Even though the basic concept is the same, every iteration of a convention has a different feel to it. If you read my review last year, Otakon went bigger in celebrating its 20th anniversary, pulling out all the stops in terms of special guests and exclusives, as well as taking stock of its history in inviting old friends. This year was a bit more subdued, partly because 2013 was such a hard act to follow, but also because of a major snafu to kick things off.
First, let's go with what went right on Thursday, which is technically the day before Otakon officially begins. The outdoor matsuri in a nearby park by the Inner Harbor of Baltimore was a bigger success this time around, with more acts and booths set up. It's still lacking that traditional Japanese feel to it however with the lack of true festival games and street food, but there was a much bigger crowd this time to see the multiple bands performing live (I caught the Ricecookers in action as well as Peelander-Z) and a highly entertaining sumo wrestling demonstration by the largest Japanese wrestler ever, Yama, his American counterpart Kelly Gneiting, and volunteers from the crowd to boot!
Sadly, part of the reason for the crowd at the matsuri may have been the ridiculously long pre-registration line at the convention center, which wrapped around the building at least a couple times. I tried standing in it with a friend (despite having already obtained my press pass) and it was just too much after a half hour of barely getting anywhere. It turns out that their new registration system was getting gummed up by the convention center's network issues, but attendees really had no idea what was going on, finding the end of the line was hard enough. While Otakorp eventually got the word out on Twitter and in a press release, I feel like a lot of grief could have been avoided if the troubles had been directly communicated to the line sooner, and people turned away earlier so that when things shut down close to midnight there wouldn't been people denied just outside of the door. LineCon 2014 soon became the meme afterwards and you could see some of the enthusiasm subside the next day, though fortunately so did the technical issues.
With the con proper underway, it was time to break out the cameras and catch some cosplay on the way to wherever you're headed! This year did not disappoint, particularly if you were a fan of this year's breakout series: Kill la Kill, but there was plenty for fans of all stripes, including games like Final Fantasy XIV and Borderlands to classics like Dragonball Z . This time around, the Guidebook app on a smartphone was not only recommended, but practically required as the printed schedule of events was immediately out of date and only provided at information booths by request. Attending panels this year was a blast as I couldn't think of one that disappointed, including two panels put on by a friend of ours, TheRobD: Anime Openings Around the World and The Other Way Around: American Comics Localized in Japan, both of which featured other countries' humorous takes on source material we were quite familiar with. New Anime for Older Fans was back this year and fully updated with great suggestions for veterans, A Brief History of Anime: 100 Years in 50 Minutes did an admirable job of identifying the major trends of the medium while planting some seeds for thought. And for all those Kill la Kill fans in attendance, there was even a panel dedicated to piecing together all the references in the show, which gave me an even greater respect for it.
Those are just the events I was able to make, from the reaction online there were several other ones I could regret missing, but that's just the nature of a good con, there's just never enough time to do everything! The key is that when most stuff is worth your time anyway, you can't complain, and this year's Otakon still delivered, at least in my book. I also caught showings of anime like Psycho Pass and Dog & Scissors that were a welcome respite from the crowds, which were thankfully tamed for the most part thanks to the expansion of the one way lanes to the Hilton skybridge. From what I understand, while I wasn't able to attend, the Yoshiki concert also went well thanks to an organized lottery for seating unlike the line of past years. The only real disappointment was the Game Room this year, which was lacking the arcade cabinets of past years and felt considerably bare as a result. Another common complaint was also the laggy TV's used, particularly for fighting games. Hopefully that can be turned around for next year, as while games obviously aren't a focus of Otakon, they can be a great way to pass time between things on your schedule.
All in all, after some early hiccups, Otakon 2014 closed out as another successful chapter in the books. Everyone I knew and attended the con with left happy and we were all only disappointed that it was over so soon. While there is always room for improvement (particularly in getting folks their badges, though in fairness, Anime Expo in LA suffered its registration disaster earlier this year), I feel confident in the direction Otakorp is charting overall. Here's looking forward to next year's edition!
