Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Age Of Master Unity: Why Video Games Aren't Worth $60 - But Could Be Worth More

More stuff on the horizon. Been too busy and crazy to form coherent writings the last couple weeks, and things aren't going to get better until Thanksgiving. Worst case scenario, this explosion of mental diarrhea is all you'll get for a while... hopefully someone finds some worth in it.

November is a shitty time to be a gamer, friends. It's that time of the year that publishers can smell blood in the water, knowing those on the fence about picking up a new console have a nice Holiday shaped chance to Trojan Horse their way into new homes, and as such, absolutely everything that could come out tends to between the first and second week of November. Just enough time for those who want it to have their copies on release date, and just enough time for every store to double-down and fill its shelves with fresh display copies for the shopping rush that'll crush a minimum of five Best Buy or Wal-Mart workers every year.

Basically, everything gets dropped all at once into the market in the hopes that they'll be "the" killer app for the year. Nobody wants to be the number two selling title for this all-important period, so we're seeing a huge push for tentpole franchises - Ubisoft with Assassins Creed, EA with Dragon Age, Microsoft with Halo, and Nintendo with Smash Brothers, all in the same goddamn two week stretch! It's crazy, but that's just the way things get every year in this market, for better or worse.

Black Friday is a bitch... but there's nothing quite like the smell of rioting shoppers at 4:30 in the morning waiting in line for 45 minutes just to score some shitty sweater at 15% cheaper than it will be two weeks later. If there's any better way to waste your life reveling in the excess of capitalism, baby, I don't know what it is.

Unfortunately, punching coffee-fueled mothers shopping for Little Jimmy in the face to get a copy of these games might be the more entertaining option than actually buying any of 'em. Every now and again, I remember how appallingly fucked up the video game industry is, and this last week has given us plenty to consider for the broader picture, whether you're into the games on display yourself or not.

I truly can't tell if this franchise giving users horse armor was blissfully ignorant of
Oblivion's own memetic fallout, or if this is some long con Andy Kaufman level shit...

BioWare's latest fantasy RPG, DRAGON AGE INQUISITION includes the DRM program known as "Denuvo". My goal is to mention this specifically to talk about the latter, rather than spend any time analyzing the former: As I've said in the past, I don't really "get" the appeal of BioWare's unique brand of player intergration that plays like part third-person action game combined with a dialogue driven visual novel, giving players a shittier version of both Dark Souls and Fate/Stay Night in one package, but whatever. I like Fallout New Vegas, I guess we all have our own fetishes, and I try not to judge people for their want to be in a second-tier Dragonlance book being far sillier than me living out my own personal Mad Max fantasy. Specifically, the good ones that happen long before the founding of Thunderdome.

That DRM is really something in its insidious design. In plain English, EA sells the game files encrypted and then decrypts them, asset by asset, as you play. The most obvious hiccup there is going to be raw performance, since a larger than normal chunk of your RAM and CPU are going to be wasted literally unpacking the fucking game. Forget actually playing the stupid thing at 144fps - you're going to need to spare every CPU cycle and RAM chip just to get the game out of the menus. How seamless all of that is will likely depend on what hardware you're currently running and where the bottlenecks occur - but that's just the nature of the modular PC beast.

Of course, how taxing that all is depends on a lot of factors, but that's... actually far from the worst part of it all. Far more troubling is the fact that this process is continuously accessing your hard-drive, effectively re-writing minute packets of data as it's accessed. Early reports from Slavic language tech-focused sites are suggesting that playing the game for about 40 minutes caused over 150,000 data rewrites - or  roughly 10,000 times more often than any other game in recent memory that didn't use Denuvo's copy protection.

Pictured: Solid... State?

Why is this a big deal? Well, to break it down so simple even I can understand it, a Hard Drive isn't simply a big bucket of ones and zeroes; it's divided up into small "blocks", typically 128k in size. Each of these blocks can be re-written about 100,000 times before it becomes unstable, at which point the data is transferred to the next block, and the "broken" one sits idle and impotent for the rest of the drive's life. In effect, while the game isn't going to magically kill your drive in a day, it is shaving off its life expectancy by constantly re-writing data that should be stable enough to simply leave as-is. Don't get me wrong, every HDD has a theoretically limited life span and this isn't exactly setting your SSD on fire and then stabbing it in the face with an olive fork, but this technology is literally driving SSD hardware to a premature grave, all in the name of preventing "Piracy".

The glorious irony? despite Deunvo's claim if their DRM being unbeatable, a mere three days after release you're able to download a fully unpacked, DRM free pirated copy from numerous sites tracking in warez. Seeing as how the hacked version of the game doesn't need Deunvo, the hacked version doesn't needlessly damage your expensive hardware, I'd recommend anyone who actually bought this game uninstall the "official" version and replace it with the filthy pirate copy just to avoid screwing over their hardware. I guess this is all irrelevant if you were planning to buy it on PS4/XB1 to begin with, but... why? Why the hell would you do that? Do you dislike having better graphics and simple modability options? I'm not even a hardcore Mustard myself, I adore my PS3 for what it could do for me when I first got it, and even I can't for the life of me convince myself there's anything about a PS4 worth spending the asking price for.

UPDATE: Curiously enough, after the game's wide release I can't find any other confirmations that the crazy Deunvo DRM is chewing up drives and spitting out the sectors like grape seeds. If these reports were legitimate, you'd think we'd have hundreds of them... yet at most I can see two or three dudes who are saying that yup, DA:I is totally destroying my machine. Christ, I can find more people who still swear that Animalities exist in Mortal Kombat II.

Was it bullcrap spread by some uninformed schlub who was seeing some malware shenanigans he couldn't pin down and chalked it up to the game? Or perhaps the method was tweaked with a silent day-one patch, as was the case with some glitches in Far Cry 4? Hard to say. For now, consider the above blue paragraphs to be innocent until proven fuckery.

