Jamison Dean Banks

Mechwarrior Online: Surviving Yesterday Pt 2

Posted by in Battletech, Mechwarrior, Science Fiction

Alpha Strike

A beta is meant to hunt down bugs and tweak game design. However, it is not a replacement for alpha feature development. Mechwarrior Online‘s game-balance with weapons and mechs were essentially broken at beta. Network issues abounded, causing many players to experience Mechwarrior 3-style lag and rubber-banding. The rising chorus of complaints on the forums began to reach fever pitch. The initial goodwill of long-suffering fans to their franchise-rescuing developers melted like a creamsicle dropped on hot pavement in the middle of summer. Community admins clamped down hard with bans and suspensions in a bid to maintain some semblance of order, but to no avail. Rabid fans were gaining the upper hand on the forums.

More mech packages arrived, superceding the Founder’s Program in price and volume. Development slowed due to IGP’s decision to push “Flying Debris” Iglesia’s mech designs over core features to drive initial sales and keep the game’s sales momentum. Major release features like Community Warfare, the persistent multiplayer metagame where players could take part in battles for planets across the galaxy by signing up with factions and mercenary units, took a back seat to ever more expensive mech packs. Fans quickly saw the road both developer and publisher had taken. The player population began to churn more quickly.

The mech pricing low point (or high point, depending on your point of view) arrived with limited edition gold mechs selling for $500 each. That’s right, a game in beta, with a low player population (10,000+), selling mechs for $500. As the game approached official release in late 2013, Mechwarrior Online appeared to be in trouble. The game did work (and actual gameplay, albeit unbalanced, was fun) and players could join for free.

However, the devs had lost control of the community through ignoring player concerns, being overly defensive on the forums, and upsetting players by charging ever-increasing amounts for premium mechs. It looked like Infinite Games had discovered a goldmine with which to fleece Piranha’s ever-changing player base. But this state of affairs could not remain static. Something had to give.

Mechwarrior Online finally came out of beta in September 2013. The beta had seen the introduction of 12 vs 12 player matches, conquest mode (a bit like capture the flag), and the new, controversial third-person view despite the devs initially saying the game would be first-person only. But the game’s launch offered nothing new. No new mechs, no new maps, no new features. Worse, Community Warfare, the core feature everyone wanted and promised by Piranha on release, was nowhere to be seen. The playerbase was not amused, and the gaming press finally took notice.

We Totally Know What We’re Doing

Mechwarrior Online’s official launch was universally panned as a development milestone instead of a true launch. It ended up more of a soft launch than a hard lift-off. Game developers take note, this is one of the downfalls of using extended beta periods. By this point, the developer’s decisions were being universally criticized. The game’s social community had turned utterly toxic. MW:O’s official forums continually exploded with trolls and cynical player diatribes. Player clans and groups held informal town hall meetings to get developers to listen, but to no avail. By this point, many players (now former fans) saw the opportunity to become trolls on the game forums and in public Internet venues, such as Reddit.

pgi_totallyPGI’s response to their passionate fans is a classic tour-de-farce in how not to handle a player community. Piranha and IGP decided to use a plastic, everything-is-fine, tone-deaf approach to community relations. To the fans, the companies appeared to be ignoring them, instead telling them ‘buy our stuff!’ There was little effective communication between devs hard at work and players desperately trying to get their attention. Instead of addressing the community’s poignant and impassioned vitriol, Piranha/IGP opted for the George W. Bush school of dealing with your critics: ignore them.

Like a neglected child, this strategy drove players to extremes to get Piranha/IGP’s attention. A campaign to “save” Mechwarrior Online grew on Twitter. Many players went from openly praising the developers to attaching forum signature banners openly mocking the company (Piranha Games: We totally know what we’re doing). A rambling podcast by the Piranha CEO, Russ Bullock, attempting to explain the company’s backtracking on adding third-person view did the company no favors.

In fact, IGP’s marketing ploys and Piranha’s notorious public relations also split the game’s Reddit community in two. The original subreddit, /r/mwo, became a toxic mess, filled with former fans obsessed with being hostile to Piranha and MW:O. More positive fans trying to stick with the game (and the developers) eventually moved to /r/outreachhpg. Members of each subreddit remain openly hostile to each other to this day.

