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Unknown Pleasures

by Todd Ciolek, Sep 10th 2008

We all love to argue about whether or not video games can make audiences think, feel or appreciate subtlety on the same level as books, film, and other respected forms of art. Yet games already can do two things better than any other medium: they can make us gape like idiots at pretty graphics and then make us mildly ashamed of our juvenile facileness. That happened to me last month when IGN put up some new Final Fantasy XIII screens, including this one.

It's strange, because I'm only mildly interested in Final Fantasy XIII. I loved the hell out of Final Fantasy XII for several reasons, and one of them was its habit of toning down the anime-fantasy nonsense that permeates Final Fantasy games. Yet everything I've seen of Final Fantasy XIII suggests that Square's going back in the opposite direction, with garishly futuristic worlds, shaky pulp logic, and monsters that turn into motorcycles. I also can't like it too much without knowing how the game plays. Yet I'm not immune to gawking, and gawk I did at that stretch of frozen sea.

That concludes my mandatory Final Fantasy mention this week. Enjoy the rest of the column!

NEWS

HARUHI DROPS DANCING, MIKU PICKS IT UP
You may remember Haruhi Suzumiya no Gekidou, the dancing game for the Wii, since it emerged as one of the few Haruhi titles that wasn't a lazy cash-in full of static images or a bunch of mini-games. Well, the dancing part of the game has apparently been axed and replaced with…a bunch of mini-games. These aren't just any mini-games, though. They include a fortune-telling bit starring Haruhi, a baseball simulator, a 3-D Yuki-watching mode, and some assuredly prurient diversion surrounding Mikuru. A day-one import for us all, no?

Disappointed fans can take refuge in the fact that they're getting a second Haruhi game on the Wii. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (right) has the same title as the show, and it'll reportedly get input from the staff at Kyoto Animation. The game explores an ocean cruise taken by Haruhi and her entourage, all rendered in 3-D visuals that one hopes might allow more than the standard adventure-game conversations and still backgrounds.

Haruhi isn't the only modern geek icon getting games, as Sega is also planning a PSP title based on Miku Hatsune, the green-haired, tie-wearing star of the Vocaloid software series. Cute to some and creepy to others, Miku and her entirely digital voice have achieved celebrity in Japan's nerd subcultures, and this will be her second handheld game appearance (after her cameo in Hello no Work Sai for the DS). Miku Hatsune: Project Diva is a rhythm game in the style of Parappa the Rapper, with most of the game's engine apparently used to recreate Miku in top-caliber 3-D. Sega had best give her a decent lineup of songs, as her computerized yips have already sung everything from Megaman themes to the Proclaimers' “I'm Gonna Be.”

SEGA ANNOUNCES SHINING FORCE FEATHER
In the 17 years since the first Shining game, the series has gone from a basic dungeon-mapper to a strategy-RPG franchise to a line of action/RPGs. It's this last evolution that's disappointed many followers, who either long for another Shining Force strategy game or dislike Shining Tears and its ilk. Shining Force Feather, the new DS installment of the series, edges things back toward strategy with map screens that involve careful character positioning. Then again, it all leads into action-RPG battles where characters flail aggressively at the enemies, and the game's character design resembles something out of last year's Shining Force EXA. It's early yet, so there's still a chance that Feather might be the game Shining fans have longed for. I just resent Sega horning in on Valkyrie Profile's own plumage-based DS offshoot.

GRADIUS, HOMOEROTICISM NOW ON WII
R-Type, Megaman, andThunder Force are getting remakes or old-fashioned sequels this year, but Gradius has beaten all of them to the Wii with Gradius Rebirth. The shooter hit the Japanese Wii service last week, retailing for about $10. It's apparently closer to the style of Gradius I through IV, which is a shame if you liked Treasure's Gradius V and hated everything before it (as I did). Still, Gradius Rebirth will surely please old-school Gradius fans, with its familiar stage designs and giant Moai heads, which are Konami's way of supporting the “ancient astronaut” theories of Erich von Däniken.

Gradius Rebirth isn't available in North America yet, but there's another shooter on the Wii's Virtual Console this week: Cho-Aniki, the first in Masaya's series of infamous comedic shooters that mix conventional play mechanics with an awful lot of posing, speedo-clad muscle-men. That only scratches the surface of the rampant, frequently mock-homoerotic humor in Cho-Aniki, which also throws out such bosses as an Elvis-based space battleship and a clamshell with a flexing bodybuilder inside. Believe it or not, the original Cho-Aniki is the least strange of the series, since its two selectable characters are at least fairly generic superheroes. Unsurprisingly, this marks the first time that Cho-Aniki has been turned loosed on an unsuspecting Western public.

