The X Button
Accusations and Doomsaying

by Todd Ciolek, Jul 30th 2008

This column comes in the wake of some bad news. Activision revealed yesterday that several games from its Vivendi arm are now in some vaguely defined publishing purgatory. Among them are a promising Ghostbusters game and one of my most-wanted titles: Brütal Legend, a hack-and-slacker full of demons and heavy-metal overkill. Yes, it looks like a game designed by that huge kid who sat at the back of your high-school homeroom and wore nothing but leather jackets and Metallica T-shirts, but Brütal Legend comes from Tim Schafer, the creator of Psychonauts and Grim Fandango, so it's wrapped up with a lot of self-aware humor, not to mention the voice of Jack Black. If we're lucky, the games will find new publishing deals by tomorrow, and I'll be a panicky cretin for even bringing it up.

I'd thought to mention Brütal Legend's woes below, but it falls well outside of this column's purview. That said, I suspect that a lot of you are interested in games beyond those related to Japan. Just as modern anime fans are likely to also watch The Venture Bros. or Futurama, they're also likely to seek out Fallout 3 or a new Chronicles of Riddick game. Am I right? Are you all broad-minded, cosmopolitan gamers? Or do you just care about Final Fantasy and Soul Calibur and Sakura Wars and Valkyrie Profile? Well, I'll understand if you only care about Valkyrie Profile. I feel the same way sometimes.

NEWS

SOUL EATER ON WII, PERHAPS EVEN IN AMERICA
It's a foregone conclusion that the Soul Eater anime will come to the U.S., as the manga's already arrived as part of Yen Plus and the show is a shockingly pretty series that recalls Bleach, Harry Potter, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and other things beloved by young Hot Topic customers. The only dubious piece of the picture is the upcoming Wii game, Soul Eater: Monotone Princess. It'll be out in September, and the game's official site promises a hectic action title with headshot-and-text scenes bookending levels where Maka (at the very least) swings Soul around in his weaponized form. The game's future in the U.S. depends on just how big Soul Eater itself becomes, so fans should hope that the anime gets a prime-time cable spot. And yes, it's called Monotone Princess, which is possibly someone's commentary on Chiaki Omigawa's performance as Maka.

VALKYRIE PROFILE DS GETS RELEASE DATE, AWKWARD SUBTITLE
In news that's terribly interesting to me, Square Enix's latest attempt to turn Valkyrie Profile into a franchise is now scheduled to hit Japan on October 2. Some fans remain skeptical that Valkyrie Profile: The Accused One will do the series proud as a mere DS game, possibly because you don't play a valkyrie this time around. The lead is actually Wylfred, a vengeful young human warrior whose father was spirited away by a valkyrie. On his side, Wylfred has his soldier friend Ancel and an otherworldly woman named Ailyth, who tags along after Wylfred forges a pact with the underworld goddess Hel. The game's resident valkyrie and the target of Wylfred's wrath is none other than Lenneth, heroine of the original Valkyrie Profile.

It may not have a valkyrie in the lead, but The Accused One is intent on upholding many series traditions, including voluminous backstories, a huge cast of party members, and a battle system that allows multi-character combos and plenty of button-mashing. I should probably admit that, even after the relatively disappointing Valkyrie Profile 2, I'm looking forward to The Accused One more than any other game. I may even buy the import, though the rest of you are better off waiting for it to come to the U.S., possibly as Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, though I hope they'll pick a title that doesn't sound quite so much like someone's Harry Potter/Forest Gump crossover fan fiction.

NARUTO PLAYS BOTH SIDES IN MODERN SYSTEM WAR
Ubisoft's gorgeous Naruto: Rise of a Ninja apparently wasn't hurt in sales by appearing only on the frequently Japan-resistant Xbox 360, as it's getting a sequel in November. The Broken Bond picks up from the end of its predecessor (in other words, roughly after the massive attack on Konoha village) and enhances the original's gameplay by letting players control a team of characters and switch between ninja in the middle of battle. Yet the really impressive thing about The Broken Bond (below) is the vast territory it covers, and how good every location looks. It almost works against the Naruto style, as the straight-from-the-anime characters appear a bit too simple amid the lushly detailed forests and cities.

