Which is Better: Mario Kart 64 or Diddy Kong Racing?

With the imminent release of Mario Kart 8 (I’ve got my Mario-themed Wii U pre-ordered and everything!), I thought it appropriate to revisit two classics of the kart racing genre: Mario Kart 64 and Diddy Kong Racing. Released within a year of each other (MK64 was first), these two racers defined the Nintendo 64 party experience–but only one series went on to produce sequels while the other died after one game.

Many others have already voiced their opinions over the past 17 years (has it been that long?) about which game is better: ultimately it comes down to personal preference. When examining these games, I’ll incorporate both my experience as an 11-year-old and now as a 28-year-old playing with these games.

Without further ado, let’s get down to the merits of each game!

Character selection

Kart racing has always been distinguished from more realistic racing games, in my mind, by their characters. In a realistic racing game, like Cruis’n USA or Need for Speed, the draw isn’t really the character you race as: many of these games don’t even give you a unique driver. Instead, the appeal is to race real-world cars, cars likely too expensive for most people to afford.

Kart racing, though, is different. Part of the fun is playing as cartoony characters from beloved games: nobody really appreciates kart racing games for the awesome kart design.

Mario Kart 64 character selection

Peach and Toad were my two favorites.

Let’s start with MK64. While later MKs would boast much larger driver rosters, MK64 only had a humble 8 characters, all standard Mario characters. Some characters, like Toad, Peach, Bowser, and Wario, hadn’t appeared in too many playable games before this point, so playing as some of these characters was quite special. The roster was decent, but honestly, I avoided Mario and Luigi whenever I could (and have since in all successive MK games): I’ve played as these two plumber brothers in other games for more hours than I can to remember.

Diddy Kong Racing character selection

If I had to choose a favorite, Banjo, but he’s a heavy character and I’m not good with them. I’m best with Bumper (I always call him Badger), even though he’s my least favorite. What a doofus!

DKR initially provides the player with 8 characters, just like MK64, though the game also features 2 unlockable characters, which gives DKR a slight edge over MK64. The characters in DKR, however, just aren’t as interesting. Rare was trying to establish an identity with DKR, so many of the characters come from Rare games. In addition to Diddy Kong, we had Banjo, Tiptup, and Conker, all characters we’d see in other Rare games. Krunch was a baddie from the Donkey Kong Country series, but really, who wants to play as a kremling? It’d be like if MK64 featured a goomba instead of Bowser. King K. Rool, on the other hand, that would’ve been a better choice.

The other characters in DKR have no established personality outside of the game. Bumper the badger, Timber the tiger, Pipsy the mouse, Drumstick the rooster, and T.T. the clock…I always found it hard to get invested in these characters. I know next to nothing about any of them. The roster would’ve been much stronger if they had filled it with unique Rare characters, such as other characters from the DKC series (like my girl Dixie!), any of the Battletoads, or B. Orchid from the Killer Instinct series (that last one may be a joke).

Track selection

As crucial as the characters are, the tracks are more important. We come to these games to race! MK64 features 16 tracks whereas DKR features 20 (in addition to 6 boss tracks only available in single player). While DKR might have more tracks, MK64 has more variety. Most tracks have a unique theme, something DKR has less of. In MK64 we visit a dairy ranch, a monster truck stadium, a castle, a jungle, a turnpike, a desert, a chocolate mountain, and even a rainbow in space. DKR, by contrast, only has five unique themes: dinosaur, winter, water, black forest, and space: four tracks for each theme. So if you are looking for diversity in backgrounds, go to MK64. But if you are looking for variations on a theme, try DKR.

But these two games should be compared on more than just the number of tracks or the themes of the tracks. What really separates the tracks is playability. In short: MK64’s tracks are much “harder” to navigate than DKR’s tracks. MK64’s tracks have a lot of objects on the screen, from moles that jump from the ground to penguins to snowmen to rolling boulders to a giant spinning Yoshi egg to coconuts and more. How many people can honestly complete an entire race on Toad’s Turnpike without crashing into a truck or car?

Mario Kart 64 Rainbow Road

I wish just one of the Mario Kart games would feature ALL the Rainbow Road tracks: The Rainbow Cup, it’d be called.

Not only does MK64’s tracks feature an excessive amount of physical obstacles and barriers, most also feature hazards on the side of the road. Whether these obstacles are ponds you can fall into or ledges you can tumble over, you fall off the road a lot in MK64. Lakitu will pull you up and set you in place, but this takes several seconds and you’re almost guaranteed to fall into last place because of it.

