The X Button
A Lighter of Gold

by Todd Ciolek, Jul 9th 2008

I do a lot of complaining this time, mostly about how Nintendo's Virtual Console treats America like a pet hissing cockroach. It's best that I balance it out by focusing on the positive things, including the fact that game-playing anime fans are quite fortunate in these times.

In many ways, anime-based titles still suffer from the same problems that movie-based games do: careless structure, poorly recreated storylines, an emphasis on license-accurate gameplay at the expense of good design, and so on. Yet things were much, much worse back in the 1990s. Experienced developers like Eighting and CyberConnect2 rarely worked with anime licenses back then, and it was easy for inexperienced programmers to nail together mediocre titles based on everything from the latest Gundam to Saber Marionette J. Worse still, there was no wide network of online fans to tell each other when a game wasn't worth even five bucks, much less the inflated price of an import. So whenever I gripe about the modern gaming industry and its connection to anime, bear in mind that I'd still rather be here than back in 1994.

NEWS

CHRONO TRIGGER'S PERFECTION TO BE IMPROVED ON
Chrono Trigger's DS debut is now revealed as a fairly straight port, and not one of those 3-D remakes like Final Fantasy III and IV received. Square is promising multiplayer battles and one new dungeon, which might just be the Singing Mountain level that was cut from the original game. I also hope they'll throw in the Epoch time machine's hovercraft version (right), another scrap that never made it into the final. Maybe they'll even patch up a certain plot hole and make Chrono Cross completely irrelevant.

Whatever their aims, they'd best take care, as Chrono Trigger is one of the two Japanese RPGs so beloved that they even bleed onto people who hate the genre. Whenever some posturing geek says “The only JRPG I've ever liked is…” the next words are either “Chrono Trigger” or “Earthbound.”

DRAGON BALL STARTS FROM SCRATCH ON THE DS
Worried about the live-action Dragon Ball movie? Well, there's always Namco Bandai's upcoming Dragon Ball DS game, capable of transplanting players back to a more innocent time when Dragon Ball was new to its American fans and horrible live-action adaptations of Japanese properties were limited to Street Fighter and Double Dragon.

Dragon Ball DS does this by catching the now-familiar storyline at its start, when monkey-tailed hero Goku is a mere boy traveling the world and, if early shots of the game are accurate, beating the crap out of countless monsters. It may seem the descendant of the GameBoy Advance's Dragon Ball Z: The Legacy of Goku, but the visuals and all-stylus control appear to take a cue from a better game, namely The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass.

PERSONA 4 GETS RAPID U.S. RELEASE
It's safe to say that the Shin Megami Tensei series, or at least its Persona spin-off, is finally something of a hit in America. At their crowded Anime Expo panel, Atlus announced that Persona 4 will arrive in America on December 9. Not bad at all, considering that the Japanese version ships this very week.

Perhaps the last notable game we'll see on the PlayStation 2, Persona 4 sheds the city-school life of its direct predecessor, shipping an unnamed teenage hero off to a countryside academy. Once he's there, the grisly murders start, the mysteries unfold, and the cast of students awakens their grotesque Persona abilities. Persona 3's social system returns as well, possibly applied to small-town kids and country bumpkins this time around.

TATSUNOKO VS. CAPCOM GETS HUGE TRANSFORMING LIGHTER
I'd promised myself that I wasn't going to mention every single new Tatsunoko vs. CAPCOM character, but they've gone and added four of them this week: Morrigan from Darkstalkers and Soki from Onimusha join the CAPCOM side, while the Tatsunoko roster gets Hurricane Polymar and the biggest surprise yet: Gold Lightan, the massive, glittering robot who transforms into a tiny lighter and teaches children the value of hard work, confidence, and smoking.

CAPCOM's supposedly hoping to release this over here, and I'm now convinced that it'd be a travesty if Tatsunoko vs. CAPCOM didn't show up at every arcade in America.

SQUARE ENIX NOW ON EVERY POSSIBLE GAME SYSTEM
The iPod is just about the last place one would look for an experimental new game from Square Enix, but that's exactly where Song Summoner lies. Now available on iTunes, the game's a basic strategy-RPG in which a musically gifted kid schemes to save his brother from a robotic empire, with the highlight being the character-creation system. Borrowing an idea from those old Monster Rancher games, Song Summoner generates all of your warriors from music tracks: a soldier from the Pixies' “Here Comes Your Man,” a monk from The Clash's “Train in Vain,” or even a mage from the Heathcliff cartoon's opening theme (not that that's on my iPod). In fact, you could summon grunts from Final Fantasy music tracks for the ultimate step in double-folded metafictional game references.

