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by Todd Ciolek, Oct 8th 2008

Narrow-minded individuals will always be quick to stereotype the game-playing public as inattentive twits, but the truth is that devoted game nerds are a sharp bunch, allowing little to slip past them. For example, Atari recently revealed the box art for the North American version of Dragon Ball Origins, an action-RPG covering Akira Toriyama and Toei's pre-Z anime series.

Now, what's the first thing everyone noticed about this cover?

Yes, that's right. I'm proud of you all.

NEWS

CLAYMORE GAME TO HIT THE DS
Norihiro Yagi's Claymore manga seemed a good game candidate from the start, since it's all about a preternaturally powerful, Nordic-looking woman named Clare hacking through monsters and unraveling the mysteries of her own clan of demon-hunters. Digital Works Entertainment (which had bit parts in making everything from Killer 7 to Tales of the Abyss) stepped up this week and announced a Claymore game for the DS. It looks to be 2-D action, interrupted by conversation scenes and rendered boss battles that, unfortunately, resemble something from a cell-phone game. Digital gives it a vague 2009 release estimate, so there's still hope that the rest of the game will do Claymore's bloodshed some justice.

KLONOA REMAKE HEADS TO WII
Here's proof that kicking your audience in the gut is always a good idea. The Klonoa series includes two action-platformers, three GameBoy Advance games, a WonderSwan title, and even a possibly Xtreme beach volleyball spin-off. Yet fans most fondly remember the first PlayStation game, The Door to Phantomile, because the ending took Klonoa's adventurous, childlike spirit and squished it all into tragedy. And that's probably why Namco decided to release a remake for the Japanese Wii this December. It'll upgrade the PlayStation game's visual style, though the 2-D gameplay won't be changed and, we assume, neither will the ending. That's all for the best, as the game's platform-jumping and puzzles (oh, and squeaky-voiced, teary-eyed melodrama) made it a standout among PlayStation titles over 10 years ago.

MURAMASA: THE DEMON BLADE STILL LOOKS SPECTACULAR
Last year, Vanillaware's Odin Sphere stunned every fan of hand-drawn games, and rightly so. Building on the Vanillaware founders' Saturn game Princess Crown, Odin Sphere's gorgeously illustrated backdrops and detailed characters were a sight to behold, even if the action-RPG behind them turned out awkward and frequently frustrating. With Muramasa: The Demon Blade (Oboro Muramasa Yotoden in Japan), Vanillaware moves closer to a pure action game while swapping out Odin Sphere's Norse gods for sumptuously animated creatures of feudal Japanese myth.

Amid all of the colorful enemies are two playable heroes: the katana-wielding, kimono-wearing Momohime and the ninja Kisuke. For controlling them, Muramasa will reportedly give players both a remote-waving system and a traditional, waggle-free option. It'll also show up here soon, as XSEED Games has Muramasa licensed for 2009. It'd be nice if someone picked up the PSP port of Princess Crown for the English-speaking market, but that's not too likely.

CAVE STORY ON WII, NOT FREE ANYMORE
Klonoa isn't the only cherished action-platformer headed for the Wii. Cave Story, the amazing freeware action game created by the one-man Studio Pixel, is headed for a WiiWare release late this year. Seeing as how the original game's been given away free online (and in fan-translated form) for nearly four years, there's some understandable clamoring for fresh material. Right now, that material appears to be some new character designs by Daisuke “Studio Pixel” Amaya himself, though it's not clear if this means entirely new cast members or just redrawn versions of Quote, Curly, Balrog, and other Cave Story leads. The game will also run in progressive scan, but that might not make a huge difference to those who've already played and finished it. We'll need a new level or two, at the very least.

SPOTLIGHT: NINTENDO IN 2009

Were you one of the Nintendo faithful who cried and fumed after an E3 showing neglected “hardcore” games, whatever the hell those are? Well, you can stop now. In the week before the Tokyo Game Show, Nintendo unveiled a generous 2009 lineup, and most of it exploits the lesser-seen corners of the Nintendo catalog, the corners that Nintendo normally visits only when they need new trophies for Smash Bros. games.

