The X Button Fist and Fantasy
by Todd Ciolek,
Welcome to the third edition of The X Button, where tradition apparently dictates that I introduce myself. I was most recently an editor at Anime Insider, and I've also popped up in this temporarily frozen GameSetWatch column and at my fellow ANN contributor Rob Bricken's Topless Robot site.
But that's not important. What's important here is my background in video games. Like a lot of children of the '80s, I plunged into games when my parents finally caved and bought me the iconic, competition-squashing Nintendo Entertainment System. The experience of owning an NES left me with only marginal respect for all that old Atari stuff and everything else that came before Mario and Metroid. As the years went by, I got into games more and more. I even went through a rabid collecting phase and bought all sorts of old games and systems in a futile attempt to recapture the materialistic childhood I was denied. I've since shaken off that period of my life and pared down the ridiculously huge library of games I had, leaving behind only my favorites and the useless knowledge with which I now serve you. Oh, and my favorite NES games are Crystalis, The Guardian Legend, and, of course, Super Mario Bros. 3.
MEGA MAN 9 COMING, POSSIBLY AS LITERATURE
With new Mega Man games showing up every year, it's hard to remember that the last main installment of the series, Mega Man 8, came out way back in 1997. Word of another genuine Mega Man recently emerged when the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification approved Mega Man 9. Is it a fully 3-D sequel? A classic 2-D game? A cell-phone diversion that'll disappoint everyone? And will it have borderline-racist caricatures like Mega Man: Powered Up's Oil Man, show at right? At this point, we have no idea.
STREET FIGHTER IV BACKGROUNDS TO FEATURE FANS
If you misspent some portion of your youth obsessed with Street Fighter II (and I certainly did) you probably remember the game down to its background characters: the chicken-choking guy in Chun-Li's Chinese market, the showgirls in Balrog's Vegas strip, the women in M. Bison's temple who yell at you after you break their statues, and so on. Now you can be part of all that in Street Fighter IV. Capcom's running a contest that gives you the chance to show up in the game's scenery, provided you write a convincing enough essay. The deadline is tomorrow, so get to work.
NINTENDO MAKES NEW STAFY GAME, BUT NOT FOR US
I've never been able to figure out why Nintendo hasn't released a single Stafy game in the West. After all, Stafy (or “Starfy,” which would make more sense) is an adorable Kirby-esque starfish who's appeared in four enjoyable action-platform games on the GBA and DS. This isn't like Nintendo's Mother 3, where a cute-looking title hides morose turns of plot; Stafy's as innocent as can be. Developer Tose is planning a fifth Stafy game, featuring a variety of transformations for Stafy and his sister, who has the unfortunate name of “Staphy.” With an infection-free name change, The Legend of Stafy 5 would fit right into Nintendo's American lineup. But it probably won't.
TORNADO CAT: THE NEXT KATAMARI?
A game where a cat turns into a giant tornado and swallows up buildings stolen by a reckless god? That sounds quite normal, especially now that Katamari Damacy's paved the way for such things. What's strange is that it's coming out in the U.S. this fall from Ignition. With Tornado, Success (the studio behind Izuna and, uh, the old-school shooter series Cotton) devised an unique DS action game in which players twirl the stylus to transform a little cat named Toki into the rare constructive twister.
NEW SUPER ROBOT WARS...
While we Americans contend with the two Super Robot Wars Original Generation games released here by Atlus (as Super Robot Taisen for weaselly legal reasons), Japanese fans get a new installment of the series every few months. The latest is Super Robot Wars A Portable, a PSP remake of Super Robot Wars Advance for the GBA. Yet it's the largely new Super Robot Wars Z that's foremost in fans' thoughts and on Japan's most-wanted game charts. The lineup for Z features mechs from Gundam X, Turn A Gundam, Gundam SEED Destiny, Zeta Gundam, Char's Counterattack, Zambot 3, Daitarn 3, Combat Mecha Xabungle, Eureka Seven, Orguss (no Orguss 02?), Space Emperor God Sigma, Grendizer, Getter Robo G, Aquarion, Space Warrior Baldios, Overman King Gainer, Great Mazinger, Mazinger Z, those lousy Gravion shows, and both seasons of The Big O. It's an impressive lineup, even if they're neglecting Gurren Lagann, Layzner, Giant Robo, Evangelion, Nadesico, Giant Gorg, and the greatest robot series of all time, Dai Apolon.
...FOLLOWED BY MORE SUPER ROBOT WARS
Meanwhile, the Super Robot Wars fans who prefer fewer classic giant mecha and more giant heaving breasts are playing Super Robot Wars Original Generation Endless Frontier. A DS spin-off of a spin-off, the game features the license-free robots from the Original Generation series in an alternative universe. In this brave new land, they're overshadowed by the game's collection of busty anime-girl stereotypes: ninja girls, catgirls, witch girls, dancing shaman girls, sword-wielding princess girls dressed like cocktail waitresses (right), and, of course, robot girls. The combat system reproduces the button-mashery of Namco X Capcom, and developer Monolith Soft (yes, they of Xenosaga infamy) even threw in cameos from NxC's Reiji, Xiaomu, and Saya. Also seen are Xenosaga's KOS-MOS and T-elos, who burst out of their tops to launch laser beams. That particular detail tells you everything you need to know about Endless Frontier.
