Box Cat

I’m trying something new today: a cellphone game review. Wish me luck!

The game is “Box Cat” from Noodlecake Studios, and it’s categorized on Google Play as “Arcade & Action”, quite different from my normal choice of untimed puzzle games. I prefer to think that this will allow me to bring a fresh perspective to today’s review, rather than leading me to review all the wrong things.

All of my playing was done on the Android version on a 2013 Nexus 7 (although I did a quick test on a two-generations-out-of-date Samsung phone to confirm that there were no gross abnormalities or unacceptable lack of response). There’s also an iOS version. The iOS version is $1.99, but Android users get a bargain, as that version is a dollar cheaper.

Perhaps the best one-sentence description of Box Cat is that it’s “Frogger” in reverse. The graphics support that notion: they hearken back to the days of 8-bit arcade graphics: blocky and cute. In Frogger, the goal was to get your frogs across a busy street without being run over. In Box Cat, the goal is to allow your cat to frolic in the street, smashing the oncoming cars into each other. That’s right, Box Cat is solid and strong enough to send a two-ton car spinning across five lanes of traffic. Not too surprising, I guess, since Box Cat is almost as big as the cars. Unlike Frogger, there’s no “splat” if you miss your timing.

You can control Box Cat in two different ways: with on-screen buttons and by tilting the device. I found that tilting worked well on the Nexus, but was very sluggish on the phone. I suspect that’s specific to the phone, though, as using the on-screen buttons was quite responsive.

There are three different game modes:

In Adventure Mode, Box Cat has specific tasks to accomplish: hit a car of a particular color or a certain number of cars, collect a certain number of coins, and so on. He* needs to meet your objective and then smash a “boss” truck before a timer runs out.

In Survival Mode, Box Cat is defending a stretch of road. He has to smash all of the cars that come along. The game ends when the timer runs out or three cars sneak past.

In Rush Hour Mode, there are twice as many lanes of traffic, which makes it much easier to rack up high-scoring combinations of vehicles by bouncing one into another. Box Cat’s goal is to score as many points as possible before the timer runs out.

* For purposes of the review, I’m assuming Box Cat is male. I don’t think I’m sexist here: as far as I’m concerned, women are just as free to play in traffic as men are. My assumption is strictly because Box Cat is a big, yellow feline whose looks remind me of Rhubarb.

The music is appropriate for the graphics, and if you fall in love with it, you can download the whole soundtrack as a “name your own price” digital album. My apologies to the composer, though. I think even the most dedicated devotee of 8-bit chiptune music would agree that it goes from cute to annoying much too quickly.

As expected, I suck at the game: I over-control and zip from one side of the screen to the other, I lock my focus in the center of the screen and lose track of what’s happening at the edges, and I absolutely can’t master the control for “Dash” mode (required to take out the boss truck in Adventure mode). Let me emphasize that those are NOT faults with the game: I have exactly the same experience whenever I play arcade-style games.

Despite my failings, though, I had a good time playing with Box Cat and will be keeping him on my gadgets. IMNSHO, well worth the price. One word of advice, though: If there is anyone within 50 feet of you while you’re playing, turn off the background music.

Seymour’s First Clarinet Concerto

Some of you may have noticed a discussion of feline intelligence in the comments on my post introducing Kokoro. I’m citing Kokoro as the most intelligent cat I’ve known, while my father is championing Seymour, the cat of my childhood. In making his case for Seymour, Dad invokes a family legend regarding Seymour’s musical abilities. Now Dad provides additional information in support of his cause.

Book Cover

Full disclosure: What follows is hardly a disinterested book review. Given my close familial relationship with the author and protagonist, and given that the artist is a family friend, it could scarcely be otherwise. And yes, it’s also potentially a paid review: if you buy a copy through the links above or below, I’ll get a small cut out of Amazon’s share of the purchase price. If you choose to assume bias on my part and reject the book, though, you’ll be missing out on a pleasant experience. Biased or not, I promise to avoid the word most woefully overused in reviews of children’s books: “charming”.

“Seymour’s First Clarinet Concerto” is a tale of a cat and his boy. It’s a simple tale with an artfully concealed message about the importance of promises, friends, and promises to friends. The art is colorful and engaging. Children too young to appreciate the story will still enjoy the illustrations, but the text and the drawings hide enough jokes and references to amuse adults who are reading the book to their offspring for the thirty-seven thousandth time. Well, OK, maybe only twenty thousand times.

