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March 29, 2018

Let’s discuss Kamen Rider Ex-Aid (Part 2).

So Kamen Rider Ex-Aid might have the biggest time paradox I’ve ever personally seen.

Main character Emu may start the show as a medical intern, but he’s also the “genius gamer” M -- and through a flashback, the audience gets to see what that entailed.  Apparently he was an ace at fighting games (at a bare minimum), and took home the grand prize in a major tournament.  In what game?  My ears perked up at the sights and sounds of Tekken, as they should.  But that’s when time sort of collapses on itself.

Emu’s playing Tekken 7, the latest installment in the franchise to date.  Fair enough…until you remember that that game came out in March 2015 at the earliest, at least in Japan and in arcades.  The flashback in Ex-Aid specifically states that Emu joined that tournament in 2010.  And it’s pretty hard to pretend he’s playing any other installment, because A) he’s using Lars’ latest costume, and B) his opponent is using Lucky Chloe, who first made her debut in T7.  I mean, jeez.  I know Japan got the game a few years before the west, but this is ridiculous.

But I wouldn’t worry about time paradoxes too much.  Ex-Aid has bigger problems.  Much, much bigger problems.


Nah, just kidding.  We’re not in such a dire situation -- I just haven’t used that song in ages.

But make no mistake: Kamen Rider is not the perfect franchise.  As proof, Ex-Aid is not the perfect installment.  There’s a ton of stuff to like about the adventures of the Cyber Rescue team, without a doubt.  In fact, I would hazard a guess that anyone who gives the show a shot is in for a good time -- assuming they have a taste for tokusatsu fare.  (It’s like cantaloupe; strange at first, but once you’ve gotten used to it, you can’t put it down.)  I certainly did.  I mean, it’s not enough to keep me from thinking that the suits almost uniformly look like garbage, but hey.  Nobody’s perfect.

With all of that in mind, the faults in Ex-Aid are as stark and pointed as the pink spikes on the lead Rider’s head.  As possible and valid as it would be to do a CinemaSins-style breakdown of all the problems, there’s a much more salient way to go about it.  In my eyes, Ex-Aid’s issues go beyond simple nitpicks or gaps in logic (even if they’re there).  We’re talking fundamental, overarching issues that hold the show back from being genuinely incredible.  It’s both baffling and frustrating; for all of the interesting -- and even intelligent -- things the show does, it stumbles on the easy stuff as it aces the hard.

I’d say “I don’t even know where to begin”, but that would be a lie.  I know exactly where to begin.

Ex-Aid is a show themed around video games that doesn’t use its theme of video games.

I mean, it does sometimes.  The overarching concepts are certainly there -- just not enough of them to say “yep, that’s video games”.  You can’t even make the argument that the games are only there for aesthetic purposes, because the theme of control is ever-present and glues the show together -- which is only possible because of games.  I think the problem here is that Ex-Aid goes out of its way to be as non-gamelike as possible.  It sets up gamelike rules, but is way too eager to break them whenever they become to inconvenient.

One of the core conceits of this season’s Riders is that they have ascending levels of power, not unlike an RPG.  By design, they start at Level 1 -- the bulky, super-deformed version that’s necessary for separating rampant Bugsters from the hosts.  Their Level 2 is their “default” state -- something more akin to the Riders we’re used to, and the ones used in promos.  Everything after that is a powered-up state, accessed with additional Gashats (read: game cartridges) and containing the power, of sorts, from other games.  For example, Kamen Rider Snipe is based on shooters, so his Level 2 is this.

By using the power of Bang Bang Simulations, he equips battleship-style armor and reaches Level 50.  Like so.

Obviously, Level 50 is stronger than Level 2.  But the level disparity is something that needs to be stressed.  Early on, the good guys (at Level 2) take on a bad guy (at Level 3) and end up getting worked -- which implies, strongly, that there’s a decisive gap in power between levels.  That would explain why one character, who can only go up to Level 3 at that point in the story, proceeds to get killed against a Level 10 opponent.  There are only three ways around the level gap.  1) Fight back with stronger Gashats.  2) Narrow the gap with power-ups scattered around, and/or hope for the best.  3) Run.

