I'm so worried. I already lost my grandmother. I don't want to lose Penny, too!
(From now on, I'm getting rid of the "I give this X piece of media" sentences before the rating because they're getting old and repetitive)
So...yeah. It's official, I'm in the Love Live fandom now. Kinda. After being blown away by how good Love Live Nijigasaki turned out, and for the fact that it seems like the creators have gotten rid of the whole boob groping shtick that plagued other seasons (Which everyone knows is a huge turn-off for me personally), I figured maybe it'd be good to give Love Live Superstar a try. Being a completely new series that doesn't require knowledge of the other seasons, I figured this would be a good jumping point into the fandom as a whole, since the Nijigasaki anime is based on a cellphone game and is considered more of a spin-off than anything, and to tide me over before season 2 of that comes out. Though as you can tell by the rating, I do happen to like the Nijigasaki anime a little more for a variety of reasons, but I don't want to start this review off on a negative note.
Ever since she was a little girl, Kanon Shibuya has always loved singing...but she gets terrible stage fright and can't bring herself to sing in front of anyone without fainting. She tried to get into Yuigaoka High School's music curriculum, but due to said stage fright messing up her audition process, she was forced into the general curriculum. Disheartened and disillusioned, she thinks her dreams are over before they even start. One day, a classmate named Keke Tang overhears her singing and begs her to start a school idol club with her. Although initially cowed by Keke's intensity and lack of respect for personal space, she does warm up to the idea, helping her start a school idol club and being part of it so she can change herself for the better. Along the way, they gain three more members: Chisato Arashi, Kanon's best friend, Sumire Heanna, a boastful girl who's mainly in it for instant fame, and Ren Hazuki, the student council president who was initially opposed to the idea of having a school idol club in Yuigaoka at all. The five of them do all they can to promote their school and become the best school idols they can be.
Since I saw the Nijigasaki anime first, I'm more familiar with that show's animation style, though I have seen clips of the first Love Live anime by way of someone's internet review of it and did some research on SIP and Sunshine, so I have some idea about the basic formula. Basically, animation-wise, Superstar is a mix of the old art style and the Nijigasaki one, bringing back the shading and bright colors of the original art style, along with details like added sparkle to the characters' eyes, while keeping things like the slightly less detailed facial structures and the improved CGI. I will say though, Superstar's animation really rocks. The backgrounds are all impeccably detailed and full of eye-popping colors, and while the actual animation doesn't always land at times, it really stands out when it does. Plus, the CGI continues its streak of improvements from previous series, looking much sleeker and less jarring and stiff, to the point where the transitions from 2D to 3D and back don't feel as obvious.
Of course, you can't have a Love Live series without good music to back it up, and that's definitely one thing Superstar has going for it. Many of the songs in this series are not only well sung—which is even more mind-blowing when you find out the seiyuus for Liella are complete unknowns, with this being their first gig—but they also have a lot more variety in their lyrics and instrumentation compared to the first two Love Live anime. I also really liked the little "Liella no Uta" ending segments exclusive to the NHK broadcast, with much slower, low-tempo songs and animation in the style of watercolor storybook illustrations. Those are the songs that really sold me on Liella's music. That being said, I do think the actual background music can come across as being a little too cheesy and melodramatic at times, mainly with the swelling orchestras that play during the really dramatic scenes, which makes it feel like it's trying way too hard to sell a scene as dramatic that it borders on obnoxious. I mean, it's not bad or anything, and most of the BGMs fit the feel of the show, but like they say, less is more.