If there are a few minor deviations from reality here and there (I don’t believe the American Museum of Natural History admits cats, for example), what of it? The deviations are necessary to the story being told, and frankly, reality comes off worse in the comparison.

“Seymour” has been in the works for decades, and was – as Dad notes in the afterword – inspired by the real-life Seymour who did indeed listen as my sister and I practiced the clarinet (and other instruments). While he never offered explicit critiques, there was a certain amount of correlation between the quality of the music and the speed at which he swished his tail back and forth. He wasn’t our first family cat, but he’s the first one I remember. A very friendly creature he was, and never happier than when he had a lap to sprawl in.

Dad wrote the first version of “Seymour” in the 80s, but never found the right artist, or a publisher for it. Over the years, he pulled it out and tinkered with it, but it didn’t go anywhere until recently. When grandson Simon (my nephew) came along, Seymour gave Dad a metaphorical tail-thwack to the shins, demanding a place in Simon’s lap, and the project took on a new life.

Dad revised and updated the text, recruited Vic to illustrate, and hooked up with CreateSpace (who did a wonderful job putting the book together, by the way), and the result is not just a splendid gift for Simon, but also a wonderful tribute to Seymour.

Does “Seymour’s First Clarinet Concerto” clearly establish Seymour as more intelligent than Kokoro? I’d have to say that it does not, but it is a strong argument. Ball’s in your court, Ms. K-poof.

Buy yourself a copy. Get one for your child too. If you’ve got more than one child, get them each a copy. Don’t forget your nieces, nephews, and grandchildren, and you should even consider one for that annoying brat down the street who keeps walking on your lawn.

(And note: not only did I avoid “charming”, I also skipped “delightful” and “adorable”.)


Those of you who know the Science Fiction/Fantasy field may be wondering why I consider Jim Butcher an inspiration. Today’s post is an attempt at answering that question.

Unlike other creators who I consider general role models, Butcher is an inspiration for one specific aspect of his work. To date, he has published 14 novels in the Harry Dresden series without falling into the pitholes that long-running series with a single main character are prone to: telling the same story over and over again or warping the character in some arbitrary way to allow the author to start over.

As a counter-example in the same “urban fantasy” genre, consider Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. Hamilton, IMNSHO, commits both sins. Through the first eight books, Anita faces a series of opponents of increasing strength, culminating in “Blue Moon” where she encounters a demon. In Blake’s universe, demons are at the apex of evil power, so Hamilton doesn’t have a whole lot of room to continue escalating Anita’s opponents; instead Anita, formerly a self-doubting heroine with a strong personal moral code throws her moral code out of the window, choosing to drift through a series of repetitious encounters and complaining about her unhappiness. She sleeps with vampires and a variety of weres and has multiple relationships at once, things she had previously vehemently rejected. She acquires new powers, each of which seems to serve little purpose but to drag her from one partner to another. In short, the later books of the series feature a character who shares little with the original beyond a name, and the stories have changed from fantasy-themed mysteries to fantasy-themed generic romances. (Disclosure: I read the first half-dozen books multiple times, haven’t re-read later books at all, and stopped reading them entirely around book 13; it’s possible things have improved since then, but it seems unlikely based on the synopses I read while writing this paragraph.)

How does Butcher avoid similar fates for Harry? Over the course of the series, Harry acquires a set of allies, people he can count on to assist him when an opponent is beyond his own abilities. His allies have lives of their own as well. They move in and out of the novels, things change in their lives when they’re not on stage, and they return with new motivations derived from their off-stage experiences. Harry grows in knowledge and power, not so much gaining new powers as enhancing and refining the ones he has. The cost of growth is in self-doubt and concern over his ability to continue doing what he believes to be his mission: protecting Chicago and its residents from the supernatural powers they don’t believe in and couldn’t fight if they did. The result is that Harry changes greatly, but he’s still the same person as in the first book, just more nuanced and thus more interesting. Meanwhile, each book still has a “whodunnit” at the core – or at the very least a “whydunnit”.

According to Butcher’s website, he has a definite end planned for the series, with another nine books to go, give or take. Unlike Anita, who seems to be hopelessly adrift and likely to remain that way until the public stops buying the books, Harry is going someplace. He may not like it when he gets there, and he definitely isn’t going to like the trip, but I have faith in Butcher that I will enjoy the trip and be satisfied that I’ve arrived at the right place.