PUNCH-OUT!
Despite half of North America's Nintendo generation knowing the password that takes you straight to Mike Tyson, the Punch-Out series sputtered and died after 1994's Super Punch Out. It's returning to life on the Wii, and everything so far suggests a 3-D remake of the NES game; the version without Tyson, that is. Rising pugilist Little Mac is shown belting familiar faces like King Hippo and Glass Joe (the latter of whom drops to the canvas with hallucinated croissants whirling around him), though the heroic Mac is now partly transparent, as were the heroes of Super Punch-Out and the arcade games that spawned the franchise.

SIN AND PUNISHMENT 2
The first Sin and Punishment was an under-appreciated marvel, a unique and constantly challenging 3-D revamp of the idea behind Cabal, Wild Guns and other gallery-style shooting games. Sadly, it arrived too late on the Nintendo 64 to make any real difference, and Nintendo didn't even release it over here until a Virtual Console version arrived in 2007. That mistake won't be made again, as Nintendo's already promised a speedy localization for Sin and Punishment 2 next year.

Judging by the trailer, the game uses the same perspective as its predecessorl, with an armed, tow-headed commando running and jumping in the foreground while enemies swarm ahead of him. Treasure's not one to give out details too early, so there's no telling just how the sequel connects to the first game's jagged mess of a plot. But feel free to speculate that the blond, androgynous hero is the son of the first Sin and Punishment's equally androgynous main characters.

THE DSI
Every portable Nintendo system that outsells the Virtual Boy must go through at least one redesign, and so the DS must become the DSi. Slightly thinner and slightly wider than the now-standard DS Lite, the DSi features a camera and an SD card slot, plus the ability to play music files and download games. Nintendo's been careful not to pitch the new handheld as a direct replacement for the DS Lite, perhaps because the DSi doesn't have a slot for GameBoy Advance games. However, it will run a number of downloadable programs, and the first three announced are a notepad tool (whoopee), an Opera-based DSi web browser, and Small DSi Brain Training for Adults (which appears to use the system's camera). While the DSi will street in Japan on November 1, the North American release date isn't yet final.

MARIO AND LUIGI 3
The Mario RPGs, including Paper Mario and the Mario and Luigi subset, often lie in the shadow of those bigger, louder, “official” Mario games that show up about once every four years. That doesn't make the off-shoots bad by any measure, of course, and the Mario and Luigi titles are particularly strong portable RPGs, mixing typical Mario-ish jumping mechanics with stats, levels, and other staples of Japanese RPGs. Mario and Luigi 3's trailer reveals the same hybridized gameplay, along with scenes of mushroom peasants transformed into bloated, rolling wrecking balls. It also promises a trip to the digestive system of the turtle king Bowser, which should be strangely amusing to anyone who remembers Bonk's Adventure.

TRACE MEMORY: R
The DS version of Trace Memory slipped under the radar back in 2005, when a second-string graphic adventure game was a tough sell even with Nintendo's backing. Developer Cing is taking Trace Memory: R (or Another Code: R - Door of Memories) to the Wii, where a slightly older-looking version of heroine Ashley Mizuki Robbins will return to wander rural towns and solve object-based mysteries. Those curious about the original should be able to find it in bargain bins everywhere. While you're there, look for Hotel Dusk, Cing's other DS adventure game.

AND THE REST...
Nintendo also threw together an extremely short trailer for the lower-profile Wii games slated for Japan next year. Taito has the action-RPG Tact of Magic, while Artoon, the developer of Blue Dragon and the Blinx series, is prepping the colorful Spawn Smasher. The space-faring, bland-looking Cosmic Walker is in the works at Gaia, a team of former Shin Megami Tensei staffers who got off to a rough start with their debut game, Jewel Summoner. Line Attack Heroes is a cartoonish action game where players build superhero armies through brute force, and it comes from Grezzo, a new studio founded by former Square developer (and Mana series creator) Koichi Ishii. Arika, the makers of Street Fighter EX, are readying a sequel to their underwater exploration sim Forever Blue.