One of the things Superstar tried to do differently from other LL series is to cut back on the amount of characters it centers on. The first two series had centered on nine main girls, with Nijigasaki doing ten before expanding to thirteen later on (Same with the cellphone game), Superstar instead cuts it down to five. This is good because, from what I've read, most Love Live anime often struggle with giving some characters focus while not giving enough to others, which is common with short anime that happen to have a large ensemble cast. Because Superstar cut down on the amount of characters it has, it has ample time to give each character equal amounts of development, and I think Superstar succeeded on that front, even if the main cast do adhere to typical anime archetypes, like the ditzy genki girl, the bratty egotist, the prim and proper rich girl, and so on. I found their development to be just fine, even if it's on the cliche side, though I did feel one character's arc seemed a little too sappy and rushed for my liking. If I had to pick a favorite, it'd be Kanon, mainly because she's a far cry from most idol anime protagonists in that she's smart, disillusioned and cynical due to feeling like her dreams are over, and actually has character flaws that need to be overcome...though the way the show tries to make her overcome it near the end of the series is not exactly the most...ethical.
As much as I hate to do this, I wouldn't be a fair critic if I didn't point out Superstar's flaws and setbacks, and...it has quite a few. Love Live has had a history of relying a lot on unsubtle melodrama in an attempt to really tug at your heartstrings, and Superstar is, unfortunately, no different, especially near the end. I mean, it's not to the levels of Elsie Dinsmore, thank God, but some scenes make it pretty obvious that they're screaming at you to "BE SAD! BE HAPPY! CLAP YOUR HANDS AT THIS EMOTIONAL SCEEEEENE!!" to the point that it borders on self-congratulatory at times. Again, the saying "less is more" exists for a reason, and some of them could have had more logical solutions and presentation than what they did here. Secondly, and this is more a personal pet peeve of mine than anything: Keke's voice is annoying as hell. I mean, not only does it sound really grating and shrill, it often sounds like her voice actress is trying way too hard to make her voice high pitched and cutesy, but instead makes her sound really screechy or obnoxious or like she's phoning it in. She sounds like a screechier Judy Holliday. I mean, it wasn't so ear-bleedingly bad that it made me not want to watch the show (Looking at you, Hikaru from Star Twinkle Pretty Cure), but seriously, her voice actress really needs to dial back the artificial squeakiness. Like, A LOT. Which is weird to say, because when she sings, she sounds perfectly fine! Third, apparently Superstar decided to reuse one noteable plotline from previous LL series. Since I haven't seen SIP and Sunshine, I wasn't really bothered by it, but upon hearing that this is the third time Love Live has decided to use this particular subplot...yeah, I can totally see why fans would take issue with the series continuing to rehash the same tropes and storylines over and over again...and ultimately, that plotline was quickly resolved at the very end through a very cheap, out of nowhere Deus Ex Machina that just made me wonder why they bothered to reuse that same subplot if they were going to tie it all up at the end anyway.
That being said, while I do admit to liking the Love Live Nijigasaki anime better, I can't really bring myself to be too mad at Love Live Superstar. There are way worse idol anime, and way worse anime in general, than it, and I do think it's positives do shine through, so I wouldn't necessarily give it the side eye. Plus, I'm just happy the Love Live anime canon decided to finally ditch the whole breast groping shtick. Thank you for finally taking the hint, producers! So yeah, if you want to get into the franchise to some extent but don't know where to start, maybe give Love Live Superstar a try. It's sugary sweet and has a lot of heart, and in these hard times, a bit of positivity and optimism is very much needed. Also, the song "Nonfiction" is an absolute banger.
Having been born in the early 90s, I never grew up with video games on home consoles such as the NES, SNES, and Nintendo 64. It wasn't until I graduated college and started working that I was finally able to get myself some home consoles such as the SNES, the Switch, and the Wii U. But many people I'm friends with did grow up during that era, and...well, let's face it, the SNES brought us some kickass games that are still revered to this day. Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, Final Fantasy 4 and 6, Secret of Mana, and those are just RPGs. But there are just as many games from that era that are more obscure and don't get a whole lot of attention, one of them being Actraiser, which just got a remake, called Actraiser Renaissance, that came out on the Switch, Steam, PS4, and cellphones this year. I never heard of it before then, but a friend of mine was super enthusiastic about it upon seeing the Nintendo Direct where it got announced, so I decided to check it out myself at his recommendation. After having played it myself, I can totally understand why fans of this game like it so much. While I wouldn't consider it one of the absolute best SNES games ever, I do find myself liking the remake a lot. Thanks, Curtis!
