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All Over the World

by Todd Ciolek, Aug 6th 2008

The big news from this past week came out of Square Enix's DKS3713 gala in Harajuku, where the publisher let slip some new details about Final Fantasy XIII and its off-shoots. Yet the most interesting Square-related event took place at Best Buy stores across America, where one of those “Coming Soon” signs in a game department listed a Final Fantasy VII remake hitting the PlayStation 2 on August 16.

Mishaps like this make me glad for the Internet. Fifteen years ago, seeing such astounding news on a Best Buy placard would've blown my mind and consumed my thoughts for weeks on end, until I saw it debunked in Electronic Gaming Monthly or Gamepro. Today, we have a network of cynical fans and alert semi-journalists to expose these fallacies. After all, everyone knows that Square's going to release a Final Fantasy VII remake only on the Xbox 360.

NEWS

FINAL FANTASY XIII DEMO INCLUDES BONUS ADVENT CHILDREN MOVIE
Square Enix has found the best way to sell a BluRay release of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Complete even to the fans who hated, hated, hated the movie. How are they doing it? They're packing in a piece of Final Fantasy XIII (below). All sources report that it will be, in fact, a playable PlayStation 3 demo of the game, which has granted only brief and possibly mocked-up glimpses of its battle system over the past two years. The Blu-Ray set hits Japan next March, and eager importers will note that it should, in theory, play on U.S. systems.

Advent Children Complete, incidentally, will stand as the director's cut of the movie by adding about half an hour of new scenes for us to argue about. But that'll come after we've played (and argued about) the FFXIII demo.

NEW PARASITE EVE, FINAL FANTASY AGITO XIII MOVE FROM CELL PHONES TO RELEVANCE
Laster year, Square Enix played a rotten trick on the Parasite Eve faithful by announcing another game, The 3rd Birthday, and then revealing it as a Japanese cell-phone title that Americans would probably never play on their allegedly inferior, hand-cranked, tollbooth-sized portable phones. I believe the related press release may have concluded with the phrase “nyah nyah nyaaaaah.”

Well, that was all in good fun, as Square Enix is now porting The 3rd Birthday(left) to the PSP. Another survival-horror title starring the 35-year-old Aya Brea (who, in game-heroine tradition, still looks about 22), The 3rd Birthday apparently remains a cell phone game in some form, but its PSP version will likely come here. In the meantime, you can replay the first two PlayStation titles or, if you're desperate, watch that marginally related live-action movie.

Also in line for a PSP port is Final Fantasy Agito XIII (right), the little-seen cell-phone game and the least interesting part of Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIII exploitation. Square Enix's latest update reveals only a little more about the game's cast of students, each with his or her own weapon specialty, and it seems that tarot cards figure heavily into the story. It's not yet clear if the game will be enhanced in its trip to the PSP, as the developer's original plan called for players to assemble Agito parties over cell networks. But hey, at least we'll be playing it.

R-TYPE NOT FINAL
R-Type Final was a dirty rotten lie. Irem's since made the strategic R-Type Command (right), and now R-Type Dimensions is heading to XBox Live Arcade courtesy of Tozai, the largely untested developer of Live's upcoming Lode Runner revamp. There are no details to be had or screens to be analyzed, as we've only a rating from Australia's Office of Film and Literature Classifications, the same government bureau that broke the news about Mega Man 9. Will Dimensions be a shooter like its classic forbears, or will it follow Command's lead and explore new genre, possibly becoming a side-scroller where the R-9 ship eats mushrooms and hops on turtles? I'm not sure which I'd like more.

REVIEW: IZUNA 2

By rights, last year's Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja should have been a mediocre game. It was an unspectacular dungeon hack, full of randomly generated stages and frequent deaths, and it couldn't compare to the likes of Etrian Odyssey or Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer. But Izuna had something that other “roguelikes” didn't: a puffball storyline made genuinely funny by some sharp Atlus dialogue. Izuna 2 is an improvement in every way, despite the stink of moe about it.

