The X Button
Blown Away

by Todd Ciolek, Aug 20th 2008

This is a busy week. Well, it's more accurate to denote next week as the busy one, as that is when we shall be flooded by games with anime themes and made-in-Japan relevance. In fact, it's so much that I'm skipping an Extra Lives entry this time around. It'll be back next time with even longer digressions and even more tenuous links to the anime industry.

Until then, you can read about the coming week's release overload and contemplate how spoiled modern kids are. Today's wide-eyed preteen anime fans need only glance across the racks at GameStop to find their hobby well-represented in video games. When I was that age, any Japanese games released in America were stripped of their anime overtones and given covers like this.

Spoiled rotten, I tell you.

NEWS

DR. SLUMP HITS THE DS
In the anime world, Dr. Slump got a raw deal. Akira Toriyama's Dragon Ball and its grunting, grimacing descendents became staples of kids' entertainment in the West, while the anime series based on his Dr. Slump manga never got beyond a single test-dubbed episode in America. But that hasn't stopped Dr. Slump from spreading its frequently scatological humor throughout Japan. It's hitting the DS in October with Dr. Slump: Arale-Chan, in which Arale (right), a robot girl ignorant of the human world in many ways, explores Penguin Village while solving local problems and, from the look of screenshots, changing her outfit an awful lot. Sure, Dragon Ball Z has dozens of games, but do any of them let Goku wear a cap with wings? I didn't think so.

MEGA MAN 9 GETS A SHOP, A POWER DRINK
The original Mega Man for the NES hit the Wii's Virtual Console yesterday, though everyone's more interested in what's to come. The download-only Mega Man 9 has a September release date and, better yet, a store where Mega Man can buy items. And possibly dress up like his robot sister, Roll.

CAPCOM hasn't yet specified what each of the icons stands for. Some, like the energy tank and 1-up, are self-explanatory, and others clearly will unlock Mega Man sidekicks Fliptop and Beat. The Roll icon might let you play as Roll herself and attack enemies with a hairdryer, if that crappy '90s Mega Man cartoon was at all accurate. The book is curious, as it could be anything from an option to play helmet-less Mega Man to hints about boss weaknesses. Less grounded theories suggest a Mega Man diary chronicling the robot hero's slow descent into stress-induced schizophrenia, or his sinful thoughts about Mega Man 9 boss Splash Woman. Some Mega Man fans are screwed up.

CAPCOM's also promoting Mega Man 9 with an energy drink patterned after the e-tanks that helped us finish every Mega Man game after the first one. If it tastes anything like those Final Fantasy XII potions, the cans are best left unopened and therefore collectible.

SHINING DRAGON COMING HERE, BUT PROBABLY NOT NEXT WEEK
The twilight years of a popular game system always bring out weird bargain-bin offerings. For example, no one expected Valcon Games to license Shining Dragon, a 3-D brawler based on Ikki Tousen, and release it for the North American PlayStation 2. Ikki Tousen is, of course, the notorious anime and manga in which heroes from the Chinese literary classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms are re-imagined as high-school girls who punch and kick each other's clothes off. Both the anime and manga (a.k.a. Battle Vixens) are arguably overshadowed by the half-naked statuettes and body pillows inspired by Ikki Tousen, so it follows that the PS2 game from Marvelous (yes, the makers of the Harvest Moon series) heavily emphasizes just how naked its female cast can get in the heat of combat. They know their audience.

Yet Shining Dragon is a mystery. Amazon tells us that it's coming out on August 28, but GameStop has no listing for it, and Gamefly, which inadvertently broke the news about the title, has apparently removed Shining Dragon from its database. It's not even on Valcon's site. Most retailers don't have cover art for it, and the few that do are clearly using the Japanese one (upper right). I'd normally avoid mentioning a game without a confirmed release date, but budget titles have a way of sneaking up on us (ask me about hunting down The Red Star or Heavenly Guardian). And Shining Dragon's $15 price tag clearly marks it as a budget title, even if some import reviews suggest that it's overpriced by about $14.27.

