put into farming. This organic and super positive feedback loop is what makes Sakuna so hard to put down.
I find this game design decision so interesting because I’ve recently watched a Game Maker’s Toolkit episode that lamented the standardization of movement mechanics. While the tank control systems for Lara Croft is undeniably shit, something is lost in the transition to more “modern” and therefore “standard” control scheme. The challenge of mastering the system is lost and movement therefore becomes unrewarding and uninteresting. Wouldn’t it therefore be interesting to mix up the control scheme and make the player use their brain for a bit to get good at controlling your character?
It’s an interesting proposition that’s stuck with me since I sorta miss survival horror games having tank controls. The developers of Sakuna must have understood that principle too, which is why the farming mechanics in the final version lost its game-like features from the trailer.
And mastering the game’s mechanics also makes sense thematically because Sakuna, despite being a kami of farming, isn’t good at it until she works hard on it. Her character arc is cute because she starts out as a rapscallion kid and matures into someone who treasures the hard work and love poured into farming and the world around her. I ended up empathizing with her because I had to figure out the farming mechanics together with her. It’s such a distinctive and elegant way to create a connection between the player and Sakuna herself.
Speaking of characters, the cast is pretty adorable in general. When you elect to eat dinner instead of starving and getting no benefits like regenerative health for dungeon crawling, you may read conversations between the cast about the world they’re in and what philosophies they espouse. As each character has different background, the stories and interactions they have with others are often fascinating to listen to.
For example: as a missionary, Myrthe likes to preach the wonders of her God and wants everyone to change to her religion. Unsurprisingly, she finds resistance but ends up learning about the Yanato religion and seeing the world in an entirely different light. Her relationship with Takuemon is pretty cute too because Sakuna (and the game) sort ships them, but she also knows when to not prod any deeper into it.
There’s also the funny romantic comedy hijinks between Kinta and Yui. While cliched, there’s something heartwarming about these episodes where the tsundere Kinta just barely reveals his affection toward Yui. It just feels right to see these kinds of interactions within the story because the whole cast feels like a found family and I find them adorable.
Which is why the closing arc of the story is pretty interesting to me. I won’t spoil the game for those who haven’t played it, but the resolution is pretty close to a farewell session. I’ve spent time with this “family” (around 15 in-game years, in fact) and the game recognizes that. The emotional arcs at the very end are about learning to move on from this family and I guess I’ll always get sentimental from these kinds of stories.
This admittedly sappy treatment also extends to the villains and other worldbuilding details as well. Again, not going to dive into the details but the worldview Sakuna has is particularly contemplative about the past and almost wants to cry out, “Appreciate what you have right now!”
And there’s good reason why many people like the VTuber Omaru Polka cried their hearts out at the final arc. The writing rises up a notch at the end and while it isn’t doing anything revolutionary, it does everything right in its storytelling and deserves a round of applause.
Unfortunately, the game is somewhat flawed and collapses at the very end. If anything, I’m particularly annoyed that the flaws appeared right at the end and gatekept many people from the ending with redundant side-missions.
Truth be told, I haven’t actually finished the game. I had to watch Polka’s stream in order to see the end because I was so frustrated by the lategame missions.
The flaws in the game are already apparent during its midgame. To progress in the game, you need to accomplish arbitrary objectives in each map. Usually, it involves you fighting monsters in a certain way or finding a hidden item. That sounds good until the game starts making you grind in order to advance the narrative.
I ended up speedrunning most of the maps and getting bleh over the level design when the game actively impeded my efforts. The lategame exacerbated the issue when a certain incident occurred and made the whole game into a slog. The rice farming even became unfun to me when I realized all the effort I had put in didn’t actually matter thanks to this.
Indeed, the endgame was so bizarre to play through. I’m not sure why it had to be so long — it could take a whole day — when players just want to rush it to see the end by that point. It is as if the game is actively stopping me from finishing it and I just don’t like it wasting my time. I hope that the game gets rebalanced in future updates because it’s such a waste to recommend players watch Polka’s stream or something of that accord if they get as frustrated as I was.
But I still love the game enough to write a ton of words on it for this list. Hell, it’s because of this game that I wanted to write a roundup post on the media I like and it’s therefore the first thing I’ve written for the post. I care enough about the game to vomit so many words about it and I would love for people to try it out, especially the farming sim part.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is a genuinely beautiful game and I’m so glad I was able to play this game after five years of waiting. It’s going to be so hard to forget this game because there’s nothing else like it. I hope this game sells more and more and can be remembered as a highlight of this year.
Mr. Robot is anime, so it’s okay for it to exist in this post on a mostly Japanese media blog.