One misguided attempt at community relations by IGP was privately co-opting a popular fan podcast No Guts No Galaxy into a public marketing gimmick. Piranha devs and employees soon appeared in exclusive interviews on the podcast. Yet, despite the raging hurricane of hate roiling on the forums, the dev interviews completely ignored player concerns by talking about unrelated topics. This would not have been so egregious had IGP’s buying the podcast’s influence (and the community’s goodwill) not been so obvious and gratuitous.

Faction Warfare And A Second Chance

Despite almost two years of learning how not to treat a player community, MW:O and Piranha Games managed to survive. In a testament to how die-hard the community feels about the franchise, and despite being utterly pissed off and divided, players continued to hang on, play the game, and pay for premium time and mechs. More importantly, Piranha Games got through the game’s troubled early development to learn from their mistakes.

In September 2014, Piranha Games announced it had bought back the Mechwarrior publishing rights from Infinite Games Publishing. This decision had an immediate effect on the MW:O’s development. Although two years late, Community Warfare arrived. The game’s subreddit community continues to be divided, but still exists. Though Piranha still releases mech packs, the pricing is usually far below the $500 ridiculousness of the gold mechs, and the Founder’s Program $120 top tier. Queue times are good, lag has been reigned in, Community Warefare/Faction Warfare has a dedicated playerbase, and the free to play model is working. Though no longer with a publisher, Piranha and the fans weathered the storm and have a bright future.

Next, we’ll look at a new Battletech strategy game by Jordan Weisman’s Harebrained Schemes due in 2017.

Mechwarrior Online: Surviving Yesterday Pt 1

Posted by in Battletech, Mechwarrior, Science Fiction

A Blast From The Past

For the most part, Mechwarrior Online avoided the technical pratfalls of Mechwarrior 3‘s broken AI and poor multiplayer, and completely avoided Mechwarrior 4‘s fan uproar over simpler, faster gameplay. However, it did suffer from the one constant illness every game in the series (with the exception of Mechwarrior 1) fell prey to: a publisher burning the IP to the ground in an attempt to suck every last cent from the fan base.

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Image: Wikipedia

This trend is nothing new in the game industry. One recent example is game developer Bungie slicing off original content from their recent game Destiny for use as add-ons. This left Destiny sorely lacking in content upon release while Bungie charged full price for the core product. Players had to purchase several content packs released at a later date to get all the content originally intended for the full game. Mechwarrior 2, 3, and 4 were no different. What makes Mechwarrior’s franchise history unusual is how many different ways publishers have abused the IP using a completely different dev team each time. Make no mistake, I am not a social justice warrior calling for the abolishment of all corporations, blah, blah, blah. But game publishers in particular seem hellbent on slash and burn business practices.

Because they usually control the purse strings, game publishers command incredible power over game developers. Activision churned through an entire dev team while managing Mechwarrior 2. After its release, they relentlessly milked the series for 5 years with more add-on packs (Ghost Bear’s Legacy, Netmech, Mercenaries) before dropping the franchise like a spent shell casing. They ended up grossing $70 million dollars in sales, but that had more to do with the quality of the original game versus Activision’s marketing efforts.

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Image: Wikipedia

Mechwarrior 3 set the series’ low with four publishers for one game. That’s still ridiculous even in today’s game industry. First, MicroProse hired on as the original publisher for Mechwarrior 3. Then MicroProse’s parent company, Spectrum Holobyte, laid off the company’s employees and rebranded themselves ‘MicroProse’. This magic accounting gimmick was followed up with a real vanishing act when, facing insolvency, the new MicroProse sold themselves to Hasbro Interactive. Finally, Microsoft stepped in and bought FASA Interactive, acquiring de facto publishing duties for the game. Whew, and you thought Enron was complicated. All of these publishing shenanigans combined with FASA’s own development delays (and subsequent hand off of the project to another developer, Zipper Interactive) almost caused the project’s failure.

Microsoft did the series no favors by doubling down on Activision’s penchant for add-on packs. Instead of merely settling for a few high-priced add-ons (Black Knight, Mercenaries), they upped the ante with two mech packs for $13 each, one featuring Inner Sphere mechs, the other Clan. Each pack gave players 4 new mechs, two new pieces of equipment, and two new maps. Both packs should have been included with the core game. Yes, I bought them at the time (and still have them). It took brass publishing balls to foist such an obvious money grab on the player base, but Microsoft had no problem stuffing it down everyone’s throat.

