Legend of Korra Book Two Retrospective Continued: Criticism of this Season’s Character Arcs

Despite having quite a few criticisms of the Legend of Korra in my last post, I thoroughly enjoyed the half-season: it’s clearly the best animation currently on television.

Last post, I focused more on the overall issues with the story. In this post, I want to focus on specific characters. Korra has a LOT of characters, and some had better story arcs than others.

Story arcs done well

Unalaq

Let’s start with the villains. Unalaq was a formidable foe and managed to do something I didn’t think was possible: he upped the ante compared to Airbender. In Airbender, Aang had to save the entire world from the Firelord. It was a lofty goal, and the importance cannot be understated: the world had been at war for a hundred years. Fireload Ozai was on the verge of burning down the Earth Kingdom.

When Korra was announced, I thought, “There’s no way they can top Airbender. What, are they going to have her save the entire world again?” Korra did save the entire world again, but her mission was no repeat Death Star a la Return of the Jedi. The stakes for Korra were arguably higher.

Unalaq knew exactly what he wanted, and he had the right amount of charm and evil: he managed to coax Korra to his side for a few episodes, remember?

Even more interesting about Unalaq is how Korra actually believed in his message at the end. Unalaq thought that there should be no bridge between the spirit and physical world. Korra surprisingly agreed and united the worlds (well, it remains to be seen how united they are) in a different, less violent way than Unalaq intended.

The only thing I didn’t like about Unalaq was his immense understanding of the spirit world. Why are there so many people this season who seem to know so much about the spirit world, when Aang’s world was basically clueless about spirits?

Tonraq

Korra and Tonraq

Korra and Tonraq express their love for each other.

Tonraq didn’t get as much development as Unalaq, but he had an interesting backstory nonetheless. What’s interesting about Legend of Korra compared to Airbender is how much more family there is. Aang had no parents–Korra’s parents are at least present. And while she doesn’t always get along with her father, she loves him. I think one of the best scenes from this season was Korra asking her father if it was okay to enter his house after she favored Unalaq over him.

Mako

I wasn’t sure about Mako’s turn to cop at first, but I think it fits him. Mako’s story arc was separate from Korra’s much of the time, which allowed him to shine on his own. One thing I wished Airbender had done was broken up the main group a little more often. Aang, Sokka, Katara, and Toph pretty much stuck together the entire time. In Book Two of Korra, Mako, Bolin, Korra, Tenzin, and Asami basically have their own separate story arcs going on.

Last kiss between Mako and Korra

Last kiss between Mako and Korra

I appreciated, too, that the love triangle between Mako, Asami, and Korra was toned down but resolved this season. Korra and Mako made the right decision to stop seeing each other.

Bolin

Bolin and Asami

Bolin confides in Asami how different things are this season with everybody doing their own thing. He seems genuinely sad that the group was broken up.

Bolin also had a chance to shine this season. In Book One, he felt more like he was tagging along. He was meant to be the comic relief, but actually wasn’t nearly as funny as Sokka. Yes he’s an earthbender, but nothing special. He didn’t have that many distinct aspects of his personality.

In Book Two, though, we finally got some good character development. Yes, Bolin was a blockhead and never once stopped to think about the morality of the propaganda films, but that’s okay. At least he was entertaining.

Desna and Eska

Eska kisses Bolin

Eska and Bolin try to rekindle their relationship.

I’m still not sure what to think of these characters, nor am I completely comfortable putting them in this section of “well-developed character arcs.” They were present a lot, but didn’t have many original thoughts. Eska got a little more development than Desna. I’m not sure I liked the Eska-Bolin love story, but it was funny at times.

Most of the season I was bothered with the twins’ monotone “nerdy” voices: haven’t we seen this character type before? But by the end, they actually showed a little emotion as they struggled to follow their father into eternal darkness. When I think back to Airbender, though, I was fine with Mai and Ty Lee as characters, even though they also didn’t have much development, so I guess I’m fine with Desna and Eska. Hopefully we see them in future episodes.

Desna is mad

Desna is mad at Korra’s suggestion that he betray his father.

Varrick

The shipping magnate Varrick ended up being my favorite new character this season. He got a lot of screen time, had the best jokes, and was perhaps most pivotal to the overall plot. Varrick was the one who convinced Korra that Unalaq couldn’t be trusted. Varrick helped lead the first rebellion of the southern water tribe against the northern occupation. Varrick helped Korra and crew escape from the south pole. Korra may have started the civil war, but Varrick was the one who made it happen: he hired Fire Nation thugs to impersonate northern water tribe terrorists; he bought Asami’s company and provided tanks for the war; he shipped those tanks to the south; he provided all the propaganda for the war.

Varrick was one of those rare versatile characters: he gets stuff done. His morality is ambiguous: in the end, we should probably view his actions as evil. In a way, he’s like Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad: Varrick doesn’t think about right or wrong: he only thinks pragmatically.

Zhu Li and Varrick escape from prison

Hopefully we see Zhu Li “do the thing” again next season!

If Varrick is to Saul Goodman, then Zhu Li is to Huell. She doesn’t get any character development: we don’t know what motivates her, why she follows Varrick, or if she even agrees with his actions. But we don’t necessarily need her to say these things: the fact that she does follow him, and follows his orders without question, tells us a lot. She probably does admire Varrick to some degree (romantically, though, who knows?), and sees her mission in life as supporting Varrick. In this way, she’s similar to Misa Amane from Death Note or Riza Hawkeye from Fullmetal Alchemist.

Korra and Tenzin

I’m analyzing these two characters together for a reason. Korra and Tenzin obviously had the most well-developed arcs on the show. I think Tenzin is arguably co-equal in terms of importance to Korra, just like Katara and Sokka are co-equal with Aang in Airbender. What I loved about this season was the continued growth of Tenzin and Korra’s relationship.

They started out in a bad place, and Korra dismissed Tenzin as her mentor. Tenzin, though, accepted it, and went away to fight his own demons. But they came together at the end, forgave each other, and encouraged each other.

Tenzin and Korra’s relationship is the most mature one on the show. Tenzin’s relationship with Korra is more complex than the relationships with his own wife and children. Yes, he loves his family, but those relationships are simple. He takes care of them, he protects them, he loves them. With Korra, there’s obviously no romantic connection between the two, so the creators are allowed to explore the mentor-student relationship in all its complexity.

Tenzin and Korra

Tenzin tells Korra he’s proud of her.

What I also love about their relationship is that it’s not the typical mentor-student relationship we see in fantasy. Take Obi-Wan (with Luke) and Gandalf, two old mentors on the same level as Tenzin. Obi-Wan and Gandalf are wise, benevolent, and always right. They are nearly “perfect” and exist to further the destinies of Luke and Frodo. They don’t really have much maturing to do in their own right.

While Tenzin is wise compared to Korra, he’s not always right. In fact, Book Two makes Tenzin out to be a chump at times, given his repeated failures in spiritual matters. And Tenzin and Korra have quite a bit of friction in their relationship, unlike Obi-Wan and Luke or Gandalf and Frodo.

Tenzin unrolls Korra's sleeves

One of my favorite non-verbal scenes from Book One, Tenzin subtly correcting Korra’s training attire by rolling down her sleeves.

Tenzin can provide support for Korra as the Avatar in a way her father can’t. And Tenzin realizes his destiny is not just to propagate the Air Nomad line and train his kids in airbending: his real destiny seems to be supporting the Avatar in any way that she needs him. By the end of the season, Tenzin submits to Korra, telling her that he has nothing more to teach her and that he will support whatever decision she makes regarding whether or not to keep the spirit portals open.