Check out Cat and Fox's Pictures from Otakon 2014!
BlazBlue is a 2D fighting series known for it’s ridiculously overdrawn combos and chaotic twitchy gameplay, much in the vein of Arc System Works’ previous work in the Guilty Gear series. Interestingly enough, it’s also received plenty of praise for its story, a rarity for the genre. Because of this, it’s only logical that their latest 3DS release, BlazBlue: Clone Phantasma, would continue to appeal to its hardcore constituency by building on those solid principles, right? Wrong.
Clone Phantasma upends everything fans love about BlazBlue by reducing the gameplay to an insipid doppleganger of Dynasty Warriors and its ilk. Yes, instead of stringing together blows in a dramatic one on one battle, you’ll be mashing the same buttons over and over again in order to defeat the same generic enemies in droves. And the way you defeat them is limited to two means: knocking them off the edge of the platform you’re situated on, and using your super move which automatically knocks off whoever is around you. Last long enough to build up your power meter to level 3 (which you can do in your sleep), and your super move will clear the screen. The only downside at that point is that sometimes you character will end up dizzy, leaving them open to be knocked off themselves. At the end of a handful waves you’ll reach a boss battle (usually another cast member from the series) that is only a tad more difficult because you have to knock them off three times instead of one, wow.
The story meanwhile is almost non-existent, mostly consisting of inside jokes I didn’t get as I hadn’t really delved into the story of the original games before. There may be something for the fans here, but as completing each character’s run through the story mode only takes about 15 minutes or so, there’s not exactly a lot of content in the end.
Visually, the game is lacking as well. All the characters and enemies are in super deformed form, with oversized heads generally making everyone look alike. The environments are spartan and only differ in texturing, background, and layout of the platform. Even worse, turning up the 3D effect only causes the overlay to pop out. Everything else stays flat. Clearly not a lot of effort was expended in this department, and the same goes for the sound, which falls victim to the issue that plagues every beat ‘em up, meaning everything descends into a cacophony of grunts and shrieking making it hard to notice anything else going on.
It’s extremely difficult to recommend this game to anyone unless you just have to have everything BlazBlue, no matter how bad it is, or you just love button mashing brawlers (might I suggest Senran Kagura then, which at least has fan service going for it?). This is a game that belongs in free to play format on mobile phones as its a waste on a real handheld like the 3DS. At least they’re only charging $6 for this, so you’re not out too much if you disregard my opinion.
When you've been at something for two decades and only keep getting bigger and better, you know you're doing something right. Otakon has come a long way from its humble beginnings in a Days Inn in Pennsylvania, exploding from a humble gathering of 300 or so to a horde of nearly 35,000 otaku taking over its current home in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. In fact, the convention has gotten so large that Otakorp has already announced a move to Washington, D.C.'s more spacious convention center for 2017's edition, despite some sentimental reluctance.
Otakon celebrated its 20th anniversary in style, for sure. They brought in a smorgasbord of huge guests like Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe, world famous composer Yoko Kanno, and various animators and directors from recent blockbuster hits like Sword Art Online and Oreimo. Along with these guests came announcements of new titles like Watanabe's Space Dandy, and the world premieres of Oreimo's final episodes of the 2nd season as well as the English dubbed version of critically acclaimed film, Wolf Children.