DKR, on the other hand, has no ledges to fall from or ponds to drive into. Well, sort of. There are a few levels with water or ice patches on the side of the road, but if you hit them, you neatly bounce back onto the course. You lose about half a second, not the 3-6 seconds you lose in Mario Kart. While there are occasionally objects to crash into in DKR (like a dinosaur), they are much more avoidable.

Maybe DKR doesn’t have the track variety that MK64 does, but if I’m being honest, there are very few courses in MK64 that I actually like. Wario Stadium and Rainbow Road are easily my favorite precisely because of their lack of hazards and ledges to fall from. I hate the Yoshi level, Donkey Kong level, and Bowser level, among others.

The power-ups

What separates kart racing games from more realistic racers is the use of power-ups. You can win not only by being fast, but also by blasting your opponents. Both games feature power-ups and weapons, but their approach is very different.

The Mario Kart series famously (or rather infamously) gives players a sort of sliding scale when it comes to the random power-ups they grab. If you are in first place you get the worst power-ups, and as you move back to last place, you gradually get better and better power-ups. The purpose of this system is to make the races as evenly matched as possible, all the way until the last turn of the last lap. In Mario Kart, it really doesn’t matter how well you do in the first two laps of any race (unless you really mess up and fall behind): everybody can remember a time when they were in first place the entire race, only to be dethroned at the very last instant by a well-placed Lightning Bolt or Blue Shell.

Diddy Kong Racing boost power-up

The boost can be useful, but the mushrooms are much more useful in MK64.

DKR’s power-up philosophy is completely different. First, power-ups aren’t random. You pick up balloons placed around the track, and the power-up contained within the balloon is determined by the balloon’s color (red balloons are missiles, blue balloons are boosts, green balloons are oil slicks). The placement of the balloons is the same each time you play a course. The person in last place gets no assists in DKR. The other feature of DKR is that the power-ups graduate in value the more you grab of that balloon. For example, one red balloon will give you a single straight-shooting missile. Grab a second balloon and you’ve got four homing missiles. Grab a third balloon and you get 10 straight-shot missiles.

DKR’s system asks you a question each time you grab a balloon: use it immediately for a possible short-term gain on the competition, or wait and save it up to get more powers later in the race? The system could be more intriguing if the powers were more interesting. There is an obvious advantage to saving up red balloons, but the advantage of saving up any other color is almost negligible. The purple and yellow balloon will give you a shield, which lasts for a few seconds. Pick it up again, you get a slightly longer shield. Pick it up a third time…a slightly lower shield still. Considering that some courses only have one or two of a certain color balloon on each lap, to get three of some balloons would require you to forgo using any balloons until the final lap. The advantage just isn’t there.

While many people don’t like Mario Kart’s system because of the way it nullifies a person’s skill, overall the system is more effective and enjoyable to play. I enjoy the strategy of saving up balloons in DKR, but the only balloons worth grabbing are red balloons.

Single player mode

Single player in MK64 is very basic: race through the four circuits, advance through the 50, 100, and 150 CC stages, unlock mirror 150 CC mode, and that’s it. Not that this is easy: it can be challenging to place high when first introduced to the game. But it’s a bare bones experience.

DKR’s single player is multifaceted. Not only does it have the standard racing circuits, but it also features an overworld, a concept that is still very cool and very weird to me. What racing game features an overworld? The overworld connects the sub-domains, sometimes features unique races against the elephant, Taj, and even features collectable gold balloons. In retrospect, there really isn’t much to do in the overworld, and if you are looking at getting to a race quickly, it can be cumbersome to navigate. But it’s still a neat idea, and one I applaud.

Diddy Kong Racing boss race

The boss races can be very hard! DKR also featured a very tiny amount of voice acting, very rare on the N64. In retrospect, the voice acting is terrible! The characters sound like a dad reading bedtime stories to his kids trying to make-up voices on-the-fly for all the characters. It’s like the voice “actors” just dropped into the studio and recorded their first takes and called it good.

Second, DKR features a variety of single player modes. Completing a race in first nets you a gold balloon: gold balloons are used to unlock new levels. Each world also features a “boss” race, another concept absent from MK64. Each world has a hidden key, plus, after you defeat the boss, you are asked to play through the levels again, this time to find 8 silver coins hidden on each track (usually placed out of the way). And once you complete everything, unlock the final world, and defeat Wizpig for a second time, you unlock Adventure 2, which features even harder tracks with even more obscure silver coin locations.

Plus, to unlock T.T., there is a time trial mode for each track where you are tasked with beating T.T.’s ghost, no easy feat.