ALUCARD IN TOO HUMAN
Lastly, those of you who pick up the long-in-the-works Too Human this week might recognize the voice of Baldur, the hero of the game's cyber-Norse storyline. Yes, it's Crispin Freeman, the actor behind such anime characters as Hellsing's Alucard, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex's Togusa, and Howl's Moving Castle's Prince Turnip. Listen closely to the rest of the game's cast, and you might hear some other notable voice actors. No prizes for naming them, though.

REVIEW: BANGAI-O SPIRITS

Bangai-O Spirits is about one thing above all others: explosions. It doesn't matter if the game tosses your tiny robot into a screen-choking swarm of lasers, or if it drops you in the middle of a mine-filled maze that looks just like a Pac-Man level. Wherever you are and whatever you're doing, you're supposed to blow things up.

To best accommodate all of these explosions, the developers at Treasure made them as small as possible. Like the original Bangai-O on the Dreamcast and Nintendo 64, Spirits is a free-roaming 2-D space shooter in miniature. Your Bangai-O robot is about eight pixels tall, and the world around it is just as tiny, from the opposing mecha to the missile they fire. And it's all for a good reason: by shrinking everything, Spirits crams in more enemies, obstacles, power-ups and massive explosions than a traditionally viewed game ever could.

There's no story aside from a tutorial mode, in which a fired-up professor explains the play mechanics to Ruri and Masato, two incredulous and cynical teenagers. Seventeen stages in, and the tutorial ends with Masato wondering about the game's resale value while Ruri finds that she's named after a programmer's favorite anime character. And that's it. I must say that I miss the original Bangai-O's cast of weird characters spouting nonsense in each level. But you know what? I shouldn't miss them. Bangai-O Spirits is not about a story.

The original Bangai-O was excellent, but it limited players to two types of weapon. Spirits broadens the selection from basic missiles and reflecting shots to include swords, shields, explosive napalm, directed bullets, drill-like “break” rounds, and projectile-deflecting bats. You can equip four at any time: two as basic armaments, and two as special EX attacks that blanket the screen in missiles. While you can rely on basic shots and melee strikes to get you through a level, it's the EX attacks that'll serve you best when surrounded. The more enemy projectiles near the Bangai-O, the larger the cluster of missiles you can fire, and the more exotic the fruits left behind when enemies are destroyed. Those oranges and watermelons fill your EX meter up, letting you store up to three massive barrages and make more explosions. So goes the rhythm of battle, framed by a bouncy Treasure soundtrack and a lot of noisy screaming.

It's tempting to play Bangai-O Spirits simply by flying into a cluster of enemies and spamming the EX buttons, but navigating every stage requires a surprising bit of strategy. That's because Bangai-O Spirits goes from complex joys to simple ones in the blink of an eye. One moment you're carefully firing off bouncing missiles while scooting down a narrow passage; the next, you're desperately hurling napalm barrages, not caring who or what's blowing up. Because as long as it's not you, you must be doing it right.

And there's a lot of room to experiment. The box copy promises 160 levels, and Bangai-O Spirits doesn't cheat its way around that. You're free to pick any stage from the start, and the game rarely repeats a challenge. Some are close-range encounters with cannons and fleets of bullet-spewing robots. Some are elaborate puzzles where the Bangai-O shoves blocks and ricochets bullets down alleys to find the right angle. Some might be tributes to Super Mario Bros. or that one R-Type level with the huge battleship. Some are glorious celebrations of the Itano Circus, where you'll pull off one missile ballet after another just to see if you can make the game's graphics engine grind to a halt from the effort.

Should you get tired of the stages or manage to beat them all, you can always make your own. It's easy to design levels using the DS stylus, though it's harder to share them. The levels are exported as sounds through the DS speakers, meaning that you'll have to record them as mp3 files if you want to put your profanity-filled creations online. And you have to do it all in reverse to download fan-made levels. A novel idea, but it's far more cumbersome than simply swapping stages over Wi-Fi. On that note, you can't go online with Spirits at all. Even the multi-player is done strictly through local wireless.

Treasure and D3 polished up Spirits for its American release, adding a few levels and organizing all of the stages into “Treasure's Best,” puzzle-oriented challenges, and, well, everything else. They've also tacked on cosmetic touches like a new top-screen filler image and a whirling Bangai-O sprite that flies out of each finished level. I must note, however, that the translators glossed over the tutorial's references to Mobile Suit Gundam and Space Battleship Yamato, leaving only a mention of the Wave Motion Gun.