Hoist the Jolly Roger

Time for another anime review. This time, I’m going to talk about a show rather more current than Kamichu. I’m staying spoiler-free; I wouldn’t want to ruin any surprises for you.

msp1Bodacious Space Pirates” (originally released in Japan as “Mouretsu Space Pirates”*) is a 26 episode TV show based on a series of light novels published as “Miniskirt Space Pirates”, which you probably think tells you everything you need to know about the target audience. You’d be wrong, though.

* None of the online translation services seem to want to try to translate “mouretsu”; Wikipedia’s page on the show renders it as “fierce”. Somehow I find “bodacious” far more entertaining and much more in keeping with the nature of the show.

mar1Under any of its names, this is the tale of Marika, a high school freshman who learns in the first episode that the father she never knew has just died; that he was the captain of the pirate ship “Bentenmaru”; that her mother is a former member of the Bentenmaru’s crew; and that she has just inherited the captaincy. For the record, no, her father didn’t die in a boarding action or anything else traditionally piratical; he succumbed to food poisoning. Well, not officially piratical, anyway. Clearly, we’re not dealing with a serious examination of piracy here.

One of the things Mouretsu Space Pirates gets right is pacing – given this setup, many shows would have Marika take all of five seconds to hoist the jolly roger and set sail. Instead, she takes her time, does her research (net searches about pirates, shooting lessons with her mother, and a training cruise with her school’s yacht club), and doesn’t make her decision until the end of episode 5.

Another thing the show gets right is establishing the economic foundation of piracy. Without going into too much detail and getting into spoiler space, I’ll just note that in Marika’s universe, pirates might more accurately be called “privateers”: they operate under letters of marque from the planetary government, they’re tightly regulated, and work closely with insurance companies to find jobs (and it’s implied that they sell their loot through the insurance companies as well). That’s a historic pattern well-known, if not widely acknowledged.

Even little details work well – the use of steganography to hide messages in music is clever.

So we’ve got a comedy about piracy on the high seas. (OK, yes, it’s set in space, but clearly this is “space as ocean”, and the show’s producers go to great lengths to make it totally clear, right down to using sailing ship sound effects in the background.) And yet it works. The show has a nice balance of chuckles and laugh-out-loud moments, running gags and one-off jokes. While it makes use of many major tropes, it generally tries to subvert them, and usually succeeds. When it doesn’t subvert them, it takes them to an unreasonable extreme. Case in point: when Marika needs to recruit a temporary replacement crew, every viewer knows she’s going to wind up with her school yacht club filling the role. The sheer enthusiasm they bring to the art of piracy elevates the plot well beyond the mundane.

msp4Major characters go beyond the normal one-dimensional cardboard cutouts found in lazy comedies. Marika is neither a brainless ditz nor an impulsive lunatic. Her decision to remain a part-time pirate until she graduates from high school and her struggles to balance pirating, school work, and her other part-time job (waitress in a maid cafe) shapes the course of the show.

Her colleague/rival/friend Chiaki is the daughter of another pirate captain. Chiaki clearly wants to succeed her father as captain, and her transition from resentment of Marika to respect and admiration is nicely handled: clear but not slapping the viewer in the face.

Princesses Gruier and Grunhilde play off each other nicely, as representatives of a monarchy in transition from absolute to constitutional rule, they’re trying to find their places and figure out what to do with their lives.

Even the more minor characters get attention; the relationship between Lynn and Jenny – responsible for the show’s biggest “squeeeeee” moment – gives them some depth without dominating their roles.

Is the show perfect? Not at all. Some jokes fall flat and the episodes focused on Jenny and Lynn come off as filler – there’s clearly a meaningful growth experience for Marika there, but it’s insufficiently developed to work as a part of the main story, but runs too long as a side-story. While the show wraps up the current plot well enough, it was clearly written with the intent of a sequel: there’s a movie scheduled for release in February 2014, but I suspect the producers are aiming for a new TV season as well.

Oh, remember I said earlier that the title of the original novel series suggests the target audience, but it’s not quite as it seems? Yes, the girls do wear the mini-skirted school uniforms shown in the picture at the top of this review. In space. In Zero-G conditions. It’s OK, though: not a panty shot is to be seen; clearly the skirts are magic.