REVIEW: COMMANDO: STEEL DISASTER

ManaSoft isn't the first game developer to rip off SNK's Metal Slug series, as the tradition dates back to the decade's start with quickly faded arcade titles like Demon Front and Dolphin Blue. With ManaSoft, however, the affection for all things Metal Slug runs a little deeper. The Shanghai-based company's recent cell-phone title, Popper Z, applied Metal Slug's gritty, cartoonish visual style to a Bomberman-like maze title, after all. ManaSoft clearly wanted to make an action game, and the chance arrived with their first DS side-scroller, Commando: Steel Disaster.

Steel Disaster gets the look right, at least. The game's 2-D style captures the air of Metal Slug, with vaguely grimy, highly detailed graphics fashioning the territory explored by a nondescript blond soldier named Storm. In his pursuit of a terrorist known as Rattlesnake, Storm treads through deserts, mountains, cities, military bases and winter landscapes, all captured in hand-drawn sprite work. There's no real storyline, although players may want to watch the cutscenes just to see how the translators work “steel disaster” into a conversation between Storm and his chattering radio guide, Jessica.

In his nearly plotless quest, Storm can nab a basic rifle, a machine gun, a canister grenade launcher, a taser, a ground-hugging shockwave, a rocket launcher (or, in Metal Slug parlance, a RAWKET LAWNCHAIR), a flame thrower, and three different types of grenade. Storm can carry two weapons at once, and he has frequent opportunities to grab new ones during each stage. He's also able to duck, inch along the ground, control his jump in mid-air, and roll to avoid enemy fire. He does it all with surprising precision, but ManaSoft also borrowed some of Metal Slug's problems. Only the machine and rocket launcher can fire diagonally, and the limited control often leaves Storm too easy of a target.

In other ways, ManaSoft didn't steal enough. While the scenery looks fairly sharp, there's no real personality in it or the foes that Storm faces. Rattlesnake's forces enlist basic grunts, stealthy assassins, tanks, helicopters, and the occasional musclebound mutant in a Jason mask, but none of them can approach Metal Slug's yelping, running, laughing, sympathy-evoking soldiers. Even Steel Disaster's towering bosses, from a sand-diving robot scorpion to a spidery underwater mecha, are a bit dull for all of their screen-filling presence.

To its credit, Steel Disaster outdoes Metal Slug, and just about any other action-shooter, in terms of sheer ball-breaking challenge. Each level is a rigid gauntlet of enemy fire and quick death, and Storm gets only one life. He's equipped with a life meter and an armor rating, but both can be rapidly depleted in combat. And once you're dead, it's back to the start of the level. Steel Disaster will give you no quarter.

But what if you're the sort of player who likes excruciatingly hard games? What if you enjoy the grinding pleasures of learning every stage bit by bit, sacrificing hours of memorization just so you can survive the game on a single life? Well, you still won't like Steel Disaster much, as replaying the levels only highlights how blandly they're designed. The same types of enemies hound Storm repeatedly, and there's nothing creative about their attack patterns. While some stages branch out into hidden passages and shooting sub-levels, they go nowhere interesting. Steel Disaster's only clever point is a series of disks discovered by blowing up certain objects and pieces of scenery. Collect enough of them, and you can use the disks for power-ups and other bonuses at ATM machines scattered across stages.

Regardless of the secrets hidden there, it's not worth revisiting those drab stages. Anyone who played Metal Slug X remembers the huge mechanical jaws that ate their way up a pillar, and Metal Slug 3's second level alone had hordes of zombies, an alien-filled asteroid, and a secret cave inhabited by yetis who froze players into snow-people. Steel Disaster has no such moments. At best, it manages some brief spurts of intensity as you're rolling, firing, and plowing through flocks of enemies.

Yes, Steel Disaster is a knock-off to its core, and it shows in the soundtrack more than anything. The same two or three nondescript tracks loop throughout the five stages, and other pieces were stolen wholeheartedly. Shortly after the games' released, fans discovered that ManaSoft took the game's title music from the Gundam Wing: Endless Duel fighter for the Super Famicom. Less obvious is Steel Disaster's “Mission Failed” tune, which was revealed to be a snippet of Chrono Trigger's Black Omen theme. For shame, ManaSoft. Shanghai may have lax copyright enforcement, but this is a bit much. What would Metal Slug think of you?