THE INJUSTICES OF THE VIRTUAL CONSOLE

Nintendo's Virtual Console began as a blessing for any fan of gaming generations past, as it promised to resurrect all sorts of classics from dead systems and bring them to us as Wii downloads. The best part for Wii owners in North America and Europe? We'd also get to play expensive old titles and never-before-translated imports.

Things went well at first. Nintendo released games like Sin and Punishment, Alien Soldier, and the otherwise expensive The Dynastic Hero. But now that Nintendo's WiiWare has begun, the Virtual Console is the ignored older child, and releases have slowed to a trickle. It doesn't have to be this way, not with high-caliber stuff already out for Japan's Virtual Console. Here's what should be coming here.

DRACULA X: THE RONDO OF BLOOD
(TurboGrafx-16)
Perhaps the greatest wrong ever done to the TurboGrafx-16 came when Konami denied it a U.S. version of Dracula X: Rondo of Blood. Not that Konami can be blamed; the system was nearly dead in America by 1993, and Dracula X couldn't save it alone. That doesn't really change the fact that Rondo's an amazing title and, in the author's opinion, the first great Castlevania game.

A lot of it has to do with detail: the visuals are gorgeous, the anime cutscenes give the game more personality than any other part of the series before it, and the stages hide multiple paths and Dracula's imprisoned would-be brides. Richter, the game's chosen Belmont, controls with a little more precision than his molasses-slow forbears, and Maria, the other playable character, is a nimble little wonder who steamrolls her way through every boss. Yes, the most efficient vampire hunter in Castlevania lore is a girl who throws kittens.

North America technically already has Rondo of Blood, which was included as a bonus in last year's Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles PSP collection. But it's a flawed port that screws with the pacing and just doesn't feel quite right. The Virtual Console's capable of emulating CD-based TurboGrafx games perfectly, and none deserves it more than Rondo.

MONSTER WORLD IV
(Sega Genesis)
For a series that never quite made it big, Monster World has the Virtual Console swamped. Also known as Wonder Boy and The Dynastic Hero, nearly every game in the franchise can be had for a simple download on the Wii. The one exception is, unfortunately, the best of them all.

Monster World IV sheds the varied magic and shape-shifting of its predecessors, taking on a simple tale of a green-haired heroine and her round, floating, highly adorable Pepelogo, which grows and changes form several times during the game. It's a thoroughly unpretentious game, and that's perhaps the charm. The controls are solid, the characters brim with personality, and even the soundtrack's constant remixes of the game's title-screen theme are fun. With a steady difficultly curve, it's one of the most widely appealing side-scrolling action-RPGs around.

That makes it all the more curious that Monster World IV's never been translated into English, despite the relatively small amount of text. GameTap has the Japanese version available, but the game's much more winning in one's native tongue.

TREASURE HUNTER G
(Super NES)
It's unreasonable to expect Square or Nintendo to translate a lengthy RPG like Treasure Hunter G, but it would settle a long-term grudge. During the 1990s, needy RPG fans would beg Square's corporate heads to release each of their creations in America, whether the game was brilliant (Front Mission) or lousy (Front Mission: Gun Hazard). It never worked. By the time Treasure Hunter G came out, it was 1996 and most of those fans had given up hope, sparking the flames of long-term bitterness borne toward Square.

Treasure Hunter G isn't a marvel like Chrono Trigger or one of the better Final Fantasies, of course. Developed by Sting (which is still making anime-themed games like Rivieraand Yggdra Union), it uses partly CG-rendered visuals that have aged slightly better than Donkey Kong Country, and the story's a bit predictable. Yet the grid-based battle system was ahead of its time, and the game has a strangely humorous obsession with frogs.

Treasure Hunter G was never officially in English, and will likely never be. It's too big of a translation project, and too low in the ranks of Square's 16-bit games. If it joined the North American Virtual Console, however, it'd be a gift to every RPG fan snubbed by Square over a decade ago.

PHANTASY STAR IV
(Sega Genesis)
Nintendo and Sega are on the ball when it comes to Phantasy Star. Both the second and third games in the series have hit the Virtual Console's Genesis catalog over here, and it's likely that the first will join the available Sega Master System games. As much as one can respect the first two Phantasy Stars for breaking ground (the third one sucked), Phantasy Star IV is the highlight of the series, and, oddly enough, the most fitting introduction to it.

Phantasy Star IV's storyline is admittedly hacked into shape, with likeable stereotypes and a romantic ending pulled completely out of nowhere. But one doesn't really play Phantasy Star games for the literary appeal. One plays them for the quick, varied battles and the surrounding world of typical medieval fantasy crossed with cyborgs, sandworms, spaceships, exploding planets, genetically engineered women with huge ears, and other sci-fi trappings.

It's understandable if you overlooked Phantasy Star IV when it came out in the U.S. way back, since the game sold for about $85. On the Virtual Console, it'd be under ten, and there'd be little excuse to avoid it.