Oh hey, speaking of franchises and pirates...

A friendly reminder that Assassins Creed Liberation stars a badass,
Afro-Native American woman who was less sexualized than her prior male counterparts.
And yet, being a Vita exclusive that quietly got an "HD Remake" later, nobody even noticed.
Think about that next time you see someone bitching about Arno in AC:U being a cracker-ass honky.

While Ubisoft's latest annual entry into the ever-expanding parkour simulation franchise with ASSASSINS CREED UNITY won't kill your system, it's unfortunate that their incredible new game engine is either a train-wreck to optimize for, or that the publishers didn't allow the debug team any time to optimize it in the first place. Both the PS4 and XBOX ONE versions are locked at 900p resolution and target 30fps, but the game engine is pushing so many lighting effects and useless crowd NPCs that the game regularly dips down into the low-20s for what Ubisoft is willing to defend as a "cinematic experience", bringing us all the way back to the mid-90s with that sweet, nostalgic slowdown that makes games feel like ass. I've said before that I'd rather have slowdown than screen tearing, but man, dipping down to single-digits when you start crawling around outside of the obvious path is pretty harsh... if I really want to play a game at the same speed as a family vacation slide show, I'll stick to my Hyrule Warriors co-op. At least that has the excuse of generating two completely separate 720p streams at once being pushed out by a goddamn toaster with a Nintendo logo on the front.

That's already a pretty poor showing for Ubisoft's first major release that isn't being ported to the PS3/XBOX360 the same day, but it's the massive, game-breaking glitches that are far more egregious. You can literally jump through the floor into creepy non-existent rooms, plow through downtown on a pirate ship for some reason, get stuck on objects forcing you to restart, or just wait for the game to crash and burn all on its own... it'll do that. A lot. Keep in mind this turd has already had a "Day One" Patch, suggesting that this game was kicked out the door half-finished by a publisher who just doesn't get that a massive, beautifully realized and awe-inspiring game might not be possible literally every fucking year. That's why The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was in development for three years, and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has been in development for five years and counting. Good games take time, damn it!

But nothing will quite beat the basic glitches, like when the game forgets how to load skin textures and, well... don't take my word for it. Let the Google-based nightmares convince you that this thing was shipped despite being so half-baked it was basically still a raw piece of dough.

 I'm not sure, but... is this Mr. Popo DLC?

So hey, whatever  - a shit game in a shit franchise is shit, right? What's the big deal? At least we can count on reviewers to tell us that it's... oh wait, actually we can't! Because Ubisoft knew it was a steaming pile, and thus tied all early review copies to a review embargo that didn't allow critics to post their review until Noon (EST) on 11/11.... which, incidentally, was the RELEASE DAY for this fucking game. To their credit, Kotaku announced they wouldn't be accepting any review copies for a game with such insane restrictions in the future, but the fact that they still abided by them here rather than make it a point to warn consumers early - and didn't clarify their new stance until the release day of the game anyway - leaves their indignation feeling a bit defanged. Sure, it could nudge some fence-sitters one way or another, but with more and more games prepping to come out at the same time this year - I myself am buying at least one title every month since about August, and for me that's damned unusual - any sane and not terribly wealthy person has to plan around that shit.

Not that it matters much: As we've discussed before, the video game journalism circuit is literally funded by ad revenue, directly generated by the publishers of the games they're reviewing, and since these critics know that the developers behind the games themselves (NOT the publishers, sadly) are the only people who tend to make or lose money on a game's actual review score, they tend to go easy on them. It's a horribly disgusting system, really; The Publisher demands a game be released in any given time frame, the Developer does everything it can to meet demands, and when the game is rushed and downgraded just to come out in time for the Holiday shopping spree, it's those same Developers that get blamed for the game not working. Really dragging the game through the mud could end up with the publishers less likely to advertise on that site in the future, and the reviewers are smart enough to know that their words don't impact the publisher directly anyway... and that leaves these poor bastards with Sophie's Choice. Do they continue going easy on the reviews to keep their advertisers happy knowing it could cut into their bottom line, or do they tell the customer when they're buying a broken heap for no real gain other than respectability?

To draw a perfectly parallel line between critical acclaim and consumer frustration isn't easy, I know, but let's look at the Critical vs User Submitted scores for each platform to get an idea of how incredibly strong the divide on this one really is:

PS4: 76% vs 44%
XB1: 73% vs 34%
PC: 75% vs 21%

That puts critical reaction between all three platforms at an average of 75%, with users averaging their satisfaction at... 33%.  That's a healthy "C+" versus a "Super F". I don't think I've seen a divide that vast since Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, and even then it was far closer to 70% Critics vs 55% Users. Even then, the major disconnect between the two was mostly explained by the value of the content (a $30~40 game lasting about 2 hours) versus the actual quality of the product, which was almost largely praised by both sides. For all the "missing" elements I myself take issue with against Ground Zeroes (seriously, fuck that game's non-functioning dumpsters), at least it plays like a finished game, not some early Alpha build of a game that needed another three months of debugging to make playable.

But what good were those middling-for-a-major-AAA-release scores to an audience that's been trained by the market to pre-order for some small, exclusive trinket they'll otherwise have to go without? The point of video game reviews for the last 25 years or so has been to serve as consumer reports - "this game is good, that one is crap, if you like X, try Y" - and it's only in the last decade or so that any serious criticism about the storytelling and aesthetics have come into play, in part because games themselves have become dramatically more complicated in that time as a result of the technology catching up to the imaginations of the people behind them. I'm not saying game criticisms have to be consumer reports - personally, I quite like a good two hour rant discussing the themes and memes and behind-the-scenes shenanigans that give us great games... but if that's what you're actually doing, "serious" artistic criticism rather than consumer advocating, there shouldn't be a fucking number attached at the end of the write-up.

