The X Button
The Gate Master

by Todd Ciolek, Jun 11th 2008

Weeks like this take me back to the time when Nintendo first announced the DS, back when people called it the “Dual Screen” and made all sorts of jokes comparing it to the Virtual Boy (which is, incidentally, the greatest game system ever). Today, despite the PSP's admirable showing, the DS is the dominant force in handheld gaming, drawing in players from all walks of life, much like the GameBoy before it.

Such dominance is readily apparent this week. We've got a look at the next Naruto RPG for the DS, a roundup of upcoming releases that all happen to be DS titles, and even some news about NIS America's DS games. And then, just for variety's sake, we've got a visit from Golgo 13.

NEWS

NIS READIES DISGAEA, RHAPSODY, WITCHERY

Nippon Ichi Software owes a lot to Disgaea, seeing as how the strategic RPG's cult success back in 2003 paved the way for NIS's American branch and its catalog of similar titles, all featuring simple 2-D visuals and big-eyed characters. And NIS isn't about to forget that, as their lineup for the rest of 2008 has two Disgaea games.

Disgaea 3 drew some mockery earlier this year for showing up on the PlayStation 3 in Japan while still looking very much like the last two Disgaeas, neither of which had state-of-the-art graphics to begin with. Yet beneath the unevolved visuals, Disgaea 3 is very much what fans want: a complex and lengthy strategy-RPG set in the bowels of hell. Or at least at a school in the bowels of hell, where M.A.O, the ambitious headmaster's son, schemes to overthrow his father while the academy's resident delinquent, Raspberyl, tries to stop him for entirely selfish reasons. The gameplay is once again reliant on ridiculous techniques, encouraging players to deliberately cheat and power-level their way through battles. That's strangely appropriate.

For those of you interested in the first Disgaea yet forced to play only DS games by court order or religious edict, NIS America plans on releasing the DS port here in September. It's still the same tale of the bratty underworld heir Laharl and the demon girls who love and/or hate him, but Disgaea DS offers a bunch of characters from Disgaea 2 (including the rabbit-loving Pleinair) not seen in either the PlayStation 2 original or the recent PSP version.

Another upcoming NIS America release, Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure may also be familiar to some, though the 2000 PlayStation game is remembered mostly for having more sugary-sweet songs than My Little Rainbow Brite Barbie Parade, with an uncommonly bitchy tone beneath its rags-to-royalty princess fable. The DS version adds a few new features, including a redone battle interface and a playable version of heroine Cornet's puppet sidekick. The treacly showtunes, however, will apparently stay in Japanese this time around.

The biggest surprise on the NIS schedule is A Witch's Tale, a DS action-RPG co-developed by Hitmaker (Blade Dancer, Dragoneer's Aria). The detailed, Halloween-in-hell backgrounds resemble Vanillaware's Grim Grimoire and the recent Soul Eater anime, while the heroine's barely pubescent gothic-lolita look should find favor with the creepy fans who played Disgaea mostly for the under-dressed Etna.

SOUL CALIBUR IV, STAR WARS GET EXACT SAME NEW CHARACTER
So there's yet another Star Wars character in Soul Calibur IV, and he's not even a movie mainstay. No, the latest addition is Starkiller, the Darth Vader understudy who exists only in LucasArts' Force Unleashed multimedia project. Apparently Starkiller (right) aids Vader in destroying scattered Jedi in between the third and fourth Star Wars movies, all in a gap-bridging story much like that Shadows of the Empire thing that no one cares about now. Really, Namco; if you're in so thick with LucasArts, why not slip in some characters from the Monkey Island series or Grim Fandango?

SQUARE ENIX TO PLAYSTATION 3 OWNERS: NYAH NYAH
Square Enix kept many fans guessing as to which console would get the fourth main Star Ocean title. The answer came at a Microsoft PR event: Star Ocean 4: The Last Hope is coming to the Xbox 360 in 2009. And remember The Last Remnant, Square's ambitious Western-aimed RPG? It was originally pegged as a PS3/Xbox 360 title, but it's been re-christened as a 360 exclusive for the present. There's a chance that both games will later hit the PS3, which is still the exclusive home of Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy Versus XIII.

CHAOS WARS HAS THE GREATEST VOICE ACTING EVER
We took a journey through awful dubbing with Castle of Shikigami III last week, and this week brings us something that goes above and beyond the call of low-effort translation. Chaos Wars is a strategy-RPG crossover between Gungrave, Shadow Hearts and a few lesser-known series, and O3 gave it a fairly quiet release at North American GameStops last month. And then people started playing it and listening to the English voices.