As the Montreal-based Ubisoft Divertissements labors on Naruto's next Xbox 360 title, Namco Bandai's developers in Japan are prepping Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm for the PlayStation 3. Another entry in the ongoing Ultimate Ninja series, it relies heavily on fighting-game staples, though trailers for the game show elaborate village streets and visuals all but indistinguishable from the anime's better-looking moments. Keep an eye on these two games, if only to watch the hilarious Microsoft-Sony fan arguments that are sure to erupt.

WII FAILS TO ESCAPE HARUHI SUZUMIYA DANCE
Perhaps nothing represents Haruhi Suzumiya's popularity more than the legions of fans willing to humiliate themselves in her name by dancing in public. The Commotion of Haruhi Suzumiya is their salvation, distilling the Hare Hare Yukai dance craze into a Wii game where players attempt to match their Wii remote shakes to the gyrations of the on-screen trio of Haruhi Suzumiya, Yuki Nagato, and Mikuru Asahina. The game also offers an exhibition mode that lets the player pick the background, the dance, and the outfits worn by the three girls, all of which will be a deal-sealer for far too many Haruhi fans. Those same fans will likely want the special edition of the game, which ships in Japan with a Haruhi figure alongside the standard version this November.

WEIRD-ASS IMPORT ROUNDUP: JULY

BUMPY TROT: VEHICLE BATTLE
(Irem, PSP)
Bumpy Trot is known to North America under the slightly less silly title of Steambot Chronicles, and the original PS2 action-RPG inspired a puzzle game, a still-in-development sequel, and a PSP spin-off known as Bumpy Trot: Vehicle Battle. Stripping away the musical career, side jobs, and RPG-like exploration of the first Steambot Chronicles, Vehicle Battle focuses on mission-based action. Some might find it an equal trade, as the mech-controlling interface improves on the first game's often unwieldy controls. While the steambots of Vehicle Battle move, dash, and boost-jump like Gundam units, much of the game's appeal comes from the surrounding world, a quaint 1910-grade industrialized city where the Model-T versions of mechs lumber about. Vehicle Battle will likely tide over devoted Steambot fans until the sequel arrives in Japan, though anyone who imports the game is honor-bound to call it “Bumpy Trot.”

NANASHI NO GAME
(Square Enix, DS)
The title roughly translates to “the game with no name,” referring to an intriguing new idea: a graphic adventure in which a haunted old game supposedly leaves all who play it dead within a week. The larger story runs much like a puzzle-laden point-and-clicker (with first-person exploration reminiscent of Silent Hill), while The Ring-like game-within-a-game is an RPG in the vein of the NES Dragon Quest titles, only with bizarre glitches, corrupted data, and eerie Kojima-ish moments where the game knows who you are. It may be a by-product of recent J-horror trends, but it's a remarkably interesting approach to the mystery-game genre, and we can only hope that Square releases it on these shores.

RHYTHM TENGOKU GOLD
(Nintendo, DS)
Mother 3 tops the list of amazing games that Nintendo refuses to release over here, but the original Rhythm Tengoku for the Game Boy Advance is another of their great untranslated imports: a musical Wario Ware made up of strange, sudden mini-games that revolve around keeping a beat. As its DS sequel, Rhythm Tengoku Gold devises all sorts of new stylus-based challenges, including a maraca-shaking lizard's mating dance, a filming test, and a bird-based swim meet. Just to make every challenge feel properly unorthodox, they're all played with the DS in its open-book form. The best part? Nintendo's looking at releasing it here under the title Rhythm Heaven.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 8-3

ROCK BLAST
(UFO Interactive, DS, $19.99)
This week offers nothing of clear interest to anime fans, and I suspect you'd rather hear about a generic-looking puzzle game instead of Hannah Montana: Spotlight World Tour or Quick Yoga Training. Rock Blast is one of those puzzlers simple enough to be run in a web browser, and it functions much like an inverted take on Bust-A-Move, right down to the helpful dinosaur sidekicks. Instead of launching bubbles upward, the player drops and maneuvers links of volcanic rock, matching their colors in trios. Perhaps the dinosaurs are scorched to death and fossilized in igneous rock if you lose, but I doubt you'd see that in a game described as “casual” in its own press release.
Get Excited If: You need a present for your grandmother, who uses her DS only for playing Tetris.