For multiplayer games the incentive is even stronger, since god help you if you pop into a game a month or two in and the only people left are the hardcore crazies who will chew you up and spit out your goddamn bones. Also, you tend to get better trade-ins on pre-orders, so if - like most of the less affluent bastards who buy annual updates to beloved franchises - you trade your unused copies back to GameStop for a tenth of what you paid for it, it's only worth doing before the game comes out. The game industry at large treats Game Stop like some sort of Super HIV Cancer literally stealing from the publisher's pocket, but the fact that Game Stop is working with publishers to guarantee themselves pre-order bonuses has shown that all the bitterness the two have shown each other was simply a convenient scapegoat the public ain't buying anymore. What's that, your sequel to a modest-success didn't sell the 10 million copies you'd hoped for? Well, maybe you shouldn't have spent $100 Million making it in the first place.

Not Pictured: Steam's "Pappenheimer Rapier".
Goddamn, I wish I was kidding about that...

This isn't even including the fact that AssCreedUnit features micro-transactions. Yes, you can actually trade real world currency for the opportunity to buy fake Francs in a $60 game featuring a $30 DLC Season Pass, and a fancy-pantsy Collector's Edition for only $70 more than the standard version. Toss in the official Prima strategy guide - $18 for the soft cover, and $28 for the hardback - and then maybe you won't even need to spend real world money on in-game currency like some bullshit Facebook game. No, I'm not talking about DLC costumes - you can literally spend up to $99.99 on "Helix Credits" to buy shit in the game without the chore of grinding for it yourself. Holy shit, Ubisoft - how much do I have to pay you to simply not play this working piece of crap?

To be fair, not every major publisher has been playing a shell game with working content these days. Much as I'm not personally a fan of the franchise, and would pay less for an Xbox One than I did for my Wii U, I'll give credit where credit's due; Microsoft has outdone themselves on their HALO: MASTER CHIEF COLLECTION, cramming three Xbox 360 games and one "original" Xbox title into a single SKU, boasting not only a chance to seamlessly swap to the 'original' graphic elements, warts and all, by running dual game engines side by side, but they've even ported the multiplayer modes and maps to within an inch of their original life. They've even gone back to ever-so-slightly tweak various cut scenes to fix continuity weirdness for the inevitable Halo 5, presumably coming out next year! I'm just not a Halo kind of guy, but I know a hell of a deal when I see one. So hey, kudos to Microsoft for that one!

...this is awkward. I kinda' ran out of snark for this one.
Honestly, it sounds like 343 did a much better job than I expected.

There's just one little issue... The whole game isn't really on the disc. No, I'm not kidding: The BD-50 that you buy is packed to the gills at about 46 gigs of installation files, but the day one patch, which is literally required to play any of the online content. Now I can forgive trophies or some stupid shit being locked behind a patch, I can even understand the reality of patching out minor bugs down the line - hell, it's better than games always being glitchy, which is the obvious alternative we've had to live with for decades prior. But multiplayer in a first person shooter franchise famous for it? Are you fucking serious, Microsoft? Yeah, yeah, 20 Gigs is a small price to pay to have the whole game on one disc and still cost the nominal $60 MSRP, but what about poor bastards who have internet bandwidth caps? That 20 gigs could chew up their entire fucking cap, leaving them completely unable to play the online multiplayer they're grabbing in the first place! If that isn't bad enough, the goddamned thing still doesn't work properly, so there's a second patch currently in the works. The right thing to do here would be to have included a second BD-25 and a double-case so people could install the whole game in one sitting... but, Microsoft was ready to pull this "Always Online" bullshit with the Xbox One just a couple years ago, so "surprised" isn't even on my personal radar.

That's assuming you're willing to ignore that this is also, quite literally, a remake of four previous games. I don't think the HD Collection idea is a bad one, and there are plenty of examples - Devil May Cry, Metal Gear Solid, Shadow of the Colossus and so on - that do the concept justice. I just don't think it should be the ONLY thing worth considering on a new console. That goes for Microsoft's Master Chief Collection as much as it does Sony's The Last Of Us: Remastered. We can all joke about how every new Mario game is a rehash of the mechanics perfected in Super Mario World about 20 years ago, but at least those games have never re-used maps, much less tried to pawn it off as a "feature" rather than as a full-priced petri dish to test out their new game engines on the public.

How fucked up is it that the only major game release this Holiday season I'm expecting to work out of the fucking box is SUPER SMASH BROS. WII U? I think it's fair to say that, for all the goofy bullshit Nintendo's experimented with from the introduction of the Wii up until now, at least their bread and butter - the first party games, repurposing the almost zombified likenesses of Mario, Link, Samus, Donkey Kong, Fox and what have you - are, at their absolute worst, still pretty goddamn good. Even their desperate bid for third party exclusive content has born above average fruit, and while I know Smash Bros. is more than anything just an excuse to sell me ugly little Skylanders style toys, at least the game comes with 47 characters, with the promise of more as DLC lurking so far down on my list of priorities that nothing short of the chance to pit Bayonetta against Big Boss will probably convince me to bite.

Forget the Down Syndrome final face sculpt and sausage fingers;

And yet, as depressing a thought as this all is, we can still more or less trust that while Nintendo will, inevitably, make small updates to their games and start hawking Season Pass DLC like the rest of 'em, they're still firmly entrenched in an old-school mindset that quality is more important than raw numbers, and will make sure a game doesn't break the second you turn it on before they ship it. For all the minimal horsepower and the absolute barren landscape of third-party support it's going to get outside of shovelware bullshit like that Sonic Boom game that even Sonic fans know is trash, I'll give Nintendo and their Wii U this: I've yet to play a game on that ol' goofy ass touch pad that wasn't exactly what I thought it would be, and with Nintendo of America having more or less done away with pre-order bonuses in favor of Nintendo Club registration bonuses, there's no pressure to buy the product before I can look at Digital Foundary's dissection of the resolution and see whatever critic grabs my eye has to say about it. Just imagine, a world in which you can wait to know if a game is a broken pile of crap before you spend $60! Don't get too used to it, though. Not unless Nintendo chills the fuck out a little on their Let's Play policy - which, admittedly, may already be happening... in Japan, at the very least.