I’m not sure if it’s true that Tenzin has nothing more to teach Korra. Perhaps now, though, the two of them can develop a friendship of equality, having moved past the student-mentor relationship, similar to how Obi-Wan and Anakin had a friendship relationship in Episode III, or how Teacher and Ed and Alphonse had a friendship relationship in Fullmetal Alchemist.

Story arcs that could’ve been better

Kya and Bumi

Bumi plays the flue

Silly Bumi with his silly pink earmuffs!

Ah yes, Tenzin’s family. While Tenzin got a lot of character development this season, and even spent a lot of time with his brother and sister, they, on other hand, didn’t get much development at all. Kya and Bumi were simply one-trick ponies: foils to Tenzin without their own senses of autonomy. Kya and Bumi were there making fun of Tenzin the entire season, and Tenzin lost of patience with them on more than one occasion. We don’t know much about Kya at all, other than that she spent her youth traveling the world “in search of herself,” then settled down in the south pole to take care of her mother.

I’m perhaps most disappointed in Bumi’s character. Yes, he contributed some good jokes here and there, but as a person, he didn’t seem to have any direction. At the end of Book One, we briefly see Bumi arriving on Air Temple Island. We are told he’s a great general and military leader. But at the beginning of Book Two, he’s already given up the military life. Why? His definitive character trait was immediately introduced then removed. In Book Two, he’s simply a lost soul following Tenzin around the world. Sure, he helps in the final battle and helps find Jinora, but beyond that, doesn’t have an original thought in his head.

Tenzin’s family

The rest of Tenzin’s family–his wife Pema and children Jinora, Ikki, and Meelo–didn’t get much development either, even though we spent a lot of time with them. Pema just plays the part of new mom taking care of Rohan: is Rohan’s name even spoken this season? Ikki had an episode where she discovered a lot of sky bison babies, but then left them and didn’t do much the rest of the season.

Meelo had an episode where he trained a hundred ring-tailed lemurs: I thought that was going to go somewhere, but no. It was just a throw-away sight gag.

Meelo trains Poki

Meelo tries to demonstrate to Poki how to roll over while Tenzin looks on with veiled condemnation.

Jinora obviously had more character development than the rest of the family. She’s the one who guided Korra into the spirit world, and she’s the one who resurrected Raava (maybe? how?) Nobody knows exactly what Jinora did at the end, or how she knew how to do it, so hopefully there’s an explanation coming down the pipe.

Tenzin carries Jinora

Tenzin carries Jinora

After being reunited with her father after being trapped in the spirit prison, Jinora tells Tenzin that she has something else to do, and she has to go away. Here’s how I hoped the final battle would’ve resolved itself: Jinora becomes the new Raava, rather than just resurrecting the old Raava, and then merges with Korra’s spirit, sacrificing herself so that Korra can save the world. It would’ve been a very sad scene had Jinora sacrificed herself, but it would’ve taught us something about the unique role each person has in combating evil.

While it would be deep for a children’s show, Airbender had a similar sacrifice when Yue turned into the moon.

Asami

Asami the pilot

I talked a lot about Asami in the last post, so I won’t spend too much time on her again. There was so much potential for her. One challenge with Asami compared to the other characters is that she’s not a bender: the show clearly focuses way more on benders than non-benders. But in Book One of Korra she proved that she could stand her own in a fight just fine without bending. In Book Two, she’s now an ace fighter pilot, which is useful a couple times, but when it came to the final battle, she was sent away, which is unfortunate, as it just reinforced the idea from Book One: Air that benders really are superior to non-benders.

Story arcs that failed

General Iroh, President Raiko, Lin Beifong

The three people stuck in Republic City didn’t really do much at all. Lin Beifong’s story arc seemed to end in Book One when her earthbending powers were returned to her.

President Raiko was a new character. Even though he was somebody in power and of importance, he did nothing. He was simply obstinate for the sake of obstinacy when Korra asked for his help fighting Unalaq.

President Raiko

“My name’s President Raiko, and I don’t feel the need to explain myself to somebody as lowly as the Avatar!”

And General Iroh…can we drop this character already? I know the creators were really pleased with Dante Basco’s performance as Zuko in Airbender, but this actor was mishandled and shoehorned in as General Iroh, the son of Zuko. Basco’s voice is just too distinctive and doesn’t fit the personality of the new General Iroh.

General Iroh

General Iroh only appeared on screen for this one shot during the final battle…how pathetic.

I believe General Iroh only had two scenes this entire season: one when Korra asked him for help and was rejected, and one tiny, tiny scene in the final battle when his ships ineffectively attacked Unavaatu. It’s almost as if the creators wanted Basco to work with them, but didn’t have a good idea for his character. They knew it had to be connected to Zuko because of Basco’s unique voice, but beyond that, they don’t have any plan for General Iroh. He’s easily my least favorite character of the series.

Appreciated cameos!

And then we had some callbacks to Airbender this season. These people didn’t have character arcs, per se, but their brief appearances added to the story nonetheless. Overall, Book Two of Korra did much better connecting to the original series than Book One did. In Book One, it seemed like there were an excessive number of references to the first series just to remind people that the shows were connected (the worst connection was Ikki asking Katara in the first episode whatever happened to Zuko’s mom…why would she care about such a peripheral character?)

Uncle Iroh

I was genuinely surprised when Uncle Iroh showed up in Korra. He was sort of a deus ex machina, showing up at just the right time to guide Korra, but that’s okay.

I’m really pleased that Iroh left the physical world and came to the spirit world, however that happened. It didn’t seem like a forced decision by the creators, either: Admiral Zhao commented to General Iroh in Book One of Airbender that he’d heard of Iroh’s journeys into the spirit world. It was never a detail elaborated upon in Airbender, but it is consistent with his character.

Iroh in the spirit world

Hello old friend!

I was also exceptionally pleased with Greg Baldwin, the voice actor for Iroh. Iroh’s original voice actor, Mako, died between Books Two and Three of Airbender. Greg Baldwin took over voice work in Book Three (and also took over for Mako’s other unfinished roles, like Aku from Samurai Jack and Splinter from TMNT). It’s really hard to replicate another person’s voice, and Baldwin did the best he could, but his Iroh was nowhere near as good as Mako’s. In Book Three of Airbender, it sounded like Baldwin was trying too hard to imitate Mako’s voice.

In Korra, though, Baldwin does a much better job of mimicking Mako’s voice, so much so that I can’t really tell that his Iroh is different than Mako’s. Maybe if I heard the two side by side I could, but separate, I can’t.

Avatar Aang

Old Aang in the spirit prison

Aang’s role in Book Two of Korra was significantly reduced compared to the first season, and I think that’s okay. After all, Avatar Roku played a larger role in Books One and Three of Airbender, but not as much in Book Two. I’m also glad we got to see an older version of Aang, not the 30-something version we see in Book One. As long as the creators don’t retcon their own story in Book Three: Changes, this should be the last time we see Aang. And we see him giving parting thoughts to his son Tenzin, which is an appropriate final message.

Admiral Zhao

Zhao in the spirit prison

I was really surprised to see Admiral Zhao in the spirit prison, but it makes sense. He really made the spirits mad when he killed the moon spirit in Airbender. We saw the moon spirit grab him and take him away, but we never knew what happened to him. I figured he died: it seems like the spirit prison is a hell of sorts. In the spirit prison scenes, I looked really closely at the background characters several times to see if perhaps other characters from Airbender were trapped in the prison, but I couldn’t make out anybody distinctive.

Whew, that’s the end of my two-part analysis! Share in the comment section who your favorite characters were this season!