JUNE'S WEIRD-ASS IMPORT ROUNDUP
Japan's gaming culture is often stereotyped as bizarre and inscrutable, and this would be irritating if it weren't completely true. Each month brings another glimpse of weird niche titles that would likely never come out here, and for sound reasons. So let's dive right into this month's array of games that only Japan and the boldest of importers will play.
99 NO NAMIDA
Nintendo's Brain Age spawned its own little industry of DS games designed to improve your logic skills, teach you needlepoint or make you a better person in general, but nothing quite compares to Namco Bandai's new 99 No Namida (99 Tears), which wants to make you cry. Assuming that a good bout of hysterical sobbing is therapeutic, it offers 200 different stories, presented as the wares of a special store in a city where people have forgotten what true sadness is. Using a player-created profile, the game selects 99 stories, all engineered by real-life Japanese college professors, in an attempt to get you bawling. There's no word yet on whether you can return it if you discover that you're an emotionless shell of a human being.
ENGLISH OF THE DEAD
Sega's Typing of the Dead was one of the more neglected Dreamcast games: a Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing crossed with an arcade gun game full of snarling zombies. In its follow-up, English of the Dead, writing out English words and phrases with the stylus beats back the undead hordes. Don't expect to see a reversed edition to teach Japanese to English zombie-hunters, but you can always import the game and use your built-in linguistic advantage.
13-SAI NO HELLO WORK
After penning such bleak novels as Coin Locker Babies and In the Miso Soup, Ryu Murakami decided to introduce teenagers to the soul-destroying wonders of the adult world with a book called Work Training for 13-Year-Olds. The DS adaptation finds a robot girl traveling from the future in order to experience as many crushing modern careers as possible. Each job search results in a different set of mini-games, with nearly a hundred of them preparing the young player for life in Japan's troubled economy. Fans of the now-ubiquitous Miku Hatsune will find her in the game, possibly to symbolize the singing career of a synthesized, non-existent pop star.
RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 6-22
FINAL FANTASY TACTICS A2
It's time to accept that the cutthroat medieval politics and grim undertones of the original Final Fantasy Tactics are never coming back to the series. And neither is Yasumi Matsuno, the man responsible for them. In his absence, Square and director Yuichi Murasawa have turned the Tactics world into a cuter, friendlier place full of moogles and bunny-women and heroic schoolchildren. Tactics A2 is perhaps the cutest, friendliest piece of the series we've yet seen, as it strips away what little bite there was in the kid-oriented Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. In story, it's a lightweight tale of a brat named Luso transported to a fairy-tale land by a book. In gameplay, it improves on the first Tactics Advance by adding more options to the combat and toning down the “Law” system that everyone hated.
Get Excited If: You found it in yourself to finish Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.
MEGA MAN STAR FORCE 2 ZERKER X NINJA/SAURIAN
If the swarm of Mega Man offshoots confuses you, just think of the Star Force series as the natural successor to the Mega Man Battle Network series. Like Battle Network, the original Star Force and this sequel are simple RPGs with the mature and dignified tone of a throwaway Digimon episode. The battle system mixes card collecting with an action-based interface, and there's a Wi-Fi card-battle multiplayer mode for that Yu-Gi-Oh touch. Oh, and the two versions differ only in the attacks Mega Man uses: he wields a sword in Saurian while Ninja stereotypically grants him faster speed and shuriken attacks.
Get Excited If: You must own and play every single Mega Man game.
NARUTO ULTIMATE NINJA HEROES 2: THE PHANTOM FORTRESS
The Naruto Ultimate Ninja series always depresses me through no fault of its own, as each new game represents time and energy that developer Cyberconnect2 could put toward sequels to their PlayStation sleepers, Silent Bomber and Tail Concerto. Not that the Ultimate Ninja games are in any way bad. Using the same multi-plane combat engine as the first Ultimate Ninja Heroes PSP game, The Phantom Fortress adds a new batch of story-driven quests to the regular modes. It's another sturdy fighter, aimed more at Naruto fans and the Smash Bros. crowd than the players who memorize every inch of Virtua Fighter 4.
Get Excited If: You Tivo and watch Naruto episodes that you've already seen.