As you guys know, I'm a firm believer in the core idea that the Gaming Journalism sphere - the "Enthusiast Press" literally founded by Nintendo to push their own product in the late 1980s - is a joke. I also think the fact that we've reached the point of pre-orders being the norm at game retailers, of DLC Passes simply being a given for any major AAA title, of review scores literally dictating which developers do and don't make a proper wage, has formed a toxic sludge from which very little positive can escape. New and sometimes exciting games still exist, but they exist in such compromised and broken states that I don't want to buy anything until I can pick through some YouTube streams and 8chan threads to see what I'm actually getting myself into, because the very nature of this industry's ties to the advertisers and the developers pain criticism in very specific and unfortunate ways, even if it's clearly not as simple as "Polygon's critics are friends with Developer X" or "Kotaku was paid off by Publisher Y". That's just... depressing. It's weeks like this that are exactly why, three months later, people are still discussing "Gamer Gate" as a concept. It's why sales for these new consoles are stagnating - there simply aren't enough games, and what few do come out are broken and shitty anyway, unless (ironically) they're simply 1080p ports of games that already work on the last generation of consoles. This is the sort of grotesque nonsense those websites should be protecting us from, and yet they keep on chugging along, shrugging these massive issues aside along with the majority of their customers. We shouldn't need to shrug off 20 gigabyte day-one patches and DRM that chews up your fucking hard drive. We shouldn't see review scores that are "average" for a game that's proven to be a broken mess, just because they feel bad for the developers who are getting caught in the middle of a tug-of-war with their competition. We shouldn't be "okay" with buying products on the off-chance that they'll be fixed sometime down the line... and yet, we do just that.

The only other hobbyist press I spend much time with is for anime releases, but the comparison doesn't really work, for a number of reasons. Anime is, by its very nature, a Japanese product for Japanese audiences, and the actual community that supports anime are typically hardcore fans who have already pirated and/or streamed the content under discussion: virtually everyone who argued, for or against, Zac Bertschy's three part review of Puella Magi Madoka Magica had done so because they'd watched pirate fansub copies of the show as it aired, and virtually everyone who was going to buy the Aniplex English Blu-ray either was, or wasn't, going to spend $225 on the Limited Edition regardless of what the critic had to say on the matter. Similarly, I'm looking forward to buying Tokyo Ghoul on Blu-ray... even though I've already got Tokyo Ghoul, and expect there to be no particularly noteworthy bonus features on the eventual FUNimation Blu-ray. Why would I buy something I've already seen? I... don't know, to be honest. But I do. My shelf full of DVDs I've never opened because I've watched 720p HDTV downloads years prior is a testament to my combination of a guilt-complex and an OCD collector's mentality that basically keeps me paying for thins I'll never watch again. Terrifying, when you get down to it, but that's hardly Anime News Network's fault, now is it?

With video games, I don't have the luxury of having already played a title to completion before it comes out, so those reviews and honest assessments of its faults will help me decide whether to spend my money now, or later. Heck, the overwhelmingly positive response for Bayonetta 2 was a big factor in me deciding to pick it up the week it came out at full price: If reviews had said it were worse than the first game, I'd probably have waited. Having since played about 2/3 of the Wii U port of the first game, I'm glad I didn't. Besides, you can spend the whole game playing Nintendo Dress-Up at no additional cost - if that's not reason enough to consider re-buying the damned first game, what sort of normal are you?

Which is the best Nintendo themed outfit, and why is it Samus?
Ironically, these prevent Bayonetta from ever being naked.

The saddest part, here? Despite publishers willing to sell us broken, machine-destroying and re-purposed games for the full price of $60, I know that isn't "enough" to keep the market healthy enough to continue as it is - not if sales continue to wane. Not to funnel the massive, nuanced and technically empowered games that people like myself want to see poking up from between all the money that Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto makes for the industry as a whole. For all of the glaring technical and mechanical flaws in Assassins Creed Unity, the game is pretty impressive from a visual perspective, and had been released in a finished, working state I may have considered picking it up on a Steam sale down the line, just to see if they've ever fixed the franchise after the first two needlessly twitchy, intriguing-as-they-are-frustrating entries I quietly gave up on. But video games have remained at a completely stagnant $60 since the introduction of the Xbox 360 nearly a decade ago. Think about that; the minimum wage has risen from $5.15 to $7.25 in that nine year span, but the price of these increasingly expensive to produce luxury goods have remained perfectly static. With that in mind, it's not unthinkable that games should have creeped up to $70, or maybe even $80... but that'd scare off plenty of customers who already know waiting a few months with artificially lower the prices on "old" products, and it's far easier to suggest a customer pay $60, and then maybe spend another $20~30 down the line.

Personally, I'd be thrilled if they cut the bullshit, released the game at a justified full price, and then offer the DLC for free as it becomes available - you know, like Shovel Knight. The current system is absolutely broken and unfair, but it's technically funding the games we all want in the most Rube Goldbrick manner possible: As asinine as selling the tutorial level Beta for Ground Zeroes at $30 always was, if The Phantom Pain lives up to its own infinite hype, I'd argue it'll be well worth the $90 that both chapters together will surely cost. (That said, if there's even more DLC after that, I will be pretty salty.) That said, I trust that Konami is going to wait as long as it takes before they're convinced that The Phantom Pain is ready to be consumed by the masses. I'm willing to drop $90 on a game developer I trust to deliver me a product that'll thrill me for days on end. I trust damned few publishers at this point, and even a fantastic developer being held by the short and curlies by a studio that insists releasing it on a date long before it's ready is a legitimate concern to anyone who's being asked to shell out as much as gamers are, even for just the "core" game.

