The X Button
Utter Nonsense

by Todd Ciolek, Jun 4th 2008

So you like video games? Good for you. Some say that the game industry is a juvenile by-product of modern consumer excess, but these deluded souls miss the fact that games are enjoyed by everybody of sound mind and respectable demeanor. In fact, I'd make the bold claim that anyone with even the faintest interest in anime harbors an equal interest in video games, or at least a sliver of curiosity about the various intersections of the two.

That brings us to this column, in which I wade through the coming week's releases. What exactly will you see here? News, reviews and various writings on just about every game that has something in common with anime or manga, be it a common style, a property license, or the fact that Go Nagai once walked by it at a trade show. Sadly, this means that decidedly Western games like Bioshock and Math Blaster Pre-Algebra, excellent as they are, will have to sit out in the hall. I'm sure we'll get by.

NEWS

CASTLEVANIA: STILL SORT OF INTERESTING
I honestly didn't think that I could summon any enthusiasm for yet another Castlevania showing up on the DS with the same branching, Metroid-style exploration as the last six or seven games. But then Konami put out a new trailer that shows how they've shaken things up ever so slightly.

For one, they're ditching the My-First-DeviantArt characters designs of the most recent Castlevania and making Order of Ecclesia the first game in the series with a lone female lead (not counting the GameBoy one that was retconned out of relevance or the Dreamcast game that never came out). Most importantly, they're apparently playing up action as much as castle-mapping this time around, as shown when the heroine, Shanoa, kills an angry talking crab demon by dropping an elevator on it.

SOUL CALIBUR IV: COMPLETELY SEXIST AFTER ALL
Remember how the armor-clad knight Hilde was one of the first new characters that Namco Bandai announced for Soul Calibur IV? And remember how fans extolled the value of a female character who wore full suit of armor instead of a combat thong? Well, that was a lie. Hilde and the rest of the game's cast can lose their armor and clothing in the midst of battles, as shown in a newly released trailer.

And while it's old news, it must be pointed out that the two most recently debuted Soul Calibur IV cast members were designed by (in)famous manga authors. The game's already seen new characters courtesy of Sgt. Frog's Mine Yoshizaki and Patlabor's Yutaka Izubuchi, and now Gantz creator Hiroya Oku offers up the ninja-like Shura, giving the game a second dominatrix clad in all the fabric due a coin purse. Meanwhile, Oh! great, of Tenjho Tenge and Air Gear notoriety, goes the opposite route with Ashlotte (above-right), who's dressed head to toe in wire, lace, and metal, showing all of Oh! great's style and none of the misogyny.

If you're hoping for a guest appearance from, say, Indiana Jones, don't give up yet. Namco Bandai's still got about two months to announce more new characters.

STREET FIGHTER IV GAINS CHARACTERS, COMEDY
In other fighting game tomfoolery, CAPCOM all but announced that Fei Long, Super Street Fighter II's half-forgotten Bruce Lee clone, will show up in the game's home version, as will Dan Hibiki, the pink-clad joke character of the Street Fighter canon. The latest arrival in the arcade version is the clinically obese Rufus, who attacks other warriors with the mere sight of his stomach hair. At least that's what CAPCOM's apparently promising with this, the best screenshot of Street Fighter IV yet.

ITAGAKI OUT
Finally, Tomonobu Itagaki, creator of Dead or Aliveand the new Ninja Gaiden games, has left Tecmo, claiming that the company refused to pay him bonuses he was promised. Perhaps that was because he demanded those bonuses be paid in nubile, blonde American cheerleaders. Or perhaps not.

REVIEW: CASTLE OF SHIKIGAMI III

Castle of Shikigami III is both a halfway enjoyable old-school shooter and a magnificent comedy. It follows the precedent set by the oddly particle-free Castle Shikigami 2, which XS Games translated years ago, presumably by using Babelfish and the most undirected, cut-rate voice talent that Burger King coupons could buy. The results were hilarious, and it's entirely possible that most of the people buying Castle of Shikigami III are doing so not for the amusing game mechanics but for the chance to glimpse another round of horribly dubbed dialogue.

And Aksys Games knows this. They've given Castle of Shikigami III what can only be a deliberately loose translation, with clueless-sounding actors voicing a conniving witch, a psychic P.I., a self-isolating royal heir, a polite butler, a man-hating doctor, a dual-personality little girl, and a time-traveling police officer (who's actually the eponymous heroine from the old Taito arcade game Time Gal). They bounce off of each other while flying through a mysterious castle, getting into frequently incomprehensible arguments with stage bosses and barking out lines like “The path to survival is deprivation and humiliation!”


It's not quite as incoherent as Castle Shikigami 2, however. The voice actors are noticeably better and often sound self-consciously inane, and, horror of horrors, some of the back-and-forth actually makes sense. For all of Aksys' efforts at manufacturing kitsch, it's far more professional that the previous game and, consequently, less amusing.

All of this overshadows the actual game within Castle of Shikigami III, a serviceable vertically-scrolling shooter that sheds many of the genre's more annoying concepts. Instead of snatching up power-ups and losing them upon being hit, characters can use two separate attacks at any time, and they're boosted further by a “Tension Bonus System” that encourages you to edge as close as possible to enemy fire. It's a clever trade-off: get near projectiles and your shots are much stronger, but so are your chances of getting hit.

In porting the game to the Wii, Alfa System should be commended for not shoehorning in any remote-waggling nonsense, as the game plays perfectly with the basic directional pad. Unfortunately, the port doesn't look all that great. Shikigami III's hardly a visual wonder in its mixing of 3-D backgrounds and simple character sprites, and the field of play's framed by large borders on either side. It's hard to make out the projectiles on smaller TVs, which defeats the purpose of the Tension Bonus System and all but forces you to flip your set on its side to play in full-screen “TATE” mode. At five levels, it's also a fairly short game, meant to be replayed with a different team of characters each time.

