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A Bold, Daring Dream

by Todd Ciolek, Jul 2nd 2008

As Anime Expo rolls around, I'm reminded of how it was when I was there in previous years. I would joyfully skip through the doors, press pass in hand, my haughty laughter echoing around everyone still waiting in line and slowly baking in the heat. Well, perhaps I've incurred some divine retribution, because I won't be at Anime Expo this year.

For those of you who are going and like video games far too much, make sure you stop by the convention's inevitably sweat-soaked game room and try out Aksys Games' BlazBlue. Then swing by D3's booth to play two new Naruto titles and what, in my opinion, may be the best game of 2008: Bangai-O Spirits. And if you're remotely interested in Shin Megami Tensei, don't miss the panel that Atlus is holding at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday. Other than that, you're all on your own. Just don't piss in the elevators.

NEWS

CASTLEVANIA MISSES FIGHTING-GAME CRAZE BY 14 YEARS
Remember how cool the idea of a Castlevania fighter seemed back in 1993, when you were 10 and everything was turning into a fighting game? Well, Konami never gave up on that dream, and they've announced Castlevania: Judgment, a 3-D fighter for the Wii. Confirmed so far are Simon Belmont, Dracula, Alucard, Maria, and Order of Ecclesia heroine Shanoa. It'll have classic Castlevania weapons and remote-waggling controls, but the real draw may be the new character designs by Death Note's Takeshi Obata. Devoted Castlevania fans have been less than enthusiastic about this new Castlevania, perhaps because Konami's last decent fighting game was 1997's Lightning Legend. Or perhaps because devoted Castlevania fans are bitter, cautious people who've been hurt too many times by something they love.

D.GRAY-MAN GETS HALFWAY INTERESTING GAME
Konami's upcoming D.Gray-man game for the PlayStation 2 has the conversations and character portraits of the standard anime-based graphic adventure game, but a closer look at the official website reveals a RPG-style battle system. Will D.Gray-man be a big enough hit in America to justify releasing the game here? The answer is likely “no,” but importers might find Konami's title a bit more entertaining than the norm when it hits Japan in September.

MEGA MAN 9 BREACHES THE FABRIC OF TIME ITSELF
Everyone knew Mega Man 9 was coming once those Australians leaked word of it, but few expected it to be a download-only title that looks just like one of the old NES games. Inicreates, developer of the Mega Man Zero sub-series, is crafting this superficially old-school Mega Man for WiiWare. The selection of robot masters is perfectly in line with the desperate-for-ideas mindset of Mega Man's NES days, what with Galaxy Man, Concrete Man, Hornet Man, Magma Man, Tornado Man, Jewel Man, Plug Man, and, shockingly, Splash Woman. Dr. Wily also returns to blame someone else for the robotic unrest, even though (spoiler!) he was really the villain in the previous eight games.

YET MORE NEW TATSUNOKO VS. CAPCOM STUFF
I'm not sure if I'll report every single new character announced for Tatsunoko vs. CAPCOM, but the fact remains that this corporate mash-up of a fighter is rapidly turning into an unprecedented celebration of Tatsunoko Productions history. The latest addition from the anime studio's catalog is the heroic Gan-Chan (below) from Yatterman, the 1979 superhero-mecha series that was recently granted a remake over in Japan. You might also spot Gan's canine robot, the Yatter-wan, in the game's backgrounds.

The other new character is Alex, the hulking blond grappler who CAPCOM debuted as the main character of Street Fighter III. He turned out to be that game's most boring cast member, but that hasn't stopped CAPCOM from sticking him in this Tatsunoko tribute, confident that somewhere, someone likes Alex.

RARE OLD GAMES HIT PSN, BUT NOT OVER HERE
Sony's PLAYSTATION Network is almost as sluggish as Nintendo's Virtual Console in North America, but it's moving right along in Japan by plundering old PlayStation releases like a rum-crazed Viking horde. The newest lineup features Xenogears and Einhander from Square, RayStorm and Fighter's Impact from Taito, and Rakugaki Showtime (right) and Astronoka from Enix. While Xenogears and Einhander have followings in both Japan and the U.S., the real highlight is Rakugaki Showtime, a multiplayer fighting game developed in characteristically weird fashioned by Treasure (Gunstar Heroes, Radiant Silvergun) and released in such limited quantities that used copies run about $150 on the streets of Akihabara. The PSN versions of these titles are all priced at 600 yen apiece, which the Internet translates to about $5.65. Too bad you'll need a Japanese credit card and a Japanese PSN account to download them.

CHRONO TRIGGER ON THE DS
I suppose it could be some other Square game that centers around time and has the initials "CT," but let's be reasonable. The teaser site doesn't say if it's a remake or a simple port, but the DS versions of Final Fantasy III and IV were remakes. I'd say that's a hint.

ANIME MMORPG CHECK-IN

Anime seldom ventures into the world of massively multiplayer online RPGs, a place already dominated by World of Warcraft, Everquest, and even Japanese creations like Final Fantasy XI. Besides, the idea of creating a blank-slate player character doesn't fit with the way most anime-based games recreate the distinct heroes and heroines who drive popular series. Yet some familiar anime properties are heading online, and at least one already did.