~Dennis

Book Two: Spirits Retrospective: The Legend of Korra

Book Two: Spirits has finished. It was a quick half-season, but a successful and innovative season in many ways.

As the season progressed, many websites gave reviews of individual episodes as they aired. This is fine, but mostly these “reviews” end up being half summary, half speculation about what it could mean going forward.

But now that the season has concluded, let’s take a retrospective look at the season in its entirety to find out what worked and what didn’t.

Full spoilers ahead. Obviously.

The world's eye opens

When Korra destroys Vaatu, it’s as if the world is opening its eye to light again.

Improvements over the first season

The first book of Korra had a lot of pressure to be successful. It was coming off the hugely successful Last Airbender, a show I easily regard as my favorite visual programming of all time (including television shows, movies, animation, and live-action).

The co-creators, Michale Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, decided to approach Korra differently than Airbender. In Airbender, DiMartino and Konietzko occasionally wrote some episodes, usually episodes that were pivotal to the story. So they had some direct influence on the story, but not complete influence.

For Book One of Korra, they decided to write all the episodes themselves, 12 total. At first, I was excited. I thought, “If those two are writing all the episodes, then Korra will be on its A-game the entire time!” But I was also leery. Remember when George Lucas obtained complete creative control of the Star Wars prequel trilogy? The prequels ended up being hugely disappointing compared to the original series. Why?

Well, there are many reasons, but I think the main reason is that audio-visual storytelling is a collaborative enterprise. One author can write a novel, but it takes a team to create a television show or movie. Give one or two people complete control over everything, and the audience loses out on the creative collaboration that (usually) enhances the final product.

While Book One of Korra was great, it was no Airbender, the audio and visuals being the exception: Korra hit that out of the park. But when it came to the story, Korra noticeably felt rushed.

Part of the reason Korra was rushed has to do with Nickelodeon. Korra was originally intended to be a one-shot 12-episode mini-series. Midway through production, they expanded Korra to 26 episodes, then 52. The creators decided: instead of telling one coherent story for 52 episodes (Airbender had 61 episodes), let’s tell four smaller, independent stories.

As such, Book One had all the makings of a long, drawn out series. In the final episode, Korra lost her bending, and I thought, “This is great! Book Two will be called Spirit [I almost guessed right; it’s called “Spirits”] and will be about Korra struggling as an Avatar without any powers, gaining them back, and eventually defeating Amon, who becomes an Avatar antithesis.”

Nope. About 5 minutes after Korra loses her powers, Avatar Aang appears “deus-ex-machina-style” and gives them back to her. She gives everybody their bending back, everybody is happy, the end.

For Book Two, the co-creators thankfully relinquished some of their writing credits. Dimartino still wrote, but only a few episodes. Book Two also had 2 more episodes to work with than Book One (14 compared to 12), so they had a little more breathing room.

The realities of war are left unexamined

The great thing about Airbender was that it showed children and adults the consequences of war. This was a fighting show, a violent show, to be sure, but it didn’t revel in the violence. It acknowledged that people died in war. People got burned by the Fire Nation and had permanent scars. Families were broken apart by war. The Fire Nation committed genocide of the Air Nomads. Aang wrestled with the morality of killing the Firelord. This was all very deep stuff, and Airbender was applauded for discussing war in an honest, adult way.

I personally think Airbender shows the realities of war better than any adult movie or television show that discusses war.

Unalaq sucks out Raava

Unalaq sucks Raava out of Korra. I think this scene is easily the most violent in the season, paralleled only by the violence of energybending at the end of Airbender. This is spiritual violence, destroying the core of a person. Not all violence is physical.

Unalaq destroys Raava

Unalaq’s destruction of Raava was just as violent. The line of Avatars is broken forever. It really felt like this was a loss.

Book Two of Korra introduced new aspects of war that Airbender had never explored before.

  • There was a civil war between the northern and southern water tribes.
  • Asami and Varrick became war profiteers, merchants of death, selling tanks and weapons of war to the southern water tribe.
  • Varrick crassly used Bolin to spread war propaganda.

These three issues had the potential for instructing children about even more facets of war. And yet, all three were shortsighted.

The civil war that never was

Something has always bothered me about the southern and northern water tribes: are they composed of only one city each? In Airbender, we see one giant city in the north and one tiny village in the south. In Korra, we see one tiny village in the south, and one pretty big city in the south, but nothing in the north. Are these three cities all that constitute the water tribe, or are there more cities we just never see?

It’s an important question: if we knew the full extent of the water tribes’ boundaries, maybe the civil war would seem more real. But because we have such a narrow view of the water tribes, the civil war also seems insignificant.

Korra ditches the southern water tribe just as war breaks out and doesn’t return until the end of the book. We have no idea what the civil war is doing to the southern water tribe. Are people oppressed? In what ways? We don’t know. We never see the effects of war.

Effects of Korra's civil war

We do see this small scene of wounded, Katara too overwhelmed to heal them all. But this small scene is only a few seconds long.

In Airbender, we clearly saw the effects the Fire Nation had on the people. We saw people in the Earth Kingdom who had burns: we know they got those burns from somewhere. We saw Fire Nation flags draped over the Earth Kingdom city of Omashu.

We don’t see such things in Korra. It would be interesting if waterbending actually left permanent scars on people the same way firebending does. I grew up in North Dakota: I know that ice and cold can burn you–it’s called frostbite. When waterbenders encase people in ice, do they not get frostbite? People who suffer frostbite often lose toes and fingers, hands and feet.

Tanraq battles

Tonraq leads a small group of insurgents against Unalaq’s army, but scenes of civil war are rare in Korra.

Korra missed a real opportunity in this regard. What if Korra had returned to the southern water tribe, only to find that not only were people injured, but many had suffered frostbite? What if many waterbenders had their hands frozen off and could no longer bend? Typing that out sounds very dark for a children’s show, but Airbender did it. The main antagonist of the first season, Zuko, was permanently burned on his face via his father. Can anybody say child abuse?

Is nobody bothered by Bolin’s propaganda?

Bolin becomes a mover star (read: movie star) as Nuktuk, water tribe warrior of the south. Varrick’s propaganda films were clearly influenced by real-life World War I and II propaganda films. Bolin was finally given a unique identity this season. His mover scenes provided a lot of comic relief, but also had something to say about the morality of stretching the truth for a good cause (supporting the southern water tribe).

Bolin acting out a mover

Bolin’s big fight scene in “Night of a Thousand Stars” was probably my favorite fight this season. The animators really went out of their way animating Bolin twice in each scene: as a waterbender and an earthbender.

But nobody ever raises any objections to the propaganda, which is unfortunate. Bolin is a blockhead, so maybe he fails to see the significance of the propaganda. But what does Asami think? She watches Bolin’s movers and says nothing at all?

What about Korra? Bolin impersonates a waterbender and basically “borrows” Korra’s polar bear dog Naga for weeks on end. Is Korra not bothered by it? Why doesn’t anybody say to Bolin, “Hey, do you think these movers are acceptable?”

Nuktuk poster

For some reason, Nickelodeon is really slow to capitalize on merchandising for Korra. This poster, though, needs to be made!

Asami: the merchant of death

Asami’s company Future Industries is on the verge of bankruptcy following her father’s actions in Book One of Korra. Asami has no money; her inventory is stolen at one point; and she’s in desperate need of doing something to save the company. So Varrick comes up with an idea: why don’t you sell your mecha tanks to the people of the southern water tribe? They are being oppressed: they need weapons. It’s a win for them and a win for you.

Asami immediately agrees, which is fine at first. She’s just a teenager and maybe is thinking in the short-term. But throughout the entire season, she never once considers: I am profiting off the destruction of life. People are dying because of my weapons. Am I okay with this?

