Backlog: Puppies vs. Persons

Backlog - Dog Header Today, football enthusiasts will clash with dog aficionados for control over television remotes. The National Football League's Super Bowl versus Animal Planet's Puppy Bowl: the reckoning comes to your home.

Now we all know sports fans are also animal lovers. These two passions are not mutually exclusive. However, at least for those of us living on the west coast, I can tell that having a "local" team in the running (we Oregonians are deprived: with no NFL team of our own we make do with the Seahawks and 49ers) means spirits are quite high on the best coast. And at the same time, humanity's love of fluffy, tiny baby dogs hasn't diminished since last year's Puppy Bowl. If anything, our sick obsession with puppies has grown. The Puppy Bowl continues to draw-in viewers every year as an adorable alternative to the sweaty gristle of dudes hitting other dudes.

Whatever you watch, expect a domestic squabble over changing the channel.

Our backlog today is quite brisk. Tyler and Doug are on-hand to wrap up this past week with their current gaming preoccupations.

Speaking of dogs, that header picture up there is my new pal -- tentatively called "Manny." My girlfriend and I will be adopting him soon. Bask in his adorableness. -- Aaron Thayer

Kanji Kentei, or, a new way for Doug to torture himself with the Japanese language

Doug

Finally, I have a reason to use my Nintendo DS again.

While I’ve been in Japan about a year-and-a-half and improved my language skills a lot, little of it has been through formal study. That's because almost everything around me is in Japanese and few of my Japanese friends (or any restaurants or businesses, for that matter) use native-level English. Every day is a form of studying.

However, the one place I’m really lacking is my ability to read and write Japanese kanji, the pictographic form of the language. Kanji means “Chinese characters,” or to anyone who’s ever studied Japanese, “damned evil bastard writing.” While I know my speaking and listening skills are solid, my writing and reading is not so hot. Time to hit the books.

Or make that the virtual books. I just picked up a DS game that is less a game and more studying software. Called 日本漢字能力検定協会 公認 漢検DS2, or Kanji Kentei DS2 (presented by the Official Japan Kanji Aptitude Test), it’s a study practice guide for a Japanese test called Kanji Kentei. The test is (appropriately enough) focused on Japanese kanji, but also has a much more fluid difficulty ramp than some of the other Japanese language tests (one of which I’ve sworn off for the time being, a rant best saved for another time). I haven’t gotten into it yet, but my friend used a similar title and it took advantage of the DS’ touch screen to draw and identify characters.

What’s noteworthy is that this title isn’t exactly alone in being educational DS software in Japan. In college, my DS accompanied me to most Japanese classes once I imported a Japan-market English/Japanese dictionary title (with a nifty feature: the ability to write in unfamiliar kanji on the touchscreen!). Brain Age may have received some notice in the U.S., but it’s more of a game than many other software titles I spotted last weekend: cookbooks, language courses, travel guides, and even study guides for high school and college entry tests were all on the game store shelf in the “other/educational/study” section. This is a testament both to the flexibility of the DS hardware and to just how insanely popular it was in Japan -- more than 32 million handhelds sold in a country of roughly 140 million people leads to these sort of titles.

I’ll update you all on my status soon. Now, though, it’s time to see how well this old Nintendo holds a charge.

The result of leaving your eyes open during a sneeze

Tyler

Binary Domain might be the best, most original Japanese-developed game I've played this generation. Everything about it speaks to me. It's a strong third-person, cover-based shooter (à la Gears or War, Uncharted, and Spec Ops: The Line) coupled with a well-written science fiction narrative and impressive characterization. These are things I've come not to expect from Japanese-developed games on current generation hardware.

It's difficult to explain what compelled me to get the game in the first place. Most of this game's coverage was less about the game itself and more about Big Bo, the AI companion who's by your side throughout the campaign and who you occasionally talk to (literally, through the use of a headset). That part of the game is mostly trivial. It works well enough, but you can also choose a set of canned responses when addressing the AI.

What does impress me is that Big Bo is not a borderline racist caricature of a human being. Big Bo is African American. Japan has a less than sterling track record when it comes to portraying people whom are are not of either Asian or Caucasian descent (see Final Fantasy VII's Barrett). Not only is Big Bo inoffensive but he is legitimately endearing and inspires a measure of camaraderie. Learning more about the relationship and history between Dan (the player) and Big Bo is one of the highlights of Binary Domain.

The storyline is also impressive. Binary Domain takes place in a Blade Runner-esque world in which lifelike androids exist and have been outlawed. Recent discoveries show that some of these "Hollow Children" are living among people and are completely unaware they aren't human beings.

Japanese sci-fi can be pretty hit or miss. If it's not completely bananas and reveling in upending the audience's expectations (see: Neon Genesis Evangelion), then it's rather pedestrian or too full of fan-service to be enjoyable. And while in Binary Domain there is one attractive member to your squad, she is not inappropriately dressed and reacts offensively whenever Dan or Bo make lewd comments about her during the mission.

None of this would, of course, matter if the game did not play well. Binary Domain is a shooter that stands toe-to-toe with western-developed shooters. The only complaint would be that enemies are bullet sponges capable of taking an amazing number of shots before going down. However, when compared with its contemporaries Binary Domain at least excuses its violence in that you are shooting metal robots, and not human mercenaries.

I'm presently only about two-and-half chapters in so it could go south at any time, but from what I've played so far I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys action titles -- especially now that it has hit a budget price point.