At least, that’s how it should be.  But it’s not long before a Level 50 opponent shows up while most of the good guys are still bungling around in the single-digits.  Going by the show’s internal logic -- and our understanding of games -- even if the baddie was holding back (and he probably was, because he wants a good, clean fight on his terms), the sheer stat difference should have led to multiple one-hit kills.  I know you can’t have that in a show like this because otherwise it’d be the end of said show, but there are ways around it.  Have the baddie miss an attack, but wreck everything in his general direction and scare the heroes into falling back.

That…doesn’t really happen.

The level problem is so boldfaced, I kind of wish that they dealt away with it entirely.  KR seasons past have routinely featured escalations of power without assigning objective stats to each.  Sometimes they manage to sidestep power levels entirely (see: W and OOO).  Here?  You’ve got a Level 50 villain taking on Level 3 heroes, who by all rights should explode on contact.  But they just get a little banged up and de-henshin.

And then later on it gets even more egregious.  Not only do you have under-leveled Riders taking on much stronger baddies, but also overcoming anything and everything in spite of the disparity.  Two of them have to share a Level 50 Gashat for a while, meaning that at most, one of them can only make it to Level 5 if a fight breaks out.  But he bridges the gap just by grabbing one single power-up icon.  Just one.  And he doesn’t even use it that cleverly; it’s just a boost that lets him blow up a Bugster.  If this was an actual video game, players would be crying day and night on forms about how broken and imbalanced it is.  “This item is too strong!  Nerf now!”  It wouldn’t be a problem if the entirety of Ex-Aid wasn’t built around the rules of a video game where lives are actually on the line.  As in, that’s literally the plot of the show’s second half.

Ex-Aid only plays by its rules when it’s convenient.  Otherwise, it throws them right the hell out.  It’s revealed that the only way to become a Gashat-compatible Rider is to have a procedure done to give you a snippet of the Bugster virus -- a vaccine of sorts to boost your resistance.  Even then, progressively-stronger Gashats force more of the virus into you, so you’re taking a big risk with each new power-up.  Emu using a Level 10 Gashat (though it’s debatable that it’s Level 20) very nearly leads to him getting erased from existence because the virus he incubated inside him went wild.  Emu using a Level 99 Gashat ten episodes later?  Nothing.

Granted the circumstances behind that were different -- it was the result of a coroner’s research to counter Bugster tomfoolery -- but it doesn’t explain away the others.  Another Rider goes from using Level 5, tops, to Level 50 with no stops in between.  The end result?  He overclocks his body and has chest/heart pains for a couple of episodes, but no lingering problems.  Not even when he goes to Level 100.  A third Rider makes the same trek to Level 50.  At most he only sparks for a few seconds, only to have complete control over his new action figure form.   The reasoning behind it, I guess, is that he’s got a higher tolerance for the virus, but A) we’re talking about a jump ten times higher than what he’s used to, and B) it diminishes the threat of the virus, and the rules and consequences in place, for the sake of convenience.

Imagine how much the show could have gotten out of it if the doctors had to constantly deal with the danger of the virus progressively spreading inside them.  The threat of death, the question of their humanity, the unspoken thirst for power dragged into the open, the camaraderie born from the group facing such dire straits together…so much potential.

So much potential, wasted.  Because rules were made to be broken, right?

The more I think about the show, the more I realize that there are both missed opportunities and baffling decisions made in terms of the gaming theme.  Like, okay.  The Gashats are what let the Riders transform, but they’re based on games that exist in-universe (made by the Gemn Corporation).  And apparently, the appeal of those games is how retro they are.  Sooooooooooooo how do they fare against modern games?  Do they even register as blips on the radar?  