World of Mechs

By 2011, Mechwarrior Online looked like it might break the decades-old trend. The size of the developer combined with the franchise’s publishing history (not to mention the traditional technical hurdles it’s myriad developers wrestled with) did not inspire confidence. My initial fears grew upon reading MWO would use a free to play business model. By 2010, free to play latched on to the game industry like a leech, MMOs in particular. No one knew enough about the model’s long term sustainability to prove if it was viable longterm, but plenty of publishers were willing to try. What wasn’t a question was the ability of a developer to abuse the business model to their own game’s detriment.

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Image: Wikipedia

World of Tanks, a popular free to play tank game created by Belarus-based developers Wargaming.net, was in the middle of setting industry sales records. Mechs are seen as walking tanks. In fact, as early as the 1980’s, Jordan Weisman once pitched the idea of mechs as vertical tanks to artist Duane Loose in a bid to hire him for work on a Battletech reference book, called a Technical Readout. For developers and fans, the comparison was obvious: make Mechwarrior 5 using the World of Tanks F2P business model. But could Infinite Games/Piranha pull it off without resorting to shady business tactics?

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Image: Deviantart

As Mechwarrior Online started open beta in October 2012, there was an incredible amount of pent-up enthusiasm for the game. Battletech was making a comeback on the PC after a long Microsoft winter, and the early art and visuals looked fantastic. The game’s mechs, visually redesigned by Alexander ‘Flying Debris’ Iglesias, excited fans for the first time in years. No one had seen machines this good looking since the original Unseen (a set of designs imported from the Japanese anime Macross) back in the 1980’s. The game seemed about to hit a series high-note.

That quickly changed when Piranha and IGP announced the Founder’s Program. These were prepaid packages players could buy before the game’s release “to help fund development”. Starting at $30 and topping out at $120, each tier got you perks such as an in-game Founders tag, premium game time (earning players in-game credits at a higher rate), in-game currency to buy more mechs and equipment, and a variety of Founders mechs with special skins. Between July and October of 2012, the Founder’s Program garnered over $5 million in sales. However, compared to Activision’s $70 million in nearly 5 years, that’s chump change.

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Image: mwomercs.com

But the cost rankled the grass roots rank and file who ponied up the money for the packages, sight unseen. The $120 tier didn’t provide that many credits, let alone $30. The new mechs were reskinned versions of free mechs you could earn in the game for free. The only exclusive item paying Founders received were their in-game tags. This would have been less of an issue if MWO’s initial gameplay quality wasn’t suspect. When the beta began, and players could see the quality they paid for, the rejoicing turned into disappointment. And as anyone who is a gamefan knows, disappointment quickly turns into torches and pitchforks.

In part 2, we’ll see how Mechwarrior Online managed to survive its beta, its publisher, and especially its die-hard fans.

Mechwarrior Franchise: Heavy Metal Zombie

Posted by in Battletech, Mechwarrior, Science Fiction

jbtechIt’s still alive after all these years! I can remember thinking something along those lines when seeing the first news post about Mechwarrior Online a couple of years ago. I felt the familiar surge of mixed emotions rise up once again: excitement instantly tinged with fear and horror at how badly this might end. Like seeing a shambling zombie rise from the grave for the sixth time.

Much like the land of Mordor, one does not simply play a Battletech PC game. To say FASA’s never-say-die intellectual property has a history is like saying the Empire State Building is tall. And that’s just the PC games. I could write a college dissertation about the table top beer and pretzels version which spawned the original Mechwarrior PC game back in 1989.

So let’s stick with Mechwarrior, shall we? That should narrow the scope of what I’m talking about a great deal, and even then it might not be enough! I played them when they came out. All of them. From the Crescent Hawk’s Inception, to Mechwarrior II, to the console games, to Mechwarrior Online. Everything. About the only official Battletech game I haven’t played is Multiplayer Battletech EGA, the abortive online effort back in the days of GEnie’s online service. This sci-fi mecha franchise has been around the block.

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Original Mechwarrior HUD

Published by legendary PC developer Dynamix for Activision in 1989, the original mech masterpiece was an unequaled game in its day. Certainly not the first PC game to simulate being in the cockpit of a vehicle (see Dynamix’s Arcticfox), nothing would rival it for years. The in-game mechs were made of simple, colored, untextured polygons, and the user interface looked like a child’s crayon drawing compared to the UI’s of today. But like a lot of games in the 80’s, you only needed a little imagination to fill in the gaps.