So, there’s a lot to do. While I enjoyed this as a kid (I certainly unlocked T.T. with the help of my brother, but I don’t know if we ever beat Adventure 2 [there’s no real incentive to]), as an adult, beating the courses so many times in so many ways gets quite tedious. Some of the silver coin races are easy to beat, whereas others might take me up to an hour to beat, requiring near perfect driving and considerable memorization of the course.

The challenge is definitely there. What’s not good about the challenge, though, is that the courses available in multiplayer mode are directly linked to what you’ve unlocked in single player mode. It could take 10-20 hours to unlock most of the single player content just so you have a decent selection of courses in multiplayer mode. Lame.

Multiplayer mode

This is where the games are hardest to compare. All factors considered, the multiplayer modes on both games are very good. Most people who owned these games spent far more time in multiplayer than single player. And even though the games are very similar in many ways, the multiplayer modes appeal to different gamers. MK64’s multiplayer is best suited for casual players, or groups with a range of skill levels, due to the sliding scale of power-ups. While DKR’s tracks are easier to navigate, the power-up system provides no support to people in last place. Assuming player skill is roughly equal, DKR races can often be determined by who gets in first place first. Once you fall behind in DKR it’s very hard to catch up. If you want to play a game based on skill, turn to DKR: there is no randomness in the power-ups here.

Mario Kart 64 multiplayer

In my gaming philosophy, screen peeking is always acceptable!

Another way to compare the multiplayer modes, though, is through the legacy of each game. MK64 has the staying power; DKR didn’t. Case in point: I never owned either of these games as a kid (and just purchased DKR a couple months ago at a used game store for $15); however, I knew plenty of people who did, so I’ve logged considerable hours into both. While I played DKR a lot as a kid, as the years passed, I played far more MK64. Simply put: more people have that game, and more people are familiar with the Mario Kart formula, so this is the definitive kart racing game that gets played at tournaments, parties, and get-togethers.

Let’s not talk about the battle modes in both games, okay? They are a fun diversion for 5 minutes, but I wouldn’t miss them if they had been nixed from the final product.

The final verdict

In many ways, I like DKR better than MK64. The tracks are better, the power-up system is innovative, the music is great, and the overworld still tickles me. And we haven’t even talked about the biggest difference yet, the choice of up to three different vehicles in DKR! The different vehicles, all with different speeds and handling, offer players a few choices. It’s really a testament to the developers that such diverse vehicles can be used on the same course and the race still be relatively balanced. Mario Kart didn’t add multiple vehicles until later, and even today, the vehicles are all variations of wheeled-contraptions: no planes or hovercrafts here.

But for all of DKR’s theoretical merits over MK64, if I had to examine my life objectively, if I looked at how these games performed in actuality, there’s no question that MK64 is the better game. Because the game is better known to people, is more accessible, and is still being played today, I can easily say that I have had more hours of pleasure playing MK64 than DKR. Not only that, but I have played MK64 with a wider group of people, including in many cases complete strangers, yet the interactions were always enjoyable.

Even if I have fallen off the edge of that stupid Yoshi level more times than I care to admit.

Game on,
~Dennis

Which of these two games do you think is better? Which are you still playing today?

On Permanent Death in the Fire Emblem Series

Fire Emblem is a tactical, turn-based strategy series of games released by Nintendo. The series is over 20 years old and plays like a bigger, more advanced version of Chess. The games contain deep stories and a wide cast of characters. Each character has a different set of abilities, plus a class like Archer, Fighter, Mage, and so forth. Standard RPG mechanics. In each battle you will use anywhere from 9-13 characters on average, though throughout the course of the game you might recruitment 30-50 characters.

One distinctive play mechanic of the Fire Emblem series is permanent death. Once a character dies, they are gone forever. Most video games do not feature permanent death, especially story-centric games like JRPGs. And this play mechanic is quite effective at dividing people into two different camps.

The first group of gamers despises permanent death. These players work so hard at leveling up their characters and get drawn into that particular character’s storyline that they think all of that character development was a waste if the character dies permanently. The only way to “undo” permanent death (excluding the more recent games like Awakening, which let you turn off permanent death) is to reset the game and restart the level. Now, some levels can take 90 minutes to clear, so if a character died an hour into the level, resetting the game carries with it a steep penalty.

The other group of gamers embraces permanent death. This is the camp I am in, and in this post I’ll argue why this is a valuable addiction to the game. To note, most of my experience with Fire Emblem comes from the GameCube release Path of Radiance, though I am familiar with other Fire Emblems as well.