Don't bother trying to pick out any well-known anime voice actors. The game's cast was apparently played by the dub director and two relatives of the O3 CEO, and perhaps a lot of voice synthesizers. Yes, you can turn on the Japanese vocal track, but I'm not so sure I'd want to.

PREVIEW: NARUTO: PATH OF THE NINJA 2

The original Naruto: Path of the Ninja was a notable sight when it arrived here last year, if only for being one of the few North American Naruto titles that wasn't yet another fighting game. Yet Path of the Ninja was a DS revamp of Naruto RPG: Uketsugareshi Hi no Ishi, a GameBoy Advance game, and the resulting port was a simplistic role-playing exercise. Tomy aims to improve on it by skipping the second Naruto RPG entirely and delivering the third one to us as Naruto: Path of the Ninja 2 this fall.

Perhaps the greatest change lies in the game's roster of controllable characters: while only seven could join the player's party in the first game, Path of the Ninja 2 has 30 recruitable cast members from the Naruto canon. Granted, it tricks players into playing twice if they want the full cast, as Naruto's forced to choose between two ninja allies at one point in the game.

The entirely self-contained story (“filler” for the more cynical among us) is set shortly after Sasuke departs to train alongside series villain Orochimaru. While flashbacks will cite familiar events from the manga and anime, the game's central quest follows Naruto and his fellow fledgling ninja's efforts to stop a band of rogue assassins from freeing an ancient creature.

As for the basic RPG battles, a new system allows each four-ninja band of characters to benefit from its leader's skills, with range from higher defense to automatic healing, and each character has around ten unique attacks (including, of course, both the sexy jutsu and "harem" jutsu) enabled by the game's “ninja tag” collecting system. There's also a Wi-Fi versus mode, and even a French language option, rare in RPGs, for the Quebec crowd. For more on the next Naruto RPG, we threw some quick questions at Tomy Product Specialist Glenn Stotz.

The X Button: The original Naruto: Path of the Ninja was a GameBoy Advance game ported to the DS for North America. Is this one an original DS game?

Glenn Stotz: This is an original DS game that's made to take advantage of the DS.

What sets the second Path of the Ninja apart from other RPGs?

I think that all of the battles and strategic elements that have been added make it like a big game of chess. Not only do you have to know what to do in battle, but you have to know what to do before battle. It's less of a ride down a one-track rollercoster than it is a challenge to make your way through puzzling environments.

Who's in it that wasn't in the first game?

What characters doesn't it have? I think everybody's favorite character made it into the game. There's a ton in there.

Is it more complex than the first?

I think so, because of all the new features like the Ninja Tag system. The complexity is there if you want it to be. You can simplify it if you want, but you'll have an edge if you embrace all of the complexity, especially in the wireless mode.

Is that wireless multiplayer mode co-op?

Nope. It's just your four ninja versus the other player's four.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 6-15

It's rightly assumed that everyone will still be playing Metal Gear Solid 4 by next week, which makes it all the more convenient that the relevant releases are for handhelds. That way we can play them while sitting through Metal Gear's invariably long story scenes. Gaming while gaming. How avant-garde we shall be.

ARKANOID
(DS/PSP, $19.99)
Taito's 1986 arcade game isn't celebrated in the same ranks as Pac-Man, Galaga or Frogger, perhaps because Arkanoid is really just a retread of Atari's Breakout. But Arkanoid added power-ups and an end boss to the basic idea of a paddle bouncing a ball into a wall of blocks. This DS revamp doesn't really add much more; there's a multiplayer mode and a new soundtrack, and that's about it. Sadly, the trackball attachment for the DS is available only in Japan.
Get Excited If: You played it as a kid and remember what the boss looks like.



ETRIAN ODYSSEY II: HEROES OF LAGAARD
(DS, $29.99)
The original Etrian Odyssey is a “dungeon hack,” or, in more precise terms, a “game that hates you.” The sequel continues the proud tradition of sending players through labyrinths stocked with vicious monsters and twisted passages, all of which you've got to map out yourself by using the DS's touch-screen. And that's the way dungeon-hack fans like it. The opposite of modern hand-holding RPGs, Etrian Odyssey II is a grueling and largely plot-free challenge from the start.
Get Excited If: You complain about every Final Fantasy being too easy.



