Comical Musings

Tag: video game

Shenanigan: Poison, Dark, Snakes, Bats, and Rats

by on Nov.21, 2016, under Shenanigan

Let’s take a moment to do some musing on villain stereotyping in the Pokemon series. If you have a life, feel free to disregard this post.

In the first two generations of Pokemon games (Red/Blue/Yellow and Gold/Silver/Crystal), your character takes time away from the gym-badge challenge to take on and defeat the criminal organization Team Rocket*. And as criminal organizations go, they’re not exactly subtle about it: While wearing black uniforms with a red R on, they openly threaten people, steal Pokemon from innocents, keep said Pokemon miserable, all for the sake of amassing further wealth. Everyone hates Team Rocket, but the police are powerless to stop them. Naturally it takes a protagonist whose sense of justice has completely devoured that of self-preservation to confront this syndicate, set them up in a line, and give them the one-on-one righteous whuppings they deserve.

Naturally, when your syndicate consists entirely of the brute squad, their choice in Pokemon will reflect that: snakes, bats, rats, balls with frowny faces, creepy dream-devouring tapirs, globs of nastiness and pollution, the occasional mag-lev creature as a representation of science’s dispassionate amoral side. Almost all of their teams include poison or dark types**. The only exception to this is their leader Giovanni, who must also put up a cleaner public face as a gym leader; his team consists of more “respectable” displays of power and influence (rare species and Nido royalty).

And that’s all well and good, I guess. In kids’ games, sometimes the bad guys need to be obvious. The trouble is that later villainous teams tried to seem more complex in their morals – often claiming the extreme version of a noble and lofty goal – but still fall back on poison, dark, snakes, bats, and rats.

Generation 3 (Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald) introduced us to polar opposite Teams Magma and Aqua, the leaders of whom honestly believed that they were only doing what was best for the natural world by seeking out ancient supermonsters and setting off catastrophic climate disasters. And it was pretty obvious that they were misguided at best, evil at worse, by looking at the Pokemon they used. Each leader had a companion of his respective elemental goal (Volcanic camel for Magma, torpedo-shark for Aqua) … but they and every other member also had a team full of poison, dark, snakes, rats, and bats.

So we move on to Generation 4 (Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum), where the Sinnoh region is under constant harassment from Team Galactic. The low-level grunts declare that they’re researching new methods of generating clean energy for the world (which for some reason involves stealing people’s beloved companions?) … their boss Cyrus, on the other hand, fully intends to destroy the world and remake it in his sociopathic image. So I can understand why Cyrus has no qualms about filling his roster with a rampaging dragon, a hellhound, a kamaitachi, a mob boss crow, and a vampire bat, but why are the supposedly virtuous zealots of his lower ranks all going around bullying people with poison, dark, snakes, rats, and bats?

Generation 5 (Black, White, and their respective sequels) introduced us to Team Plasma, a hybrid between PETA and those people who think they’re being clever when they say “durr hurr de pokey mans is cock fighting haw haw haw.”*** Your first experience with Plasma is a public speech given by their boss, Ghetsis Harmonia, pleading with the masses to cease battling with their Pokemon and release them from captivity. The entire team operates on the assumption that they’re “liberating” Pokemon from trainers who only make them suffer.

Naturally the whole “think of the poor abused Pokemon” line was a scam; what Ghetsis really wanted was to disarm everyone else and conquer the Unova region unopposed. So of course his team consists of Dark types, an evil ghost, a dubstep frog, and a terrifying electric lamprey. But once again, the alleged footsoldiers of justice and kindness are attacking people with poison, dark, snakes, rats, and bats.

(The naive and saintly King of Team Plasma, Ghetsis’s adopted son N Harmonia, actually has a neat gimmick to his battles: He refuses to capture any Pokemon, so his team changes every time you encounter him because they’re just a group of local wildlife that he befriended. You can even find and befriend some of them as a miniquest in the sequel, and they remember him fondly. So props to Game Freak for that bit of story and gameplay integration.)

The sequels don’t fare much better. The amoral researcher Colress at least follows a theme of technology (and aliens for some reason), but Ghetsis returns with his six balls of evil, and the grunts keep up the grand tradition of poison, dark, snakes, rats, and bats.