Death is a real consequence

Most action, RPG, and adventure video games feature death. Players kill hundreds, if not thousands, of enemies throughout the course of a game, and in turn are killed by the enemy. Some games, like the Mario and Sonic series, feature a life-based system, wherein a player has a certain number of lives: once they die, they are resurrected near where they left off. Other games, like the Legend of Zelda series, don’t feature lives (other than the oddball Zelda II) per se, but when the player dies, they still come back near where they left off.

In these games, player death is a penalty for playing poorly. You might lose some progress, and you certainly lose time. But death is temporary. Your character is resurrected within seconds. Death has no lasting effects and is more of a nuisance than a punishment.

Fire Emblem’s death system is quite different. Before examining it further, it’s instructional to pull back to examine how death is conveyed throughout the game as a whole.

Fire Emblem’s story revolves around war, and your band of characters travel across the country or continent fighting battle after battle, each battle bringing you closer to ending the war or conflict. While Fire Emblem’s violence isn’t graphic, it is serious. As far as I know, you don’t see blood, dismemberment, disembowelment, or any gore. You see people hit each other with swords, and when a person dies, they fade away and disappear.

Most of the story is conveyed through text-boxes, so be prepared for reading. But in the reading, the characters clearly state that people die, that the enemy is killing off citizens, that the enemy is torturing people. The game doesn’t have to show gore to convey the seriousness of violence.

Most violent video games always seem unbalanced to me. You as the character slaughter hundreds of people through the game, and yet your character is never permanent harmed or killed. How can one person be so effective, and how can enemy armies be so ineffective? It’s baffling and unrealistic.

Not so in Fire Emblem. Death is seriously conveyed not only for the enemy, but the character.

Permanent death adds tension to the game

When I played through Fire Emblem most recently, when my characters died, I let them die. A couple times I cheated and restarted the map because my main healer died, and sometimes I was forced to restart because my main character died, but other than those instances, I treated each death as a consequence of my poor planning.

Because I knew that death would be permanent, I was forced to play more carefully, strategizing every decision, every move. If I left a hole in my defenses, the enemy would rush through and kill a weak character.

Sometimes this happened, and then I would get worried. The enemy would attack, and maybe I would be just so fortunate that my character would survive with 1 hit point. These moments were incredibly stressful, as I had to sidetrack the overall goal of the mission to instead protect and reinforce my party. There were some maps that a certain group of characters spent several turns just running away from the enemy, ever out of their reach, until they got close to a healer.

Permanent death adds challenge

For somebody who’s been playing video games as long as me, over 20 years, not many games are really “challenging” to me. Of course, many games have a “Hard” mode, but Hard modes aren’t more challenging intellectually: they are usually just more tedious. Your characters do less damage; the enemies do more damage; therefore, it takes longer to defeat something. But permanent death adds challenge in several ways.

First, it makes the game more challenging in the short-term. On each battle, I have to think how to best position my soldiers so nobody dies while still accomplishing the mission (sometimes within a certain time limit).

Second, permanent death makes the game more challenging in the long run. What if somebody really important dies? I might still finish the map, but that person’s absence will make future maps more difficult.

For instance, in my most recent playthrough of Path of Radiance, I lost a second healer, Mist, in her first battle. This meant I had to rely on a single healer for almost 10 missions until I finally recruited another . At one point I had no mages, so my distance attacking was severely limited. Another one point I had no thieves, which made one level with tons of chests and doors more difficult than it needed to be. I went a very long time with no axe-wielders. So the deaths I incurred really affected me in the long run.

Even worse, in many levels I couldn’t even bring the maximum number of units on the field. Like I said, in each map you can bring 9-13 or so units onto the battlefield. Any extra units sit the battle out. Many times the map would allow 13 units, let’s say, and I only had 11 to use.

Death forces you to care about your characters

When I lose a character, I’m not just at a tactical disadvantage. Over the course of the game, I start to really care about the characters, especially the ones that have been around for a long time. I develop emotional connections to them, and I’m sad when they go. For instance, I lost Titania, Ike’s adviser and mentor of sorts, midway through the game. Her character was definitely my strongest person, and she was defeated in one blow by a boss. She had been with me since the beginning, and her absence was felt on the battlefield.

Sometimes I lost players as soon as I recruited them. In these cases, I didn’t have time to develop an emotional connection with them, but their loss still affected me. It made me feel like a bad leader, like I was treating my recruits as war fodder.