I'm not going to be buying any of the above titles besides Smash Bros., but I was never really that excited by them in the first place. I buy games that I like, as should anyone who genuinely likes them... but if you're not okay with the bullshit I've outlined above, wait. Wait a month, or hell, wait two - it's not like Arno or Master Chief is going to run any worse after a few more patches. I'm not advocating piracy (directly) and I'm not suggesting a boycott of anyone in particular (explicitly): I'm saying that if the market keeps lining up to be shat all over, the publishers have no reason to stop. Honestly, you know what title from this holiday season has my undying respect? Batman: Arkham Knight. You know why? Because they delayed it until June because they knew the game didn't fucking work yet. That sort of self-awareness and willingness to compromise for the consumer is all but lost now, and it feels weird to be complimenting Warner Interactive after all the shady bullshit that went on behind the scenes of their Shadows of Mordor promotion shenanigans.

Weirdly enough, Nintendo seems to has been shrugged out of the console race by many for their system basically being a 360 with an iPad attached to it, but goddamn if they haven't done a fine job of focusing on something Sony in particular seems to have forgotten about; quality games for a box designed to play games as its primary function. It's infuriating that these are the basic tenants from which I'll consider throwing money at a game box, but if it's on the Wii U, at least I expect a basic level of QA and competencey to have taken place. The Nintendo Seal of Quality shouldn't be a relic I have to remind myself meant something 30 years after its introduction, but hey, the more things change...

Captain Toad can go fuck itself, though. Honestly, of all the things to remove from a Mario game, why did they pick JUMPING? It'd be like removing bullets from Call of Duty, or tits from Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball. Honestly, what's the point?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Lying Evily By Moonlight: Viz Defends SAILOR MOON Upscale, Lies Through Their Teeth To Do It


Really, Viz? You're going to make me do this, huh? Alright then. I've had a go at Media Blasters, I've called FUNimation on their bullshit, I can't tell you how many times I've had to publicly shame Arrow Video on old shenanigans, so if you want in on the "fun", that's your problem.

To be honest, I wanted to be polite about this. I wanted to post those atrotious SD upscaled screengrabs from Viz' SAILOR MOON Blu-ray once it came out, sigh really loudly and post a facepalm picture, say "Welp, ain't that some shit... wubba-lubba dub-dub!" and be done with it. I'm a busy guy, they've got money to make, the disclaimer would be enough for everyone to be somewhat satisfied, people could judge for themselves... this should have been easy. Frustrating, depressing and ugly, but easy, none the less.

Don't get me wrong, those promo shots and video clips Viz has been been pimping since about Anime Expo were always a bloody mess - a clusterfuck or questionable decisions and limited resources, I know, but fans of this franchise have been so starved for a complete, proper presentation that I don't even blame a single one of them for knowingly buying a shitty release, because I've done it myself many, many times over the years. 'It is what it is', I told myself. No sense dragging Viz through the mud for a release even they, and everyone else already knew, is a shit-show by nature... heck, I'm honestly a little disappointed to admit I was late to this particular party, not realizing how bad things were going to be until a couple weeks after everyone else had seen the proof.

I certainly had my reasons for being out of the loop. But we'll get to that later...


I figured that, much like The Great Humongous, I'd stop all the violence and just walk away... and then you had to lie through your teeth to our collective face. Why, Viz? It's not bad enough that you have to put shit on our tongues, but you had to look us in the eye and tell us it's delicious Belgian chocolate, too? No, man. That's where I draw the fucking line. You don't literally feed the consumer half-true information about the quality of your product, and more specifically, misrepresent the quality of competing products and expect me to hold my tongue. You don't lie to the internet and expect anyone to forget, much less forgive. That's an amateur move, and what's worse, y'all fucking knew it when you made it.

I'm not writing this because the new Sailor Moon Blu-ray/DVD release sucks. It does, but that's not the part I'm mad about. I'm mad because they suck, and Viz is willing to throw Toei under the bus to say it's not their fault their own in-house upscale is a miserable pile of ass. Not happening, folks. Not on this blog, at any rate.

The lie I'm talking about specifically is THIS POST on the Neon Alley blog earlier in the week, which includes several comparisons between the Viz Blu-ray, and the Japanese DVD. These DVDs are region locked, feature no English language options, and were until very recently the only legitimate way to purchase the entire series for playback on NTSC systems. Don't get me wrong, I love image comparisons - they're a great way to learn how to identify video anomalies, and help consumers who have an eye for said differences. In short, an honest, accurate A/B comparison is the best way for consumers to make an informed decision.

The problem here is that Viz did not use accurate screenshots. They went out of their way to make the R2 DVD screenshots look worse than the actual discs in an effort to make their absolutely abhorrent HD "Remaster" look better by comparison. They also claim early comparisons were from the "Japanese DVD Release" itself, rather than the "DVD Master" as later samples were called. It's bullshotting at its finest either way, but I want to establish how utterly full of it Viz is being before we get into how they're being dishonest.

If you're a visual kinda' Sailor Soldier, here's pretty much all you need to know about what a filthy, back-stabbing lie Viz is pushing to make their set not look like a steaming pile of poorly upscaled shite:

  This is what Viz Media wants you to beLIEve the Japanese DVDs look like.
Keep in mind this is the LEAST damning comparison they've made so far.

This is what the Toei R2 imports actually look like.
Note that it's not a pile of ass - not for a DVD, at least.

Worse yet, if this Anime News Network ANNCast Interview with Charlene Ingram and Julie McDonald is any indication, they're digging their heels in for the long haul, with zero plans to fix the discs themselves, or change authoringhouses for future titles. In other words, I hope you like all of Viz' future upscales looking like frame-blended and saturation-boosted butthole, because that's all I'm ever going to expect from them going forward.

 For further examples of just how ridiculous the funky frame-blending issues are...

According to Viz, this is all somehow not the direct  result of video processing.
I assume Viz also swears that rain is somehow not the result of condensation.