The first Izuna also had a bluntly suggestive advertising campaign promising all sorts of boob-grabbing lesbian antics, which the game itself blessedly never delivered. Izuna 2 has the same promotion (hey, kids! buy it on Amazon and get a poster of Izuna's cleavage!), and the same brand of innocuous story: Izuna's still a chirpy, self-absorbed ninja girl wandering the land with her beloved comrade Shino, her mentor Gen-An, and a sad-sack tagalong named Mitsumoto. Picking up from the first game's conclusion, they bounce from a wedding to a hunt for Shino's sister and a war between native and foreign gods. It's a completely disposable excuse for dungeon runs, but a stronger-than-usual Atlus translation seizes on the script's best points, turning what might've been just another unfunny anime comedy into something with undeniable charm. Their work comes through best in Izuna herself, a cocky, sarcastic little brat who'd be insufferable in a lesser-translated game.

Yet it's not entirely innocent this time around. That cutesy-creepy style known as moe is in much greater effect for Izuna 2, especially when it comes to Shino's long-lost sister, Shizune. With her frilly maid attire and servile ways, she's just about everything wrong with the modern anime industry. Izuna 2 also relies far too much on breast jokes that even the translators can't turn around. As anime and manga have shown us, women are constantly judging, ranking, and remembering each other according to cup size. However, the risqué nonsense is still rare, considering the game's ads, and even a hardened moe-hater like me can forgive such lapses. Well, except for the bath house scene. There's no excuse for that, Izuna 2.

The original Izuna was never known for its gameplay, a friendlier version of the typical punishing dungeon hack. Instead of each death kicking you back to level 1 and the start of the game, Izuna was simply sent back to a village with her levels intact, while an item storehouse helped her build an arsenal. Izuna 2 plays by similarly forgiving rules, with the dungeon exploration fleshed out into something more satisfying. Instead of controlling only spunky, greedy Izuna, players can recruit a rather large cast of characters and pair them up for dungeon runs. Each duo yields a different combination attack, and the variety of weapons is expanded beyond the basic round of ninja claws, swords, and shuriken.

The world of Izuna 2 is also much wider, now spanning several villages and levels, even though the dungeons are still a bit too primitive. Whether they're forests, fortresses, or volcanic caves, the levels all show off the same grid-based design, and the random floor patterns and enemy techniques seem a tad simple in comparison to other current dungeon hacks. Fortunately, there's still a lot to do; customizing weapons is still an intricate process, and just about any item can be thrown or used to some amusing effect.

Izuna 2 may be notably better that the first game, but it still can't touch the best dungeon hacks, which would probably start with Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer. That said, Izuna 2 is a nice genre introduction for newcomers, and a solid challenge for any dungeon-hacking fans with a high tolerance for occasionally unwholesome anime-girl pandering (or, God help them, a love of it). It's nothing more than a simple, cheerful little game, and that's exactly why it might win over even the most cynical out there.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 8-10

BANGAI-O SPIRITS
(D3, DS, $29.99)
Ever wonder why Treasure's programmers have the reputation they do? Games like Bangai-O Spirits. That's why. Sure, Treasure makes failed experiments and mediocre anime-licensed stuff (which I'll review eventually), but they've also put together about a dozen brilliant action games. Bangai-O Spirits is one of them. It's a completely unrelated sequel to the original Bangai-O, a Dreamcast and Nintendo 64 orgy of missiles, lasers, explosions, and incoherence. Spirits trims down the deliberately inane story to a tutorial and then turns players loose in over 100 stages full of tiny robots and cunning challenges. The Bangai-O itself can use everything from baseball bats to reflecting shots, and each level ends in massive, glorious destruction of screen-choking scale. The best part of it all might be the game's level editor, where you can create stages that kill you instantly or arrange landmines into filthy words. And that's just fine, because Bangai-O Spirits is not about subtle joys. Bangai-O Spirits is a big, wonderful playground where everything explodes.
Get Excited If: You've ever blown up any object in any video game and felt good about it.

EXTRA LIVES: PUSS 'N BOOTS

We may never know why Electro Brain decided to release Toei's Puss 'n Boots: Pero's Great Adventure for the NES in North America. At least two of Toei's three Puss 'n Boots films were dubbed and released in the West, but they were far from the Nintendo-loving public's attention by 1990. Besides, the endearing Pero wasn't nearly as recognizable here as he was in Japan, where he became Toei's own mascot. Perhaps Electro Brain counted on the strength of the classic Puss in Boots fable, or perhaps they realized that, as a C-list publisher for the NES, they couldn't exactly license a bunch of games based on Duck Tales or Batman.

Whatever the reason, Electro Brain brought out Puss 'n Boots and openly embraced its Japanese roots. Instead of one of those ugly, needlessly re-drawn covers common to American NES games, the box for Puss 'n Boots is full-bore anime. Surrounded by cat assassins, mechanical fish, and a sneering bourgeoisie wolf, Pero commandeers a balloon while wearing the same blissfully eager grin he has in Toei Animation's company logo. Pero is awesome.