EXTRA LIVES: GHOST IN THE SHELL

Exact's Ghost in the Shell shooter belongs on that very, very short list of anime-based titles that somehow caught the widespread attention of the American gaming public. It arrived on the PlayStation in 1997, just after the Ghost in the Shell film had claimed a place in Western geek culture, and it was backed by the publishing forces of THQ, even landing the first cover of the Official PlayStation Magazine. It was fortunate, then, that such hype was pushing a surprisingly well-made game.

True to both Mamoru Oshii's 1995 film and Masamune Shirow's original manga, Ghost in the Shell offers a twisting police procedural surrounding Major Motoko Kusanagi, Batou, Togusa, and other members of the Japanese government's Section 9, infused with Shirow's characteristic love of international politics and technical yammering. The animated intermissions, provided by Production I.G, are perhaps the closest a Ghost anime has yet come to looking like Shirow's comic, right down to the cutesy expressions of Section 9's Fuchikoma spider-tanks (which were renamed Tachikomas later on). The game still draws from Oshii's movie, of course, in both its visual design and the green-tinged maps seen between stages. Considering all the accuracy, it's strange that you don't play as Motoko, Batou, or any recognizable Section 9 agent. Instead, you're just a faceless, nameless rookie who spends much of the game inside a Fuchikoma.

Prior to Ghost in the Shell, Exact was best known for creating the Jumping Flash games, two of the first PlayStation action-platformers to offer 3-D worlds that were actually fun to explore. Ghost in the Shell is much like a faster, shooting-oriented Jumping Flash, and one that lets you see your character this time around. Armed with both machine guns and homing missiles, your Fuchikoma can dash, strafe, jump freely, and walk on just about any surface, including the walls of buildings. The game's levels are complex, spanning flooded urban mazes and on-rails highway races, but it's ultimately the control that holds Ghost in the Shell together, especially when you can scoot up the side of a warehouse, leap ten feet into the air, and then gun down a room full of enemy tanks.

Exact clearly emphasized Ghost in the Shell's gameplay over visual style, and the game hews almost a little too close to Shirow's vision. Like the grimy semi-cyberpunk world of the manga and anime, the game's environments are realistically drab sewers, warehouses, corporate hallways, and half-empty cities. The enemies are an equally bland-hued bunch, cast all in grays and tans, often with only a targeting reticle to pick them out of a dull background. Still, the game's engine is impressive for an time when even the best 3-D in console games was shaky (fire up Final Fantasy VII or Soul Blade if you don't believe me), and the soundtrack's a pumping mix from Takky Ishino, Joey Beltram, Westbam, and other house artists who weren't terribly popular in the U.S.

As if to compensate for the oatmeal-colored polygon stages, the game throws in a good share of anime clips and Section 9 chatter, all voiced by the same cast as the movie's English dub. Modern Ghost in the Shell fans will recognize Richard Epcar as Batou and William Frederick Knight as Aramaki, although Motoko, Togusa, and other recurring characters were re-cast when the Stand Alone Complex TV series rolled around. Those astute viewers will also note that the game was never acknowledged in film, manga, or TV continuity, even if it established the Tachikoma as squeaky-voiced children.

Ghost in the Shell earned decent reviews from critics in its day, perhaps because most of them were expecting yet another mediocre anime bill-payer. Sadly, Exact never returned to Ghost in the Shell or anything else interesting, as the developer changed its name to Sugar & Rockets and made a little-loved Jumping Flash follow-up. Sony published two titles for the Stand Alone Complex TV series, but neither lived up to the original; the PSP got an awkward first-person shooter from G-Artists, and Cavia's PS2 game plays a bit like Max Payne with more frustrating jumps and fewer hilarious pulp-novel bon mots. The PlayStation version of Ghost in the Shell is the best in the series, and it's still a great example of what an anime-based game should be.

Complete copies of Ghost in the Shell aren't terribly hard to find on eBay, where they run from $10 to $30. Unlike some other anime-related titles, this one was released in comparatively large quantities by THQ, a company better known at the time for cranking out drivel like Quest 64 and Vs.


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