Steel Disaster may be the most blatant Metal Slug rip-off yet, and it's certainly not the best (that distinction goes to Sammy's Dolphin Blue, which still deserves a home version). Its derivative style and grueling pace may appeal to devoted fans of action-shooters, but there's no reason to settle for this with Contra 4 already out and Metal Slug 7 on the way. For ManaSoft, however, Steel Disaster is something to build on. Spice it up with more humor and better level design, and there might be an enjoyable game next time around. Just write your own music, ManaSoft.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 9-14

ARMORED CORE: FOR ANSWER
(Ubisoft/From Software, Xbox 360, $59.99)
Alright, you clowns at From Software. I've seen some ridiculous subtitles before, usually from Japanese developers, but this “For Answer” appellation is a new thing entirely, likely to unseat “Infinite Undiscovery” as the most laughable title of the year. Yes, I know that the game's a sequel to Armored Core 4, yet I also want to see how “For Answer” might apply to your little story of a damaged world fought over by aerial corporate colonies and surface-bound rebels. I'm sure it'll involve giant, highly customizable robots, like every Armored Core before it. The mecha in For Answer, however, are Arms Forts: huge new machines that dwarf the already large Cores of previous games. It'll surely affect the scale of the game, if not the traditional Armored gameplay, and the franchise's loyal fans will just as surely find ways to exploit it. And maybe they'll tell me what For Answer means.
Get Excited If: You entered your Armored Core mechs in mail-in tournaments back in the 1990s.

BATTLE FANTASIA
(Aksys/Arc System Works, Xbox 360, $49.99)
Arc System Works may have BlazBlue waiting in the wings, but the developer also stepped out from Guilty Gear's crazy hair-metal shadow by bringing Battle Fantasia to Japanese arcades in 2007. No one really noticed it over here, though the game has a strange mix of stereotypes, among them a beast-girl waitress, a pirate, a rabbit magician, and a huge, jolly, Viking-like berserker. Battle Fantasia uses 3-D visuals in a 2-D playing field, and the visual style is unquestionably striking, with backdrops of squirrel audiences or churning alchemical engines, while the upbeat soundtrack and booming, Engrish-y announcer are right out of Power Stone. Guilty Gear nuts may find Battle Fantasia's style relatively slow, but fans of older fighting games may like Fantasia's approach. There's a reasonably detailed story mode, along with online play for those of us who are sick and goddamn tired of losing to miserable, cheating Talim users in Soul Calibur IV.
Get Excited If: You don't care about two-in-ones, cross-ups, or any of that indecipherable fighting-game lingo.

DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION: HOTTEST PARTY 2
(Konami, Wii, $69.99)
DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION X
(Konami, PS2, $29.99/$49.99)
I had a hard time believing that Dance Dance Revolution is only ten years old. With all the innumerable sequels, anime convention tournaments, and horrible webcomics offered up in Dance Dance Revolution's name, the series seems a lot older. Anniversary maundering aside, two different DDR games will street next week. Hottest Party 2 is the sequel to the Wii's first DDR title, which involved players waving the Wii remote in the middle of their dance-mat gyrations. There's a new selection of music this time around, with a feature that imports Miis into the game—or at least the heads of the Miis.
Dance Dance Revolution X is an anniversary-celebrating release for those of you who don't think you need to upgrade to one of these fancy “next-gen” systems. Based on previous PlayStation 2 DDR games, the X version features a revamped story mode, another sampling of new and old music, and the addition of shock arrow which will punish players for reacting to them. That'll teach 'em.
Get Excited If: You have your own customized, hard-base dance pad.