True to that cover, the NES game is based on Puss 'N Boots Travels Around The World, the Verne-derived last film in Toei's trilogy and the freshest in kids' minds by 1990, since it'd seen an American release five years earlier. The game spares no time for story, as Pero is quickly taken to a world map and sent through the first level, a barren town in the American West. Here the player's acquainted with Pero's three basic weapons: a pistol, an unending stockpile of bombs (which I vaguely remember from the film), and a boomerang (which I don't). From that point, Puss 'n Boots shows remarkable scope in capturing the movie's major scenes; Pero chugs across the sea in a steamboat, plunges through the ocean deep via submarine, soars in an airplane over mountains, and rides a hot-air balloon through the clouds. The only thing missing is the movie's climatic chase through a clock tower.

Puss 'n Boots doesn't want for variety, and it's all the more disappointing when none of the stages offers any real challenge. The game borrows much from Super Mario Bros., even down to a mazelike final level, put there's very little fight in the enemies. Every commonplace foe, including lightning itself, goes down with a few hits from Pero, and the game's level-ending bosses are pushovers. Know how every platform-jumping game needs a stage full of conveyor belts? Well, in Puss 'n Boots those conveyor belts have stationary platforms at each end, just so you can jump between them nice and easy.

In fact, there's only one difficult point in the game. After navigating the innards of a New York skyscraper, Pero runs into the villainous Rumplehog and a bullet-spewing wolf gangster. It's a ridiculously tough fight; Pero dies almost instantly if he touches either boss, and their projectiles fly thick and fast. Tough it out, and you'll get to see Pero gleefully hopping up and down on the Statue of Liberty. At least it's better than an otherwise blank “CONGRATULATIONS!” screen.

It may be that the programmers deliberately simplified Puss 'n Boots for kids or people who'd never gotten past the first level of Kung Fu, but it's still too basic. Also disappointing are the game's primitive visuals and soundtrack, which date back to the first generation of NES games. Though the Japanese version came out in 1986, the American Puss 'n Boots wasn't released until 1990, when games like Crystalis and Super C made it look ancient.

This brings up an intriguing point: the original Japanese version of Puss 'n Boots, the one from 1986, is a completely different game. It uses the same graphics engine and character sprites as the game that Electro Brain later brought out, but the stages are a bit more complicated. What's more, a lot of the Japanese game's scenery and enemies, including an obvious rip-off of the Cheep-Cheeps from Super Mario Bros., were never seen at all in the North American version. Also unique to the Japanese Puss 'n Boots are boot power-ups that play havoc with Pero. One speeds him up, one makes him briefly invincible, and a third actually turns the whole screen pitch black for a few seconds. It's not necessarily a better game, as the bosses are less impressive and Pero lacks his varied weapons, but it's clearly not the same one.

So what happened? Did Shouei System, the developer of Puss 'n Boots and other Toei-licensed games (including too many Fist of the North titles), actually make a completely new game for North America? I can't find any record of the 1990 Puss 'n Boots coming out in Japan, where it would likely have been sold as a sequel. Did Electro Brain commission a reprogrammed Puss 'n Boots from Shouei? Did they think an easier game and better-looking bosses would sell what was basically a four-year-old platformer?

This isn't the only curiosity in Pero's trip to the NES. Around 1990, Captain N: The Game Master, Nintendo's notorious Saturday morning cartoon, would often dedicate an episode to a particular game. Most of these were high-profile titles like Bayou Billy or Donkey Kong, but the producers inexplicably chose to focus one on Puss 'n Boots. The episode finds Captain N and Link from The Legend of Zelda partnering up with Pero and chasing the game's final bosses across several different time periods. While those bosses, known here as Gruemon and Garigari (coming close to their Japanese names), look like their game and anime counterparts, Pero himself (right) got a noticeable redesign for Captain N.

The mysteries of Pero's NES journey are buried well. Electro Brain went out of business a decade ago, shortly after their release of Star Soldier: Vanishing Earth for the Nintendo 64 became one of the worst-selling games of 1998. Shouei System hasn't been seen in a while, either. At least we still have Toei Animation, Discotek's recent Puss 'n Boots DVD, and a mildly fun NES game that raises all sorts of questions.


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