Though limited by the technology of the time, Battletech fans had their first, precedent-setting taste of what it might be like to pilot a mech. But you could not yet play against other human beings. The Internet was still gestating, and doing anything online was painfully slow, limited, and expensive. So the developers gave players simple AI to fight in a single player campaign. The game combined elements of single-player role-playing games, a basic trade economy, and first-person battlefield perspective into a single game. It wasn’t perfect but it would certainly do for experiencing the world of Battletech.

Multiplayer Nirvana

mechwarrior_2_coverThen came the development debacle of Mechwarrior II. It was my first encounter with the term ‘vaporware‘. I remember working a summer job at a game store (one of the precursors that would eventually become GameStop) called Software Etc, back in 1993 when I heard the game was first announced. The store kept a big yellow board with hot release dates for upcoming games, one side for consoles, the other for PC. Software Etc had a tentative release date for Mechwarrior 2: The Clans in ’93 when I quit to go back to school. However, as month turned into month, it became evident the mech game to end all mech games was not coming anytime soon. Finally, sometime in 1994, I saw it list as ‘cancelled’.

I was mortified. At the time, it was obvious there was pent up market demand for the game. Online player vs player mech combat was coming! Or it was. For Mechwarrior II to be cancelled, something must have gone badly wrong behind the scenes. Indeed, something had. Beginning work in 1992, Activision hired a new dev team to begin working on the game. They labored for two years to get a basic program working. By 1994, they still failed to convert their working code to protected mode, which meant the developers were limited to using a mere 640k of RAM in DOS, the precursor operating system to Windows.

Let that sink in a minute. That’s not 640 gigabytes of memory storage. Or 640 megabytes of RAM. That’s 640 kilobytes, less than a megabyte of random access memory. You can walk into Office Depot today and find calculators with more than that. DOS had to run as well, so you were really getting 512k of RAM to work with, not 640! The original Mechwarrior I was a minor miracle because Dynamix managed to squeeze 8 different, untextured, polygonal, three dimensional mech designs into a game that fit on a single floppy disk.

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Mechwarrior 2 HUD

By 1994, Activision’s crew still couldn’t get more than 2 mechs into the game because of the memory limitation. Finally, while their boss was at a trade show for a week, they managed to get the code into protected mode (without the use of the Internet, mind you) and open the flood gates. The design team, which suffered complete and total turnover during the process, was able to complete the game and get it shipped in mid-1995. However, the cost was high: not a single original developer remained by the time the game (with the new moniker ’31st Century Combat’) was published.

Upon release, Mechwarrior 2: 31st Century Combat was game of the year fodder for the press. It featured 18 mechs, 9 different planet locations, 30 missions, and unprecedented  3D visuals for any game of the period. No one had seen anything like this on a PC, let alone consoles. At the time, it was akin to a game being released in virtual reality with no motion sickness, with goggles, for $49.95. It is considered the pinnacle, the Everest, the holy high mountain of game play for Mechwarrior games. And it made Activision’s boatloads of cash, to the tune of $70 million within 4 years.

A primary reason for this was the constant release of add-on packs that gave the game more content and more mechs. Initially Mechwarrior 2 had no online component, but Activision soon released an add-on pack, Netmech, which did. This finally allowed up to 8 players to play against each other. Mech PVP, after years of delays, finally arrived. Not only did this push more copies of the game, but extended Mechwarrior 2’s lifespan for several years. Online multiplayer had transitioned from being a novelty to becoming a full-fledged game design replacement. Why spend a year or more making single player campaigns when you could let players duke it out and save you the work?

Despite the sales success, Activision’s experience of absolute development hell to make the core game lingered. For them, it was a no-brainer: Mechwarrior 2 would be their last Battletech game. After all, losing an entire production team to one game can be cost-prohibitive, extremely stressful, and possibly sink the company. At the time, Activision wanted to minimize earning a reputation for being a development slave shop. I’ll let you ponder the irony of that situation for a moment compared to their reputation with customers today. Instead, they opted to make Heavy Gear, Battletech’s direct competitor.