On the the final level, I lost my main healer, Rhys, halfway through, which made things extremely difficult. He had been with me in every single battle in the game, all 30 missions, and died at the end. He was so close to seeing the end of evil and the return of light to the kingdom, and yet he couldn’t make it. His death made me think about war, and how sometimes soldiers will serve throughout the majority of the war, and yet still die on the edge of victory. How many Revolutionary soldiers died right on the cusp of America winning independence from Britain? They never got to see the fruits of their labor, and that’s a melancholic tragedy.

The only problem with permanent death

While permanent death fundamentally changes not only how Fire Emblem is played, but also how the player relates to the game and the story, it’s not a perfect play mechanic, at least in Path of Radiance, the game with which I am most familiar. The biggest problem is that most deaths are never acknowledged in the story. Whatever dialogue that character was supposed to have just get dropped out. In a few cases, really important characters remain in the story (like Soren, Mist, and Titantia), but are too injured to battle.

The only acknowledge of character death comes from Soren, who gives Ike a summary of each battle. Among other things, Soren will tell Ike which characters were recruited in battle and which were lost. And that’s it. Ike has no reaction to the deaths of anybody, which is a really shame. The designers should’ve at least made a short epilogue for each character when they die, just to provide some closure. In the course of my most recent playthrough, I lost 17 characters. I had 35 people in my party total (out of a possible 46). I lost 50% of my force over the course of the yearlong war, yet deaths were rarely acknowledged in the story.

Other than this minor gripe, permanent death is a play mechanic I really enjoy. Loyal readers, do you know of any other video games that feature permanent death, and if so, how does that play mechanic affect your enjoyment of the game?

Game on
~Dennis

The Minecraft Travelogue: Death Comes Quickly: Days 73-74

Seven witches are destroying this world by raising an army of undead warriors. My job is to hunt and kill them. Perhaps killing these witches will restore balance to the world.

Five witches have been slayed: two more remain.

This is my journey. My only goal is to tell a good story.

Day 73

Time to finish crossing this ocean.

Before I left, I planted three flowers, bidding Waystation Island farewell. The island was a necessary respite in my journey across the waters, but it’s time to put it behind me for good.

Minecraft Travelogue

I built ever westward. The waters rolled onward before me, horizon to horizon to horizon to horizon. I was just a speck of nothingness in this vast ocean.

Minecraft Travelogue

Minecraft Travelogue

By nightfall I spotted an island on the horizon. I knew not to get my hopes up that this was a continent, the fabled land I dreamed of. As I approached, I realized it was overrun with monsters. I dubbed it “Dead Island 3.”

Minecraft Travelogue

Minecraft Travelogue

Minecraft Travelogue

The monsters were everywhere, skeletons and creepers and zombies and spiders. There must be a witch here somewhere, spawning these unholy creatures. I started attacking those closest to me, my new iron sword dulling with each passing contact with bone.

Minecraft Travelogue

I searched for the witch, but within seconds, it was clear that I would be unable to take the island. I was overwhelmed, and retreated to the water.

Minecraft Travelogue

I left with my life, but not my honor. I had to keep building west, bypassing this island entirely. Fortunately my small store of bread was enough to nourish me.

Minecraft Travelogue

Day 74

Fully rested, I continued on. By midday I found another island, this one quite large.

Minecraft Travelogue

I jumped off my bridge and approached it. Usually these islands necessitate a slight detour in my bridge, but if the island is long enough, I could save considerable resources. I swam underwater as much as possible in case baddies were out looking for me.

Minecraft Travelogue

The island had long, sandy beaches. A grove of trees was in the center of the island, the shade of which protected a flock of sheep from the harsh sun. This island had life, and no sign of monsters.

Minecraft Travelogue

Minecraft Travelogue

When I got to the westernmost end of the island, I had enough evidence to determine that detouring my land bridge slightly would save me resources in the long run. The sun was setting, so I had to make it back to my land bridge as quickly as possible in case monsters were here.

Then I found a pool of lava. Monsters were definitely here, and they were destroying this island!

I ran.

Minecraft Travelogue

Before I reached the refuge of my bridge, I saw a zombie approaching me…from the water! Had it swam all day from Dead Island 3 to catch me? No time to wonder. After my terrible defeat last night, I couldn’t afford to get into another conflict.

Minecraft Travelogue

Then I saw something new: a baby zombie riding a chicken. A chicken! That kid was fast! I had to get to the water as quickly as possible. I could out-swim these monsters, at least for a short distance.

Minecraft Travelogue

The water may have slowed the baby zombie, but soon the shoreline was overcome with skeleton archers. They pelted me with only a few arrows. I was bleeding profusely, and almost died right there in the water. I had no armor: I lost it at the bottom of the sea. I had no protection from the undead.

Minecraft Travelogue

I got to the land bridge and started running backward as fast as possible. I outran all of the monsters except one.

