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Finite Discoveries

by Todd Ciolek, Aug 27th 2008

A while ago, I vowed to stop buying toys. I had a habit of picking up capsule figures and other knickknacks based on any video game I liked, and it led to nothing but a pile of junk that I just didn't need. So I swore off collecting any more toys, no matter what sort of statues and model kits and trifling gashapon gewgaws came along.

And then Yujin made this.

Yes, it's the MUSHA Aleste from the Sega Genesis game MUSHA, a brilliant shooter programmed by Compile. It's a favorite of mine, and I never thought that I'd see a capsule figure of the lead robot, since the game is 18 years old and Compile isn't even around anymore. Yet Yujin put the MUSHA Aleste in its new Shooting Historica line, which features many ships from old-school shooters, and it made me break my promise. At least it was for a good reason: the figure's high-quality, considering it came out of a vending machine and apparently cost about 300 yen. I'd recommend it to anyone who could tell me what the letters in MUSHA stand for without looking it up.

So now I must re-swear my oath. I'm safe as long as no deceitful company makes toys based on Metal Warriors, El Viento, or Popful Mail.

NEWS

SUIKODEN TIERKREIS REVEALED IN RECORD TIME
Suikoden Tierkreis certainly wasn't a nebulous title for long. Shortly after word of the game's patent registration emerged, Konami revealed numerous details about this DS-based Suikoden. Don't be fooled by the lack of a number; this is clearly the next major game in the series, complete with a vast storyline revolving around 108 warriors linked by fate and astrology in a medieval fantasy world. The game even promises a shakeup to the Suikoden formula, as early footage shows the star-bound heroes falling in battle.

Whether it's a premonition or a prologue, the player-named main character is soon off to locate all of the Stars of Destiny with the help of his childhood friend Marika, the guardsman Jail, a vagrant named Ryu, and a race of intelligent, land-dwelling porpoises. While the story promises traditional Suikoden intrigue and talking animal-people, the battle system scales back character parties to four members, much like the ill-received Suikoden IV. Also gone is the unique Suikoden method of tracking a character's magic stockpiles by the number of times it can be used. It's apparently now done with magic points. You know, just like every other RPG.

A YATTERMAN VILLAIN AND THE BEST POSSIBLE MEGA MAN JOIN TATSUNOKO VS. CAPCOM
Tatsunoko vs. Capcom keeps adding new characters, and I'm just fine with it. That's because each new announcement digs deeper into the archives of the two companies, making it more and more likely that they'll put in my favorite Tatsunoko Productions character: Asuka Sakurai, the zombie-shooting, shotgun-wielding girl who appeared in about two episodes of The SoulTaker. Clearly she's next on the list of Tatsunoko icons.

For the moment, however, the newest additions are Capcom's Mega Man Volnutt and Tatsunoko's Doronjo. Mega Man Volnutt is the Mega Man Legends version of the robot hero, and in that underrated series, he was an amnesiac archeologist in a futuristic world completely separate from conventional Mega Man continuity. It may seem odd to choose a character from a series Capcom hasn't touched since 2000, yet the Legends versions of Mega Man and Roll were also the ones picked for Namco X Capcom. Perhaps Capcom's trying to tell us something.

Doronjo is the second character from the Yatterman anime to join the lineup, a decision doubtless owed to the recent Yatterman remake and the live-action film in development. The masked, vain antagonist of the series, Doronjo is rarely without her two ineffectual henchmen, and all three of them are direct descendants of the villains from Time Bokan, the show that Yatterman spun off from back in the '70s. Both series popularized the cackling she-villain archetype that's shown up everywhere from Nadia - The Secret of Blue Water to Pokémon to Gunbird 2. Original or not, Doronjo's the first female fighter on the Tatsunoko side of the game, and she'll apparently call on her sidekicks, Boyacky and Tonzler, for many or her attacks.

Come back next week, when Tatsunoko vs. Capcom might have characters from Samurai Pizza Cats and Littl' Bits. No promises.