The Way Forward

battletechpodIn 1990, FASA, original creators and rights holders to Battletech, hired Virtual World Entertainment Group (VWEG) to create the Battletech Center, a networked arcade game featuring TESLA pods that allowed up to 5 players to battle each other in mechs. The Battletech Center originally began in Chicago, Illinois, and branched out to other locations around the world by the late 90’s. Once Activision opted not to pursue development of Mechwarrior 3, FASA decided to create a new Mechwarrior game themselves using the Battletech Center’s software.

Although wise in hindsight, the move ended up crippling Mechwarrior 3’s online play. FASA Interactive Technologies, the new division of FASA tasked with creating the sequel, decided to publish the game through MicroProse, a well-respected publisher of the time. However, in 1996, MicroProse’s parent company, Spectrum Holobyte, released most of the company’s employees, then rebranded itself ‘MicroProse.’ Two years later, the newly christened Microprose sold itself to Hasbro Interactive. This game of corporate musical chairs created a lack of publisher oversight in Mechwarrior 3’s development that nearly doomed the game.

Meanwhile, FASA Interactive encountered serious delays with their game engine based on the battle pod software running on PC hardware. At the same time, the company merged with VWEG, original creators of the Battletech Center. The buyout stopped development completely while the companies figured things out. Another developer, Zipper Interactive, was brought in to wrap up Mechwarrior 3 so it could ship. Zipper merged the existing work FASA Interactive had done into one of their own in-house game engines. The end result was Mechwarrior 3.

Something else happened in this period that affected Battletech game development to this day: Microsoft bought FASA/VWEG. Yes, that Microsoft. They decided to keep FASA Interactive and spin off the rest of VWEG in the process. This gave Microsoft the rights not only to Mechwarrior 3, but Mechwarrior 4 as well. When Mechwarrior 3 (finally) released in 1999, it featured the branding of five companies (three publishers and two developers): MicroProse, Hasbro Interactive, FASA Interactive, Zipper Interactive, and Microsoft.

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Mechwarrior 3 HUD

The game sold well, easily beating out rival Activision’s Heavy Gear 2 on the PC sales charts. The single player campaign worked well, and it shipped with online gameplay. Most importantly, it improved upon the graphics of Mechwarrior 2. However, the online component was a buggy, laggy, unplayable mess beyond anything Zipper or FASA was capable of fixing. Worse, the singleplayer AI sported terminally stupid AI. This state of affairs left the existing Mechwarrior community with a mediocre single player campaign, and unplayable multiplayer. Alternatives for online gameplay meant staying with the dying Mechwarrior 2 community, or switch to Starsiege, the last Dynamix mech game Activision would ever produce. Something had to be done to give Mechwarrior fans true competitive multiplayer.

FASA Interactive immediately started work on Mechwarrior 4 soon after its acquisition by Microsoft. The buyout moved VWEG’s developers for the Battletech Center over to FASA Intereactive. So the Battletech Centers continued to operate, but were unable to develop their own new content. Instead, FASA Interactive was tasked with creating a new engine that ran on both PC’s and the Battletech Center’s TESLA pods. The new FASA Interactive veteran devs had a high bar to meet. Fans had high hopes: multiplayer was the core feature everyone wanted in a Mechwarrior game.

After 2 years of development work, Mechwarrior 4: Vengeance debuted. However, the team’s changes upset much of the existing Mechwarrior player community. Previous Mechwarrior games featured slow-moving mechs, essentially slow tanks on legs, pummeling each other with energy weapons, missiles, and autocannons. Part of the appeal of playing Mechwarrior was figuring out the complex mech interface better than your opponent. If it wasn’t complex and difficult to figure out, many fans didn’t like it because they no longer had a skill edge over their opponents.

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Mechwarrior 4 HUD

MW4 had been designed to work on both PC and VEWG’s Battletech Centers. The end effect was a faster, streamlined user experience. Complicated mech weapon load-outs had been simplified. Gameplay was faster to keep up with the likes of Quake and Unreal Tournament. Instead of lumbering tanks, you got something more like true, fast-moving mecha. This caused some consternation to some of the die-hard community, but the game still became a best-seller and critical darling. In essence, Mechwarrior 4: Vengeance became the second coming of Mechwarrior 2.

