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Arcade Zen

by Todd Ciolek, Sep 3rd 2008

I devote a lot of this week's column to fighting games, that bastion of virtual fisticuffsmanship that some feel symbolizes gaming at its basest and most violent. I refuse to share that opinion, because I came of age in a time when fighters ruled the hearts and minds of America's youth, when gaming magazines had Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat II on their covers for ten issues a year. It was a glorious era, full of rabid competition, arcade camaraderie, and all sorts of rumors about Sheng Long and Ermac the Red Ninja. It was also a time of imitators, and among the lesser-seen fighting games of the day was Strata's BloodStorm.

BloodStorm is and always was a terrible game, but in a very special way. Attempting to outdo Mortal Kombat's parent-upsetting violence, BloodStorm let players cut off opponents' body parts, rip them in half, impale them on stalagmites, and bring up occasionally profane taunts after matches. Note the above jab at Mortal Kombat's Goro, which somehow failed to make BloodStorm an overnight sensation.

And I loved it. I explored every secret of the game. I drew fan art of the characters. I even wrote a letter to Strata, telling them how much I liked their ugly, messily programmed fighter. And, of course, I was embarrassed by all of this years down the road. So if I seem a bit lenient and over-enthusiastic about fighting games today, you know why: they're not BloodStorm.

NEWS

NIS PLANS ALL-PRINNY, ALL-ACTION GAME
If there's one thing that's helped Nippon Ichi Software more than any other, it's the Prinny, the humble, perpetually abused penguin-demon from Disgaea and several other crossover-prone NIS games. Now the little “dood”-spouting hellions are getting their own PSP action game.

It's apparently a side-scroller with traditional NIS hand-drawn characters and polygon environments. The play mechanics are unspecified at present, though the story's fueled by a decree from the Prinnies' cruel taskmaster, the under-dressed demon mercenary Etna. It's new territory for NIS, which typically takes on strategy-RPGs. As someone who likes both penguins and traditional 2-D action games, I have no choice but to want this game almost as badly as I do Brütal Legend and that Valkyire Profile DS game.

THE SECRETS OF CHRONO TRIGGER, AND ALSO MANA
As I have to mention Square and/or Enix in every column, I should point out that the Chrono Trigger DS port will hit America on November 25, a whole two days before it comes out in Japan! Anyone who pre-books the game in Japan will also get a soundtrack CD that Square Enix should really, really offer in America. Square's also confirmed that the DS Chrono Trigger has two-player wireless play and several new dungeons, though no one's sure if one of those is the unused “Singing Mountain” dungeon lurking in the original game's code. I'm pulling for some truly challenging bonus levels; as much as everyone likes Chrono Trigger, it's a pushover in the gameplay department.

In other news about beloved old Square games, Secret of Mana will shortly arrive on the Wii's Virtual Console…in Japan. For those who never had it as a kid, Mana's a gorgeous action-RPG originally developed for Nintendo's never-released SNES CD attachment. Square later switched it over to a cartridge game, retaining its enticing quest, its vibrant soundtrack, and a lot of forgivable bugs. Its appearance on the Virtual Console is a guarantee that you'll never have to shell out for an overpriced, under-enhanced DS port. There's no word of it coming to the U.S. yet, but Nintendo never announces North American Virtual Console titles until three days before they're released.

Until Secret of Mana arrives here, you can settle for the Virtual Console's newly added Super Mario RPG. Programmed by Square just before they had a massive slapfight with Nintendo and rushed to the waiting arms of Sony in the mid-'90s, Super Mario RPG is an engaging little Super NES tribute to the Nintendo icon, with lots of jumping and the sort of rendered computer graphics that stopped impressing people around Donkey Kong Country 3. It's still worth a look, especially if you're big on its descendents, the Paper Mario games.

To close off this train of Square Enix news, there's now a release date for Dissidia: Final Fantasy, Square's 3-D fighter encompassing Final Fantasy's history of hero-villain pairings. It'll hit the PSP on December 18 in Japan, and I suspect that a lot of fans won't wait for the inevitable North American release.