Useless Asami

Asami doesn’t even hang around for the final battle. She’s only an ambulance driver. She’s sad because maybe she realizes there’s nothing special about her this season.

When Team Avatar returns to the southern water tribe, it would’ve been really interesting to get Asami’s reaction to the way her tanks were being used to kill people. When Korra led the assault on the southern spirit portal, mecha tanks, controlled by Unalaq, surrounded it. Did Unalaq (who’s from the northern water tribe, remember) somehow steal the mecha tanks intended for the southern water tribe? Where did he get them? Why doesn’t Asami comment on this?

Bolin certainly had no qualms about blowing up the tanks.

Unalaq says he will fuse with Vaatu

When Unalaq said he would fuse with Vaatu, Eska and Desna are briefly surprised. Korra’s non-verbal storytelling, at least, is on top of its game.

The problem with a “tight” story

The overall problem with Korra is this: by writing “tight” stories, seasons with no “filler” episodes, the creators thought they were enhancing their storytelling capabilities. In reality, Korra has proven that the “filler” episodes in Airbender really weren’t so filler after all.

Let me show you. Below is a list of every episode of Airbender. I’ve classified the episodes in three ways: essential episodes, filler episodes that become important, and straight up filler episodes. Korra was supposed to be like Airbender, but without any filler.

Book One: Water

  1. The Boy in the Iceberg (essential)
  2. The Avatar Returns (essential)
  3. The Southern Air Temple (essential)
  4. The Warriors of Kyoshi (filler that becomes important)
  5. The King of Omashu (filler that becomes important)
  6. Imprisoned (filler that becomes important)
  7. The Spirit World (Winter Solstice, Part 1) (essential)
  8. Avatar Roku (Winter Solstice, Part 2) (essential)
  9. The Waterbending Scroll (filler that becomes important)
  10. Jet (filler that becomes important)
  11. The Great Divide (filler)
  12. The Storm (essential)
  13. The Blue Spirit (essential)
  14. The Fortuneteller (filler)
  15. Bato of the Water Tribe (filler that becomes important)
  16. The Deserter (filler that becomes important)
  17. The Northern Air Temple (filler that becomes important)
  18. The Waterbending Master (essential)
  19. The Siege of the North, Part 1 (essential)
  20. The Siege of the North, Part 2 (essential)

Book Two: Earth

  1. The Avatar State (essential)
  2. The Cave of Two Lovers (filler)
  3. Return to Omashu (filler that becomes important)
  4. The Swamp (filler that becomes important)
  5. Avatar Day (filler)
  6. The Blind Bandit (essential)
  7. Zuko Alone (essential)
  8. The Chase (essential)
  9. Bitter Work (essential)
  10. The Library (essential)
  11. The Desert (filler)
  12. The Serpent’s Pass (filler that becomes important)
  13. The Drill (essential)
  14. City of Walls and Secrets (essential)
  15. Tales of Ba Sing Se (filler)
  16. Appa’s Lost Days (filler that becomes important)
  17. Lake Laogai (essential)
  18. The Earth King (essential)
  19. The Guru (essential)
  20. The Crossroads of Destiny (essential)
Korra's cosmic energy

I love the callback to Book Two of Airbender when Korra fuses with her cosmic spiritual energy.

Book Three: Fire

  1. The Awakening (essential)
  2. The Headband (filler)
  3. The Painted Lady (filler)
  4. Sokka’s Master (essential)
  5. The Beach (filler that becomes important)
  6. The Avatar and the Firelord (essential)
  7. The Runaway (filler)
  8. The Puppetmaster (filler that becomes important)
  9. Nightmares and Daydreams (filler)
  10. The Day of Black Sun, Part 1: The Invasion (essential)
  11. The Day of Black Sun, Part 2: The Eclipse (essential)
  12. The Western Air Temple (essential)
  13. The Firebending Masters (essential)
  14. The Boiling Rock, Part 1 (filler that becomes important)
  15. The Boiling Rock, Part 2 (essential)
  16. The Southern Raiders (filler)
  17. The Ember Island Players (filler)
  18. Sozin’s Comet, Part 1: The Phoenix King (essential)
  19. Sozin’s Comet, Part 2: The Old Masters (essential)
  20. Sozin’s Comet, Part 3: Into the Inferno (essential)
  21. Sozin’s Comet, Part 4: Avatar Aang (essential)
Black and White Pabu

I love that Pabu is briefly shown in black and white. Back in the early days of film, animals and objects were sometimes painted black and white to help them show up on the camera better. I’m glad Korra contains little details like this, even if they are never explained. Airbender was good at leaving small details unexplained as well.

We could quibble about the designation I gave some of these episodes: I’m not entirely satisfied with these classifications myself. But one thing you might be wondering is: why were some episodes deemed “filler that become important?”

Airbender had a very special way of taking episodes that seemed useless, pointless, “filler,” and making them important episodes in retrospect. Characters, locations, or ideas introduced in the early episodes are referred to in later episodes. A character who seems like a throwaway at first, like Suki, ends up becoming extremely important.

The number of “essential” episodes from Airbender is as follows:

  • Book One: 10
  • Book Two: 12
  • Book Three: 12

As you can see, about the number of essential episodes is about a half-season of Korra.

The number of straight “filler,” useless episodes per season is as follows:

  • Book One: 2
  • Book Two: 4
  • Book Three: 6

Most episodes in Books One and Two eventually became important: I think Book Three has the most filler episodes because they were nearing the conclusion of the series and didn’t have time to expand upon the themes raised in some episodes.

But Airbender was about more than just filler and essential episodes. As somebody who’s watched Airbender five or six times now, I’ve found that the filler episodes were never a waste. Characters were developed, and themes of war explored in more detail. In my next blog post, I’ll discuss the character arcs in Korra in more detail, but for now, let’s speculate on what some “filler” episodes of Korra could’ve looked like.

Vaatu almost trapped

I also love the callback to Airbender when Korra bends all four elements to put Vaatu back in his prison (unsuccessfully).

Filler Idea #1

The southern water tribe, we are told, was repopulated following the Hundred Years War by people from the northern water tribe. What if a soldier in the northern water tribe fights in the southern civil war and ends up facing against his cousin, uncle, or even brother? How do the two relatives feel about being on opposite sides of the same conflict? This is what Union and Confederate soldiers had to deal with in the American Civil War.

Filler Idea #2

Asami realizes that her war machines are killing people and sees directly that the more tanks she sells, the more money she gets, but the more people die. Perhaps at the beginning of the episode, she’s living the life of luxury, buying new clothes, new cars, a new house. But when she witnesses first-hand how her money comes at a consequence, she has a crisis of conscious. Perhaps she sabotages one of Varrick’s own ships, which is bringing a fresh supply of tanks to the mainland, because she doesn’t want to profit off murder anymore.

Filler Idea #3

Desna and Eska go back to the north to take care of something. While there, they remark on how empty the northern city has become now that all the ships and soldiers are gone. Perhaps some rabble-rouser tries to take advantage of the leaderless and soldierless north and stages a coup. Desna and Eska realize that the civil war is hurting the north just as much as the south. They debate what to tell their father Unalaq. They want to support his goal of reuniting the tribes, but not if it means weakening the homeland in the process.

Maybe those aren’t the best ideas, but you can see how they might work. The good thing about Korra is that there are still 26 episodes to go. Hopefully plot points raised in Books One and Two are returned to later: there’s still time.