No, I won't be dissecting the whole discs for a 10-page autopsy: The above examples should be enough to prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that these are a train-wreck far beyond my already meager expectations. This wasn't hard, Viz: When you were offered SD materials, you should have done a DVD release, gauged customer interest in a Blu-ray and then double dipped a year or two down the line. Now customers are stuck with artifacts that are worse than the import editions, and for a release claiming to be a High Definition definitive remaster, that's unacceptable. In fact, it's bullshit.

And for the record, the DVD version is a 16:9 frame pillarboxed to 4:3, meaning about 25% of the frame is simply wasted space. Yes, most HDTV monitors at this point are 16:9, but that means resolution is limited more than it has to be. Yes, this is stupid. Yes, this was the wrong decision to make from a production standpoint. But it's so, so far down on the list of "shit wrong with Viz' release of Sailor Moon" that I'm not going to even give it the time of day.

Viz Media is lying to you. That's all there is to it. Straight from McDonald's mouth: "All I can tell you is that what you're seeing in terms of blended frames is not part of the post-production process." This is untrue; it's simply the result of an IVTC algorithm not being tweaked to handle unexpected 3:2 cadence changes, and yes, you bet your ass if I had been handed those gorgeous ProRes captures from Digibeta I could have been able to spit out a proper 23.976fps master without any consistent issues. Animation is one of the most problematic types of material you can work with, and it's become abundantly clear that Subatomic Digital - likely through inexperience more than a lack of sincere effort - have come up dramatically short.

The only possible reason this could be the result of the digital masters present to Viz is if Toei did something horribly wrong to produce them. Unfortunately, for that theory to hold any water, we'd have to assume any other international licensor was given the same shoddy materials to work with, since Toei has no reason to play favorites with anyone else. There have been numerous reports confirming that the progressive PAL DVDs released by Kaze Dynamic of Italy* are not only pulled from the same sources as Viz Media's 1080p abortion here, but that they managed to properly IVTC the source video and pitch it to 25fps without any issue. In other words, Kaze Dynamic did what Subatomic Digital didn't: Treat the footage properly, restore the original 23.976fps framerate without any frame blending, and leave the perfectly normal analogue film grain exactly as they should have.

"We're like, video passion on steroids here! That's how addicted we are to getting the best possible imagery..." she continues on the ANNCast. "I don't think there's a lot of ground we can cover by pointing to this or that image and saying, this is the right image, that's the right image... I can tell you without a doubt that myself and ten videophiles sit with me, 20 hours a day, working on this material know, and are providing Charlene and our Neon Alley folks with the images that we have access to."

Allow me to express my feelings in the only medium I find appropriate, under the circumstances:

Now, let me explain why I'm so incredibly pissed off by this answer, and why I was willing to try and ignore this sideshow since, franly, I don't have the time for it: This week, I finalized the M2V and AC3 files for a particular DVD release that'll hit shelves sometime next year after, quite literally, months of work I did over weekends and in the wee hours of the night after finishing my regular 40 hours a week doing what I do to make a living. I won't mention the title - odds are you all know what it is anyway, but I at least have to pretend Kentai is an anonymous parody of a shared autistic videophile sarcasm rather than a real human being with video processing credits well into the thousands now - but suffice to say it's a substantially less iconic piece of animation than Sailor Moon will ever hope to be. Honestly, if this title had been a dump of the not-so-great import DVD with no added work, the small fanbase for the sort of niche title we're talking about would have sighed, shrugged, and ponied up $20 just to show their support on principle. It's that kind of show... the kind that gets a release out of a combination of nostalgia from a small set of hardcore fans, and a morbidly curious subset looking for explosions of insanity they've somehow missed from yester-year who figure it's a fair price to peek their head into the freak tent.

The release took forever, but it's not exactly "pretty". Massively improved, absolutely, but those materials were a goddamn joke: I worked from the only surviving analog masters - certainly not fresh 2002 Digibetas that look like a perfect representation of the 16mm film they were shot on, but crumby analog tapes closer to VHS that DVD. We're talking NTSC masters so old they'd be legally allowed to drink! I spent an entire season fixing that two and a half hours or so worth of footage; color grading literally each and every shot for accurate flesh tones and exposure issues, manually removing scratches using matte plates to prevent eyeballs and drops of blood from distorting or disappearing, fixing major film and video damage that I found unacceptable, repairing analogue opticals with digital replacements when I had no other choice to avoid funky seams popping up as a result, experimenting for two weeks on DVNR algorithms that minimized the issues inherent to those god-awful sources without molesting any of the "real" detail underneath... this DVD is my fucking magnum opus. The sanity I've lost is something I can never get back, and honestly, the only praise I expect to see are one or two forum posts saying something along the lines of "Oh hey, that's finally out? Well, it looks better than my old VHS. Too bad there's no Blu-ray though."

My blood, sweat and tears are infused into that remaster, and yet I doubt it'll sell more than 2,000 copies before the license expires. For fuck's sake, I haven't even discussed payment yet because (and please, don't tell my boss this!) that's not why I do it, or at least that's not my primary motivation for doing it... I did it because it was the right thing to do. Because ultimately popular culture is our culture, in all of its kitschy, grotesque and embarrassing glory. Sailor Moon in particular holds a very special place in the hearts of girls who grew up on it - a show about empowerment that was still feminine, wrapped up in a charming bubblegum aesthetic and with a cast of defined, lovable characters? That's the kind of shit people eat up forever. This is a title that fans have been frustrated to only have abridged, incomplete, and heinous quality options for... and this is how their patience and love has been repaid. A botched pseudo-HD master and a bunch of carefully worded corporate deflections that all boil down to, we tried super hard, you guys! Honest!

"As a videophile yourself", Zac Bertschy asks, "Do you look at this and say: Okay, this is as good as this show can look?"