NINJA BLADE LEADS XBOX 360'S JAPANESE CHARGE
Now that Tales of Vesperia has actually sold more than five or six Xbox 360 consoles in Japan, Microsoft's turning to another round of games from Japanese developers, and From Software's unimaginately named Ninja Blade heads the pack. Taking cues from Ninja Gaiden and From's own Otogi games, Ninja Blade's trailer shows a crisp-looking brawl between a heavily armed ninja and a pack of demons in modern-day Shinjuku. The game will supposedly feature animated cutscenes from Production I.G, though it's not yet clear if they'll be glistening CG or old-fashioned 2-D animation like mom used to make.

Less revolutionary is Microsoft's championing of Gundam Musou 2 (a.k.a. Dynasty Warriors: Gundam), the sequel to the game that combined Japan's two most reliable nerd purchases: Gundam robots and Dynasty Warriors games. It'll also show up on the PlayStation 3 and the PlayStation 2, making the Xbox 360 version a little less likely to sell systems. Still, it'll have a larger cast of Gundam icons with which to wreck robot hordes, and that's what we all want out of a Dynasty Warriors game.

SPOTLIGHT: THE ARCADE MATTERS

Few people need to be told that arcades have fallen. Once pop-cultural centers where a generation's favorite video games were forged and defined, arcades rapidly slunk from the spotlight in the 1990s. Why? Home consoles steadily caught up to arcade hardware in terms of technology, leaving kids and teenagers little reason to pump quarters into something that would be on their PlayStations in months' time. Some blame the fighting game for driving out other popular genres in the '90s, but they're forgetting that arcades were already slipping by then. They'd long since ceased to be the dens of teenage delinquency and adult distraction that they were in the days of Pac-Man (see the Joe Don Baker comedy/documentary Joysticks for further details). If anything, the fighting game actually let arcades live a little longer.

Yet even the fighting game has all but abandoned arcades, leaving them to gun games, racers, jet-ski simulators and other Chuck E. Cheese attractions that sell themselves through plastic props and big novelty cabinets. There's no more telling proof of this than Soul Calibur IV, which didn't even make a cursory stop in arcades before it was released on consoles. Is it too late for fighting games to save the arcade industry? Well, probably. But a few new fighters just might pull anime fans into arcades. If they can find any arcades, that is.

STREET FIGHTER IV
One could easily argue that CAPCOM waited far too long to roll out Street Fighter IV, just as the company was a few years too late in bringing Street Fighter III to the market way back in 1997. Unlike Street Fighter III, however, the fourth mainline Street Fighter takes special care not to drive away any longtime fans. The eight original characters and four bosses from Street Fighter II return, with promises of more showing up in the home version, and the game's visuals emulate the original's half-cartoonish look.

If the early reactions among North American fans are any indication, Street Fighter IV might just pay off. The game's been imported by about a dozen arcades in the U.S. and Canada, and it's drawing in a lot of devoted fans, even at locations that demand $1 per game and institute a six-match win limit so that everyone gets a turn. There's a surprising amount of fondness for Rufus, the ball-shaped fat guy, and a surprising amount of disdain for Crimson Viper, the besuited woman who apparently isn't as useful in a match as her King of Fighters look suggests. Street Fighter IV also has one important thing in common with the trend-setting Street Fighter II: any arcade will have only one player who's actually good with Zangief, and that player will completely wreck all of the other players just because they've never before faced a good Zangief.

It'd be silly to expect another revolution out of Street Fighter IV, but it's the rare arcade game that might attract the casual players who haven't kept track of arcade games since middle school. For those who want to keep track now, try this site, which details all of the Street Fighter IV machines out there.

BLAZBLUE
In contrast to Street Fighter IV's mainstream concessions, Blazblue is Arc System Works' attempt at making another fast-paced cult fighter in the vein of their own Guilty Gear titles. Rumors and awkwardly translated magazine articles suggest that the rights to Guilty Gear now lie partly with Sega, and that Arc System Works wants a new fighting franchise that's theirs and theirs alone.