I've seen some reviewers paint Bangai-O Spirits as a bit too “hardcore” to interest casual players, but the game isn't nearly so narrow in its appeal. Once you've learned the basics, it's exceptionally easy to pick up and play. It's the sort of game worth returning to time and time again, whether it's for a quick adrenaline rush or some careful level-building. Bangai-O Spirits isn't just another shooter for a small cul-de-sac of Treasure fans. It's one of the best action games in recent memory, and it should be shared by everyone.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 8-24

CASTLE CRASHERS
(The Behemoth, XBLA, 1200 Points)
I was hesitant to include Castle Crashers in next week's releases, mostly because it's been hit by delay upon delay for over two years. Yet the game is reportedly buttoned up for a release next Thursday, and it's certain to interest anyone who's enjoyed Streets of Rage, Final Fight, or any other highlights of the genre often labeled “beat-'em-ups” for want of a less-1950s-sounding name. The Behemoth's most famous journey into action gaming was Alien Hominid, and Castle Crashers has the same endearingly animated violence. In gameplay, though, it may be most reminiscent of Treasure's Guardian Heroes, as there's a healthy array of RPG-ish ways to enhance your fighter (and a few bonus characters to unlock). It even allows four players at once, just to replicate arcade brawlers like The Simpsons, Alien vs. Predator, and that double-screen X-Men.
Get Excited If: You ever threw in Streets of Rage 2 just to listen to the music.

DIGIMON WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP
(Namco Bandai, $29.99)
Time for a personal anecdote: I didn't think Digimon would last. I saw Digimon toys on store shelves and a Digimon cartoon on TV back in 1999, and all I could think was “Man, could this be any more obvious of a Pokémon rip-off?” I expected that I'd never hear of Digimon again, but Digimon is still going strong, and I feel dumb. World Championship is the fourth Digimon game on the DS, and it offers another selection of digital creatures to be caught, raised, and marched into battle. The combat is run automatically this time around, placing more emphasis on how one trains and equips Digimon before the fight.
Get Excited If: You've watched enough Digimon anime to have a favorite sub-series.

DISGAEA 3: ABSENCE OF JUSTICE
(NIS, PS3, $49.99)
A lot of previews for Disgaea 3 point out that it looks like a PlayStation 2 game. Well, that doesn't matter. The first two Disgaea games could've passed for PlayStation One offerings, and that didn't stop people from buying and enjoying them. The third Disgaea wraps a cynical plot around a demonic school, where the queen-bee delinquent Raspberyl clashes with the manipulatively heroic M.A.O (and guest starts from previous Disgaeas). All of the typical Disgaea elements are similarly twisted into educational themes, with student councils taking the place of underworld courts. The grid-based battles are still intact, and stacking characters into siege towers plays a much larger role this time around. And yes, it's got Prinnies, the adorable walking penguin cages of personal hell.
Get Excited If: You clocked in over 100 hours each on Disgaea and Disgaea 2.

FROM THE ABYSS
(Aksys, DS, $29,99)
Atlus and Square Enix have kept the DS swamped with action-RPGs, making it hard to notice a dungeon hack like From the Abyss, particularly when it's developed by the largely unknown Sonic Powered. Yet Abyss has everything a respectable dungeon-crawler needs, from the personalized characters (generated through a short batch of questions) to the varied arsenal of weapons and lots of monsters on which to use those weapons. There's also a co-op mode for two players, though it's only locally enabled. Abyss' biggest advantage might be its resemblance to Square Enix's Mana series, which gives it an opportunity to make amends with the fans who hated, hated, hated Children of Mana.
Get Excited If: You'll give any game a chance so long as it brings back memories of playing Secret of Mana for the first time on Christmas morning, 1993.