Minecraft Travelogue

While the baby zombie was indeed slowed by the water, as soon as it climbed aboard my land bridge I was finished. That chicken was too fast. It ran straight up to me and bit off my legs. I was dead within moments.

Minecraft Travelogue

I named this place Decimation Island. Here I was cut down by a baby zombie riding a chicken. May this day soon vanish from my memory.

Book Review: Of Games and God

Of Games and God front cover

For many years now, I’ve been trying to figure out how video games fit into my Christian faith. Certainly there are many aspects of video games that would seem contrary to the faith. Violence is often callous and gratuitous. Sexuality is prominently on display in most M-rated games. And there’s no denying that video games take a lot of resources to enjoy, both money and time. I often wonder, if Jesus returned and found me sitting on the couch playing Final Fantasy, what would his reaction be? Would He be disappointed that I wasn’t doing something more constructive to further His kingdom? Or would He tell me to stick in Mario Kart instead so we could race against each other?

So it was with great interest that I picked up Kevin Schut‘s new(ish) book, Of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games (2013). Schut earned his PhD in communication studies and is currently an associate professor at Trinity Western University. As I recently earned my PhD in communication as well (and teach a class about video games), Schut seems like the sort of kindred spirit I needed to engage with to really answer my questions about faith and video games.

Schut’s purpose for writing the book is straightforward. He writes in Chapter 1:

This book is about helping the Christian community find a balanced approach to computer and video games–and also, I hope, a little about helping people outside the Christian community understand some of the issues related to faith and games. (p. 2)

He sums up his intent by saying:

The cultural debate about video games is part of a long discussion about the nature and value of technology. I believe my call as a Christian is to engage video games and their surrounding culture, gain critical understanding of them, and help transform them. This book is mostly about the second step–gaining critical understanding. (p. 12)

Contents of the book

Excluding the intro and outro chapters, the book covers eight topics:

  1. Understanding what video games are (a chapter necessary for readers who have no clue what he’s talking about)
  2. An outline of common challenges faith critics raise against video games
  3. Violence in video games
  4. Video game addiction
  5. Gender roles in video games
  6. Educational video games
  7. A series of interviews with Christian game developers
  8. The social side of gaming

The first few chapters mostly set up the debate about faith and video games, identifying what people are arguing about and why questions of faith even matter when thinking about games. The real meat of the book comes in chapters 4, 5, and 6 with the evaluation of violence, addiction, and gender roles. These three topics by far breed the most controversy, even outside of faith communities. Each of these chapters requires a lot of set-up. Not only does Schut have to explain what the problem is, but he brings in academic resources about these topics to ground the discussion in fact, and he also has to describe games that epitomize these controversies. Interspersed are his own personal reflections about how his faith has been challenged by these seeming un-Christian features of video games.

From there, the second half of the book is more of a defense of the good aspects about video games. He talks about how video games are being used for education. He interviews quite a few Christians in the video game industry to understand how their faith influences the games they make. And then he ends by talking about the many vibrant online communities that develop around video games.

This book’s audience

Who exactly is this book written for? That’s a question I asked myself time and again while reading Of Games and God, and I can identify two audiences.

First, this book is for the most staunchest of religious critics who are against video games. Schut spends quite a few pages debunking various myths about video games and gamers, and he frequently talks about how new technologies are often met with skepticism in the faith community, but how over time, new technologies become accepted and Christians realize that the technology itself is not evil. The technology is amoral: how you use the technology can be good or can be sinful.

Most of the Christians I know don’t hold to these myths about video games, nor do they have a problem with video games. I know there are some ultra-conservative Christians who think video games are a complete waste of time and sinful enterprises, Christians who would never buy a single video game for their children. But I think those people might be in the minority. While this book might make some inroads with that group, I honestly think that the ultra-conservative members of the worldwide Church have more deep-rooted issues with their faith. It’s not video games they are against. They have a more elemental distrust of modern culture at large.

Second, this book is for non-academics. Schut appropriately references academic research about video games, but is very approachable and easy to read. Readers won’t get bogged down in statistics or research methodology. This book should be understandable to people without a college education.

After identifying these two audiences, I realized: this book is not for me. As an academic, and as somebody who has read the original research studies about video games, this book didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know. And that’s fine. There need to be more authors like Schut who engage general audiences on these issues.

Of Games and God back cover

But what about faith?