So far, BlazBlue resembles Guilty Gear with its rock-music references and deliberately chaotic design style toned down. The characters are less outlandish versions of familiar faces: a sullen clone of Guilty Gear's Sol Badguy, a child magician, a ridiculous orange ogre, a ninja armed with a giant nail, a shadowy blob who's basically Guilty Gear's Eddy, and a slightly creative twist on the catgirl archetype (left). Even the soundtrack is straight out of Guilty Gear's screeching speed-metal score. Yet BlazBlue also looks better than Guilty Gear: the animation's slightly smoother, the attacks are even more elaborate and flashy, and the game moves just a shade quicker.

BlazBlue will be officially loosed on Japanese arcades in November, but it's already made its way around trade shows and location tests. Anyone who dropped by the game room at Anime Expo 2008 could try a 60-percent-complete version of BlazBlue. Unlike just about every other anime-ish arcade fighter, BlazBlue's also going to get an official North American release courtesy of Aksys Games. Start petitioning your local Dave & Buster's right now.

THE REST
Few arcade fighters are as appealing to the anime sector as the upcoming Tatsunoko vs. CAPCOM, but the semi-official word is that there probably won't be a North American arcade version. Of course, there'll be nothing to stop some crazed fans from breaking a few minor laws and buying the Japanese arcade board for obscene amounts. So great is the fan desire to see Ryu, Chun-Li, Morrigan, Mega Man, and other CAPCOM luminaries pound the stars of Tatsunoko series like Gatchaman, Casshern, Golden Warrior Gold Lightan, and Yatterman. It may be that last week's announcements of Doronjo and Mega Man Volnutt were the last additions to the arcade game, but I refuse to believe that until I see a character select screen. CAPCOM will likely add a few more names to the arcade game before it officially hits, and then they'll throw a few more into the home version, which stands a better chance of coming here.

CAPCOM's other recent arcade anime-bait is Fate/Unlimited Codes (left), a 3-D fighter based on Type-Moon's visual-novels-turned-anime. The game hit Japanese arcades in June with an initial lineup of 11 characters, including Rin, Archer, Rider, Lancer, Gilgamesh, Sakura, Shiro, and, of course, Saber. It's all very much for the fans, right down to the ending illustrations by Type-Moon's artistic half, Takashi Takeuchi, and it may go no farther than that. Unlimited Codes isn't an in-house CAPCOM fighter, either; it was developed by 8ing, makers of the Naruto: Clash of Ninja series, the Bleach: Heat the Soul titles, and even that new Castlevania fighting game that everyone's going to hate. CAPCOM's never going to publish Fate/Unlimited Codes here, but it hits the Japanese PlayStation 2 in December.

Another contender for anime fans' quarters (or 100-yen coins) is Arcana Heart 2. The sequel to Examu's all-girl fighter arrived in Japanese arcades this past April, introducing seven new characters who have names like “Zenia Valov” and “Catherine Kyohbashi” as well as designs aimed at people who aren't embarrassed to know what “lolicon” means. The gameplay remains remarkably complex, however, with a large lineup of selectable Arcana fighting styles offering all sorts of combinations. I imagine that's why a handful of arcades in the U.S. imported the Japanese version of the game, because, really, they couldn't be buying them just for the moe girls.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 9-7

BRATZ PONYZ 2
(The Game Factory, DS, $29.99)
There are moments when one approaches such brilliance that any attempt at description is bound to fail. It's perhaps impossible to explain just how Bratz Ponyz 2 destroys and masterfully rebuilds the traditional concepts of a video game, but it begins by creating a detailed world to explore in the Ponyz Islands. There, the player chooses one of 8 Ponyz, tailoring the animal's hair, make-up, and jewelry in a brilliantly subtle satire of facile modernity, all to prepare for the “Passion for Fashion” gala, itself a social allegory that begs comparisons to the work of Altman or Fellini. When not immersed in the heated political mores of Ponyz Town, players are free to explore a beautifully detailed tropical world, uncovering a complex tale of equine life not seen since the My Little Pony episode in which Sweet Stuff and Posey were terrorized by living furniture.
Get Excited If: You've ever wondered when gaming's Citizen Kane would arrive. It is here, and it is called Bratz Ponyz 2.