Generation 6 (X and Y) demonstrated a massive waste of potential. Team Flare, the relentlessly stylish criminal organization led by the charismatic Lysandre and secretly supported by Elite Four member and voluptuous celebrity newscaster Malva, proclaimed that their goal was to amass a great fortune and make the world a better, more beautiful place by getting rid of anyone not up to their standards. Surely even the lowliest member of such a tragically hip organization would still fight with– no, wait. Poison, dark, snakes, rats, and bats.****

And here we are at last, Generation 7, with Sun and Moon. And from what I’ve played so far, the villains are … I don’t know what to say about them. Team Skull is, as far as I can tell, a group of upper-middle-class white kids trying to dress and act like the most overblown possible caricature of inner-city minority gangs. They have grabbed Poe’s Law by the short and curlies and are sprinting across The Line waving their arms and singing Al Jolson’s rendition of “Mammy.” And so far they’ve attacked the main character with (everybody sing along at home) poison, dark, snakes, rats, and bats.

So why am I bothering to overanalyze a video game series for children? Probably a fixation due to some kind of neurological defect. But also because this is a game series that’s hit its 20th anniversary and still has die-hard fans who were children when Red and Blue (or Green, for the Japanese kids) first came out. And The Pokemon Company is fully aware of their adult fans, considering the more sophisticated designs on some of the merchandise they offer. They must know that there are fans of the franchise who could really enjoy a game where the villainous team doesn’t wear T-shirts with “Ask me about my bullying and world domination plan!” printed on them. Why not set up a villainous team with more of a knight templar or self-righteous paladin-gone-lawful-mad feel to it, insisting that they’re making their Gardevoir and Lucario and Audino do these cruel things for the greater good? Instead of stealing Pokemon for money and profit, they could be confiscating Pokemon from trainers who they deem insufficiently virtuous.  Maybe they could even turn public opinion against the player character and make NPCs think you’re the bad guy for a while.*****

But I’m not just pining for a complex and satisfying plot. I also want to see the writers live up to a concept that keeps showing up in the games, comics, and anime, and was stated outright in the first movie: “[T]he circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.” For the people who use that concept again and again to turn around and use the same poison, dark, snakes, bats, and rats on the villainous team every darn time is just … disappointing.


* Fun fact: Team Rocket’s Japanese name, “Rocket-dan,” can be read as either “Rocket Gang” or “Rocket Bullet.” This little pun is kept up with the other villainous groups throughout the series – Magma Bullet, Aqua Bullet, Galaxy Bullet, Plasma Bullet, and so on.

** Fun fact 2: in Japanese, the Dark type is named Aku (evil) type. Notice how most of the Dark moves are based on deceit and undisciplined violence. Night Slash, for example, is “Crossroads killing” in Japanese, referring to old stories that samurai would test the sharpness of their blades by killing peasants at a crossroads at night with no repercussions.

*** The games (and the anime) frequently address this topic: most Pokemon see training and battling as a mutually beneficial arrangement: trainers are able to travel safely to places they otherwise would never see, while the Pokemon is able to unlock greater potential through cooperation and discipline. Personally, I see Pokemon battles as something of a martial arts sparring system, with the gym badges being the equivalent of the different ranks and colored belts. Hence the fights only going to a KO rather than death.

**** I guess, if you wanted to nitpick, you could claim that the ugly and intimidating Pokemon were a subtle hint from Lysandre that none of the lower ranks were intended to survive the awakening of the Legendary of the Game to see the new beautiful world … but I’m not sure the game designers have earned the benefit of the doubt here.

***** Heck, take a look at the first Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games. The villain is a skilled manipulator who not only convinces the town that the player character is the cause of all the recent natural disasters, but also convinces the character of this! You go through a surprisingly tense series of dungeons fleeing from an angry mob that will stop at nothing to see you dead.

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Review: Brawl in the Family

by on Mar.22, 2010, under Review

I certainly hope that all of you out there in Readerland enjoyed St. Patrick’s Day in the manner of your choosing, be it tinted beverages, Shamrock Shakes, food coloring in unexpected places, chocolate coins, speaking in a terrible attempt at a Celtic accent*, wearing shamrock-shaped paraphernalia, singing “Danny Boy” one more time while people cry into their pints, pinching people for not wearing green**, or ignoring the holiday outright because you’re not Irish and don’t feel like pretending for a day. It was a good time to get in some festivities while the weather in the Northern Hemisphere goes from dingy gray to vibrant green.

Meanwhile, over on the pink end of the scale, there’s Nintento’s lovable puffball Kirby, who’s been borrowed as the main character for Matthew Taranto’s Brawl in the Family.*** While a fan-comic doesn’t do much for original characters, Taranto has fun with the characterization: Kirby has a crush on Jigglypuff; King Dedede is malicious, but not that bright (and has an eccentric relative in the neighborhood); Captain Falcon just can’t shut up; Waluigi is utterly befuddling; and personality quirks from various video games are extended to an endearingly silly level.