Mouretsu Space Pirates isn’t life-changing, nor does it try to be. As the pleasant diversion it does try to be, it succeeds well beyond my expectation. Highly recommended.

Oz The Great and Powerful

First in a irregular series: Late Movie Reviews. No, not “late” in the sense of movies showing late at night, but “late” in the sense of “everyone who’s going to see this has already done so”. I don’t get to a lot of movies, and by the time I do, they’re usually near the end of their runs, so any reviews I do will be too late for most people to use them as a factor in deciding whether to see the movies. So why do them? Practice. And why not? Maybe there is someone out there on the fence who can benefit.

I use a very simple rating scheme:
– See it
– See it if you can find a matinee
– Skip it

This time: “Oz The Great and Powerful”.

Executive summary: It’s not going to be a classic like “The Wizard of Oz”, but taken on its own terms, it’s a decent way to spend a couple of hours in the afternoon. Catch a matinee.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

I’ve been planning to see this since it came out, and finally managed to do it over the weekend. Was I blown away? No, but I had a decent time.

Oz lacks the sheer magic of TWoO, but much of that can be chalked up to trying too hard to maintain consistency. Tying Oz’ Kansas love interest to Dorothy Gale comes off as forced, especially since nothing can ever be done with it – perhaps there was some intention to show the events of TWoO from Oz’ perspective that never materialized? Banishing the evil witches was necessary to have them in place for Dorothy, but after hearing “kill, kill, kill” throughout the film, to have them escape comes off as a cop-out (Glinda’s use of the phrase “free us” helps to some extent, but not enough, given that Oz appears to be focused on “kill” right up to the end: shooting fireworks at someone is a pretty emphatic statement of lethal intent.)

Some of the all-but-required links to TWoO did come off well, though. Just as a single example, the brief meeting with a lion early in the film was nicely handled as a tie-in.

As a film of its own, though Oz does well at preserving the spirit of Baum’s books. It’s a standard interpretation of the “hero’s journey” that doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but tells it well. We know how the story is going to end, the fun is in seeing how it gets there.
I’m going to disagree here with the critics who have objected to James Franco’s performance as Oz. I thought he did a wonderful job of portraying the small-time hustler totally out of his depth, but carrying on in the only way he knows how. Yes, his “always on stage” performance was over the top, but that’s the way Oz’ stage persona was. And Franco’s expression of mingled pride and chagrin when Glinda tells him he’s failed at attaining greatness, but has achieved goodness is absolutely perfect.

Final thoughts:

Finley, the flying monkey, does a fine job going down the path of “deliberately annoying sidekick you can’t believe the hero hasn’t strangled” (did that particular character start with Donkey in the “Shrek” movies?) but in the end redeems the part with one word: “Moo”.

The other half of the sidekick duties and merchandising opportunities is China Doll, unquestionably the best female character in the movie – the only one with motivation, action, and good lines.

The scenery of the land of Oz is gorgeous, from the almost Suessian landscapes seen on Oz’ arrival to the Metropolis-inspired Art Deco Emerald City.

Bottom line: Need to get out of the house or fill a quiet weekend? Go see Oz The Great and Powerful. Just leave your memories of The Wizard of Oz home – and don’t pay full price.


Kamichu Cast
Kamichu opens with a very low-key bang, with a conversation over lunch between junior high school student Yurie and her best friend:

"Mitsue, I became a god."

“A god of what?”

“I don’t know yet. I just became one last night.”

The joy of this show isn’t in the plot, which is barely there. Equal parts Yurie’s attempts to figure out what kind of a god she is and Yurie’s attempts to get a little notice from her classmate Kenji, the plot is really just an excuse to walk through a world just a little bit different from ours. What drives the show is the lush artwork and the attention to detail throughout. Every object in Yurie’s town has a patron spirit, and their designs show family resemblances and body types appropriate to their responsibilities. The scenery lovingly recreates the the town of Onomichi and serves as a gorgeous backdrop for a charming slice of life story that has its supernatural side almost as an afterthought. Much of the show’s charm lies in the little diversions it takes along the way. The conversation among the gods of Laserdisc, VHD, and Select-O-Vision in Episode 2 is an excellent example: it gives a peek into the lives of the gods, pushes the episode’s plot along, and ties Kamichu’s universe closer to ours by showing that they share a little bit of history.

