The X Button
Revolutionary Jargon

by Todd Ciolek, Aug 13th 2008

Hey, all. I imagine that a lot of you are sick of seeing columns with only one game on the following week's release schedule, and you'll be pleased to know that the end of August will dump an estimated 40,000 proper British decatonnes of anime-related games on us. For this week, though, it's just a Metal Slug clone, and I think that's just fine.

No, I don't mind something like Commando: Steel Disaster at all, simply because there aren't enough Metal Slug clones out there. Every self-appointed gaming artiste loves to wax intellectual about how much this industry needs more originality and less imitation, but there are times when I actually want a slavish knock-off that's only a touch different from a game that I loved, especially when the much-loved game in question is one that nobody tries to plunder. There are what, two or three true Gunstar Heroes rip-offs? Five billion RPGs play like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, yet nothing cribs from Valkyrie Profile? And did modern fighting games forget all about Bushido Blade, where the levels were huge and one well-placed hit could kill you? I'd gladly trade an original idea or two if someone would just steal from the right places.


NEWS

SUIKODEN…TIERKREIS?
Bless those trademark offices. Without them, we'd have to wait and properly learn about titles that hint at new games, like this Suikoden Tierkreis thing that Konami registered. The Suikoden part refers to Konami's RPG series, which has varied dramatically in quality over five installments and several spin-offs. To briefly recap, the first two games are awesome, the third is dreadfully bland, the fourth is even worse, and the fifth (right) is intriguing but has no concept of proper pacing whatsoever. There's also a not-bad Tactics game and a few only-in-Japan visual novels.

The Tierkreis part is less easily explained, unless the developers are fans of the influential and recently deceased composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. The trademark info points to an online RPG, yet there's been no new Suikoden announced in America or Japan. Is this the first sign of one? Or is Konami claiming it in case another company jumps on a marketable name like Tierkreis? I would urge caution among Suikoden fans. Remember what happened when Square trademarked “Chrono Break”? (Answer: nothing.)

BIONIC COMMANDO REARMED, REMADE
I'm ashamed to admit that I almost forgot about the release of Bionic Commando: Rearmed (left) on XBox Live, the PlayStation Network, and PCs this Thursday. I'll also confess that I'd never heard of GRIN until Rearmed came along, but the developer's remake looks remarkably faithful to CAPCOM's original Bionic Commando (that'd be the NES Bionic Commando, not the crappy arcade one). It ain't just an audio-visual overhaul, either; there's a two-player cooperative mode, a four-player versus mode, and a string of new puzzles to navigate. But the main appeal is in R.A.D. Spencer's grappling arm and the ways in which it stymies the pseudo-Nazi enemies he encounters. GRIN has also promised a “historically accurate” ending, which I hope refers to the NES game's big finale (below).


SPOTLIGHT: CODE GEASS GAMES

If Code Geass isn't yet the Next Big Thing in America's anime scene, it's at least the Current Big Thing in Japan's. Sunrise's mecha-drama show has been a Big Thing over there for the past year or so, topping magazine polls, earning a second season, and inspiring merchandise that ranges from model kits and action figures to gel-boob mousepads (if you have to ask what those are, you're better off not knowing). And among all that merchandise are, of course, some Code Geass videogames.

Much of Code Geass' success can be pinned on the series hitting every important fan sector. The yaoi-buying female fans have Geass' pretty and just-a-little-broken heroes. The hormone-addled male fans have the show's innocent schoolgirls and feisty, clothes-losing, redheaded revolutionaries. The mecha fans have a constantly upgrading selection of skating-robot Knightmare Frames. The general-interest fans have a complex cast of characters and a fast-paced story, told with Goro Taniguchi's capable direction. The comedy fans have Pizza Hut product placement. Lastly, the irony-über-alles fans have the hilariously xenophobic subtext about poor little Japan struggling to throw off an occupying Western force in some alternate universe where the British Empire never faltered and World War II never happened.

The Code Geass games cover a similarly wide area. Bandai started on the Nintendo DS in 2007 with Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion (right), an RPG that aims to reproduce the tale of disowned prince Lelouch leading Japan's rebellion against the Empire of Britannia. While much of the story is told through conversations between character portraits, the gameplay's set up much like an RPG, as Lelouch and his allies wander open areas and run into various Brittanian forces. Battles line up three mechs on either side, with glitzy attacks worthy of a Super Robot Wars game. The combat progresses mostly by menus, though you're able to launch surprise attacks by shouting a character's name into the DS microphone.

There's no such gameplay in Lost Colors (left), the Code Geass title released earlier this year on the PS2 and PSP. Japan's gaming culture charitably labels this sort of thing an “adventure” game, meaning it's a collection of talking heads and animated clips. The game's disposable story has the player name and control a cipher-like new student at Ashford Academy, where Lelouch, Kallen, Shirley, Nina, Milly and most of the show's other characters congregate. Lost Colors is choose-your-own-adventure gameplay through and through, backed by 20 different endings and lots of voice acting from the Code Geass cast. More than anything, it resembles the sort of risqué dating simulator that you'd see commonly played on a PC. In a dingy apartment. With a gel-boobs mousepad.

Code Geass returned to the DS just last week with Lelouch of the Rebellion R2 (right). Instead of an RPG or dating sim, it's a collection of mini-games framed by a frivolous storyline. Talking character portraits convey what plot there is, and a board-game screen leads to a robust selection of Othello matches, mah-jongg, whack-a-mole, Arkanoid-style puzzles, swimming races, shooting stages, and so forth. It's not quite bizarre enough to be the Code Geass version of Wario Ware, but of the three Code Geass games profiled here, it's perhaps the least daunting for Western fans and people who couldn't care less about anime.