Since I haven't played the original version, this review is solely about the remake, Renaissance. Centuries ago, the evil lord Tanzra defeated the Lord of Light (Satan and God in the Japanese version, but Nintendo, during their heavy censorship phase, changed the names due to forbidding religious references) and sent him into a deep sleep. One day, the Lord of Light wakes back up and, together with his loyal angel servant, go across the continent to destroy his monstrous army and allow humanity to flourish once again. The game has two modes: One is the hack-and-slash action platformer stage, where you traverse various dungeons and fight various monsters and bosses. The second mode of the game is what makes Actraiser stand out from other platformers of its kind: After defeating various bosses and liberating the land, you and your angel are tasked with having settlers build entire towns from scratch, clearing away obstacles to allow them to expand their cities and settlements, along with completing various sidequests the more your worshippers expand their settlements. Basically, you're playing as God and watching humanity grow and evolve via a city simulation, which was unheard of for video games at that time, especially for action platformers.
As far as the graphics go, I think they're pretty good. The designs are sleek and modern while taking care to fit into the medieval/fantasy setting, the backgrounds are well drawn, the character portraits are lush and detailed, and the monster designs are pretty cool, too. There isn't too much to comment on in regards to the town designs during the simulation elements, as everything is really tiny due to being mainly a top-down perspective, but it does serve the purpose of showing that you're literally a God watching humanity grow right beneath you. I do appreciate that the game gives every settlement their own unique designs to set them apart from one another, from their houses all the way to the clothes the villagers wear, even if each game uses the same two male and female portraits for the citizens. But hey, even that's a step up from the SNES version, because the original version depicted all the villagers from each town with the same two sprites. The soundtrack is also an absolute bop, made by Etrian Odyssey veteran Yuzo Koshiro. From its epic sweeping orchestras to rip-roaring electric guitars, Actraiser Renaissance's soundtrack absolutely slaps! That said, the game gives you the option of switching to the SNES music if you don't want to listen to the rearranged OST.
One of the biggest expansions, however, was saved for the characters, at least the ones who are named. For one, in the SNES version, the angel was little more than an avatar you used to fight monsters during the simulation parts and had no personality of his own, and was just a naked cherub. Renaissance gives him a much bigger role, a new design, and a whole new personality from the ground up, making him a friendly and cordial, if somewhat sassy and temperamental angel. Furthermore, Renaissance adds a unique, plot-important character to every territory, each with their own personalities, backstories, and skillsets, which the SNES version completely lacked. Playing through their stories also nets you magic skills you can use on your enemies during the dungeon segments. Granted, I've played games that had more three-dimensional characters than Renaissance had, but I still found the characters here to be reasonably likeable, even if the angel can sometimes come across as being rather bratty and a bit of a know-it-all at times. Also, Daniella and Taia are my favorites.
So yeah, in terms of being a remake, Actraiser Renaissance really expands upon the original game and even rectifies a lot of problems it had, giving it much more content to do, including a post-game dungeon and continent. That being said, does the remake itself have flaws? Well...personally, I think so, but they'd probably come across as nitpicking for some. For one, Renaissance adds segments where Tanzra's minions send hordes of enemies to attack your settlements during the simulation parts, and while I can understand their purpose, I often found them to be very tedious. For one, you lose if the monsters destroy your temple, towers, or fields, and while you can use the plot-important characters to fight them off, the hordes involve sending a ton of monsters out in different directions, and you never know where they'll pop up next. Success really depends on how well you place your fortresses, and often times, there'll be so many monsters that you'll end up using up your magic, and magic restoring items don't respawn a lot during those segments. So you could find yourself spread really thin and wind up getting killed easily. I had a lot of trouble with the hordes myself, even on Easy mode! Second, even with all the expanded content, the game is still rather short, as you can complete it in under 16 hours, which is far less time and content than most games nowadays...and because of this, I feel the game is really overpriced. Actraiser Renaissance is $30 on the Nintendo Switch eShop! I really don't think $30 is enough to justify buying a 16-hour game. If the game was between, say, 30-60 hours I can understand, but less than 20 hours of content for $30? Uhh, no. Then again, games on the Switch are pretty pricey overall, with physical copies going for $60 at launch nowadays, so I guess I can't really complain, now can I?