The episodes wander along with no immediate connections. Yurie gathers friends and supporters, encounters aliens and spirits, and slowly gains experience with her power, but it’s only in retrospect that you see her growth. As encounters accumulate, Mitsue’s repeated complaint that “Nothing interesting ever happens to me” evolves from an expression of boredom into a prayer for a return to a quieter time. In the end, Yurie’s relationship with Kenji has progressed and she has some sense of her powers, but that’s almost beside the point. This is one case where the point is the journey, not the destination.

YurieSeveral reviewers have drawn parallels to Miyazaki’s films, and there’s some truth there. Certainly the art could almost be mistaken for something from Studio Ghibli, and there parallels in the town’s casual acceptance of Yurie as a god and the way science and magic are intermingled. But that’s superficial, and similar comparisons could be drawn to many other shows (Mushishi and Natsume Yuujinchou spring to mind immediately). Kamichu is, in the end, its own reality. Take a little vacation, follow where it leads, and watch for the little side trips.

One final note: In preparing this review, I checked Amazon to see Kamichu was still available. It is, surprisingly enough for a show released back in 2006 by a company that’s no longer in business. But much to my surprise, the box set sells for upwards of $250 new. I suspect you’re paying for the seller’s storage costs to keep the boxes intact over the last 7 years. I’d strongly suggest that you go for a used copy or single discs. If you’re interested, try this link. (Full disclosure: this is an Amazon Affiliate link. If you click through this link to Amazon and then buy anything, I get a small cut of the cost.)


A couple of people have asked me why I’m committing myself to a daily (well, every weekday) blog post. The answer is simple: by making that commitment, I’m forcing myself to produce something tangible every day.

The only way to improve an acquired skill is through practice. Getting better in my chosen field is a great incentive, but by publicly setting a goal for a minimum amount of practice, I’m adding incentive. If I don’t meet the goal, I look like an idiot, and I don’t want to be that idiot.

In this case, I’m taking Howard Tayler as my role model. Howard writes and draws the web comic “Schlock Mercenary”. The first strip was published in June of 2000 and Howard has not missed a day since then. Has it been worth it? Oh, yes. A quick comparison of that first strip with the latest one on the home page shows what all of that practice has done for his art. The writing, too, has improved: the story lines have gotten longer, more intricate, and more coherent, without losing the humor that caused the strip to stand out in the first place.

This is starting to turn into a review of Schlock Mercenary, and the world really doesn’t need yet another one of those (a quick search suggests that there are already thousands, if not tens of thousands or reviews out there), so let me see if I can turn this in a slightly different direction, and poke at what Howard is doing as a writer.

One recurring element of Howard’s universe is “The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries”. Maxim 14 states what lies at the heart of Schlock Mercenary:

‘Mad Science’ means never stopping to ask ‘what’s the worst thing that could happen?’

What Howard is doing is telling a cautionary tale. For 13 years, he’s been warning about the perils of not planning ahead. We see it in the first strips, when a recruiter and a doctor fail to consider that their usual processes won’t work on an amorphous blob. We see it in the way Kevyn casually releases inventions that wreak grievous harm on the galactic economy. We see it in the way the UNS (and, in fact, every other organization) places short-term goals and immediate needs ahead of long-term survival.

If he’s just telling the same tale over and over again, why do so many people keep reading? Howard keeps asking and answering the question “what next?” Characters’ failure to consider the consequences of their actions propels the story, but the their failure to consider the implications of their resolution to the problems posed by the earlier failures invariably leads to a new crisis down the road. In short, he’s invoking the long tradition of the chain of disasters (what TV Tropes calls Disaster Dominoes). Warning: following a link to TV Tropes can result in the loss of entire days of productivity. In that respect, TV Tropes is something of a chain of disasters itself.

The reader knows that any resolution is purely temporary, and no matter how closed a disaster seems, it will somehow come back to bite someone in the ass. Howard describes his approach in Maxim 17:

The longer everything goes according to plan, the bigger the impending disaster.

He excels at keeping the reader guessing about when and how the next disaster will occur. By the time he reveals the extent of the disaster, it’s grown beyond all expectation, and its resolution will involve an even bigger oversight – and and even bigger laugh.

Where will this escalating chain of disasters end? Won’t it reach a point of overkill and stop being funny? Perhaps, but Howard has an answer for that in Maxim 37:

There is no ‘overkill.’ There is only ‘open fire’ and ‘time to reload’.