HOKUTO NO KEN ONLINE
Buronson and Tetsuo Hara's revered '80s action manga is known more for its gory system of justice than its rich setting, but there's a surprising amount of ground to explore in what we Americans know as Fist of the North Star. Throughout the series, the head-exploding Kenshiro wanders a post-apocalyptic expanse of quasi-medieval societies, super-powered warlords and highly splatterable biker punks. And there's really a lack of nuclear-blasted MMORPGs.

Developed by Gung Ho Online Entertainment, Hokuto no Ken Online debuted earlier this year with a 3000-player beta test, offering Japanese players the chance to create a character and wander wastelands, taking on quests while dispensing righteous and hyper-violent punishment. It's not all exploding brains, either; one of Gung Ho's trailers shows a cooking mini-game.

To keep players from squabbling like children over who gets to be Kenshiro (or Rei, who was always cooler anyway), the game forces you to make your own character, outfitting him or her with the armor and Mad Max haircut typical of Hokuto no Ken extras. And yes, a player-created woman can be just as much of a killing machine in this typically male-dominated testosterone wasteland.

Status: Up and running, but only for Japanese players.
Website: www.hokutonoken-online.jp

BASTARD!! ONLINE
When Tecmo and Shaft announced a Bastard!! online RPG back in 2006, it seemed like the sort of project doomed to cancelation, like the never-seen Trigun MMORPG. Just as Kasushi Hagiwara's half-comedic fantasy saga clings to life in manga form, the Bastard!! MMORPG survived, apparently progressing beyond its early artwork (right) and into a full-fledged game. While the manga and its scattershot six-part anime OVA tell of the warlock Dark Schneider's various conquests, the MMORPG explores the surrounding world of swords, sorcery, and nonstop heavy-metal references.

As in Hokuto no Ken Online, you don't actually get to play as Dark Schneider or any other established Bastard!! warlord. Instead, you have your choice of humans, elves, or freakish little troll-doll things called “hobibits.” Yes, really. Hobibits.

Screenshots on the game's official site show both authentic Bastard!! mid-air contests of sorcery and generic Everquest-ish battles with multiple players hacking tiresomely at orcs. Character classes are apparently based around Dark Schneider's generals, with players learning skills from the likes of ninja master Gara, the sorcerer Kall Su, or the dark elf empress Arshes Nei. The game's cast of monsters seems straight from the manga, and the character designs uphold Hagiwara's tradition of ripped heroes and buxom heroines strutting around in minimal garb and sometimes having crazed, inadvisable battlefield sex. Even the sample characters are making out.

Status: Despite an early beta test and a promotional video that resembles Dragon Ball Z crossed with The Lord of the Rings, Bastard!! Online remains in development. Its website is updated regularly, though.
Website: www.bastard-online.jp

UNIVERSAL CENTURY GUNDAM ONLINE
Mobile Suit Gundam games are an institution in Japan, so it came as no surprise when Bandai recruited Dimps Corporation, most recently seen developing Street Fighter IV, to create an MMORPG based on Gundam's Universal Century timeline. Set entirely in Australia, the game allowed players to create Zeon or Federation mobile suits and have it out in melees and long-range firefights.

It was a surprise when Universal Century Gundam Online allowed players from outside of Japan to join in. Though they had to use Japanese commands, the English-speaking following for the game proved strong enough to inspire its own website.

Status: Dimps and Bandai closed the servers on December 15, 2007.
Website: The official site is no more, but some players are at work on an independent server

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 7-6

Yes, it's another one-game week. While Devil May Cry 4 is hitting the PC, I doubt there are many interested parties who didn't already grab it for the Xbox 360 and PS3. The only other radar blip is a Code Lyoko game, and my sources tell me its origins lie in France.

FINAL FANTASY FABLES: CHOCOBO'S DUNGEON
(Wii, $39.99)
The Chocobo's Dungeon games have always been curious mixes of cutesy characters and rather punishing gameplay. Perhaps that's why Chocobo's Dungeon 2 and the most recent Final Fantasy Fables game, a DS dungeon-crawler called Chocobo Tales, didn't find a huge audience. Chocobo's Dungeon for the Wii is a larger, prettier reuse of the formula, which finds the adorable little yellow bird traipsing through underground mazes and sometimes meeting a swift and violent end. There's a host of traps to evade, abilities to uncover (including costume changes), and a town full of characters both new and familiar. All things considered, it's not a bad game for kids who need a challenge or older fans who need to squeal over the sight of a Chocobo in a cat-eared white mage's hood.