Then Microsoft ‘changed directions’. After ringing the community dry with expensive mech packs and not one, but two add-ons, sales finally fell off.  The Battletech franchise, which had been around since the late 80’s, was also looking long in the tooth. After determining a sequel would not sustain their sales targets, Microsoft cancelled Mechwarrior 5 in 2003. And then sat on the intellectual property. FASA Interactive’s employees were moved to other game divisions until only customer service employees remained to assist the lingering MW4 playerbase. FASA Interactive finally closed in 2007, ending almost 20 years of Mechwarrior development. If Microsoft wasn’t making Mechwarrior 5, no one else would either. Things looked rather hopeless for fans of the series.

End Game

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Mechwarrior Online

This brings us to our last stop: Mechwarrior Online. After all these years, multiplayer online play had matured along with the Internet. MMO’s, massively multiplayer online games, had arrived and thrived since the 90’s. World of Warcraft energized the game world in 2004. Quietly behind the scenes, Jordan Weisman, creator of FASA and the original Battletech tabletop game, began a long term effort with Vancouver-based developer Piranha Games to make a new Mechwarrior game.

Weisman formed a new company, Smith and Tinker, with the express purpose of salvaging the rights to FASA’s former games from Microsoft. They succeeded in 2007. With the rights in hand, the partnership made the rounds trying to find funding for the game. By 2010, it became apparent no publisher was going to touch the project. Not wanting to see the franchise slip away, Piranha Games saw once last chance at making the game financially viable.

Piranha bought the rights to Mechwarrior from Smith and Tinker in 2011, renaming the project Mechwarrior Online. Instead of another Mechwarrior game, Piranha successfully transformed it into an MMO, much like World of Tanks. Today, the game continues to thrive financially, but in a much different economy than its predecessor Mechwarrior 2. Instead of buying a single game, or add-on pack, you download MW:O for free and purchase mech packs. Some cost more than twice the price of a full game! So where does this leave veteran grognards like myself?

Stick around, find out in my next article as I review Mechwarrior Online and the next Battletech game on the horizon!

battletech

On Star Blazers

Posted by in Anime, Science Fiction, Star Blazers

As a four year-old, the joys of UHF channels were numerous. They were the 1970’s equivalent of YouTube, showing a variety of things that regular network VHF channels simply couldn’t broadcast. Their boilerplate schedule typically included old sitcom re-reruns and movies the networks couldn’t be bothered to find ad revenue for. But every now and then, something truly unique would appear. And school mornings were no different.

I still remember one particular morning. It was so early the sun hadn’t decided whether to rise or not. Our house was not well lit even though the lights in the adjoining kitchen were on. The room was fairly dark, almost like a movie theater. My mother, an introverted hippy married to an extroverted salesman, was in the middle of getting me ready for another day of kindergarten. My sister, a mere two years younger, was throwing a hissy fit.

I never liked it when my parents were upset, and my high performance sis, bless her heart, had a special ability to fluster my mom at the drop of a hat. Before you could say ‘I’ll give you something to really cry about’, the tv flew on. The UHF knob ripped like a zip cord as she wrenched through over a dozen channels in a half second twist. Ah, a cartoon set in space. She stopped and ran off to tend to my screaming

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All of this focused my fragile little brain on the tv like a moth to the flame. A marshall march, a catchy chorus, and a spaceship’s engine glowing in the eerie dark of space. With guns! Oh ho, the mom-lady wouldn’t like this! You couldn’t pry me away with a crowbar. I still remember the theme song over thirty plus years later:

We’re off to outer space, we’re leaving Mother Earth
To save the human race. Our Star Blazers!
Searching for a distant star, heading off to Iscandar.
Leaving all we love behind, who knows what dangers we’ll find?
We must be strong and brave, our home we’ve got to save.
If we don’t, in just one year, Mother Earth will disappear
Fighting with the Gamalons, we won’t stop until we’ve won
Then we’ll return, and when we arrive,
The Earth will survive with our Star Blazers!

Derek Wildstar and Captain Avatar were going to Iscandar. I had to watch tomorrow to find out how they were going to do it. Hot diggity, a cartoon like Star Wars! I loved cartoons (still do) but Star Blazers was another beast entirely. This show had as much in common with Loonytunes as Gilligan’s Island and Ghandi (no offense to Ben Kingsley).

To start with, the tone was much darker than anything I’d ever seen. The evil Gamilons had devastated the Earth’s surface with atomic weapons, driving all of humanity underground. The radiation’s toxicity would reach Earth’s remaining population in one year. Queen Starsha from the planet Iscandar sends a message: she has technology that can cleanse Earth of all radiation. She also sends plans for something called the Wave Motion engine, a powerful weapon to be used against the Gamilons.