"You know, my feeling about it is I'm really happy with what we did to it, based on what we had to work with. I'm thrilled with it... these issues don't trouble because I don't think they make the product in any way less - I know the love and care we put into it. So am I happy with it? I am happy with it... I'm completely over the moon with it, if you must know!"

Zac later asks: "So fans who pre-ordered this set and get their copy in the mail. They aren't happy with the video quality. What do you suggest that they do?"

Charlene has an answer on that front: "Of course we take all feedback very seriously, but that's... It's up to everyone to decide what they want to do with what they bought. Given - to echo Julie's point - given what we had to work with, that's how it was able to turn out with everyone working on it, so, we just don't have any news on that at this time."

In other words, if you think this release is a slap in the face... you can eat a dick. In fact, you can eat a whole bag of soggy lukewarm dicks if you're still hungry. They're sticking with their partners, they're not changing the process, and we can expect similar results going forward. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Before I can go any further, I need to quote the following piece from the Neon Alley blog that raises further questions:

The original footage for Sailor Moon, being from way back in 1992, is also older than many fans who adore the series now. In 2009, Japan released the seasons on DVD using the best materials available, Unfortunately, the original film from 1992 just does not exist. In making our Blu-ray releases, we used the same masters used to create the those beautiful releases, but make them work for the modern Blu-ray format.

Waaaaaitasecond... let me re-emphasise the part that caight my eye, just to be clear:

"In 2009, Japan released the seasons on DVD using the best materials available, Unfortunately, the original film from 1992 just does not exist."

First of all, the SD Telecine work was done in 2002 - a minor correction, I know, but the fact that a 12 year old DVD kicked your shoddy upscale's ass is still worth pointing out for a total understanding of how hard this ball was dropped. More importantly though, why the fuck does the original film "not exist" for this series, exactly? Toei had no trouble pulling the camera negatives for Dragon Ball Z out to do their fascinating (if not entirely successful) Dragon Ball Kai experiment a couple years back. In 2009, the entire 152 episode Fist of the North Star TV series had a new HD master created from the original film negatives, creating an even higher quality DVD release that the previous 2004 edition. Toei has pulled 35mm negatives out of cold storage for feature films including the Saint Seiya and Galaxy Express and Sherlock Hound movies... and yet somehow, Sailor Moon - easily Toei Animation's most iconic and internationally beloved magical girl franchise, not to mention one of their top earning franchises of the 1990s - "doesn't exist"? Unless you can point me to some dramatic explanation for this one, I'm calling bullshit.

To put this into perspective, that company I worked with? They had a contract with a major Japanese animation distributor. They asked for an HD master, and were told one didn't exist. They asked if they could get a film print, and were told if they were willing to pay they'd make a new Interpositive. So yes, technically it's possible that whatever actual 16mm elements were scanned in 2002 have gone lost. But to imply that Sailor Moon is the one vintage Toei Animation show that simply DOES NOT HAVE FILM ELEMENTS? No fucking chance do I buy that. I mean, if this were some no-budget obscure OVA produced by a nobody in 198X for the faint hope of breaking even? Sadly, you might have something. But Toei somehow lost all of their film masters for Sailor Moon? Really? Come on, guys - this isn't Genocyber, Dream Hunter Rem, Roots Search or some other obscure mess I'd believe has been lost to the sands of time. Honestly, this would be like saying that Warner Brothers can't find the camera negative for The Shining. Because, reasons, don't worry about it.

I could criticize this stupidity for hours on end, but... honestly, I'd rather not. My office is in the process of moving, I really need to get some sleep at some point, and I'd rather just call this shit and move on with my life. Viz, you fucked up. Hard. You're on the shit list, and don't expect me to assume the best from you while you continue to squat down and let releases like this congeal out of your company's backside.

For those curious how this horrendous level of bullshit was accomplished, here's a list of exactly what's wrong with the Viz comparison: 


The R2 DVD screenshots are presented in their 'native' 1.5:1 aspect ratio. DVD stores MPEG-2 video at a resolution of 720:480 at 29.97fps. That 720:480 file is then given a "flag" which tells the DVD decoder to play the file as either squished to 4:3 (ie: SDTV "square") or stretched to 16:9 (ie: HDTV "wide").

In short, nobody would ever, ever watch a DVD with a fat, distorted 2:1 aspect ratio as is being displayed in Viz' own comparison. Yes, technically the DVDs do store their data that way, but that's now how it actually looks when played back on literally any piece of software designed to play DVDs.

Also note that there's some pretty severe aliasing


The R2 DVD screenshots show interlacing. This is a trickier one to discuss because, yes, most anime DVDs are interlaced - that is, the 24fps film frames were converted to irregular patterns of 29.97fps video that show "combing" during motion. Interlacing is normal on NTSC signals, and isn't technically a 'flaw', just a normal part of the broadcast process.

When you watch an interlaced DVD on an interlaced TV, the set itself is refreshing in half-frame intervals, so everything looks normal. When you watch an interlaced DVD on a progressive monitor (like an HDTV), either the display or the DVD player is deinterlacing the signal first. Sometimes deinterlacing looks like crap and introduces jagged, aliased edges and blended frames; other times the deinterlacer is "smart" enough that it can reconstruct the original film frames and look like a proper, progressive image. It really depends on your hardware, and the content itself: Anime, due to its typically low framerates, is infamously difficult to convert from interlaced frames back to the original film frames due to limited motion wigging the algorithms out.

Is it difficult to remove interlacing on cartoons without leaving interlacing behind, or creating blended frames? Immensely. But it can be done. I know this because I manually tweak Inverse Telecine scripts every fucking week at the office. It's difficult to get the right mix and sometimes occasional frames are bound to get fucked, but as you can see at THIS COMPARISON, it's not impossible to convert the 480i broadcast signal on the DVDs back to 480p film frames... hell, knowing Toei's general lab work, I doubt this was even what I'd consider a "difficult" job.