Among the Code Geass games we've seen so far, the original DS title stands the best chance of making it to North America. Yet Namco Bandai's said nothing about bringing out any Code Geass spin-offs, and it's too early to tell if Code Geass will have that sort of pull in the U.S. In Japan, though, the games will keep coming, and there's already a Wii game lurking in development. Perhaps it'll be a pizza-eating simulator.


RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 8-17

COMMANDO: STEEL DISASTER
(Jack of All Games, $19.99)
Commando: Steel Disaster isn't a Metal Slug game. In fact, some cursory digging reveals that the developer, Mana Computer Software, isn't even Japanese. All misguided geographic biases aside, the Shanghai-based Mana put together a Metal Slug clone that would fit right into SNK's action series. It's got the same generous mix of weapons, the same side-scrolling run-and-gun gameplay, and the same highly detailed visuals that any fan of Metal Slug will recognize in an instant. It remains to be seen if Commando can harness the same chaotic, cartoonish joy that made Metal Slug great, but even SNK hasn't done that since Metal Slug 3. Yes, Metal Slug 7 is headed to the DS later this year, but there's a lack of carnage-filled 2-D shooters on the market, and even a humble rip-off shouldn't be ignored.
Get Excited If: You played CT: Special Forces, Demon Front, Dolphin Blue, and every other Metal Slug descendant.


EXTRA LIVES: KEITH COURAGE

Anyone who owned a TurboGrafx-16 remembers Keith Courage in Alpha Zones, and perhaps not fondly. There was no avoiding Keith Courage, as it was packed with every TurboGrafx-16 back in 1989 and stuck with the system for most of its short life. Even if you or some thoughtful relative picked up a separate game, Keith Courage was right there in the box, its wafer-thin TurboChip cartridge begging to be the first thing inside your brand new game console.

After a burst of title-screen fanfare, TurboGrafx owners saw just what that new console could do. It could send a spiky-haired kid plodding across a blandly designed stage and fighting tiny enemies, all framed by graphics that looked just slightly worse than the new Mega Man game for the NES. The NES that was supposedly only half as powerful as the TurboGrafx-16. Someone had lied to TurboGrafx owners, and Keith Courage bore the brunt of their collective wrath.

Keith Courage's visual quality might not matter if there were more to the game, but there isn't. Keith just hops his way through the first stage, squeaking as he slashes blobs and cat creatures one-third his size. Upon reaching a pagoda at the level's end, he's scooped up by a magic rainbow and turned into a giant robot. In the next stage, a mechanized Keith runs through a slightly less boring landscape and kills enemies that resemble giant, anthropomorphic revolvers. And then it's back to another stage of boring, human Keith walking and squeaking.

Nice Going, Keith
Dull it may be, but Keith Courage really isn't so terrible when compared to other anime-based games. It was stitched together by Hudson, the creators of Bomberman and many of the TurboGrafx's better titles, so there's some solid base to Keith Courage's jump-and-slash gameplay. It's a tepid thing even so, interspersing lame kid-hero stages (like the Reverse Zone, the Fire Zone, the Vague Existential Dread Zone) with faster bursts of Keith roaming around in his mechanized suit.

To this day, TurboGrafx owners wonder why NEC gave them Keith Courage with the system. Yes, NEC, we know that Sega shipped Altered Beast with the Genesis, and we know that Altered Beast also sucked, but at least Altered Beast looked good. Plus it had the unintended comedy of Greek bodybuilders punching zombies and growing muscles while a totally-not-gay announcer intoned “Power UP!” That beats some generic anime license when you're ten years old.

The Changes Made
Make no mistake, Keith Courage had an anime license. In Japan, it was based on Mashin Eiyuden Wataru, a Sunrise superhero show that aired in the late '80s. Like most kids' fare of its day, Wataru took the standard anime tale of an eponymous hero saving some other-dimensional fantasy land peppered with toy-friendly mecha. NEC's American branch left the game's content largely unmolested, changing only the names; Wataru became Keith, the ninja girl Himiko became Nurse Nancy, the warrior Shibaraku became Weapons Master, and so on. For the game's instruction manual and cover art, NEC threw out the anime elements and re-packaged Keith as a superhero, complete with a bonus comic book (right) in which he and his doomed father beat back the forces of B.A.D. (Beastly Alien Dudes) on behalf of N.I.C.E. (Nations of International Citizens for Earth). Curiously enough, NEC didn't translate the game's debug menu, which is available in all its katakana-and-hiragana splendor if you enter the right code at the title screen.

If NEC hoped to forge cartoon deals and action figures in Keith Courage's name, they never got the chance. Keith and his acronyms were swiftly forgotten even among TurboGrafx owners, who busied themselves with Bonk's Adventure, Blazing Lasers, Alien Crush, and other games that, in retrospect, would've made much better pack-ins than Keith Courage.

A Flop in the U.S., a Smash in Taiwan
While Keith Courage was convincing American kids and parents to buy a Sega Genesis or stick with their NES or maybe even get a discounted Sega Master System, Mashin Eiyuden Wataru was going places. The anime lasted into the 1990s and spanned three different series, hitting it big in both Japan and China. The show also inspired a handful of OVAs and a grand total of five games, including RPGs for the GameBoy and NES. In fact, Sunrise even brought Wataru back for a DS puzzle title not so very long ago.

One can't help but wonder if NEC missed an opportunity by ignoring Keith's anime source. With a bit of licensing work, they could have promoted TurboGrafx-16 systems by putting a dubbed and heavily re-written Wataru anime on American TV every Saturday morning in 1989. That probably would have failed, too, but not quite as badly as a forgettable hero called Keith Courage.


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