Saturday, August 05, 2017

A few thoughts on Opoona (Wii) now that I've finally played it for a couple of hours

Although I've owned a copy of this unique RPG for years now, its disc hadn't seen the innards of my Wii until a week ago.

What prompted me to get off my lazy butt and (finally) start playing Opoona? One of the first things I did after getting settled into our new home was hook up my Wii (mainly to see if it still worked), which in turn pushed me to unpack and organize all of my games.

Looking through my collection of Wii titles made me realize just how many of them I'd never even booted up. So, I decided then and there to free a few from their plastic prisons--beginning with this ArtePiazza-made oddity and Namco's similarly weird Tabemon. (Don't worry, I'll share impressions of the latter in an upcoming post.)

Since then, I've put approximately six hours into the former. That's an accomplishment worth crowing about, if you ask me. After all, Opoona's first hour or two are the definition of challenging. Not because its random battles are overly tough, mind you; rather, it's because the game takes its sweet time in telling you the protagonist's backstory and introducing you to the game's world. Also, the first area ("dome," actually) it drops you into is a real bitch to navigate.

Thankfully, things pick up a great deal once you're allowed to do as you please--which in Opoona generally means trying out a number of curious "jobs" and tackling the various quests that are associated with them.

The first job you're given is called "ranger." Sounds intriguing, I know, but in reality the ranger job is similar to the generic "fighter" role offered up by any other JRPG that's ever seen the light of day.

So, early on in Opoona, you accept a few tasks that force you into the forest that surrounds the opening dome (more become available in time) to fight alien-looking baddies using the titular character's "bon-bon."

Speaking of Opoona's bon-bon, it's the game's main claim to fame--and for good reason. For the unaware: the bon-bon is your main weapon while playing Opoona. It's controlled using the analog stick on the Wii nunchuck peripheral. While in battle, you pull back on the stick (or push it forward, or to the side) and then let it flick in the opposite direction to send your bon-bon careening toward one or more of the enemies that stand before you, à la Dragon Quest.

That's related to another of Opoona's selling points, by the way. If you want, you can play it one-handed, using only the Wii nunchuck. Personally, I prefer using the Wii remote as well, but I like that the game's developers included such an accessible control option.

Anyway, back to Opoona's job and quest system. I only have experience with the ranger and attendant jobs so far, but that's enough for me to guess the game is going to take me in some strange directions between now and whenever I'm finished with it.

Why? Take the attendant job. The first few quests or tasks you're given upon accepting that occupation have you filling orders at an intergalactic fast-food joint and delivering room service at a bustling hotel.

Admittedly, tackling those tasks is a lot less enjoyable than taking out baddies with the rubber-ball-esque bon-bon, but it's a nice change of pace nonetheless.

Given the above, it should be pretty clear that Opoona isn't your typical console RPG. For the most part, I've found that to be a good thing during my six-hour playthrough. I like its characters, I like its sci-fi setting, I like its snappy battles, I like its breezy soundtrack, and I like its overall aesthetic.

On the other hand, traversing the game's (unquestionably beautiful) environments veers between semi-tedious and tortuous. The huge domes that serve as its hubs are especially enraging. The game fails to provide you with a useful map, so when an NPC says something like, "go ask Mary in the library about this," you invariably spend a good 10 or 15 minutes (if not more) trying to find said location.

The fields outside Opoona's domes are less aggravating in terms of their layouts, but that doesn't mean they're without fault. My main knock against them at the moment: although you can move the camera while wandering around the game's interior spaces, you lose that freedom while outdoors. As a result, it's not unusual to find yourself in awkward positions that make it difficult to parse exactly where you are or where you're going.

Those gripes currently keep from flat-out recommending Opoona, but they aren't keeping me from continuing through its adventure. The bulk of it interests me to the point that the aforementioned niggles are fairly, but not entirely, easy to ignore.

Who knows if that will hold true until I encounter its credit roll, or until I prematurely walk away from the game--whichever happens first. I hope it will, though, as I'd really like to see Opoona through to the end.

In the meantime, have any of you played this Koei-published Wii title? If so, what's your opinion of it?

Thursday, August 03, 2017

A long overdue update on my quest to learn Japanese

Those of you with good memories may recall this series of posts from early 2013 about my initial attempts to teach myself the Japanese language.

In the last of that trio of write-ups, I declared that I'd finished learning the hiragana and katakana syllabaries. Near the end, I suggested my next steps would be to tackle basic vocabulary and grammar.

Fast forward to today--more than four years later--and, well, let's just say things haven't quite gone to plan. Actually, I did learn a bit of vocabulary and grammar in the weeks and months that followed my last blog post on this subject, but that's it.

Thankfully, although I didn't learn anything new in 2014, 2015 or even 2016, I also didn't forget what I'd previously mastered.

That's hardly worth crowing about, of course. As nice as it is to be able to understand a handful of Japanese words and phrases, the point of this "quest" was to become as fluent as possible in this challenging language.

So, one of my only goals for this "sabbatical year" has been for me to get off my lazy butt and return to my Japanese studies. Although it took me a while to actually do that, I'd say I've spent the last two or three months diligently learning kanji and sentence structure.

I'm still basically clueless when it comes to translating passages in games or on websites, mind you, but that's OK. I finally feel like I'm making progress, and that thrills me to no end.

Are any of you curious as to which apps and books and sites I'm utilizing as part of my studies? Here are the main ones, if so:

GENKI I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese--This is what I turned to after I mastered the katakana and hiragana syllabaries. It's basically a text book, and it isn't exactly cheap (about $50 on Amazon), but it's really helped me expand my vocabulary and overall understanding of how the language works.