The only game the audience gets to see in full view is Mighty Action X -- the one that lets Emu become Ex-Aid -- and it comes off as a basic platformer with visuals better suited for the first year of the DS’ lifespan.  How did that become a tour de force, so much so that people line up in droves like it’s the next iPhone?  And since we’re talking about phones -- which are capable of so much more these days -- how do the Gashat titles stack up against mobile gaming?  Are they cheaper?  Are they more numerous?  Are they higher quality?

I’m only asking because, again, this is part of Ex-Aid’s plot.  One of the show’s major villains is the head of Gemn Corp., and he’s pursuing some dark machinations just so he can keep his business and his products at the forefront.  But his solution is to let Kamen Rider Chronicle make the rounds, I.e. a game that lets normal folks become generic Riders -- Ride Players -- in the real world to fight Bugsters for loot (in theory, even though it starts off as a tool to let the Bugsters wipe out humanity).  Even if you cross out the lethality of the game, I’m having a hard time seeing how the show justifies it becoming a major market success.

To put it simply?  If KR Chronicle existed in the real world -- minus the threat of death -- I would think that the game sucks.  And I doubt I’d be the only one.

You can’t customize your character, which means you’re stuck with a mediocre outfit for the whole game.  (One character does spruce it up with a hat and stickers, but that’s about all she can manage.)  Your moveset is wimpy with no hope of improvement.  Every opponent you face hopelessly overpowers you.  The player base is filled with toxic noobs.  The only saving grace is that it might be reminiscent of Pokemon GO, in that you can head to real-world locations for rewards.  But even then, it seems woefully inconvenient.  Yet we’re supposed to believe that, in-universe, with the rules of death in place, people still keep buying the Gashats in droves?  And sure, some people buy in because they want to save their loved ones or get the glory of being the hero, but what about everyone else?   What about regular gamers?  You think KR Chronicle would stand a chance in the face of bad reviews on Steam and Metacritic?

Even with all that in mind, there’s a bigger issue at play here.  Ex-Aid is a show half-built on video games -- but bizarrely, games only matter to a handful of characters.  Emu is one of them, which would explain why he’s the best the show has to offer on the heroes’ side.  The baddies who also have a stake in games are also among the best the show has to offer, and in a lot of ways manage to steal the show.  After that, though?   There’s one girl who’s a pro gamer, but she’s…not great.  There’s another girl who is a video game (or a character, at least), and she’s…hmmm.  After that?  The entire affect and aesthetic of the show are completely lost on the cast members that matter most.  And if they had more of a stake in games, I guarantee they’d be better.  But they don’t.  And they’re not.

Going into those guys would take an incredible amount of space here, so I’ll save that for later.  For now?  I can say pretty confidently that, once again, KR’s treatment of female characters is baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad.  Of the two -- a whopping two! -- the winner here is Poppy.  She’s the game character I mentioned before -- a mascot from DoReMiFa Beat, a rhythm game, who’d like nothing more than to ding and dance.  She gets her wish a couple of times throughout the show’s run.  Beyond that?  Even though she ends up becoming a Rider in her own right (however woefully underutilized), she’s mostly just there.  

It’s a shame, because she actually lives a double life.  When she’s first introduced, she’s Asuna, a sharply-dressed woman who acts as a professional on CR’s behalf.  On top of that, she masquerades as a nurse who tags along with Emu to cure patients with the Bugster virus.  In theory, she’s a valuable member of the team.  In practice, she’s only there to fill up empty space in a shot.  She gets moments where she moves a patient out of danger (and thanks to her there’s a pretty funny segment involving roller coasters), but most of the time?  She just stands there being helpless or looking distraught while the men do all the work.

She’s startlingly inoffensive -- someone it’s hard for me to feel happy or angry about.  My biggest issue with her is the fact that she dials up the moe kawaii factor by a factor of eight whenever she goes into her true form, Poppy Pipopapo.  That works in anime (barely), but in live action?  Man, is it grating.  Also, it’s thanks to her that Ex-Aid has some insanely serious problems with tone.  Imagine having a scene where lives are on the line, only for her to scream “IT’S A POPIPIPOPANIC!” or something like that.  Also, imagine having serious, po-faced doctors grind a scene to a halt so they can say her full name in a monotone voice.  Every time I heard “Poppy Pipopapo” I died a little more inside.  It’s now engraved into my brain.