SPACE INVADERS EXTREME
(DS, $19.99)
How did Square Enix and Taito update one of the most iconic arcade games of all time? They didn't mess with the basic play mechanics, although, unlike Arkanoid up there, the new version of Space Invaders has plenty of upgrades, from raver backgrounds to hidden stages. Yes, the basic game is older than the average DS or PSP owner, but it's all made new enough to draw in just about anyone.
Get Excited If: You enjoy Space Invaders as a game and not just a hipster t-shirt.




TAMAGOTCHI CONNECTION CORNER SHOP 3
(DS, $19.99)
Much like Bandai's other major fad of the '90s, Power Rangers, the venerable Tamagotchi survived its fall from the public eye and lives on as a regular staple of children's toy aisles, where it laughs spitefully in the faces of pundits who declared it dead ten years ago. Tamagotchi Connection Corner Shop 3 is yet another store-running simulator for kids who long to provide Tamagotchi goods and services to the masses.
Get Excited If: Your key-chain Tamagotchi's still alive after all these years.



EXTRA LIVES: GOLGO 13

With a new version of Space Invaders showing up next week, this edition of Extra Lives takes a stoic look at a lesser-known SG-1000 game that's a lot like Space Invaders, except with the manga world's greatest sniper instead of a boxy, alien-shooting tank.

Golgo 13. Duke Togo. The Man With the Custom M-16. The grim-faced assassin and manga icon beloved by Japanese salarymen, pulp connoisseurs, and faux-ironic manchildren the world over. He's arguably more popular than ever nowadays, what with the new Golgo 13 animated TV series starting up in Japan and Takao Saito's original manga nearing its 40th anniversary. However, no one's made a game in celebration of this, so we're delving into the surprisingly wide history of Golgo 13 titles.

We're going back, past the Silent-Scope-esque Golgo 13 arcade releases, past the digital-comic PlayStation stuff and the canceled Nintendo 64 game that probably never even existed in the first place. We're even going beyond the two Golgo 13 NES titles: The Mafat Conspiracy and Top Secret Episode, the latter of which is quite terrible and would be remembered by no one if it didn't have a scene of a tiny NES sprite Golgo 13 having sex with a female agent behind a hotel curtain. Yes, we're going straight to the source: the first Golgo 13 game ever.

The subtitle-free Golgo 13, released in 1984 for the Sega SG-1000 (the console that later inspired the Sega Master System), wastes no time in showing us the jaundice-stricken face of Golgo 13, possibly contemplating his latest implausible, world-shaking assignment, or preparing to gun down a mafia don from twelve blocks away, or plowing some outrageously endowed Latvian counter-intelligence vixen. It's all the same to Golgo's unchanging expression and the Saito Productions artists who've drawn it for decades.

Lacking the technical ability (and perhaps the nerve) to show Golgo shooting corrupt politicians or unfaithful trophy wives, Sega pitted him against a steam locomotive. Much like a Space Invaders fighter, Golgo drives back and forth at the bottom of the screen while trying to hit the train's windows, which shatter and release little scampering people. This gives rise to the game's lone twist: you don't shoot the escaping figures. They're hostages, and they'll even wave at you a split-second before running off the screen. Golgo 13 fans, here's your chance to tell me that this is, in fact, based on a story from volume 17 in which he shoots the ropes binding captives on a train during the Athens Polytechnic Uprising of 1973.

The first two stages have no enemies whatsoever. The only thing capable of killing Golgo 13 is, of course, Golgo 13 himself. His bullets will bounce off the boxcars and trucks that block his view, and, as with all things Golgo 13, the shots have to line up just right before they'll destroy his car. It's not until the third stage that helicopters fly out and drop bombs his way, and he can shoot both the helicopters and the bombs. Because he's Golgo 13. Duh.

Naturally, Golgo 13 doesn't die when his car explodes. Even the Game Over screen finds him perched stoically beside the street. One wonders if Takao Saito insisted that Golgo escape from a smoldering grave on the freeway and remain impervious to actual death.

And that's the game. There are no improbable headshots that change the course of modern history. No drawn-out story scenes detailing conspiracies in the Vatican or the Kremlin or Princess Diana's death car. No vaguely implied 8-Bit sex that'll give an awful game a cult following. Just Golgo 13, a train, and a shooting spree for as long as you can last. It's competently made, but like a lot of arcade-style titles from its era, Golgo 13's first game is just a repetitive diversion that's worth playing for, oh, a good three minutes.


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