TRANSFORMERS: THE MYSTERY OF CONVOY
(NES)
Devoted historians in both Japan and America have taken to studying horrible games in recent years, but only the Japanese ones have invented a name for it: “kusoge,” a portmanteau meaning, roughly, “shit game.” And among the most celebrated shit-games in Japan is a Transformers title called Convoy no Nazo, or The Mystery of Convoy.

Many terrible games fail in their own special ways, but Convoy's bizarre ironic appeal lies in its completely generic horrors. The game finds Ultra Magnus running through simple mazes, changing into a truck, and exploding after taking one hit. The game is a mess in every respect, from the sloppy control to the bizarre challenges.

So why should it be released here? Because we want to play it, laugh at it, and force friends to sit through it for a few seconds. Really, Nintendo. If you can bring out Urban Champion, you can give us this classic of kusoge.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 7-13

PUCHI PUCHI VIRUS
(DS, $19.99)
Puchi Puchi Virus is, in many ways, the polar opposite of the Trauma Center series. Trauma Center slaps you with a constant supply of patients who are bleeding, seeping, and hemorrhaging their way to the verge of death while a shrill nurse screams unneeded advice in your ear. In Puchi Puchi, you combat adorable viruses, all suitable enough for second-string Pokémon status, by linking trios of tiny symbols on a hexagonal grid. Make a triangle, and other viruses inside it will vanish. Let the disease overwhelm, and your fate is only slightly more grisly than it was after losing at Connect Four. It's not terrible complex, but the large playing field and rapid pace make for some hectic (and still cute) challenges.
Get Excited If: You've ever smacked someone for calling Dr. Mario a Tetris clone.

WE LOVE GOLF!
(Wii, $49.99)
If the Wii truly is turning into a land of simple, casual games, it's at least doing it with plenty of CAPCOM cameos. Developed by Camelot, the apparently over-enthusiastic We Love Golf! shows more promise than previous golf simulators, striking a balance between the Hot Shots Golf series and more serious stuff. The game's online multiplayer is welcome, and it throws hardcore CAPCOM fans a bone with costumes based on Resident Evil's Jill Valentine, Street Fighter II's Ryu and Chun-Li, Zack and Wiki's Zack, Phoenix Wright's Apollo Justice, Ghouls 'N Ghosts Arthur, and, as a special gift for the U.S. version, Street Fighter II's Ken and Darkstalkers' Morrigan.
Get Excited If: You still play the Wii Sportsgolf game.

EXTRA LIVES: DEVIL HUNTER YOHKO

Devil Hunter Yohko isn't particularly notable. It's yet another Sega Genesis action game with ties to a semi-popular '90s anime, a lack of a North American release, and only a few moments that set it apart from the running-jumping-slashing milieu of its era. Yet Yohko played a small role in anime history. Well, American anime history, anyway.

In the early 1990s, John Ledford was the owner of GameTronics, a retailer that offered, among other things, imported Japanese games. As the story goes, Ledford noted that a lot of the games he sold were connected to anime, and he went on to found the anime-publishing A.D. Vision with fellow fan Matt Greenfield. A.D. Vision later became ADV Films, and I trust that most anime fans know where the story's gone from there.

Released for the Mega Drive (the Japanese Genesis) in 1991, Devil Hunter Yohko didn't single-handedly make A.D. Vision license the original 1990 OVA as their first anime release. No, that had more to do with TOHO, Yohko's distributor, having an American office when other anime publishers didn't. Yet Devil Hunter Yohko was part of the wave of anime-themed imports that got Ledford and his company to notice anime all those years ago.

That was 1991, of course, when an ineffable novelty still clung to even the worst anime-based games—and, in fact, to anime itself. The Yohko OVA sold itself through a frequently naked teenage girl and her more-clothed ninja grandma fighting slavering demons, but there's little of that in the game. Without much preamble, Yoko runs across a level of winding green plant tendrils, hacking at buglike creatures and angry plants. It's all one step away from the Valis games, which paired half-nude heroines and rote side-scrolling action to similarly bland effect.

Yohko never even reaches the Valis standard, in fact. Controlling the devil hunter proves awkward, particularly when the level design doesn't forgive any missteps. Not that Yohko can ever do much; the game's lone innovation is a green circle of energy summoned by holding down the attack button. It surrounds Yohko and can be released in any direction, adding a much-needed projectile to otherwise dull gameplay.

It's easy to see why Yohko is seldom mentioned beyond its animated connections, and why it sank quickly into the morass of lousy games based on semi-popular anime. Did it ever sell in the U.S.? Did ADV's early Yohko VHS tapes inadvertently drive legions of American fans to pay ungodly amounts for this game and the converter needed to run it on an American Genesis? Man, I hope not.


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