Was there no other way to give this character a deeper voice, at the very least?

Yeah, more of that, please.  Also:

Then you’ve got Nico, the 19-year-old pro gamer.  She was the player who lost to Emu in the Tekken 7 tournament back in 2010 (timeparadox.jpg), and since then has held a grudge against the only person to ever beat her.  Even though she makes millions of yen through her gaming career, nothing would make her happier than beating Emu at his own game.  It’s not a bad setup for her character, but…oh boy.  This character.

There’s nothing wrong with Nico in a vacuum; she’s a spunky brat, but you can still be an enjoyable character even if you’re an asshole.  The problem is that in the context of the show, Nico gets the short end of the stick -- and there’s a part of me that thinks it’s because she’s a girl in KR.  The story would have you believe she’s tough enough to handle herself in any fight -- and as a pro gamer, she should have the skills to survive in the game-crazed world of theirs.  But when it comes down to it, Nico’s barely a cut above a load, a damsel in distress, a cheerleader, and a hanger-on to the boys.  Sometimes she’s two or three of those at once.

Credit where credit’s due: she does get to be a Rider at one point -- but instead of getting a custom suit like Emu or even Poppy, she’s just a generic brown Rider (thanks to KR Chronicle) with a hat, stickers, and backpack.  She gets one fight where she uses her gaming skills to compensate for her lack of raw power (against a jobber), but that’s about it.  Her only other major victory is earned because the boys were there to soften up the baddie for her.  Hell, she doesn’t even score the winning shot under her own power.

Nico ends up getting infected with the Bugster virus on about four separate occasions (and at least one of those was her own damn fault).  She gets kidnapped or otherwise held hostage on more than one occasion.  Despite being a Ride Player whose gaming skills could at least try to bridge the power gap -- or otherwise make her a strategist for the team, a la Peppy from Star Fox -- she’s about as helpful in a fight as Asuna/Poppy.  When she comes face-to-face with an actual villain, one creepy smile from him is all it takes to rob her of her bluster and make her cower in fear.  The more time passes, the more she forgoes her pro gamer identity and becomes the out-of-the-way sidekick for what’s more or less her love interest.  Because of course she does.  Also, she’s kind of a tsundere to him.  Because of course she is.

At least she lives to the end, which is more that I can say about other female Riders.  Even in Ex-Aid; Poppy sacrifices herself for reasons.  But it’s fine, because she’s barely dead for a full episode before she’s brought back unharmed.


Toei, can I start watching Build yet?  I really wanna watch Build now.

I still like the show (I think), but I won’t pretend like Ex-Aid is without fault.  What’s good is good, and what’s bad is…mmmmmmmmmmngh.  I’d say that what really holds it back is the fact that its problems kind of interlock with each other -- that individual issues compound and swing with the force of a wrecking ball.  Because it only goes halfway with the video game theme, opportunities are missed -- opportunities to fully establish and live by the rules in play.  And the same goes for options with characters.

To the show’s credit, those that don’t buy into the gaming affect lean more toward being doctors.  That’s good.  It does make Emu a bit of a stranger and an outlier to the rest of the crew, isolating him until he proves his worth.  On the other hand, it begs the question: why even have doctors in the first place, given that the Bugster virus requires no medical expertise or surgical technique more complex than “whoop the monster’s ass”?  Why give the Gamer Driver, a weapon to help fight against video game creatures, to guys that don’t even know how to play RPGs or rhythm games?

I only ask this for one simple reason: out of the heroes’ side, Emu is the only one I genuinely like.  

And I guess I’ll have to explain why…next time.

Joy of joys.  Now I have to think about them again.  FML.

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