To survive, Earth sends their last starship, the Argo, on a mission to planet Iskandar to retrieve the technology that can save the planet. The journey wasn’t told in one-off, disposable, adventure-of-the-week episodes. It was a continuous storyline, and you had to watch each episode to keep up. The show’s characters often got hurt, seriously injured, or died from sickness or battle. Nothing else for kids at the time rivaled it.

I hadn’t actually seen Star Wars at this point; I was barely 4 years-old when the movie came out. But I knew the plot, the characters, and the toys. But Star Blazers might as well have been Star Wars for all I cared. I had no idea what I was watching, but it had robots like R2-D2, starfighters like X-wings, a big ship like a Star Destroyer, and the good guys had all 3.

I had no idea I was watching what was called anime. I had no idea how much Star Blazers had been fundamentally altered from the original anime, Space Battleship Yamato. I also had no idea I was watching one of the most iconic cultural depictions of Japanese nationalism made since World War II. All I knew was Star Blazers was cool even if no one else around me knew about it, and that was all that mattered. This was something special, and despite my tender age, I knew it in my bones. Little did I know how right I was.

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Meet The New Boss(es) . . .

Posted by in Personal

As I sit here the night before my wife, the Blonde Italian, returns from traveling over seas, I cannot help but wonder about how both of her cats will welcome her home. And will they. After all, they are cats. This means they’re complicated creatures who, once their mama walks through the door, will become simultaneously overjoyed, sad, angry, and mischievous, all at the same time. Where both cats differ is in how they passionately express their maliciously wrathful warjoy.

I was supernaturally gifted with a wife who is both blonde, italian, and a cat lover. Atheists have a hard time convincing me the Almighty does not exist. Why? How can there not be a diety when He blessed me with a beautiful blonde who also happens to be from the old country, and all the perks thereof. And I’m not even Catholic. Yes, she can cook. Yes, she’s hot. Yes, she’s blonde. Not necessarily in that order. At any rate, the Divine Blessing also came with the bonus gift of two cats. At this point, said atheists may now point out that if there is a God, he is definitely a she, because only a female would bestow not one, but two extra ragamuffins on one man. This also doesn’t take into account the 5 1/2 pound female feline terror I brought into this. Oh, she is to laugh.

To give you an idea how this will go, imagine a vanilla creme short hair with a penchant for drooling when he sleeps, locking himself in the bathroom, meowling randomly for the unseen female feline locked in the pocket parallel universe called the master bedroom, and knocking his fellow compadre senseless, just because. Oliver, or Ollie as he is colloquially known in these parts of Texas, is the extrovert. Contrast Sir Oliver with his counterpoint, a black, bat-toothed, gentle giant of a rag doll who jumps on the dining room table during dinner, eats anything like a billy goat, and thinks the water bottle (our Cat Disciplinary Device) is his own personal shower. The appropriately named Boo Radley, or “BooRad”, his code name among the super secret feline armed forces, is the younger, scrappier introvert.

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Radley laughing maniacally

Both felines are possessive over their property, as they usually are, but especially when it comes to shared property. Make no mistake, they share their mama. Actually, it is more of a temporary truce than sharing (and I highly doubt there will ever be an armistice). So when Mama Mia goes on a trip, they express their love and devotion. If you call grabbing and biting their favorite cat servant love.

Tonight, Radley thinks he owns the entire living space. Mama has left, and therefore nothing now stands in the way of complete and total global domination. Ollie is ‘sleeping’ quietly on the couch, with one eye half open. Before long, one will pounce the other and it. Will. Be. On. Forget World War Z, I have to deal with these two knocking each other all over the apartment. While watching World War Z. Netflix is awesome.

Oh, I know, I know, it probably won’t be that bad. It’s only been 2 days since Ollie locked himself in the bathroom. And Radley last ate one of his cat toys and threw it up 3 days before that. But when you least suspect it, after the Blonde Italian walks through that door, there they’ll be, biting my foot for daring to let her go on a trip. Or knocking something off a table, or chewing on some random piece of plastic that wasn’t tied down. Or meowing for the female in the Master Bedroom parallel universe.

Don’t misunderstand, I cannot wait for my wife to return forthwith and henceforth. I just hope the twin terrors decide to go easy on us poor cat servants. Oh right. Cats have no mercy, silly me.