GENKI Vocab Cards app--I've also spent a lot of time with this companion app, which mirrors the lessons presented in An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese. It was $5.99, and I consider that money well spent due to how easy it is to use and how much it's bolstered my knowledge of the language. (GENKI also sells kanji and conjugation apps via the Apple and Android stores, by the way, and I plan to buy both shortly.)

Japanese Ammo--I randomly stumbled across this site a few months ago while looking for answers to some questions I had about sentence structure. Not only did its "How to Build a Sentence in Japanese" guide help with that dilemma, but it turned me on to tons of other articles and pages about vocabulary and grammar and even culture that I'm sure will prove similarly helpful down the road.

Remembering the Kanji 1: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters--This is one of three (including the GENKI book discussed above) resources I'm currently using to learn kanji. Remembering the Kanji 1's main claim to fame is that it can quickly teach you the meaning and writing of over 2,000 kanji. It does this by ignoring pronunciation, which is covered in Remembering the Kanji 2. Although I'm not going through this book as rapidly as author James Heisig seemingly intended, I'm finding it really useful--and interesting. The associative stories Heisig offers up in Remembering the Kanji 1 make more sense to me than the ones used by WaniKani. Also, I like that Heisig teaches stroke order, which I have found helps me both learn and recall individual kanji. As such, I'll definitely pick up Remembering the Kanji 2 as soon as I finish the first.

WaniKani--This is another of the resources I'm using to learn kanji. WaniKani isn't perfect--it doesn't teach stroke order and I don't always agree with the mnemonics it provides to help you memorize meanings--but I like it well enough to refer to it on a daily basis. One cool aspect of this site: you can go through the first three levels for free. That probably doesn't sound like much, but it is. I'm still working my way through the second level, for instance, and already I've learned more than 50 kanji and 40 related vocabulary words. Once I've finished with the third level, I'll have to pay either $9 a month or $89 a year to continue using the site and complete its remaining 57 levels, but I'm more than OK with that given my positive experience so far.

In addition to the above, I used the Dr. Moku apps to learn the katakana and hiragana syllabaries. They're $3.99 each, or $6.99 as a bundle (if you're an iPhone user). Yes, you can learn both syllabaries for free via various sites and blogs and even apps, but I went with Dr. Moku's because of the clean interface and the ability to do randomized quizzes. (On a related note, I see there's now a Dr. Moku kanji app. I'll likely buy it soon and add it to "the pile.")

Are any of you trying to learn Japanese? Or have you already learned it? If so, and if you want to share any advice with me or anyone else who is in the same boat, please do so in the comments section of this post.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Welcome to WonderSwan World: Tane wo Maku Tori

This Bandai-published WonderSwan game was one of the first I picked up--along with Engacho!--when I began collecting for this GameBoy competitor back in 2012.

Not that I was able to play it at that time. I didn't buy a WonderSwan system, a translucent black Color model, until three years later. (Here is the post I published about that momentous event, in case you're curious. And if you'd like to learn more about the WonderSwan Color hardware, check out this "Welcome to WonderSwan World" write-up.)

So what do I think of Tane wo Maku Tori now that I've spent some time with it? I like it--quite a lot, actually.

As for why that is, here are the main reasons:

Tane wo Maku Tori is a puzzle game, a genre which the WonderSwan handles better than almost any other.
* To play it, you hold your WonderSwan system of choice sideways, in portrait or "TATE" mode. (Any title that allows this earns bonus points from me.)
* This 1999 release features an appealingly high-contrast aesthetic.
* It also offers up an eclectic soundtrack that veers from morosely moody to buoyantly blippy.

Tane wo Maku Tori's gameplay is noteworthy, too, although not always in the most positive way, if I'm allowed to be honest.

On the surface, at least, the puzzling action presented here is refreshingly unique. Your goal: to guide water droplets from the top of the WonderSwan's screen to a seed or seeds that are waiting at the bottom.

You do this to help the game's protagonist, the crow seen in the first screenshot above, fill his hometown with flowers before his migratory friend returns from the south. (That description was provided by, by the way.)

As for how you guide the above-mentioned droplets from one end of the screen to the other, that's not so easily explained. The gist, though, is each water drop can take one of four paths down to the seeds scattered on the ground, with the paths in question represented by bamboo stalks, vines, construction girders and more. To complicate matters, these "vessels" are joined at various points.

Those connectors--tree branches, additional beams and the like--are all you control while playing Tane wo Maku Tori. Using the WonderSwan's left-most set of face buttons, you press up or down to move the "connecting bits" in that same direction, while pressing left or right changes which section of connectors are under your control.

So, you move the branches and beams and whatnot up and down to enable the water drops to land one of the seeds below.

Early on, that's all you have to worry about while playing Tane wo Maku Tori. After a few levels, however, enemies--in the form of water-loving bugs and slugs and other creepy-crawlies--throw a wrench into the works by joining the fray.

That's where things get a little messy, or at least that's where they tend to get messy for me. Trying to corral droplets while also keeping them clear of roaming baddies quickly becomes a real challenge--to the point that Tane wo Maku Tori often feels a bit too frantic for its own good.

Still, I'm glad it exists, as its many quirks allow it to stand out in the WonderSwan's dense field of puzzle games. Also, it's a puzzler that stars a sad crow; it would be kind of hard not to like such a thing, wouldn't you agree?

Have any of you played Tane wo Maku Tori? If so, share your own feelings about it in the comments section of this post. And feel free to share any advice or tips you may have with me there, too--I'm all ears!

See also: previous 'Welcome to WonderSwan World' posts and photos of Tane wo Maku Tori's lovely packaging