I really hope the creators don’t drop any of the ethical questions raised in Book Two the same way they dropped the ethical questions raised in Book One. What happened to all the anti-bender sentiment from Book One? Are you telling me everybody immediately abandoned Amon once he was shown to be a fraud? Didn’t the non-benders have real concerns about being oppressed? Why is there suddenly harmony in Republic City? Book Two never answers these questions, and Korra suffers for it.

Season rating: 5/5 (a story I live my life by)

~Dennis

Tenzin's family is reunited

Tenzin’s family is reunited in the spirit world.

Critique of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Ms. Male” Video about Problematic Female Characters in Video Games

Anita Sarkeesian, the feminist media critic behind Feminist Frequency, has posted a new video analyzing the state of women characters in video games. Her previous three-part video series examined the Damsel in Distress trope. The series received widespread criticism from gamers, though gaming publications at least linked to the videos with a tepid description along the lines of, “She has some good points: please be responsible in the comments section!”

Sarkeesian does not allow comments on the videos themselves or the associated blog posts, which is frustrating, as debate regarding her videos gets spread across myriad websites. She has experienced incredible amounts of sexual harassment, so I understand why she doesn’t allow comments.

(Anita, if you’re reading this, perhaps find a group of your loyal Kickstarter fans to help administer comments. You might be surprised how many people you’ll find who are willing to delete all the garbage comments, leaving the legitimate comments public of people who want to discuss these issues with you further.)

Her latest video analyzes what she calls the “Ms. Male” character trope, the phenomenon of female “clones” being made of male video game heroes. Before we get to my analysis, watch her video below. It’s a longie, but a goodie.

Her forest-level observations are accurate, but sometimes her details are overblown

So let’s start with the obvious. Yes, many times female characters, especially in the early days of video gaming, were simply “clones” of male characters. The characters often have virtually the same abilities, and often use the same character model, but small superficial markers are added: lipstick, the color pink, eyelashes, etc. She is right about this, and it is a problem. But I take issue with her characterization of some “Ms. Male” characters.

Let’s start with Ms. Pac-Man, the character she spends considerable time analyzing in the beginning of the video. Ms. Pac-Man does indeed use the same character model as Pac-Man, but with added lipstick, bow, eyelashes, and beauty mark. Sarkeesian seems deeply offended, though, about how Pac-Man was originally created. Here’s a quotation from her video:

Incidentally Toru Iwatani, the creator of Pac-Man, has stated in numerous interviews that the game was designed to appeal to women because, and I’m not kidding about this, he said, “When you think about things women like, you think about fashion, or fortune-telling, or food or dating boyfriends. So I decided to theme the game around “eating” — after eating dinner, women like to have dessert.”

Luckily Iwatani’s regressive personal or cultural notions about women are not reflected in the finished game itself. Pac-Man went on to became an international sensation and remains one the most recognizable pop culture icons today – but probably not because women are genetically predisposed to “like eating desserts” more than humans of other genders.

The original creator did, indeed, create Pac-Man to appeal to women. Knowing a fair bit about Pac-Man history, though, I offer an alternative explanation of why Pac-Man is focused on eating:

At the time Pac-Man was released, almost all of the arcade games were focused on shooting, violence, and war. Games like Defender, Asteroids, Missile Command, and Space Invaders were immensely popular, but were also very violent (for the time). While many girls did play arcade games, many were also turned off because of the violent nature of these games.

Iwatani, then, wanted to create a game that accomplished two things: it did not involve violence (or very little: eating the ghosts could be seen as violent, though they never actually “die”), and he wanted a game that could appeal to both men and women. So yes, he did focus it on eating because women like eating. I wouldn’t consider this a “regressive” notion about women, though. Rather, a realistic response to market conditions.

Anita Sarkeesian

Feminist scholars make a big deal about the differences between the “social construction” of gender and biological notions of “sex.” In fact, many feminists see differences in males and females as almost entirely socially constructed: it’s a key part of feminist theory.

The average public, though, doesn’t necessarily know, nor care, about the differences between social construction and biology when it comes to gender and sex. People eventually figure out that there are differences between men and women: whether those differences come about through biology or society makes little difference to them.

Iwatani, then, simply looked at the culture and saw that women are often connected with food. Is it any surprise? Women are often the head cook and baker in the household. Television cooking shows on Food Network and the like are often dominated by women–and watched by women. Cooking magazines are primarily targeted at women. Against Sarkeesian’s contention, I don’t think Iwantani ever considered whether women were “genetically predisposed” to like desserts–but it is a part of our culture.

And luckily for him, he was right about the game’s appeal to women (the cute characters are also considered another factor in Pac-Man’s cross-sectional appeal). Many girls did play the game, and Pac-Man holds the record for most popular arcade game ever, a record unlikely to be broken considering the demise of arcades in the late 1990s.

Surprisingly, little has changed today in regard to “eating” games. Consider the extremely popular game “Candy Crush Saga,” a puzzle game on Facebook where the game pieces are made of candy. I’ve known many women–from women my age to women my mom’s age–who do not consider themselves gamers, or who have rarely played video games before, who are huge Candy Crush Saga fans. Of course, men play the game, too, but consider this informal survey of my own Facebook account: when I look at the number of my friends who play CCS, 17 are male and 29 are female. And the only players who’ve ever invited me to play the game are women.

Just out of curiosity, when you’re done reading this post, go to Facebook and search “Candy Crush Saga.” You don’t have to sign up for the game: just look over the list of your friends who play the game. Leave a comment on this post on the number of women who play the game verses men. I’m curious how representative my friend mix is.

The small details can always be criticized

One problem with qualitative research, which Sarkeesian is conducting, is that identifying trends and general patterns is one thing. But these trends need to be backed up with specific examples to make one’s point. These specific examples can always be torn apart and viewed another way, as I just did with Ms. Pac-Man. We could go point by point through Sarkeesian’s analysis and find counter explanations for all her arguments. The question each reader needs to ask themselves, though, is: does the weight of evidence point you in support of Sarkeesian’s critique of video games, even though all of her individual points are up for criticism?

For me, the weight of evidence makes me support Sarkeesian’s general analysis about the “problematic” (one of her favorite buzzwords) role of women in games. I do not, however, view the problem as widespread as her.

Here are a few more quibbles I have with this video:

About halfway through her video, Sarkeesian decides to show the extent of the “Ms. Male” character problem by referencing the “oldest” Ms. Male character, Eve from “Adam and Eve” fame:

One very old and notable example of the Ms. Male Character trope comes to mind. As the story goes, God made Adam in his own image and then later took a rib from Adam’s side and fashioned a woman out of it to be his wife and companion. This Adam and Eve version of the creation myth reinforces a subordinate view of women — man is cast as the original concept and source code for woman who is derived from his body. Essentially Eve is the sequel to Adam, just as Ms. Pac-Man was built from the body of Pac-Man who came before her.

This is, of course, one reading of the Adam and Eve story, but there are dozens of major interpretations of this story. Sarkeesian doesn’t seem to be a theologian (nor is she claiming to be one), and I think she’s stepping far outside her expertise with this criticism. Applying modern models of morality to ancient texts, without understanding the socio-cultural climate that produced those texts, is sloppy and unfair. This post isn’t the place to examine creation theology, but I’ll share this one quotation from Matthew Henry, who sees Eve’s creation as an affirmation of her equality with Adam, which I believe is true:

Eve was not taken out of Adam’s head to top him, neither out of his feet to be trampled on by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected by him, and near his heart to be loved by him.

Anita Sarkeesian and Dixie Kong

Anita has another small criticism of Dixie Kong, who’s actually my favorite female video game character. She states:

Dixie Kong is the feminine variant and love interest of Diddy Kong. Note the ponytail and hair ringlets, pink shirt, pink hat, earrings, and eyelashes all to distinguish her from her predecessor. Essentially Ms. Male Characters are feminized imitations or derivative copies of already established male characters. They exist only because of, and in relationship to, their male counterparts.