The standout of this b-list trailer was Dynamic Slash from Sandlot. Brief footage of the game resembles a fantasy-themed revamp of Sandlot's own Earth Defense Force series. Instead of pitting a soldier against giant insects and other kaiju-ish monsters, Dynamic Slash appears to drop an underdressed blonde heroine into a mass of snarling creatures. The delicate fawn of a girl then carves up her foes in the sort of bloody whirlwind you wouldn't expect from a first-party Nintendo release. It may not improve on Earth Defense Force's somewhat limited visual engine, but Dynamic Slash still seems an interesting choice for Nintendo's ranks—and one that's likely to come to North America.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 10-12

DOKAPON KINGDOM
(Atlus, PS2/Wii, $39.99)
The Wii may be positively lousy with party games, but it has nothing to match Dokapon Kingdom's mix of RPG battles and board-game progression. In a money-based fantasy land mapped over the real-world continents, four players start out on a map (with three slots filled by AI if you're a friendless loner) and face random battles in typical action-RPG fashion. Defeat another player, and you're free to steal their money and make them wear hideous outfits. And that's only one way to stoke animosity between players, who can hire thieves and assassin robots to take each other out, or frame their fellow adventurers for crimes. Dokapon even takes on world-building gameplay as players liberate towns (sometimes from each other) and use them as taxable sources of loot. Sadly, all of this isn't online, but these games always work out best when you're sitting right next to the player who just robbed you blind for three turns in a row.
Get Excited If: You've ever considered stabbing someone over Mario Party.

GOLDEN AXE: BEAST RIDER
(Sega, PS3/Xbox 360, $59.99)
Don't worry if you were too young or too sheltered to play Golden Axe back when it ruled the dying days of 1980s arcades.You'll need no nostalgic impulses to understand Golden Axe: Beast Rider, which transforms Sega's Conan-inspired side-scroller into a gore-soaked, 3-D action game. Even the returning heroine, Tyris Flare, now looks more like a ginger-haired cavewoman than the Red Sonja knockoff she was in the '80s. Yet beneath all of the new superficialities Beast Rider aims for the same appeal as the original beat-'em-ups, as it emphasizes wreaking havoc from the mount of a dragon, a cave troll, or some other chimerical fantasy creature. There's also an arena mode that mimics the simpler approach of the old Golden Axe, and hints have been dropped about Beast Rider featuring the series' most cherished tradition: kicking little hobbits until they drop potions.
Get Excited If: You own the mid-'90s Golden Axe fighting game.

NARUTO: PATH OF THE NINJA 2
(Tomy/D3, DS, $29.99)
Let's bring everyone up to speed: Path of the Ninja 2 is actually the third game in Japan's Naruto RPG series, as Tomy and D3 elected to skip the second one entirely. Path of the Ninja 2 uses sprite-based visuals similar to those of the first game (which was actually a GameBoy Advance title) while adding an in-depth “tag” system that enables all sorts of techniques to be built up and shared among your three-character party. The game's story lodges someplace in non-canonical Naruto after Sasuke leaves Leaf Village (but well before Naruto Shippūden kicks in), and there are over 30 playable characters, including a few hidden ones. If there's one thing that sets Path of the Ninja 2 over what came before, it's the online versus mode. Beating players over Wi-Fi earns you extra points for buying tags, and D3 plans on sponsoring special tournaments for Naruto fans.
Get Excited If: You can name at least 20 of those playable characters on the spot.

EXTRA LIVES: EIEN NO FILENA

If the Eien no Filena franchise was ever popular, it doesn't show today. There's little modern interest in Takeshi Shudo's nine light novels from the '80s and '90s, though they were helped by gorgeous Akemi Takada artwork and a regular spot in Animage magazine. Even less prominent is a six-part anime OVA series produced in 1992; I've found no record of it being fansubbed, and it's hard to come across any opinions, in English or Japanese, from people who've seen the thing. Yet there's one part of Eien no Filena (translated as Immortal Filena or Eternal Filena) that's not hard to find today, thanks to the gaming fan community's enduring interest in translating old 16-bit RPGs.