EXTRA LIVES: MAGIC KNIGHT RAYEARTH

Magic Knight Rayearth for the Sega Saturn is the most notorious anime-based game released in North America. It started innocently enough: created in 1995 by some of Sega's A-list talent (including Phantasy Star's Rieko “Phoenix Rie” Kodama), the Japanese edition of Rayearth impressed many with its polished visuals and lightweight, importer-friendly gameplay. It also summed up the first season of the cheaply made Magic Knight Rayearth TV series by recreating the tale of schoolgirls Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu being summoned to a land of fantasy and wish fulfillment. But that's not why Rayearth is notorious.

No, Rayearth is notorious because of its long, troubled journey to the States. It was quickly licensed and slated for a 1996 launch by Working Designs, the U.S. publisher of countless '90s Japanese action games and RPGs, including the fan-favorite Lunar series. There's a long and nerdy debate to be had over whether Working Designs was a savior or an abusive stepfather to deprived fans of Japanese games, but the company was certaintly known for liberal-minded translations and long production delays. Rayearth would be remembered by Working Designs as “the most grueling conversion we have ever attempted.”

For starters, a hard-drive crash at Sega wiped out some of the game's source code, leaving the programmers to rebuild it from scratch. Next, Sega unveiled a big, stupid plan to launch the Rayearth anime in the U.S., complete with awful new names for the characters, and Working Designs refused to cooperate. Perhaps the biggest obstacle emerged at the 1997 Electronic Entertainment Expo, where Sega gave Working Designs paltry booth space and openly proclaimed the death of the Sega Saturn. In response, Victor Ireland, the outspoken emperor of Working Designs, cut ties with Sega and turned to the PlayStation, going so far as to cancel plans to translate the Saturn version of the first Lunar.

This didn't bode well for Rayearth, and the problems continued. The game's script went through five different writers. The English logo made by Working Designs had to be discarded in favor of Sega's official one. The rights to the opening song were tied up. While the project simmered, Working Designs caused a stir when Ireland cease-and-desisted artists who'd published pornographic comics showing, among other things, Lunar characters. The fallout was brief yet hilarious, culminating in one prankster e-mailing crude Rayearth porn to a Working Designs staffer so he could tack it to Ireland's office door.

Rayearth and Working Designs hung on. Sega's plans for the anime fell through, and its revamped version, dubbed by Ocean Studios, never saw the light of day. This cleared the way for the Rayearth game, but another matter arose: the Sega Saturn itself was clearly dead in the U.S., playing a distant third to the PlayStation and the Nintendo 64. Working Designs, which had previously supported the TurboDuo and Sega-CD up to their dying days, wouldn't be dissuaded by such a minor thing as a system's total market collapse. And so it was that on December 11, 1998, stores finally got copies of Magic Knight Rayearth, the last Sega Saturn game released in North America.

Rayearth arrived with the usual Working Designs flourishes: a glossy, full-color manual, character stickers, three different disc-art variants, and a game script full of references to modern pop culture (which perhaps made more sense among displaced schoolgirls than, say, Lunar's fantasy setting) as well as sex education, condoms, and how “the back door is off-limits.” Signs of Rayearth's rough journey were all about. The Japanese original was packed with voice acting, but Working Designs removed the majority of it for the English version, citing that “players found it very, very annoying that many, many people in towns talked to you.” For those familiar with Rayearth's tumultuous past, another reason was clear: recording all of the voices in English would've set the game's release back even further. In place of the voice acting, Ireland and his programmers added voices for the three main characters' diary entries and threw in different versions of the theme song.

As for the game itself, Rayearth wasn't the wonder it'd been back in 1995. The game's visual style is crisp and enticing, but there's little spark in the jejune tale of Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu setting the dimension of Cefiro to rights. The script, colorful jokes and all, is limited by the storyline, and the voices seldom elevate it. Working Designs' voicework ranges from the enjoyable (Popful Mail, Lunar) to the unintentionally hilarious (Vasteel, Vanguard Bandits), and Rayearth manages to hit both extremes: the three heroines sound fine, but the villains and a few lesser-seen characters don't.

Still, Rayearth's gameplay was a cut above the usual Zelda-ripped approach to action-RPGs, and it remains so today. Players can switch freely between the three heroines, and each has regular and powered-up versions of a different weapon: Hikaru's wide-range sword, Umi's poking saber, and Fuu's long-range arrows. The game also involves a good deal of jumping for a Zelda clone, even if the puzzles are far too simple.

That's Rayearth's real problem: its lack of any challenges. Working Designs, the company that once toughened up Exile II: Wicked Phenomenon so much that it was impossible to finish, didn't make their version of Rayearth much harder than the Japanese one. From the pushover bosses to the game's lone plot twist at the end, it's little more than a leisurely wade through the first anime season's storyline.

Working Designs' Rayearth had a hard time attracting attention. Media Blasters released both seasons of the TV series while Manga Entertainment brought out the OVAs a few years down the road, yet few fans tracked down the game and the obsolete Sega system needed to run it. About 15,000 copies were printed, and Rayearth remained available through Working Designs' website until the company went under in 2005. Some unsold stock turned up on eBay, where the game can now be had for slightly less than what it cost in 1998. It may be a bit much for a merely competent action-RPG, but there's no denying that Rayearth is a piece of history.


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