DRAGON QUEST IV
(Square Enix, DS, $39.99)
Dragon Quest IV marked an important point in Enix's cash-cow series, as it was the first Dragon Quest game with an actual plot instead of a procession of loosely joined conversations and towns. Said plot is unique even today, as it starts by putting all of the supporting characters in four short sub-quests: one tale has an aged guardsman searching for missing children in a kingdom full of thick Irish accents, the second follows a princess and her long-suffering handlers on an adventure, the third tasks a merchant to exploit RPG capitalism to its fullest, and the fourth story finds two sisters hunting down their father's killer. Only after playing through these four introductions do you meet the game's hero or heroine (chosen and named by you; this is Dragon Quest, after all) and start the game's lengthy epic grind. Little about the gameplay has changed from the game's original NES-era form, but it's that menu-based simplicity and random combat that enthralled a nation back in the 1980s. The nation was Japan, of course, but Enix's DS remakes of Dragon Quest's middle stretch might just win some new converts over here.
Get Excited If: You've played and liked the first three Dragon Quests.

HARVEST MOON: TREE OF TRANQUILITY
(Natsume/Marvelous, Wii, $49.99)
Natsume and Marvelous may one day run out of modern systems for which to make Harvest Moon games, forcing them to bring the franchise to long-dead consoles like the SuperGrafx and the Bandai Playdia. That day is still far off, however, as Harvest Moon is busy staking a claim on the Wii with Tree of Tranquility. To compensate for somewhat simpler gameplay, this farming simulator uses the Wii remote to mimic familiar Harvest Moon chores, and there are new assortments of animals to tend, crops to grow, and husbands and wives to court. It's all part of a quest to restore the tree of the title and revive an island's harvest goddess, striking a blow for agrarian-pagan deities everywhere. And since this is a Wii game, there's a series of unlockable mini-games, each supporting four players.
Get Excited If: You've ever reflexively yanked on your controller when your character was pulling turnips in an older Harvest Moon.

NAMCO CLASSIC FIGHTER COLLECTION
(Namco Bandai, PS2, $29.99)
NARUTO ULTIMATE COLLECTION
(Namco Bandai, PS2, $29.99)
Unlike the Dragon Ball Z Trilogy that ships this week, Namco Bandai's Naruto Ultimate Collection has a little variety for the young fans who'll doubtless get this for Christmas. Naruto: Ultimate Ninja 1 and 2 are fighters, but Naruto: Uzumaki Chronicles is an 3-D action-adventure title that revolves around Naruto running errands and occasionally facing ninja foes. The one-on-one battles of the Ultimate Ninja games are a bit more detailed and offer wide selections of warriors, though one must again question the need to include the first title when all of its characters show up in the second.
The Namco Classic Fighter Collection makes some strange inclusions as well, bundling together Tekken Tag Tournament, Tekken 4, and Soul Calibur II. Tekken Tag is a relic of the PlayStation 2's launch, and Tekken 4 is generally considered a misstep on the way to Tekken 5. They're solid enough fighters, though the highlight of this set is Soul Calibur II, a pretty and casually enjoyable half-fantasy tournament brawler that holds up very well, even in the face of Soul Calibur IV. Perhaps this is Namco's way of getting the most out of the game and acknowledging that everyone hated Soul Calibur III.
Get Excited If: You've been putting off buying Naruto fighters or Soul Calibur II.

RED BULL BC ONE
(Ignition Entertainment, DS, $19.99)
The entire concept of a Red Bull BC One game is a far cry from anything anime fans might ever want to play, with its cast of customizable “b-boy” avatars breakdancing and trading insults that would've been laughed out of the shooting script for You Got Served. Perhaps there would be more of a connection if the game featured the grotesque cartoon characters from Red Bull commercials. However, all of the DS-based dance-offs are driven by a play mechanic that has absolutely nothing to do with a hip-hop tournament. In order to out-dance opponents, players have to connect dots on the lower DS screen and occasionally rotate a spinner with the stylus. So Red Bull BC One lies closer to an Elite Beat Agents swipe than the real-world breakdancing tournament on which it's based, and that's why it might interest players whose musical frames of reference stop at Dance Dance Revolution and Pop'n Music.
Get Excited If: You wish music games were more like puzzle games.

YGGDRA UNION
(Atlus, PSP, $39.99)
Japanese strategy-RPGs have paired cutesy, squat-size characters with the hellish wages of war since 1995's Tactics Ogre, but rarely are the two brought together as they are in Sting's Yggdra Union. Every character, from the dethroned princess Yggdra to the bloodthirsty imperials tracking her, is a huge-eyed, hydrocephalic-headed anime munchkin, which makes it somewhat uncomfortable when they charge into battle and hack at each other until one side collapses in super-deformed defeat. These back-and-forth duels, reminiscent of the classic Dragon Force, are brought about by strategic movement on map grids. The true tactics are found in preparation: Yggdra's allies and enemies are governed by the cards they equip, and winning is often a matter of pitting the right tarot-like avatar against a vulnerable foe. While Atlus brought out the GameBoy Advance version of Yggdra Union in 2006, the PSP port adds two new characters and full voice acting for all of the motley friends Yggdra makes in her struggle to reclaim her kingdom. The game's default mode is also a little easier on the PSP, and several new story points flesh out the rampant adorable carnage.
Get Excited If: You enjoy seeing extra-cute characters talk of bloodshed and vengeance.