NATSUME READIES A PROPER PRINCESS MAKER
Before you get the wrong idea about Princess Debut, let me assure you that it's not some unwholesome girl-raising game covertly intended for alleged adults. No, Princess Debut is a far more innocent creation from Natsume, the purveyors of the Harvest Moon titles. The DS game casts players in the role of a well-to-do girl who has a month to romance one of six princes and learn PROPER ballroom etiquette, including the art of dancing. The prince-chasing scenes play out through conversations, but the dance lessons use the stylus and touch-screen to keep up with your partner, sort of like Elite Beat Agents. It's a simple procedure, but there's a wide variety of dance styles, outfits, mini-games, and endings. And while it's presumably aimed at young girls, open-minded adults may find it just as captivating. After all, if grown anime fans can flock to shows like Shugo Chara! and Card Captor Sakura, they can sure as hell try Princess Debut.

Princess Debut's also notable as one of the few Cave-developed games to come to North America. Cave's better known for making arcade shooters like ESPrade, Mushihime-sama and Ibara, but their cult-favorite titles rarely see console ports and never turn up Stateside. That might change with Ketsui Death Label, a DS revamp of the Cave arcade shooter Ketsui that offers a bosses-only version of the game with downloadable levels and a shooter training course. Meanwhile, Cave recently put out Do-Don-Pachi Dai-Fukkatsu (which takes mechanical anime girls to a disturbing new level) and is currently prepping a yet-to-be-named shooter with character designs by the illustrator “POP.” No comment.

VIRTUAL CONSOLE GETS INTERESTING FOR A WEEK
I normally don't cover games for the Wii's Virtual Console, as their scheduling conflicts with this column's one-week-ahead pace. That, and they've been largely unremarkable for the past few months. This week, however, has two notable releases. Three, if you count Ys Book I and II (right) as two games.

When the compilation was released on the TurboGrafx-16's CD attachment back in 1990, those two games became the Final Fantasy VII of their day, showing off then-astounding animated scenes and a magnificent soundtrack. That said, I've never been an Ys fan, and I find that the games haven't aged gracefully; the stories are tepid jumbles of silent heroes and buried civilizations, and the run-into-enemies combat rapidly gets dull. The Ys titles are best appreciated for their historical impact, as the people behind them went on to create many other revered 16-bit RPGs, including the Lunar series, Actraiser, and Terranigma. In terms of sheer merchandise, Ys was huge in its day, siring dozens of soundtracks, an anime series for each of the first two games, and an unsuccessful trailer for a never-produced Ys IV adaptation. Ys III sucked, by the way.

The Virtual Console's other new arrival, Samurai Shodown II, stands as both an impressive game and a pivotal moment in its genre. It marked the point where SNK first stood on equal ground with Capcom's fighters, and SNK did it with a game where blond American ninja throw their attack dogs at German knights and boomerang-flinging beastgirls. You could wait for the six-game Samurai Shodown Anthology to hit the Wii later this year, but if you want the best of the series, Samurai Shodown II is ready now.

WEIRD-ASS IMPORT ROUNDUP: AUGUST

FATE/TIGER COLOSSEUM UPPER
(Capcom/Cavia, DS)
Capcom, Capcom, Capcom. You vex us so. Once you were known far and wide for creating fighting games like Street Fighter II and Darkstalkers and Cyberbots (shut up, I liked it) and Rival Schools. Now you publish other developers' fighters based on anime licenses, and yet you never bring them out of Japan. Granted, the Fate/Tiger Colosseum titles wouldn't be the first Fate/Whatever fighters I'd import, since the upcoming 3-D Fate Unlimited Codes arcade game shows much more potential. The first Fate/Tiger Colosseum was just a cute little PSP off-shoot in which all of the Fate cast hashed it out with huge heads and simple moves, and the same goes for the sequel, Fate/Tiger Colosseum Upper. One doesn't play this for the complex mechanics (there's only one attack button, after all). Rather, Fate franchise fans play it for the character squabbling, the addition of Fate/Hollow Ataraxia's Avenger, and the chance to play as Saber in a lion suit.

KORG DS-10 SYNTHESIZER
(Kord, DS)
I wavered a bit on including Korg DS-10 here, since it came out at the tail-end of last month and isn't all that unusual in its content. It's not an all-kitten fighting game or a dating simulator where the girls are actually sentient forms of fruit. It's just impressive for squeezing the essentials of a Korg MS-10 synthesizer into a DS cart. The resulting “game” replicates the machine and its various uses perfectly, right down to the keyboard and cable-patching experimentation. It's a fascinating tool for any aspiring composer, and the insanely ambitious ones can chain up to four DS units in their mad schemes to become the next Boards of Canada. At least they won't have to resort to import prices for their plans, as Xseed plans to ship a North America version of Korg DS-10 in October.