While Of Games and God has a lot of useful information about video games and faith, intended for a general audience who knows little about video games or how they are studied, the real question is, does this book have any value as a guide to faith? While I hate to denigrate the work of another Christian, I have to point out that this book is more “Of Games” than “Of God.” Schut is not a theologian or pastor. He is not writing from the viewpoint of any specific denomination. If I’m remembering correctly, I believe he paraphrases a couple Bible verses, or at least references a handful of biblical story lines, but if you’re looking for a guide that backs up each statement about how Christians should play video games with Bible verse after Bible verse, keep looking.

The book is fairly short: eliminating the references and notes, it clocks in at just under 180 pages. There are quite a few screenshots of games throughout, so that’s not even 180 pages of solid text. Like I said, each issue that he covers requires so much set-up–explaining the controversy, explaining how the games work, explaining any research on the subject–that by the end of each chapter, there’s not much room left over to discuss matters of faith.

And this is the book’s biggest flaw. I really appreciated Schut’s frequent personal reflections about how his faith influences the types of games he plays. He discusses, for instance, that he doesn’t think that Christians can never play violent games: violent story lines can teach us much about matters of faith, even if the creators aren’t Christian. But he also says that there are some violent games he doesn’t play.

I’m not suggesting that he should provide a checklist of criteria to determine which games are compatible with the Christian faith and which are not: I think Schut would say, and I agree, that such an approach leads to legalism and doesn’t effectively address the issues at hand.

But at the very least, I was looking for some sort of practical guidelines about how the Christian faith should influence the games Christians play, or even the way Christians play video games. Christianity is a religion of the heart, and certain topics that might make some Christians stumble don’t affect other Christians. It’s not necessarily about what games we play (though you could probably make a pretty convincing argument that some games are never acceptable, like this game about rape). Rather, it’s about how our heart and faith are affected by the games we play.

Does our video game playing ever bring us closer to God, or is it just a distraction that we use to avoid communing with the Lord?

Should you read this book: I cautiously say yes. Even though this book didn’t really address any of my questions, at the very least, it got me thinking about these issues anew. In that sense, then, the book has strengthened my faith, but only in a roundabout way.

Game on,
~Dennis

12 minutes of Great Toonami Interstitials and Promos

Fans of Toonami need no introduction to the greatest action animation programming block, but if you’ve never heard of Toonami, let me explain. Toonami was Cartoon Network’s primary action programming block from 1997 to 2008. Toonami was notable for bringing Japanese animation into the mainstream with exceptional shows like Sailor Moon, Dragon Bball Z, Outlaw Star, Robotech, Voltron, and Gundam Wing. Monday thru Friday kids across America would get home from school and turn on the toons.

Even though Toonami’s anime was often heavily edited for content, the programming block still managed to introduce viewers to serious shows that never talked down to them. Wrapped around the shows themselves was the Toonami packaging: techno music, blood-pumping intros that replaced the animes’ original openings, and the most intense promos.

While most networks limit promos to 0:30, Toonami did something different. They created unique 2:00+ interstitials that aired in between shows. These interstitials were super cuts of multiple shows put to music, and each had a theme, and dare I say, a message. As somebody who used to work at a local network television station, these interstitials are very curious to me in retrospect. Why would a network devote several minutes of airtime to what amounts to fan videos when they could instead be airing advertisements?

I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe they had trouble finding advertisers for the whole of Toonami’s ad space. Whatever the reason, these interstitials established a culture and an identity for Toonami. And they remain works of art even today.

Note: Credit for these videos goes out to SlimD716 on YouTube. This person has spent considerable time cataloging as many Toonami promos as possible, and has even remastered many in HD. They look so amazing!

Broken Promise (Dreams)

“A boy has a right to dream. There are endless possibilities stretched out before him.”

“As they search, they are always asking questions. What’s out there? What’s waiting for me? Why was I made? Who made me? And what did they make me for?”

“You gonna just keep running away?” “Just keep running away? … I’m not running.”

“Believe in yourself, and create your own destiny. Don’t fear failure.”

This interstitial has an ethereal quality to it. It’s about dreaming big, but in so doing, being confronted with fears while trying to realize those dreams. The key quote from this interstitial comes from Hilda, who asks Gene Starwind “You gonna just keep running away?” This comes from Outlaw Star, an anime about space bounty hunters. Interestingly, the main character, Gene, has a fear of space travel in the beginning of the series. It’s kind of difficult to have a space show about a pilot who’s afraid of space. But after Hilda questions Gene, he gradually overcomes his fear of space.

Shows used: Primarily Outlaw Star, but also Dragon Ball Z, Gundam Wing, Tenchi in Tokyo, and Tenchi Universe.