In 1995, Tokuma Shoten saw Eien no Filena's potential and turned the overarching story of Shudo's novels into a Super Famicom RPG. The game introduces Filena, a blonde girl raised as a boy by her kindly old “grandfather” (hint) Zenna. There's a good reason for this: Filena and Zenna are Clechia, the fair-haired slaves of an empire that forces girls into prostitution and turns boys into gladiators. As a grown-up Filena prepares to make her debut in the imperial coliseum, she and her fellow gladiators are assigned complimentary concubines. Filena ignores her would-be bedmate, Lila, but the girl forces her way into Filena's room and learns the truth about her, complete with an expression of googly-faced sprite shock. Keeping up her act with Lila's help, Filena fights through the gladiator ranks and discovers that their bloody battles to the death are all scripted and punched-up by behind-the-scenes writers. Yes, it's what modern wrestling would be if the Undertaker and the Gobbledygooker actually killed people.

Filena quickly learns a few secrets about her parentage and sets off, Lila in tow. Before them lies a typical RPG quest to bring down an empire and reclaim a lost royal's rightful place in a lost kingdom. Despite its roots in a novel, Eien no Filena plays out much like any other RPG of the Super NES era, with a world that incongruously sticks high technology alongside grubby medieval settings. It's set apart only by an unusual supporting cast: along with Lila, Filena's allies include a jaded battle-writer named Nest, a trained attack dog called Hunter, and the vengeful wife of one of Filena's gladiator victims. There's also the subtext of Filena and Lila's relationship. It seldom progresses beyond a joke or two about Lila being Filena's “wife,” but the mere suggestion of dignified lesbians in an old-school RPG scores novelty points, I suppose. On the other hand, the villains are noticeably lame, as they're little more than an army of boring, lackwit clones of Golbez from Final Fantasy IV. Yes, Golbez was a Darth Vader clone to start with, but he was at least an interesting clone.

Eien no Filena's battle system seldom ventures beyond the typical frame of random battles, menu commands, and static, overused enemy sprites. Its lone inspiration is a system that lets party members equip and use up to three different weapons, each with its own special techniques, in the thick of combat. Other than that, the gameplay is uninspired and monotonous, like any other RPG that leans on Dragon Quest and older Final Fantasies a little too much.

Tokuma Shoten seldom made RPGs, and they didn't bother to bring Eien no Filena up to the visual standards of 1995. Next to Chrono Trigger or Terranigma, Eien no Filena is quite primitive, using the same tile-based environments and tiny sprites that Final Fantasy IV and V did three years prior. Characters show emotion by hopping up and down, as there are few animated story scenes to speak of, and the soundtrack is an irritating, emotionless dud. It's particularly disappointing for a game based partly on Takada's appealing artwork.

Eien no Filena was far too low-profile to qualify for a North American release by 1995, and far better candidates were passed over by U.S. publishers at any rate. Filena is interesting strictly for its few breaks with RPG standards and for the hints it gives about the novels and the nebulous anime series. What little information there is suggests that fans disliked the Filena anime, although it placed in Animage polls for readers' all-time-favorite series as late as 1999. That's no small feat for a lesser-known anime from 1992. At most, the Filena OVA is likely an easily dismissed half-link in the chain of quasi-feminist anime that runs from Princess Knight through Revolutionary Girl Utena. At least the game is easy to judge, and there's even a competent fan translation out there for those of you who don't mind emulating old titles. Eien no Filena rarely lives up to its genre-defying promise, but there's still something intriguing there.

If you decide to pass up the fan-translated version and hunt down a physical copy of Eien no Filena, you'll find that it ranges from $10 to $20 when it bothers to show up on eBay. It's a bit much for a humdrum RPG, particularly if you can't read Japanese.


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