Having only been to one previous edition of Otakon the year before, I don't have a lot to compare to, but this year's absolutely topped the last both in numbers, events, and sheer enthusiasm. It felt like there was even more cosplay than ever, particularly from fans of shows like Attack on Titan, which allow you to participate in army uniform without necessarily representing a specific character. Despite the larger crowd, I did not feel any real degradation of foot traffic, especially once they organized the unfortunately narrow sky bridges into one way lanes. Speaking of which, organization is Otakon's strong suit. While there will always be some hiccups and confusion in herding so many cats, I was still impressed with how most lines were handled, both for registration and panels. My only annoyance was discovering the huge rush for 18+ bracelets for Frday night's more racier affairs. I feel like that could have been addressed at the same time as registration (where you have to present your ID anyway) to alleviate those lines, especially when that was only a prelude to waiting in yet another line to get into the event. Besides that though, everything started on time for the most part and all of the staff was very courteous and helpful, always willing to take questions and find the answer for you.
When you arrive at Otakon, I highly suggest you take a look at the schedule (and download Guidebook if you have a smartphone) and plan your attack. There's way more things to do than there is ever enough time to see (which is not a complaint, but a sign of a great convention!). At any moment there's at least 4 anime showing in video rooms and multiple panels, Q&A's, and workshops to boot. You also have to account for how popular an event is going to be and factor in getting early to secure your spot, so there's going to be a lot of concessions made. Personally I was happy catching some of the smaller fare and avoiding some of the world premieres with their 2 hour long waits. I started off my schedule on Friday with a viewing of Otaku No Video, a comedic anime from 1991 that inspired Otakon according to its members' lore. It wasn't hard to see the connection as it traces a similar meteoric rise for a small band of otaku who take the world by storm and eventually construct their equivalent of Disneyland. I also caught showings of stuff like Hunter X Hunter and New Hurricane Polymar. Panels wise I found a lot of variety as I attended ones about Lolita fashion, sports anime, and the real of a manga artist. My favorites though involved reminiscing about the early days of anime in America with I Love the 80s: Anime Edition hosted by Mike Toole and the Anime Industry Before Times panel hosted by special guests who were founding members of such greats as AnimEigo, Animerica, ADV, and more.
Needless to say, there's no excuse to be bored at Otakon! Even if none of the anime or panels happens to be your thing at a given time, just wandering the halls and seeing all the cosplay is entertaining enough. Of course there's also a huge gaming room open all day long with a wide selection of arcade and console machines and software both old and new. I checked out Hatsune Miku Project Diva F with a real arcade controller among other rare Japanese imports, and tons of other rhythm music games like DDR, Rock Band, and Dance Central. And then there's the shopping, with both Artist's Alley and Dealer's Hall jam packed of goodies. My only complaint about the latter is that many dealers seemed to be working from the exact same stock, so there weren't many rare finds to be had, but that could also have been the fact that I didn't get in the first day. The good side of that is it made it easy to comparison shop and find the best deal if you were willing to put in the leg work.
And for those moments where you absolutely have to step out of the convention and get a breath of fresh air, the Inner Harbor is there for you with entertainment options like the many display ships in port, from submarines to tallships like the U.S.S. Constellation. You can even take a water taxi and get out on the water. There's of course plenty of food options in the area that run the gamut of low cost chains and food trucks to fancier fare like the great Spanish tapas restaurant I ate at on my last day. Hotels are a bit tricky and can be expensive for the weekend but they are mostly clustered around the convention center for easy access to and from Otakon. If you're looking to save though it might be cheaper to stay near the airport and take the light rail in, but I'm not as familiar with the viability of that option. I was skeptical about Baltimore at first, but it's found a place in my heart after two years there. A fondness has grown between the convention and the city and you can see many of the locals actually enjoy having us around. It's a shame it will be moving on in a few years and I have no doubt it was a difficult decision for Otakorp.
Otakorp has also created a spinoff convention in Las Vegas that starts this January 2014, so if that's closer to you it may be worth a look as well. Just keep in mind it'll be going through some first con pains, but I have confidence in this crew considering how well they've done with their first baby. Anyway, I had an amazing time at my second Otakon and look forward to doing it all again next year. There's a reason why this con has been so successful and made to the 20 year mark, and I hope you will join us out there next time, because despite everything else I mentioned, it's the people and the friends you meet that really make it great!