TENGAI MAKYO: THE FOURTH REVELATION
(Hudson/Red, DS)
America was a dangerous land back in 1893. Demons roamed the land. Mechanical gorillas fought geisha robots. A young couple from the haunted streets of New Orleans traveled across the country to recruit a cowboy, a samurai, and a Native American maiden for an imminent battle against the Antichrist. That's what Tengai Makyo: The Fourth Revelation tells us, at least. A staple of Japan's RPG scene in the 1990s, the Tengai Makyo series mostly takes place in a bizarre version of feudal Japan, based on the works of the completely made-up Western author P.H. Chada. First released on the Sega Saturn in 1997, Tengai Makyo: The Fourth Revelation: The Apocalypse IV (I swear that's the full title) switched things around by setting itself in a magical and thoroughly stereotyped 1800s America. History, geography and The Book of Revelation are all hilariously misinterpreted in Tengai Makyo IV, which ranges all the way from a monster-filled Alaska (or “Alasker,” as said by a Japanese narrator trying to sound like an American cowpoke) to the heart of Mexico. The new PSP port adds an extra scenario in demon-filled New York, where the heroes are called upon to help a mother and her children. It's a shame that this won't see U.S. shores; Tengai Makyo IV's graphics and battle system are a bit archaic, but its preposterous re-imagining of classic Americana is second to none.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 8-31

INFINITE UNDISCOVERY
(Square Enix, Xbox 360, $59.99)
The latest tri-Ace RPG and its intentionally nonsensical title mark an important event in its genre's history, as this is the first time a Japanese RPG has debuted the same week in Japan, North America, and Europe. As with every tri-Ace RPG that isn't a Valkyrie Profile game, Infinite Undiscovery's story strikes few original chords, though its antagonists forego regular RPG villainy in favor of cartoonish supervillainy by enchaining the moon and sapping its energies. Amid planet-wide chaos and screwed-up tides, a cowardly minstrel is mistaken for the game's real hero and captured by the moon-snaring evildoers. This turn of events lands him 17 controllable party members, most of them clichéd enough to be in a Tales game. Still, tri-Ace is selling their new RPG more on gameplay. Dispensing with random battles for good, Infinite Undiscovery weaves its enemy encounters into the game's environment with unprecedented detail, and the action-oriented combat lets you command up to a dozen allies at a time. It's possible that tri-Ace will drop the ball with this one, but we can't say that Square Enix is making us wait for it.
Get Excited If: You never pay attention to an RPG's story anyway.

EXTRA LIVES: ALISIA DRAGOON

Alisia Dragoon wasn't based on an anime series or manga. Nor did it inspire any. In fact, I've never seen so much as an Alisia Dragoon doujinshi. Yet this imaginative Sega Genesis action game from 1992 is forever tied to Gainax, the roguishly charming studio that's made everything from the Wings of Honneamise to Mahoromatic. Alisia Dragoon is a humble footnote in Gainax's history, but it's an interesting one all the same.

Alisia Dragoon isn't Gainax's game alone, as it was a co-production between the anime studio and GameArts, the developer of the Lunar RPG series. In 1992, GameArts and Gainax were linked in an odd little web with Studio Alex, a company formed by game director Kazunari Tomi and writer Keisuke "Kei Shigema" Shigematsu. The two met while making games at Gainax, and they'd later play large roles in the Lunar series. Even so, Gainax and GameArts would never work together as closely as they did on Alisia Dragoon.

Like most side-scrolling Genesis action games, Alisia Dragoon has precious little plot. The possibly embellished manual tells us that Baldour, “the prince of all things evil,” slumbers in a cocoon far above the earth. Baldour was apparently sealed there by a great sorcerer, but Baldour's followers later committed the embarrassing faux pas of torturing that same sorcerer to death in front of his young daughter, Alisia. When Baldour's cocoon plummets from the sky years later, a grown-up Alisia heads out to destroy him. That's really it, aside from a pair of one-sided conversations between the silent Alisia and Baldour's head worshipper, Ornah.