EXTRA LIVES: TATSUNOKO FIGHT

It's no stretch to liken Tatsunoko Production to American comic companies like Marvel and DC. Tatsunoko's animated everything from Speed Racer to Bible stories, but the company's best known for its superheroes. So when Tatsunoko and Takara decided to make a Japan-only PlayStation fighting game in 2000, the developers went straight for the tights-wearing stars of Gatchaman, Shinzō Ningen Casshan, Hurricane Polymar, and Tekkaman: The Space Knight.

For Tatsunoko Fight, the studio even went through the trouble of creating an all-new superhero in the trans-dimensional Lighting Warrior Volter, who looks a bit like Sega's Pulseman. New or old, each Tatsunoko star also gets a supporting character and a villain; beating the game with Gatchaman's Ken unlocks Jun and Berg Katse, finishing it with Tekkaman unlocks Dobrai and the amazing afro of Andro Umeda, and so forth. Each lead superhero's story mode pits him against the villains of other shows before serving up his nemesis, and an all-new final boss named Rosraisen awaits after players finish the five main characters' individual plot arcs.

From a freshly animated opening full of strobe lights and enthusiastic J-rock warbling, Tatsunoko Fight holds little back in evoking the glories of its beloved pulp superheroes. The story modes feature each show's intros and endings, complete with the theme songs and original choppy footage for the older series. Volter, of course, gets some brand-new animation, which shows off the stained-glass windows and shadowy palettes that Tatsunoko would later use in The SoulTaker. The actual game comes through with more subdued flair. Though the PlayStation could never do 2-D animation as well as the Saturn, Tatsunoko Fight's characters move fairly well, capturing their anime origins with glitzy attacks and a score of brassy, 1970s superhero themes, even in the vintage-2000 Volter's case. It's shame that the backgrounds are so bland and lacking in characters. Tatsunoko missed the chance to insert a level based on Samurai Pizza Cats.

Careful not to drive away fans who might've never played a fighting game before, Tatsunoko Fight sticks to simple controls. Each character has only a few special moves, and most are done with rolling motions. Just in case that's too much trouble for inexperienced players, the shoulder buttons trigger all of the special attacks as well as the super moves that rely on a power-up gauge. It's all quite basic, and no one who's played Darkstalkers or X-Men vs. Street Fighter will be impressed by Tatsunoko Fight's rudimentary controls and weak combo system. Even newcomers will soon notice that the characters are poorly balanced; Casshan, for one, has predictable attacks, never uses his robot dog (who's unlocked as an entirely separate character), and is no match for larger or faster enemies. You suck, Casshan.

Tatsunoko Fight isn't for people who demand deep, competitive gameplay from their fighters. It's for the devoted Tatsunoko followers, the superhero nuts, and, of course, the old-timers who adore anime relics from the '70s and '80s (you know, the same people who proclaim a bit too quickly that they would “rather watch old Maple Town tapes than this Full-Metallic Alchemy thing” whenever anyone mentions an anime series made after 1989). It's even a little disappointing in that regard, since Tatsunoko stuck to its retro-kitsch superheroes, ignoring Speed Racer, Time Bokan, and even more recent 1990s Tatsunoko superhero series like Tekkaman Blade and Generator Gawl.

It's interesting to revisit Tatsunoko Fight now that most of its characters (minus Volter) are showing up in Tatsunoko vs. CAPCOM, along with a wider variety of Tatsunoko mainstays. Compared to that astounding match-up, Tatsunoko Fight's a primitive, fans-only attraction. It's worth trying, but only if you know who Teru Nanba is or why Berg Katse is apparently wearing lipstick.

Unlike some rare anime-based games on the Japanese PlayStation, Tatsunoko Fight runs about $20 or $30 on auction sites. It's cheaper on the streets of Akihabara, but that goes for just about any import title.


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