(XBOX 360, $59.99)
Some games sell themselves on premise alone. Take Operation Darkness, a strategy-RPG set in a World War II that they don't teach in schools, because this World War II is completely made-up nonsense about squads of werewolves and psychics and pyrokinetic witches taking on the Nazi undead and Der Fuhrer himself. The play mechanics are a bit more traditional, as you guide units across grid-based battlefields and larger maps on your march to the paranormal capital of vampire-ruled Nazi Germany. Early reactions to this one have proven lukewarm, but the game's bizarre, Mignola-ish version of the European theater begs for a look.
Get Excited If: You've ever thought that those History Channel specials could use more werewolves, zombies and busty Nazi commandants.
EXTRA LIVES: FIST OF THE NORTH AMERICAN STAR
Fist of the North Star should be a huge success in North America, at least as far as video games go. I can understand why eager, demanding, irony-deficient kids don't want to wade through the dated, drawn-out '80s anime series or Buronson and Tetsuo Hara's equally long manga, but there's no child in the Western world who can shrug off a video game where you can make someone's head explode. And that's what Fist of the North Star's Kenshiro does to nearly everyone who gets in his way.
Yet the majority of Fist of the North Star games never showed up here. Perhaps that's due to the anime and manga's aforementioned inability to catch on, even in the conveniently digested forms of the 1986 film and the more recent OVAs and movies. Perhaps it's because most Fist of the North Star games are awful. No matter the reason, Kenshiro and the post-apocalyptic carnage he causes were actually more common in the U.S. back in the '80s than in the years after Mortal Kombat made head-bursting safe for kids everywhere.
(Sega Master System, 1986)
It may seem strange that Sega would turn a Fist of the North Star game into a generic karate beat-'em-up called Black Belt just for American audiences, but it was 1986, after all. The Karate Kid was still huge, and it was perhaps more cost-effective to remake an entire game than to pay Toei for the anime license. The backgrounds went from nuked-out cities to undamaged skyscrapers and pagodas, the enemies went from crazed mutants to shirtless thugs, and Kenshiro went from a bulky Mad Max hero to a gi-wearing martial artist named Riki. Yet the most important thing remained: as in Fist of the North Star, all of Black Belt's enemies fly apart in blocky, bloodless pieces when Riki punches them.
(Sega Genesis, 1989)
Sega changed far less when another Fist of the North Star game became Last Battle, one of the launch titles for the Genesis in North America. The backdrop of nuclear wastelands and shattered urban ruins remains, but the big, beautiful head explosions of the Japanese version (right) were censored, and the characters were recolored and renamed. Kenshiro, for one, got the less pronounceable name of “Aarzak.” For fans, half the fun of Last Battle comes from seeing how series mainstays like Bat and Lynn were turned into barely recognizable pastel-haired sidekicks. In fact, that's the best thing about Last Battle, which was in the Genesis lineup mostly to make games like Altered Beast look better.
FIST OF THE NORTH STAR
If Sega didn't want to work with an anime license, Taxan showed no such reservations in releasing Fist of the North over here on the NES, complete with anime box art awkward enough for a Chinese bootleg. Taxan's title is actually the second Fist of the North Star game released on the Famicom, the Japanese NES. It's an improvement, but still a repetitive chore of a game, one that limply recreates the second Fist of the North Star TV series. It can't even get the hideous deaths right; enemies' heads bubble and expand…and then they burst into twinkling stars.
FIST OF THE NORTH STAR
The runaway success of the GameBoy had publishers scrambling to license anything, and Electro Brain grabbed a Fist of the North Star fighting game from a pile of largely unwanted Japanese titles. Little was altered (even the English subtitle, “10 Big Brawls for the King of Universe!” fits nicely), but the game, like many early GameBoy titles, is primitive and unappealing. The system's limited colors kill any level of detail, and there's little complexity when you have only two attack buttons. There's no sign of head explosions, either. Not that they'd be all that striking in gray-green hues.
It was the arcade, that quickly fading relic of the gaming industry, that became the best place to find a Fist of the North Star title this decade. A few scattered establishments had Arc System Works' impressive Fist of the North Star 2-D fighter in 2006, but you were far more likely to see Fighting Mania, the official American version of Konami's Punch Mania: Hokuto no Ken, at a Chuck E. Cheese's or Dave and Buster's. A beast of an arcade cabinet, Fighting Mania mounts six pads in front of a screen, challenging players to punch those pads as they pop forth, possibly while yelling AAA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-WAH-TAAAA along with Kenshiro. Beat back enough attacks, and you can watch some fully dubbed Fist of the North deaths.
Fighting Mania had a short run. The machines broke easily at the hands of patrons (you know, the same kids who gang up on the arm-wrestling robot ten at a time), and rumor has it that many arcades pulled the game after someone broke a wrist on it. Yet it stuck around long enough to get American youth once again involved in Fist of the North Star without even realizing it.
I suspect that it won't be the last time. New Fist of the North Star games and anime remakes crop up every year, and the youth of today clamor for more and bloodier entertainment. Before long, another publisher will add things up and take another chance on Kenshiro and a whole bunch of exploding heads.
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