That being said, I don't regret buying Actraiser Renaissance one bit, and I probably wouldn't have even given it a second look if my friend hadn't recommended it to me. Whether you're a fan of the original game or no, Actraiser Renaissance is definitely a game that shouldn't be overlooked. Check it out if you can. I had a lot of fun with it, so maybe it might just be something you'll enjoy if you're willing to give it a chance.
Man, I expected to just write a smaller review for The Gilded Girl, but this wound up giving me a lot more to talk about than I thought. Though...in the case of The Gilded Girl, I don't mean this as a compliment. To be perfectly honest, I didn't like this one, mainly because it felt so deriative. The story takes place in the early 20th century, but where magic is common, and a rich girl named Emma Harris is sent to a fancy magical boarding school by her father. But when her father dies and she's left penniless, the greedy headmistress, Miss Posterity, forces her to become a servant and treats her worse than dirt. To complicate matters further, Emma learns that only rich kids are allowed to utilize their magic to their fullest potential, whereas people of the lower classes, like her new servant friend Izzy, are forced to have it snuffed out even as the time of their magic kindling comes around. When a classmate's kindling goes haywire, Emma and Izzy have to work together to make things right.
I'm not going to mince words here: The Gilded Girl feels like a complete rip-off of A Little Princess, using the exact same premise, characters, time period, and story beats as it. Emma is Sara, Izzy is a more strong-willed version of Becky, Frances is Ermengarde, Beatrice is Lavinia, Miss Posterity is Miss Minchin, Clementine is Amelia, and so on. Even the order of events that happen is the exact same as A Little Princess. Rich girl gets sent to rich girl school? Check. Father dies, loses all her money, and is abused by the mean headmistress? Check. Mysterious man is looking for her but is made to go on a wild goose chase due to lack of details and false leads? Checkity check check. Even the magical elements such as the talking cat and kindlings feel tacked on in a bad attempt to hide the fact that the story is basically a rehash of A Little Princess. Take the fantasy elements away, and it's basically A Little Princess in all but name.
The only good thing I can say about the book is that the prose is fine, and it's decently well written for a book aimed at 8-12 year olds. As far as the characters ago, not only are they all bland and carbon copies of other characters from other books, even their development is woefully predictable, and they don't even change much throughout the book. Everything that the characters go through feels painfully obvious if you either have knowledge of A Little Princess or are familiar with the archetypes from other media. The only characters that don't feel like they were ripped out of A Little Princess were Tom and Figgy, but even they don't stand out enough to really feel interesting. In fact, I can't bring myself to care about any of the characters because they're just copies of all the ones from A Little Princess but without anything to really make them feel like they're characters in their own right.
With that being said, these days, it's impossible to create an original story anymore. I hold the belief that there's no such thing as originality anymore, and that execution matters. You can have the most cliche story in the world but if you actually care to create well-developed, believable characters that can drive said story, or even do something new with it, you can write anything. But there's a difference between expanding on an idea and doing something new with it, and simply adding something to an old story without doing anything with it. To me, The Gilded Girl is the latter, because if you take away the fantastical elements, it's basically a carbon copy of A Little Princess that makes absolutely no attempt to do anything new with its premise or stand on its own two feet. From what I understand, this is the writer's debut novel, and...it shows. Here's hoping she can write better, more polished novels in the future. Honestly, I'd skip The Gilded Girl, as there are plenty of other novels that do this same premise better, or don't try to shamelessly rip it off.
I give this sweet movie about two men falling in love...a 75/100.
(more to come soon)