Alisia's accompanied by four pet monsters: a basic fireball-spitting Dragon Frye (haw haw, translation team), the flaming Ball O' Fire, the screen-clearing Thunder Raven (not an actual raven), and the self-explanatory Boomerang Lizard. Players can swap them out at any time, or simply go without if they're worried about Alisia's pets dying. As with Mega Man weapons, some monsters are more useful than others, but each comes into play throughout the game's eight stages. It's a unique concept, further set apart from other jump-and-shoot games by Alisia's thunder magic. Instead of firing individual shots, our heroine throws streams of energy that automatically target enemies in front of her. Her magic depletes with use and recharges when it's not being fired, requiring a certain strategic rhythm. It's a strange but inventive feature, and it gives Alisia Dragoon an aura entirely its own.

The journey to Baldour's floating castle (there's always a floating castle) covers a lot of visually striking ground. There's a stage or two of boring cliffs, but few Genesis games have the lush detail of the first level's jungle temple or the structure of third stage's floating airship, styled after Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (which may be a fair rip; some Gainax founders worked on Miyazaki's films). Each stage has a surprising number of hidden passages, and exploration is rewarded with power-ups that boost Alisia's magic and her monsters' abilities. Alisia even uncovers the half-buried, zombie-filled ruins of a spaceship, an impressive sight back when meshing sci-fi themes into fantasy wasn't quite so hackneyed for a video game. It's all backed by a soundtrack that's surprisingly rich and unique for something credited to the corporate-sounding “Mecano Associates.”

A glance through the credits reveals that Gainax didn't play too big a part in making Alisia Dragoon. Most of the programmers and designers are GameArts regulars, though Gainax producer Yoshimi Kanda's credited with what little story there is. Most of Gainax's then-prominent members are lumped in the “Special Thanks” category, which mentions Toshio Okada, Takami Akai, and Yasuhiro Takeda. Not that Gainax was inexperienced in making games at the time. PC titles helped keep them afloat when their anime projects didn't come through, but nearly all of their “games” were simple affairs, text-driven simulations like Cybernetic High School, Akai's Princess Maker series, or the company's Silent Möbius title. Alisia Dragoon was something different: an impressive, well-made action game free of creepy undertones.

Alisia Dragoon wasn't the only game that broadened Gainax's scope, as Kanda also contributed to Xardion, a somewhat average mecha-driven action game released on the Super NES around the same time that Alisia hit the Genesis. The two represented a new direction for Gainax, an opportunity to deal in mainstream games instead of exploitive dating sims. In fact, according to Takeda's Notenki Memoirs, Okada once proposed that Gainax give up the less-profitable craft of animation in favor of making more games.

Instead, Gainax went on to make Evangelion, and Okada left the company to espouse (and recently renounce) the ways of otaku culture. Gainax and Game Arts drifted apart, though Studio Alex helped with Gainax's Götzendeiner. A diagonal-view action-RPG released on the PC Engine in 1994, Götzendeiner was arguably the last Gainax game that wasn't a fetishy simulation, a mahjongg title, or an Evangelion cash-in.

If no one ever followed up on Alisia Dragoon, it's also true that the game was hardly a runaway hit. The Genesis wasn't very popular in Japan (where it was called the Mega Drive), and Alisia Dragoon had a low-key release in North America. It was published there by Sega's U.S. branch, yet the game didn't get any TV spots or major ad placement. At most, Sega sprang for an American cover a cut above the usual sloppy art of the day, even if it turns Alisia from a big-eyed, soft-focused anime heroine into a muscular, Vallejo-style sorceress wearing an armored, golden bikini.

Alisia Dragoon may represent a road not taken by Gainax and GameArts, but it's hard to argue that either company has fared worse for it. No modern anime fan can avoid Gainax and the shows they've created, and GameArts did very well among RPG fans by creating Lunar and Grandia, all without tapping Alisia for so much as a cameo. Whether brushed aside because of legal issues, poor sales or general disinterest, Alisia Dragoon nonetheless had something special. It's the best video game that Gainax ever touched, and it's still a spectacular ride in its own right.

Only slightly rarer than other Genesis games released on Sega's first-party label, the U.S. version of Alisia Dragoon can be had for about $5 if you're just after a cartridge. The European edition is more common, and the Japanese release, the rarest of the three, has dropped in price over the last few years. Aside from the cover art, there's little difference between the three versions of the game.


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