HARVEST MOON: ISLAND OF HAPPINESS
(Natsume, DS, $29.99)
If Harvest Moon games romanticize the ways of rural, salt-of-the-earth farmers, Island of Happiness! casts the same upbeat aura on being marooned. Washed up on a desert island, your farming cipher (male or female) is quickly charged with growing vegetables, raising livestock, and, to presumably keep the island colony going, finding a husband or wife. Fortunately, the island's closer to a civilized Animal Crossing community than a barren rock populated only by snakes and diphtheria. The farming life here is just as laid-back and strangely captivating as it's been in Harvest Moon games for the past 10 years, and Natsume plans on celebrating that anniversary with a plush chicken for those who pre-order Island of Happiness! at GameStop.
Get Excited If: You already have the cow, sheep, and dog toys given out with previous Harvest Moons.

MARIO SUPER SLUGGERS
(Nintendo, Wii, $49.99)
Cliché as it is to mock Nintendo's habit of putting Mario in everything, we're still tempted to speculate about the odds on Super Mario Badminton or Super Mario Pie-Eating Contest showing up on Wii release lists. With that out of our system, we can admit that the Namco-made Mario Super Sluggers is a capable baseball title, even if it's just the Gamecube's Mario Superstar Baseball with better graphics, Wii remote controls, and a few minor enhancements. It's no one's idea of hardcore baseball simulation (man, that sounds dirty), and yet no one who grew up on Nintendo could rightly resist the chance to play a team of Shyguys and Goombas against a lineup of Toads and Yoshis.
Get Excited If: You remember what Shyguys look like.

TALES OF VESPERIA
(Namco Bandai, Xbox 360, $59.99)
Namco's spent at lot of this decade trying to make the Tales franchise a major gaming force, and they might have pulled it off; when Tales of Vesperia arrived on the Xbox 360 in Japan, over 25,000 systems just happened to sell that same week. In some ways, Vesperia reaches new territory for the series, as it's the first installment presented in HD, and its visual quality is stunning even without the bump to hi-def. In other ways, it's familiar ground. There's an action-based battle system and a society built upon some arcane technology called Blastia. The story follows jaded anti-government wanderer Yuri Lowell (not to be confused with voice actor Yuri Lowenthal), whose habit of fighting The Man leaves him at odds with his friend, the upstanding knight Flynn Scifo. As usual, the cast was designed by Kousuke Fujishima, who was probably glad to get away from volume 232,951 of his Oh My Goddess! manga.
Get Excited If: You're able to tell Tales games apart just by the character designs.

TIME HOLLOW
(Konami, DS, $29.99)
Junko Kawano's surprisingly good adventure game Shadow of Destiny made her a name to watch way back in 2001, but her career's since been marred by the sub-average Suikoden IV. With Time Hollow, she's back doing adventure stuff, albeit with the stylus-based interactions of a DS game. In the manner of Trace Memory or Hotel Dusk, Time Hollow uses character conversations and interactive scenery to tell the tale of Ethan Kairos, a teenager in possession of a pen that lets him breach the boundaries of time. Much like the hero of Shadow of Destiny, Ethan jumps between time periods, whether it's a brief peek into the past or a quest to prevent a fatal bike accident. Kawano's definitely in her element, and Time Hollow shows off surprisingly high DS production quality, including a theme song and anime cutscenes.
Get Excited If: You like point-and-click adventures driven by conversations and tragic adventures in time travel.

VAMPIRE RAIN: ALTERED SPECIES
(Ignition, PS3 $39.99)
When it hit the Xbox 360 last year, Vampire Rain brought flashbacks of the “survival horror” craze that Resident Evil inspired in the late 1990s. It was a time when each month introduced some new and mediocre game full of awkwardly controlled heroes trying to survive an assault of cinematic monsters and terrible voice acting. Vampire Rain's storyline, which pits SWAT teams against Nosferatu outbreaks, is survival horror to the core. Yet it's also a stealth action game, one where you're pretty much dead if the enemy spots you (thus making it a vampiric Splinter Cell). Reviewers weren't kind to the Xbox 360 version of Vampire Rain, and even the nicer critics classified it as a guilty pleasure. Perhaps the PS3 version, with its variety of eight-player online modes, might improve on all that. It'd better, since it's been in development for over a year.
Get Excited If: You dug Countdown Vampires, Carrier, Deep Fear, Blue Stinger, Illbleed, Parasite Eve 2, and other survival-horror relics.


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