I’ll keep it brief and say that season 2 to 4 is another massive influence on the visual novel collective. The protagonist is a legitimate anarchist hacker and the show deals with the repercussions of a revolution against big corporations. The story is some eroge shit, with season 4 having some woke 00s eroge twists. I don’t want to spoil the story too much, but man I’m glad someone gave the creator free rein to make this extremely leftist show lol.
The ending of Mr. Robot is also superbly meaningful for anyone wondering about the point of activism against what feels like a million conservative strongholds. More media should just be as woke as Mr. Robot seriously.
Oh yeah, it has a cute(?) lesbian relationship arc and superb Muslim representation. How does this show even exist?
God, do I have to watch Breaking Bad now?
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown
drones are scary, i also don’t know how the fuck you can explain game design storytelling in an overview post like this without it becoming an entire post
maybe next time but seriously go play it lmao
Anyone who’s read this post previously will be surprised to see this title get included because I’ve just played the game three days after this post was published.
There’s not much I can say except this may be the second game of the year for me. Read this thread here.
No promises, but it would make for a good post.
Okay, this game is going to be a hard sell. A harder sell than even Kuso Game Girl Wateri because the game isn’t very great. I’ll just say while the combat system is cool, the game is so unbalanced that you might as well change it to easy and skip like 95% of the gameplay lmao.
But I still can’t stop thinking about it. The game is sometimes described as an “anti-Persona” and while I think that’s an exaggeration, it does somewhat capture the tone of the game.
Caligula Overdose is about a bunch of characters trapped in a makeshift world created by totally-not-Vocaloids. The protagonists are literally woke; they have realized that they’re in a Matrix-like world and their goal is to get out of this world because they’re actually in a comatose-like situation in real life. While the world gives you cool things like free food, their real bodies are stuck in a hospital where they’re starving. They have to destroy this utopia in order to live for another day.
At first, these protagonists look like your everyday high school characters. However, as it turns out, this Matrix-like world also allows people to live out their dreams — and this includes through their own identities. None of the characters you play are high schoolers; some are older or younger, but they’re able to live as this “idealized” high schooler self. We don’t actually know how these characters look, so you can think of the character images you see as facades or Twitter avatars.
And this is where the game gets even more interesting: the villains have more at stake than the protagonists. These people are just like you and me — everyday folks who are ostracized by society for dreaming of a different world. Many of these characters are somewhat pathetic or just plain weird, but you can also recognize why they want to be here. SweetP for example is a “fat guy” who dreams of becoming a cute girl and philosophizes about dressing up someday. There’s the hikikomori character who can’t stand riajuu and wonders if the world’s just staring at him. And so on.
You could describe these characters as fuckups in some ways, but they’re very empathetic people. The game lets you join the villains and you can social link with them to understand their personalities better. SweetP’s character is somewhat memorable to me because she went from a joke character to someone who clearly decided to change herself to become who she wants to be. I find myself cheering for the villains’ side somewhat since you know, the world is still heavy on transphobia and other ostracizing shit.
The protagonists are also, uh, interesting. Some of the characters deal with serious traumas or burdens that are super reflective of Japanese society — one character is a teenage single mother for example. The most intimidating character has an arc that combines the various social links of the protagonists and the villains; you’ll know if you play it and you definitely want to see it to its end.
But the best thing about these characterizations/social links is that your protagonist doesn’t go out and rescue their asses. I mean, how can your avatar solve the complex obstacles faced by a teenage mother? Do we really think we can talk to people as if we understand all the shit they’ve been through? All we can do is listen and actively encourage them to consider their position and perspective.
And that is, I think, what distinguishes Caligula from Persona the most. It’s most visible in the ending because at the end of the day, these characters will go back to their normal lives after the game plot’s ends. No one’s lives will have changed radically, though they may have created new bonds postgame.
It isn’t a conclusive resolution and arguably the opposite of the power fantasy we’ve grown accustomed to in video games, but I quite like this restrained direction. It rejects high drama that doesn’t apply to real life and instead favors the sensible, lowkey ebbs of life. The “video game plot” is over for the Caligula characters; they’re just back to being regular people, but the little change they’ve experienced may make them better people.
That ending seriously stuck with me after playing the game. Maybe it’s just my SeaBed-poisoned brain speaking, but I do like that kind of lowkey storytelling and it’s what I’d love to do in the visual novel collective.
I’d say Caligula is the most Kastel-core title in this list. It’s so fucking jank that I recommend either buying it in a bargain bin or watching a let’s play of it, but it’s so goddamn special. I would love to see a sequel of sorts to this title. I know I’m like the only person in this planet to enjoy this game, but I want more people to appreciate this underdog title.
Well, this post went on for too long. I hope I’ve given a cool enough overview of the things I really enjoyed. I would’ve written more (Control was another title I like), but it’s so long and I don’t wanna edit this forever. I’m supposed to be sleeping and recovering, gosh.
I hope we have a better year next year!