DRAGON BALL Z TRILOGY
(Atari, PS2, $29.99)
There's no new Dragon Ball Z game in this. It's a budget reissue of the PlayStation 2's Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi, its sequel, and Super Dragon Ball Z. I'm at a loss to explain why anyone would need three largely similar fighting games at once, nor I can I explain why any interested parties wouldn't own them already, but the kids do love their Dragon Ball Z. There's certainly no denying that $30 buys you a lot of that, as Budokai Tenkaichi 2 alone features over 120 playable characters. Fighter connoisseurs may also enjoy detecting the differences between the Budokai Tenkaichi combat system and that of Super Dragon Ball Z, which, for whatever it's worth, comes closer to a “serious” fighting game, with a smaller cast of characters to allow it.
Get Excited If: You owned and liked all three of these Dragon Ball Z fighters but tragically lost them in an earthquake.

YAKUZA 2
(Sega, PS2, $29.99)
The first Yakuza deserved a better reception than North America gave it back in 2006. A free-roaming simulation of a Japanese mobster's life and times, it came across as an interesting version of Shenmue, or a Grand Theft Auto with slightly less freedom and slightly more narrative. Set a year after the events of the original Yakuza, this sequel follows hero Kazuma into an Osaka mob war, with all the rivalries, doomed romances and complexities one expects from Sega hiring an actual novelist to write the game's script. The first game's diversions, including street fights and Shenmue-like collecting, are back, though Kazuma has more options when it comes to nightlife. Instead of merely chatting with women in hostess clubs, he can join a host club himself and pimp out his company to lonely, spendthrift women. Purists will also note that the game's entirely in Japanese with subtitles this time around, since Sega can't afford to go hiring Eliza Dushku and Mark Hamill for games that people might not buy in droves.
Get Excited If: You bought the first Yakuza and complained when no one else did.

ZOIDS ASSAULT
(Atlus, Xbox 360, $59.99)
Zoids comes in many forms. There are the plotless, mecha-animal Zoids toys of the '80s that always fell apart when we tried to play with them. There are the modern Zoids anime and manga series, some of which were brought over here in 2003. And then there's the world embodied by Zoids Assault, a stern, dusky strategy-RPG that looks to have more in common with Front Mission's straight-faced robot military drama than Zoids. The story finds two nations hashing out their own little corner of a world-wide war, and all of the four-legged Zoids mechs used in battle have a grimy steel tone. It's a far cry from the spiky-haired heroes and frilly heroines of other Zoids series, but Assault's system of managing pilots, skills, and mechanical units might appeal to the older crowd.
Get Excited If: You ever wanted a grindingly brutal version of Zoids.

EXTRA LIVES: BATTLE HEAT

The PC-FX was doomed from the start. Late in 1994, NEC rolled out the system as the successor to their big-in-Japan PC Engine (known here as the TurboGrafx), but the PC-FX was a technically inferior console in an already crowded market. Yet NEC wanted to give the PC-FX a strong debut, and their business partner Hudson Soft created Battle Heat as a launch game to showcase the system's true strength: playing video clips. And Hudson did it by ripping off Fist of the North Star.

Battle Heat makes no effort to hide it, opening with a colorfully animated sweep of an apocalypse-scarred world full of glowing, flying, screaming, laser-throwing warriors, all while some rap-inflected J-pop song plays. Designed by animator Junichi Hayama (who actually worked on some recent Fist of the North Star titles), the characters stick close to the style laid down by Fist artist Tetsuo Hara, with bulging physiques, medieval-armor accessories, and lots of grimacing. In the ravaged future Battle Heat predicts, the warriors of the Republic of Kriph are led by a silver-haired Kenshiro look-a-like named Kai, while Alamis, an unvarnished copy of Kenshiro's rival Shin, is among the elite combatants from the Holy Dark Empire. One must wonder why Hudson just didn't fork over the extra cash for a Fist of the North Star license.