There's really no proper excuse for this one. The chroma channel has been boosted on their "DVD" screenshots to the point where reds have become oversaturated and detail has gone missing completely - detail that is present on their Blu-ray release. The most obvious offender is the far shot of Usagi's house, in which subtle gradations of red and orange smear into a big neon blob on the "Master" shot, but look fairly natural and less... day-glo, on the Blu-ray sample.

Explain that to me, miss McDonald: How the heck do you show color information in a final encode that does not even exist on the master? Do you understand that this is why old film prints often have a nasty yellow push to them - because the pigment itself has simply ceased to exist? You've worked in the industry for over 25 years, so I'm sure you do. How do you show color information that's been boosted out of existance?

You fucking don't, is the obvious answer. Those screenshots - by malicious editing, or by simple colorspace ignorance - are missing color info that exists on the ProRes and Digibeta masters, because if it didn't, it wouldn't be on the fucking Blu-ray. FUCKING HELL.

...I could go on, but honestly, fuck it. It's 1 AM and I'm packing up HDCAM decks in the morning. Viz has confirmed that future releases will be no different, I'm sure a number of Sailor Moon fans will compromise with this turd of a release, five years later someone else will find some 16mm prints and do a proper HD telecine, double dips will be planned... world keeps spinning. I'd make a Dragon Ball Z comparison, but remembering how fucking good those "Level" sets were - and how we'll never see more of them - is still a wound too fresh to talk much more about without sinking straight into despair.
And uh, for the record, I couldn't be any prouder of Zac Bertschy for the way he handled this interview. He was left with the uncomfortable spot of being forced to ask - if not in so many words - why Viz was lying to their customers. He was honest, he was direct, and yet he continued to be polite and corteous while trying to drag the answers out that customers needed to know. Mind you, Justin Sevakis could have called them on this bullshit ten times harder, but... well, I guess that'd be too much like giving ANN a rocket launcher in a knife fight, while Viz had one leg tied to the other.

This is exactly the sort of thing I wish I saw in other circles I could, quite easily, draw numerous current parallels to. Yeah, I don't exactly "get" why Zac still writes about anime for a living when it's become clear he doesn't care for the medium's output 9 times out of 10, but I can't fault him for being absolutely spot-on in speaking for the customer when they've been given a raw deal. I only wish I saw honest, probing questioning from the video games media when they sell us broken, unfinished games brimming with DLC and app-purchase enhancements at full price.

UPDATE 1: Just to establish what an unmitigated shit-show this release is, here's a FAN-MADE COMPARISON between the actual Viz Blu-ray, and a fan-made "HD Upscale" using the already compressed, already chroma-subsampled, and (if I'm not mistaken) already-interlaced R2 DVD.


Fuck Viz. Fuck Sailormoon - in fact, until further notice, fuck Blu-ray in general. Processing imperfect video is what I earn a paycheck doing, upping my game to make sure even shitty looking content looks as good as it possibly can. To see this be the standard that not only Viz Media, but goddamn Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon is held to makes me physically ill.

Yeah kiddos, I mad. If you've missed seeing me sling shit at deserving targets after a long period of apathy, you might just get your wish...

UPDATE 2: Slight correction for my Continental Homies - the progressive PAL DVD release that came out in Italy was released by Dynamic, not Kaze. Kaze is actually the French/German licensor who used an interlaced NTSC-to-PAL conversion. The simple truth is that most PAL anime DVDs in general are crappy interlaced conversions, and not being English friendly to start with I have little reason to pay close attention to them either way.

Fun Fact: Despite Kaze being primarily a French/German distributor, they do occasionally negotiate for the United Kingdom. That's why the "UK" releases of Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie, Roujin Z and Code Geass have subtitles and dubs in all of these languages. I don't know if Code Geass still has the (incredibly stupid) BBFC mandated cuts in the second season that affected the DVD release, though I suppose I should look into that...

UPDATE 3 [Jesus Fucking Christ Edition]: Never thought I'd have to clarify this, but no, I am not Justin Sevakis. Nor has he ever used me as a sock puppet. You'd have better luck trying to prove I'm the Lindberg Baby than ANN's founder, but the fact that people started playing Internet Detective and thought we're just similar enough is... kind of fucking hilarious. No, really! The thought of Mr. Sevakis sitting through Gutterballs just to talk about a rush of "Modern Grindhouse" movies would be so out of character for him you might as well suggest that Harry Knowels has been Roger Ebert the whole time.

Nor am I anyone else of note in the North American anime industry. If I ever became someone in a position like that, you'd probably see this site quietly retired to try and avoid any major clusterfucks down the road. To be frank, I'm in that awkward position where I'm just friendly enough with a handful of people in this profession that I don't want to shit all over them unless they really did something to deserve it: I've done this sort of work for years now. I know people have schedules, I know that handing anything to a third party can result in fuck-ups and miscommunications. I even know that sometimes Person X at the studio knows exactly what the problem is and could probably fix it if they had an extra three days to spare, but Person Y has already done an interview about it and wants that shit on iTunes yesterday, so... there you go.

The problem is oh so rarely that everyone involved don't care, it's that they simply don't have the budget or the time to fix it. And that's a far more frustrating feeling than that oversimplified smug dismissal that's so easy to give when you know that content in and out, and if you'd been there you could have had it fixed in no time.

At the same time, I'm not so friendly with anyone I won't call them when they've clearly fucked up. I don't want to trash on Viz, or FUNimation, Blue Underground, Shout Factory, Media Blasters or whoever happens to have screwed the pooch that week. Consumers are paying to own movies they've probably already seen, and they have the right to know if the product they're going to get is up to whatever their standards may be. If anyone reading this post sees those ghastly Sailor Moon screenshots and says to themselves - "Huh, that's a shame. But oh well, still looks good enough for me!" - well, that's certainly not how I felt about it. But if I've helped you make up your mind one way or another, hooray! Me bitching like an angry sociopath wasn't a total waste of time.