Like many shooters today, Castle of Shikigami III is brief and a tad insubstantial, saved from mediocrity by its hysterically awkward attempts at a storyline. If you're one for reveling in terrible translations from games or anime, Shikigami III will prove itself worth buying after a few conversations about time travel, gender politics and jealous undead girlfriends.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 6-8

Most of the attention next week will go toward a certain much-hyped title starring a grizzled old man with an electronic eye patch, but we're also getting Dragon Ball Z's first steps into the current console generation, along with a game that's all about hard-drinking detectives and back-alley murders and dames who are nothing but trouble. That's what I hope, at least.

METAL GEAR SOLID 4: GUNS OF THE PATRIOTS
(PS3, $59.99/$84.99)
Well, it's finally here: the game that'll allegedly end Solid Snake's part in the Metal Gear mythos while answering all sorts of long-simmering questions about the series' Byzantine plot and, in the process, selling a few PlayStation 3 systems (hence the bundle that includes both a PS3 and the game). Some will buy it for the much-improved controls and spacious battlefields. Others will buy it for the monkey/robot sidekicks and the part where a bisexual, undying vampire assassin fights a cyborg version of Metal Gear Solid 2's pretty-boy Raiden (who, as character designer Yoji Shinkawa reminds us, is all scarred and crazy because the fans hated him so much). Either way, it's one of the biggest game releases of the year.
Get Excited If: You're ever liked Metal Gear in any form.

DRAGON BALL Z: BURST LIMIT
(Xbox 360/PS3, $59.99)
At this point, developer Dimps has comfortably settled into its role of delivering routinely faithful fighting-game renditions of the Dragon Ball Z anime. This means that the game looks amazing, taking the cartoonish art of “cel-shading” to new heights, and also that the gameplay's still measured and simple. Dragon Ball Z fans will devour it readily and enjoy the constant nods toward Toriyama's creations and the recreations of countless beloved anime moments (albeit with better pacing), but fighting-game fans will be too busy criticizing Street Fighter IV to bother with this.
Get Excited If: You've actually had a real-life discussion about the pronunciation of “Kamehameha.”


JAKE HUNTER: DETECTIVE CHRONICLES
(DS, $19.99)
On the surface, Jake Hunter has much in common with CAPCOM's Phoenix Wright: both star in graphic-adventure games all about investigative techniques and lots of talking. But while Phoenix is a gawking, overstressed attorney harried by eccentrics, Jake is a straight-faced private eye amid hardened criminals and seemingly earnest victims. In Aksys' heavily Americanized translation of a game from the Tantei Jinguuji Saburo series (which has actually been around since the '80s in Japan), Jake investigates raceway murders and mysterious disappearances, all while finding time to trudge through the rain and deliver cynical aphorisms. It's the closest the DS has come to a Raymond Chandler novel since Nintendo's Hotel Dusk, but the Phoenix Wright fan base may be disappointed in Jake's lack of overt comedy and homoerotic double entendres.
Get Excited If: You wish Phoenix Wright weren't so damn goofy.

EXTRA LIVES: MACROSS: SCRAMBLED VALKYRIE

In this might-be-weekly addendum, I pull out an older game that's somehow relevant to anime. In honor of Castle of Shikigami III, this installment hearkens back to another blend of nonsensical English and an enjoyable shooter—and this one throws in a beloved anime franchise.

As someone who was too young to ever properly enjoy the '80s, I've always found some retroactive nostalgia in Macross and its perfect summation of the Reagan-era space fantasy, which involves cool transforming robot-jets, a hotshot pilot who romances an idol singer (but settles down with a military woman), and communist aliens who're divided and defeated by the glorious crush of pop culture. And I, along with many other Macross fans, have been perpetually disappointed at how seldom Macross games get it right. Of the dozen or so attempts out there, Choujikuu Yousai Macross Scrambled Valkyire, released in 1993 for the Super Famicom (that'd be the Japanese version of the Super NES, for those of you playing at home), comes the closest.

Essentially a hodgepodge of the Macross TV series and the Do You Remember Love film, Scrambled Valkyrie tosses you into the thick of the war against Zentradi forces in the role of Hikaru, Max, or Milia. While their Valkyrie fighters all control the same, each pilot has a unique set of attacks depending on whether his or her Valkyrie's in jet mode, robot mode, or the evolutionary stage of Gerwalk mode. And, naturally, there's a bit of awkward English text to spur you on, telling you “now is time to scramble valkyrie again” between levels.

The game's seven stages lay a solid enough shooter foundation, spanning outer-space battles as well as dogfights inside the city-filled SDF-1 battleship. There's a noticeable lack of story sequences, as the developers at Winky Soft were clearly less concerned with capturing the Macross script than they were with making a simple, decent game. Sadly, they neglected to include the “Itano Circus,” that iconic anime display of a Valkyrie fighter whirling unscathed through massive clouds of enemy missiles. There are limits to Super NES graphics, after all.

Scrambled Valkyrie isn't quite a classic as 16-bit shooters go, but it's a nice find for Macross devotees who want something above the usual licensed boilerplate. As it never saw an official U.S. release, they'll have to make do with the Japanese version by grabbing a ROM (which is, of course, as legal as downloading fansubs) or importing the actual game. It rarely shows up on eBay, and copies from retailers range from $40 for a complete box-and-manual game to $10 for the bare cartridge. However, Scrambled Valkyrie was a popular import among American gamers back in the day, so there's a change that one might stumble across it at flea market or in the dank corner of some mom-and-pop game store.


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