Pardon Our Dust

There are almost no words to this interstitial (aside from King Kai’s great interruption in the action: “Get set…and go!” but that’s okay. This interstitial has probably the best cadence of any of them, both visually and aurally. The message is simple: Toonami airs a lot of shows that have a lot of explosions. This video is probably one of the most memorable from Toonami’s “Golden Years” (about 1998-2001), mostly because they played it so often.

This interstitial is more than just a pretty piece of video to look at. Behind all of these explosions are fights and battles, featuring characters who are all fighting for something important: the people they love, their communities, or even the entire world.

My favorite part of the video is the clip of Goku punching Jeice in the nose. That dude was such a showboat!

Shows used: Dragon Ball Z, Gundam Wing, ReBoot, Ronin Warriors, and Sailor Moon (just one very short clip of Sailor Jupiter attacking from 0:50-0:51)

Advanced Robotics

“Man’s greatest inventions, making the impossible possible, are no longer under our control.”

“This new breed of technology makes humanity obsolete.”

“Robots thinking, acting on their own, begin their march toward domination.”

“The robots among us, watching, waiting, calculate their new world order. Their time is coming. They cannot be stopped.”

“Let the fall of mankind give way to a new age.”

Not only did Toonami like explosions, but they liked robots. I’ve always been fascinated with storylines involving robots. The idea of humanity creating something greater than ourselves, and then the creation rebelling against us, seems very real and very possible to me. And yet in all of these shows, humans overcome the robots (often with the help of their own obedient robots). While shows about robots rebelling have always given me a certain kind of fear, the message of these shows is always the same: humans will always overcome robots in the end because we possess something special that can never be automated.

Note: According to the YouTube comments on this interstitial, the voice-over is Optimus Prime. Does anybody know what show/movie the narration is from, or was it an original recording for this promo using the voice actor who just so happened to voice Optimus Prime?

Shows used: The Big O, Blue Submarine No. 6, Dragon Ball Z, Gundam Wing, Superman The Animated Series, and Outlaw Star.

Courage

I honestly don’t remember this one. At some point, Toonami did a series of interstitials about virtues exemplified by their shows. This one is about courage. The message is a bit preachy, and of all the videos in this post, this is my least favorite. But I’m including it because it features the amazing clip of Gohan facing down Recoome: “My dad taught me not to be scared of bullies like you!”

Shows used: Dragon Ball Z, The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest, ReBoot, and Sailor Moon.

Mad Rhetoric (Walking Stick)


Compared to the other interstitials on this list, Mad Rhetoric’s theme is difficult to discern. The interstitial pulls clips from a wide range of shows (many of which are used in other interstitials). There are many quotations throughout, but some are hard to hear. Nothing really stands out until the final line, “Nothing good can ever come from staying with normal people.” (What show is that from? Leave a comment if you know.)

This single line sort of defines my relationship with Toonami and my friends throughout high school and beyond. My closest friends were those who were into anime, video games, and Dungeons and Dragons. The nerdy kids, if you will. Over the years, Toonami introduced us to a wide range of unique, crazy, weird, off-the-wall, abnormal, and otherwise deranged characters, and we were all better for it.

As I reflect on the people I’ve known throughout my life, the ones who were “not normal” were and still are the most interesting. Toonami was a celebration of the abnormality of each individual.

Shows used: Blue Submarine No. 6, Dragon Ball Z, Gundam Wing, Outlaw Star, Tenchi Muyo, and Tenchi in Tokyo.

Space is the Place

“To outer space, every one of us!”

“This is a pretty large scale operation.” Right. But it’ll be dangerous.” “So what? That’s never stopped us before.” “Right. But it’ll be dan–it’ll be dangerous.”

“We all have to make it out to space!”

“Never forget how beautiful the earth looks from afar.”

“Outer space…It’s so quiet.”

“Will you please come with me?” “Where to?” “Outer space.”

“Talented people are capable of understanding us.”

Easily the best Toonami video ever. They played this one a lot, and it really inspired me to think about space in a new light. Space is the place to be, and I want to go there someday. But as these clips from Gundam Wing show, space is also a very difficult place to live and is fraught with danger.

My favorite part of the clip is Quatre’s heavy breathing from 0:43-0:53. I don’t remember exactly when this scene happened, but I believe it was around the time he piloted the Wing Zero and began destroying space colonies. Quatre, who was mostly a pacifist at the beginning of Gundam Wing, eventually went crazy and decided the only way to stop the war in space was to kill everybody. His story arc is pretty interesting and is filled with emotional moments like this one.

Shows used: Mostly Gundam Wing, but three visual and one audio clip from Dragon Ball Z.