Ms. Male Characters typically aren’t given their own distinctive identities and are prevented from being fully realized characters who exist on their own terms. This has the, perhaps unintended, effect of devaluing these characters and often relegating them to a subordinate or secondary status inside their respective media franchises, even when they are, on rare occasions, given a starring role in a spin-off or sequel.

Sarkeesian says herself in another video that there’s nothing wrong with wearing pink (she says this in a video in which she wears bright pink). So why the excessive criticism of characters who look like girls? Yes, Dixie Kong has a ponytail, eyelashes, earrings, and wears pink, but Sarkeesian also wears a ponytail, has earrings, wearings make-up and pink clothes. I know she hates people referencing her personal appearance: she wants to be criticized based on her ideas, not her looks. That’s all well and fine, but you’ve got to play fairly. Criticize Dixie Kong for her character, not her appearance.

Dixie Kong first appears in Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest (SNES: 1995). Dixie at first does appear to be a “Ms. Male” character. Her character is light and quick, just like Diddy (Donkey Kong, conversely, is heavy and slow, but more powerful). Donkey Kong doesn’t appear in the game, though: he’s been “damseled” and must be rescued by Diddy and Dixie. Dixie Kong, though, is superior to Diddy in her playability. Her “hair helicopter” move is far more useful than Diddy Kong’s cartwheel, and I play as Dixie whenever I can.

In Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble! (SNES: 1996) Dixie Kong is now the star, as both Donkey and Diddy have been “damseled.” The clip Sarkeesian chooses to show of Dixie is from the upcoming game, Donkey Kong Country Returns: Tropical Freeze. Dixie does indeed ride on Donkey Kong’s back, but not because she’s a women and subservient to Donkey: Diddy also rides on Donkey Kong’s back in DKC Returns. That’s just how the developers decided to pair the monkeys this time around: instead of one following the other, Donkey is the main character, the other monkey is a sidekick (perhaps rightfully so, as DKC2 and 3 were named for Donkey Kong, yet he wasn’t a playable character at all).

Sarkeesian’s broad analysis of gender is itself shortsighted: Areas that Sarkeesian has yet to address sufficiently

Sarkeesian brings up many good points about the role of women in video games. Her current video is mostly right, and her previous three videos on Damsels in Distress are also mostly right. Even though her analysis seems comprehensive (roughly 100 minutes for all four videos), she fails to acknowledge many counter-arguments. Here are my four biggest problems with Sarkeesian’s brand of feminism:

  1. The goalposts are always moving. This summer she criticized Damsels in Distress. Now she’s criticizing Ms. Male characters. Her next video will likely criticize sexualized female characters: she’s certainly criticized women like Lara Croft before. The narrative has already written itself for what remains to be criticized: Over-representations of white female characters. Lack of diversity in body types. Lack of diversity in sexual and gender identities. The list goes on. On the surface, it seems that Sarkeesian would be pleased if more lesbian and bisexual women were represented in games, but what if a game featured a straight, lesbian, and bisexual woman? The next criticism is likely, “Gender and sexual identity does not fit neatly into three distinct categories. Gender identity is a multifaceted rainbow with dozens of possible permutations.” To be completely inclusive, do video games need to give players characters with three or four different gender identities and sexual orientations, three or four or five or six different races, three or four or five different body types for women, ranging from skinny to obese, and three or four or five different ages of women (why are almost all female characters teens or young adults? Ageism!) There’s no way any one media product can satisfy all permutations of women. Which leads to my next criticism:
  2. Developers make games in isolation, not as part of a collective action. What do I mean by this? Well, developers are each going to make their own game, and include their own representations of women. Sarkeesian says pink is okay sometimes. Is it also okay if a woman has prominent sexual assets sometimes? Probably. Is it also okay if a woman is white? Probably. Okay then. Who decides, then, which developer is allowed to make a female character who happens wears pink and earrings, and which developer is allowed to make a female character who happens to be moderately unattractive? Nobody. Developers do not get together and decide what ratio of different female characters they will create for this year’s games in an effort to be equitable. So it seems unfair to criticize the collective state of women in games, considering that female characters in games likely came about through individual decisions that just happened to result in patterns.
  3. What about men? Sarkeesian’s stated mission is to “explore the representations of women in pop culture narratives. Her work focuses on deconstructing the stereotypes and tropes associated with women in popular culture as well as highlighting issues surrounding the targeted harassment of women in online and gaming spaces.” Analyzing women is great, but talk to any man, and I am sure he can all think of problematic ways men are stereotyped in pop culture as well. When feminism focuses solely on the dire straits of women to the exclusion of men, it give a false impression that only women are systematically oppressed and that men are 100% privileged: men have nothing to be concerned about. Certainly that isn’t true.
  4. What about the positive? Sarkeesian’s criticism is almost entirely negative. She vaguely hints at strong female characters from time to time, but this is rare. In this Ms. Male video, she references a strong female character “Claire” from the indie game Thomas Was Alone. Indie games are making some strides in opening up characterization in video games. However, is a blue faceless square really the best example of a strong female character?

Thoughts? Where am I going wrong with my analysis? Feel free to leave your comments below!

Game on,
~Dennis

Retro Review: Mountain Dew Baja Blast

I’ve been a Mountain Dew fan for a long time now. While I’ve partaken of many different pops (or sodas) throughout my life, Mountain Dew is the one I return to the most. It’s clearly better than Mello Yellow or any of the store brand derivatives.

Mountain Dew succeeds not only on taste, but also branding. I love the edginess of the brand; I love the youthfulness of the brand; and I love the variety of products like Code Red, Livewire, White Out, Voltage and many of the other temporary flavors they’ve released over the years.

Recently I remembered that Mountain Dew has another sibling: Baja Blast, available only at Taco Bell. Released in 2004, I’ve basically forgotten about Baja Blast the last decade. I’m not usually a Taco Bell fan, but with the release of all these Doritos Locos tacos, I’ve ended up in the restaurant a few times recently.

So, being the loyal Dew fan I am, I decided to give this product another sample.

Lime-flavored Dew?

Mountain Dew’s normal flavor is tough to classify. Technically, it’s a citrus/orange-ish flavor, though it really doesn’t taste like orange juice. After all these years, the taste I associate with Dew is “lightning.” Now, I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what lightning is supposed to taste like. But the intense yellow coloring of the liquid, in combination with the high sugar, caffeine, and carbonation, have made me associate that drink with “lightning” more than any specific fruit flavor.

The other Dews, like Code Red (cherry) and Livewire (orange) are clearly fruit-based. So what’s Baja Blast’s flavor emphasis?

(You squirrely little reader, you already read the above heading!)

Lime? Yes, the official flavor emphasis is lime. Apparently, the flavor wizards at Big MD thought, “Mexican food tends to use a lot of limes, so a lime-flavored drink would make the perfect pairing!”

I guess the logic is sound, but it doesn’t taste like lime. It tastes like blue.

Baja Blast

Now what do I mean by that? Well, you know the artificial “blue raspberry” flavor typical of any frozen or sugary blue confection? Whether it be Dum Dums, Freezees, or any other blue-colored popsicle, blue raspberry is the default blue flavor, a flavor I despise. Mountain Dew does have a raspberry-flavored version, Voltage. Baja Blast doesn’t taste like that, but it certainly doesn’t taste like lime either.

Not that it’s a bad taste. It’s sweet, to be sure, and maybe sweet is a good pairing with Mexican food. I, myself, can’t eat a lot of spicy food due to my own bowel disease, but I wouldn’t even if I could: I hate spicy food. So my tacos are always mild. The taste itself is okay, but what I think throws me off is the color.