There isn’t really an overarching plot to BiTF, although there is a certain continuity between strips. Kirby and Diddy Kong remain good friends. King Dedede’s theft of Christmas becomes a pass-through gag. And Meta Knight gets some rather interesting revenge. For the most part, though, BiTF consists of quick little one-shot gags or odd little speculations on Kirby’s diet. A limited spectrum of jokes, perhaps, but it works just fine.

To say the art has evolved since the early days would be a bit of an understatement. Taranto’s basic style has stayed relatively constant, but the art itself has become generally smoother and more practiced (with a shot of color once every five comics). And the occasional homage to other art styles is generally done well. And then on top of all that, he sings (be warned, the page has sound that starts on loading). We’re looking at a talented artist who has fun with what he does, and even if some of the jokes are headscratchers, Brawl in the Family is a generally entertaining read.

Comic Rating: 100 points for that dead goomba, you monster.

* Ye blaguards ain’t foolin’ nobbut wi’ such a tinny brogue.
** As long as I can pinch back because you’re not wearing orange. The portion of my ancestry that goes back through the Emerald Isle is split between Ireland and North Ireland. The combination of Belfast and Dublin in one body leads to some interesting self-conflict, let me tell you.
*** These segues aren’t as easy as I make them look.

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Review: Phil Likes Tacos

by on Jun.22, 2009, under Review

If you’re like most of the people online these days, you’ve probably had a job in one of the service industries, be it fast food, customer service, retail, or taking tickets at the local movie theater. And if you’re like most service employees, you probably agree that work would be so much better if it weren’t for the customers. You likely have a horror story or two about the Guest from Hell who used the wrong entrance, stood around in the wrong line for a good ten minutes, managed to get all the fliers out of order, and then went off on a five-minute rant when you politely let them know how many rules they were breaking, followed by a demand to see your supervisor. You know the type.

That’s about half of the content of Phil Likes Tacos, a very-long-running comic that spends part of its time commiserating about troubles at work, part of its time making odd-ball video game jokes, part of its time making gags about bachelor apartments, and nearly all of its time being worth a good chuckle. While it lacks the polish and shiny coloring of other comics out there, it’s enjoyable, dependable, and just plain fun.

The author, one Andrew Bilitz, just moved the comic from its previous home on ComicGenesis, and the coding is still a bit wonky on a few things (for one, the forward arrow actually takes you to the previous comic and vice versa), but that sort of thing gets taken care of in time. With an archive as big as his (a comic a day since May of 2002), any change to the coding of the site is going to take a long time to implement.

The comic is set up like a newspaper comic, wider than it is tall and generally told in three panels. It does, admittedly, start with the dreaded “Welcome to the comic” strip that’s been a convention since at least Garfield’s time, and then immediately sets up the main character Phil as the straight man to the antics of his roommate, the hyperactive gamer Doug. Phil works at a taco shop (hence the name of the comic), while Doug … plays video games, makes pop culture references, and generally seems to live in a world that only shares some borders with the one the other characters live in.

As the strip goes along, you meet other people in Phil and Doug’s world. There’s Phil’s nominal girlfriend, who doesn’t even get a name until much later; Mel, the literally demonic manager at Happy Tacos; Norvell, the mooch of a co-worker whose continued employment is a mystery; and Zoug, Doug’s evil arch-nemesis from the underworld and creator of his other arch-nemesis, Mecha-Doug, among many others.

I will be the first to admit that, as an aspiring editor and general nitpicker, the frequent simple spelling errors get on my nerves. And sometimes I’m not sure whether things are errors because Bilitz’s handwriting can end up very tiny.

Bilitz has apparently worked a long time in the fast food industry, based on his depiction of the customers who make Phil’s job difficult as deformed cretins . . . with three exceptions, the Taco Regular Cuties (as they’re called on his old cast page). Delores, Millicent, and Vivian hold a special place as regular characters, and Millie even goes so far as to become Phil’s new girlfriend when the previous one turns out to be merely a good friend.

The art is rather simplistic to start with–see the first comic, linked above–but as time passes, Bilitz figures out ways to stylize his stick figures in a way that makes them look better than most. (Better even than some attempts at fleshed-out drawings by other online cartoonists, but I’m not about to name names.) His colored-pencil Sunday comics are interesting, and I’m particularly fond of this strip. And I’ll admit that the hidden jokes in the background signs are just fun.

The plot is comparable to various sit-coms; while continuity is rather flexible and the status quo tends to be maintained, earlier plotlines do have their impact and are occasionally referenced later. And occasionally old characters will make new appearances.

In all, I’d say the comic is worth a read–but do it when you’ve got a lot of time to spare. With somewhere around 3000 pages in the archives, PLT is a long, hard, often hilarious slog.

Comic Rating: Five number-7 combos and a Slushee. Your total comes to $39.47, next window please.

Post script: this one makes me giggle every time I read it.

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