To its credit, Battle Heat doesn't stop at aping Fist of the North Star's cast of barbarians and bandaged psychopaths, adding in a pair of magicians, a hidden cyborg fighter and a Terminator-ish emperor named Götz Von Dark. Battle Heat's ranks are also less sexist than Fist's, as two women are among the combatants. Well, they're slightly less sexist, at least; Yuki, a “dynastic wrestling” expert, has a ridiculous multi-colored mullet-ponytail and an apparently painted-on combat bikini with a cattle skull on her crotch.

If Battle Heat wasn't original in its premise, it broke new ground in fighting games. Many horrible titles of the '90s tried stringing “full-motion” video clips along with minimal player interaction, resulting in grainy, boring messes that were barely games. Battle Heat was different: matches play out through fast, fully animated footage, with the characters reacting instantly to button presses. Though the fights are heavily framed-in, the animation itself is shockingly clear and fluid, even approaching theatrical quality at certain moments. Some sequences look better than others (a likely result of Hudson hiring eight studios to animate things), but it's all quite thorough. Every possible pairing of characters creates dozens of interactions rendered in brutal detail.

Despite the unique visual style, Battle Heat plays much like any other fighting game, with special moves performed through rolling “fireball” motions, charge attacks, and simple, hold-this-direction-and-press-that-button stuff. A character's available moves change depending on how far away his or her opponent is, and the lineup of fighters includes grapplers, heavyweights, projectile-hurling sorcerers, and balanced types.

In fact, the complex control system is Battle Heat's downfall. The game demands the same reflexes as a conventional fighting game, but it also moves just a little slower. This slightly loosened pace makes it tough to time moves properly, and it's far too difficult to predict an opponent's attacks. Players have a split second to counter enemies' moves with their own, and the back-and-forth blows turn into a convoluted guessing game that's not much fun even when it makes sense. Like most fighters, Battle Heat's also best enjoyed with a human opponent, as the game's computer-controlled characters are relentlessly brutal. It's also not much to listen to; after the memorably inane J-rap number, the rest of the game has entirely forgetable keyboard music.

Battle Heat was an important part of the PC-FX's launch lineup, which also featured the adventure game Team Innocent and the dating…sorry, girl-raising sim Graduation 2: Neo Generation FX. This was, however, the system's peak. In the face of the Sony PlayStation's 3-D games and the Sega Saturn's 2-D abilities, NEC chose to make a console that emphasized pretty video footage. While this kept the PC-FX from being a mainstream success (or ever coming to America), its video capabilities made it ideal for anime pandering, from games based on Cutey Honey FX, Akazukin Cha Cha, and Tenchi Muyo! to original and considerably more risqué fare. It wasn't all dross, as some strategy/RPGs and one shooter made their way to the PC-FX, and Hudson later used Battle Heat's concept in a fighter for their Tengai Makyo RPG franchise. One of the PC-FX's better games is, believe it or not, a side-scrolling action title based on the anime series Zenki, but that's a story for another column.

Battle Heat has more value as a novelty than a good fighting game, though it served its purpose: giving something new to early adopters and making them feel that they hadn't made a huge mistake in buying the PC-FX. Yet Battle Heat's still entertaining today, if only as an amusing knock-off for Fist of the North Star fans and an experimental look at just what the PC-FX could do with video playback. There's some honor for thieves after all.

A number of PC-FX games are rare and preposterously expensive, but Battle Heat isn't one of them. Complete copies can be had for about $20 at auction sites and import retailers, making Battle Heat one of the few PC-FX releases that's both affordable and remotely interesting.


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