The color has too much blue in it. It’s this weird sort of blue-green color technically: I guess they have to differentiate it from the green-yellow color of regular Dew. I don’t like blue-colored or blue-tinted food in general because it’s not a color naturally found in food (save for a handful of exceptions, like blueberries).

So I bought a Baja Blast recently with my Doritos Locos Ranch tacos, and I finished it. It’s certainly not a bad pop; if they sold it in cases, I’d probably even buy one now and then. It just can’t compete with regular Dew.

After retrying, and mostly liking, the liquid Baja Blast, I thought my next challenge would be the Baja Blast Freeze, also sold at Taco Bell.

An unnatural flavor for an unnatural confection

Baja Blast Freeze

Probably the best thing about the Freeze is that if you purchase it between 2-5 p.m. right now, Happier Hour, you can get a medium for $1.06 with tax (at least in Florida). Can’t beat that.

The Freeze has a nice texture: the ice is finely chopped. You probably don’t normally experience this in a busy restaurant, but if you slurp the Freeze in a silent room, the ice makes a soothing “sliding sand” sound as it passes through your lips.

The bluish tint still bothers me, but Freezes are unnatural food products anyway, so I guess it’s okay. The taste is fine. Plus, because the soda itself is carbonated, the Freeze has a bit of fizz to it, which enhances the overall product.

Ice slushes are great drinks because when the drink first enters your mouth it’s ice, it immediately turns to liquid. Each sip has its own story of transformation.

The drink, itself, also changes as you progress. A third of the way through, the ice begins to melt, and little puddles form on the surface of the slush. The drink then presents you with a question: to mix in the puddles so the drink has the same consistency or not? I tend to mix in.

Slushes, though, always seem to have a disappointing end: this is not Baja Blast’s fault. The liquid soda melts at a different rate than the ice, so near the end, the flavoring is sucked out, leaving dull, mildly colored ice behind. I suppose you could just let the drink melt, thereby avoiding this problem, but who has the patience?

Mountain Dew ranking

I’m not sure if this review is helpful to anybody, so let me try a different approach. If I were to rank the Mountain Dew flavors currently on the market, I’d rank them thus:

  1. Original Mountain Dew/Mountain Dew Throwback
  2. Code Red/White Out
  3. Baja Blast/ Livewire
  4. Voltage

Drink on,
~Dennis

Retro Review: The Gummi Ship Levels of Kingdom Hearts II

Video game reviewers have a tough job. They usually receive the latest games a few days before they are released in stores, forcing them to binge play the game, trying to get through as much content in as short a time as possible.

Video game reviews are also written for the general video game playing audience. They have to cover all the bases: game play, story, controls, graphics, sound, etc. To use the tired expression, they give readers a view of the forest, not the trees. Or to update the metaphor: video game reviews give readers a view of the world map, not the levels.

Well, I want to focus this retro review of Kingdom Hearts II (KHII) for the PS2 (2005) on a certain type of level: the gummi ship levels. I recently played KHII for the first time, and while the game was enjoyable in many respects (and frustrating in others), I found the gummi levels to be one of the most intriguing parts of the game, given their disastrous history in Kingdom Hearts I.

Disney magic hat

My roommate basically grew up in Disney World, so he brought me his magic Mickey hat. Yes, I wore this almost the entire time I played KHII.

Poorly conceived and poorly executed

For those who are unfamiliar, here’s Kingdom Hearts in a nutshell:

The forces of evil are stealing peoples’ hearts. When enough hearts are gathered, they can open Kingdom Hearts, a sort of godlike energy source at the center of all worlds.

And what worlds are we talking about? The worlds of Disney and Final Fantasy, of course. The Kingdom Hearts series is one of the oddest universe cross-overs in any medium. You play as the stereotypical anime kid Sora, partnered with Donald Duck and Goofy, trying to save all worlds. Each game features a variety of Disney-themed levels (e.g., Little Mermaid, Lion King, Nightmare Before Christmas, and Alice in Wonderland), and Final Fantasy characters like Cloud, Yuna, and Leon stop in to help you out.

It’s a strange game, but I highly recommend it to action RPG fans.

Anyway, the first game connected the various Disney worlds with “gummi ship” levels. What’s a gummi ship? Ehh, just a blockly looking ship with a primary colors paint job. The gummi ship levels were basically a poor man’s Star Fox. You fly through space on rails, blasting away at easily destructible enemies until you get to the end of the space corridors, opening the passage to the next world. The gummi levels only take about 3 minutes to complete, and you only have to complete them once. You probably spend 30 minutes on them out of a total 25-30 hour play-through of the game.

Gummi Ship

The gummi ship levels of Kingdom Hearts I. They psychedelic colors are about the only interesting thing about these levels.

So what’s the problem? Well, first let’s amend that sentence to “What are the problems”?

  • The levels are too easy. In many of them, you literally just mash on the X button; you barely have to move the ship to avoid enemies or obstacles.
  • The gummi levels have no explanation. Why do you need this ship to travel between worlds? Who are you killing, Heartless? Innocents? Nobody knows.
  • The characters never acknowledge the gummi space, aside from the first time you get the ship. No cutscenes take place in the gummi space. Essentially, the game seems to have forgotten about this part of the world.
  • The base gummi ship can be edited and customized, but the ship editing system is extremely complicated and lacks enjoyment. Throughout your adventures, you’ll collect hundreds of gummi parts to create your own ships (think of combining Lego bricks). Considering how easy the levels are to complete with the base ship, customizing the gummi ship is not needed. The game offers, then, a potentially deep ship creation system that has no purpose: hence, there’s no reason to use it.
Gummi ship construction

Construction of gummi ships is just as complicated in KHII.

Doubling down on a losing formula: Kingdom Hearts II makes significant improvements

When I learned that the gummi levels made a return in KHII, I was shocked. After their painful rollout in the first game, I felt sure that Square Enix would trim the fat of their KH game design and eliminate these mini-games.

I was wrong. And I’m glad I was wrong because the gummi levels were significantly improved in KHII.

Gummi Ship battle

It’s hard to really understand why these levels are so much better because nobody has really tackled this subject before. Like I said in the opening, video game reviews give you a gloss of the game, and then reviewers move on to the next game. Rarely do game journalists look back and really analyze what worked and what didn’t in a video game. I oftentimes wish that reviewers would write a “post game” review, something to be read after the game is completed. Then the review could include spoilers and everything.

But alas, these retrospectives rarely exist, so I write my own.

I checked out old KHII reviews, just out of curiosity to see what they said about the gummi levels in particular. Not surprisingly, not much.

Most of them devoted only a paragraph to the subject, and two-thirds of that paragraph is spent explaining how the levels work. Then a verdict is rendered. Here’s a sampling:

  • There’s something distinctly unimpressive about the gummi ship levels, and it’s likely that after you play through each level once, thereby unlocking it, you won’t find reason to go through again. GameSpot
  • Remember that pathetic attempt at a shoot ’em up … that was the Gummi Ship in Kingdom Hearts? It’s back, and it’s back with a vengeance. This time around, it passes as a decent Shmup, rivaling the latest titles from the genre’s hottest Japanese developer Cave. Okay, maybe not rivaling, but the point is that this is a really fun mini-game. RPGFan
  • The gummi ship sequences are satisfying, can be enjoyed for dozens of hours, and are just more fully realized than they were in the original game. GameSpy
  • This is the way the original title’s Gummi section should’ve been. IGN
  • The Gummi Ship sections in the original game were most definitely broken, and they have been comprehensively fixed – gold stars all round. Eurogamer

Gummi Ship battle

In general, the gummi sequences in KHII were praised. The question I want to know, though, is why? What makes the gummi levels so much better the second time around? They still don’t fit with the rest of the game. There is still no story explanation for why these levels are needed, who you are shooting, or what the stakes are.

I’ll attempt to answer this question. Full disclosure: if you want to speedrun the gummi levels, you can–you’re only required to spend about 30 minutes on them to complete the 30+ hour game. I, though, spent a good five hours replaying the levels over and over again.

Gummi level completion

Completing the gummi levels unlocks the next world.

A break in the pacing

The gummi levels are essentially a mini-game, a game within a game. What’s the purpose of mini-games? Lots of video games have them. Their ultimate purpose, I believe, is to break up the monotony of an epic length game, which, this statement in and of itself should give you pause. If your game is getting monotonous, so much so that you need to concoct new games within your game to keep people from getting bored, then perhaps the main game is unfocused, bloated, and over-thought.

KHII, though, does get monotonous. The game play is simple. Each level in very linear: there’s nothing to explore. All of the platforming elements from the first game have been removed. And combat mostly consists of mashing on that X button. The levels themselves are varied, but many of the locations are repeated from KHI, so it feels like you’re playing the same game again (only this time around, the repeated levels, like the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Hercules, and Nightmare Before Christmas levels, are shadows of their former selves, stripped of any charm they once held).

Most annoying, though, is that you can’t progress more than 3 minutes in a level before you are greeted with a cutscene. This game is FILLED with cutscenes. ATRileyProductions of YouTube fame stripped all the cutscenes from the game and put them together in three long movie files. How many cutscenes does this game have? Approximately 11 hours. I spent 35 hours on KHII, so subtracting the 11 for cutscenes and the 5 I spent on gummi levels, that leaves 19 hours of legitimate gameplay.

Wow. I know this is a Square Enix game, but common!

In short, the game starts and stops, starts and stops. Now, I don’t mind a lot of cutscenes. Final Fantasy XIII has about 9 hours of cutscenes, but that game takes 50 hours to complete, so the gameplay to cutscene ratio is over 4:1. For KHII, that ratio is more like 2:1. If you’re going to stuff the game with cutscenes, though, you have to tell an interesting story. The story of KHII is interesting, but it’s also so convoluted that it talks itself in circles, rarely explaining anything. Plus, half the cutscenes are simply quick retellings of the Disney movies each level is based off of, stories we’ve all heard before, making the cutscenes even more of a chore to get through.

Kingdom Hearts II world map

The world map is basically laid out the same way as KHI, levels separated with gummi zones, but now your ship can fly anywhere (though there’s nowhere to go). It’s a small change that (kind of) makes you feel in control of your destiny.

The gummi levels, though, offer a reprieve from the frequent tedium of cutscenes, linear level design, and mindless combat (I’m making KH sound like a horrible series, but it’s really not! It’s the best “deeply flawed” game series I’ve ever played).

What’s great about the gummi levels this second time around is that, not only can they be replayed, but they can be replayed in different ways. Each level has three missions that involve 1) killing certain enemies to find prizes, 2) killing a certain number of enemies, or 3) attaining a certain score. Basically, they all involve blasting away mindlessly, but there’s some skill in completing the various missions.

At the end of each main level, you’re given the option of going wherever you want. You can go onto the next level or replay past levels. There’s no reason to replay past levels, for the most part. The gummi levels, likewise, can be replayed. When I got sick of the cutscene-2-minutes-of-gameplay-cutscene-2-minutes-of gameplay routine, I frequently departed from the main quest to play and play and play the gummi levels for about an hour at a time.

There’s no cutscenes in them. Each level takes about 5 minutes to complete, but it’s solid action, and when I’m finished, I can do it again with hardly a break in between.

Exquisite graphic and sound design

The gummi music was at least catchy in the first game, but in KHII, the music is far more varied. Even better: the graphics have been significantly improved since the first game. In KHI, it really felt like you were flying through an empty vacuum. There were a few floating boulders that sometimes got in your way, but that’s about it. In KHII, each world was constructed with an incredible amount of detail. This level design approaches the complexity of Star Fox now. These screenshots don’t really do justice to the beauty of these levels.

Gummi ship battle

More than that, check out these levels in action through this short video from Cliochu:

Differential object speeds

Now, let me point out to you something interesting in these levels. Let me explain what to look for, then watch that above video again, just 30 seconds or so.

On the one hand, these levels are intense: lots of stuff flying around really fast. But not everything is flying past the screen at breakneck speed (as tends to happen in Star Fox 64, for instance). Rather, objects move at different spends, what I’m calling differential object speeds.

Here’s what I mean:

  • Your ship moves very fast, but is not necessarily the fastest moving object on the screen.
  • Lasers fly the fastest, both from you and the enemy.
  • Some enemy ships fly slower than you, but some fly faster than you.
  • In the background, objects close to you–like the ground, walls, and chunks of space rock–fly past you at a moderate rate. Slow and steady.
  • In the far background, the psychedelic background, moves by pretty fast, but again, it’s not the fastest moving object on the screen.

So what’s the point? The point is this: the gummi levels are on the one hand fast-paced and intense, but on the other hand, slow and relaxing. Some objects move fast, but your overall pace through the level is slow and leisurely.

It’s like driving a car on the highway. You might be traveling fast, but relative to other cars around you, you aren’t going that fast. Some cars move a little quicker than you, some a little slower. The dotted center line whips by quickly, but objects in the distance, like hills and trees, approach slowly. That’s why, even though you drive very fast on the interstate, the actual motion of driving can seem slow and relaxing.

I played these gummi levels, then, to calm down, something I wouldn’t have suspected of these levels at first. In five minutes, on any given level, you destroy hundreds of enemies, and likely tens of thousands of lasers fly around the screen. The game seems frantic and intimidating, something likely to raise your blood pressure.

But the levels actually have the opposite effect on me. The combination of differential object speeds, lush graphics, and calming music gave me a peace that I didn’t have playing the rest of the game. I even tested my blood pressure and pulse about 20 times when playing the gummi levels just to make sure: they did not physically stimulate or excite me. I was completely calm when I played them.

Gummi Ship battle

More than mindless entertainment

These gummi levels, as I’ve just analyzed them, might leave you thinking, “They are nothing more than mindless entertainment!” And that’s true on some level. They are relatively easy (though require some skill to fully complete the missions), calming, and are nothing more than a cheap shoot ’em up. But I wouldn’t call these levels “mindless.” In fact, because the gummi levels require so little cognition to complete, my mind is actually free to think about all manner of things that I normally can’t think about when playing the regular game.

What I was thinking about isn’t so much important. It’s only important that I was thinking: about life, about what I need to accomplish that week, about school and work, about people I know. The gummi levels provided my eyes and ears visual and auditory stimulus so that I could clear out the accumulated gunk in my mind. I was free to reflect in ways I don’t normally do (Tetris has this same effect).

When I was a younger man, I used to think that having a “mindless” job that didn’t require thinking would be great during the summer between college semesters. So I worked at a print factory. And it was a mindless job involving simple, repetitive motions. Because the job required almost no cognition on my part, my mind was free to think about tons of stuff.

By the end of the summer, I found that job to be the most taxing job I’d ever had mentally.

KHII’s gummi levels allowed me to return to that state of “mindlessness,” but in a good way. The levels offered a much needed break in the game play, they gave my mind a safe space to think and reflect, and they were even quite a bit of fun to play in and of themselves.

Game on,
~Dennis

Gummi ship mission complete