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Come Clean

by Todd Ciolek, Oct 15th 2008

October's Tokyo Game Show is over, and few were apparently satisfied with it. The most interesting announcements were made at Nintendo's conference the week before TGS, overshadowing a show where most of the compelling news came as hints and vague announcements. For example, we know that Konami's making a new Castlevania for the current generation of consoles, but all we have are images like this.

That's not so bad, I suppose. Sometimes it's better just to have a hint or two, a blurry screen that sets you to imagining the way a game could be instead of the invariably flawed way it'll turn out once reality gets hold of it.

But this column is not about imagining. This column is about real things. As long as they apply to video games, anyway.

NEWS

SQUARE SHOWS A LOT, EXPLAINS A LITTLE
Square Enix's TGS showing wasn't all that bad. It was informative, at least. Star Ocean: The Last Hope and Dragon Quest IX got March release dates (for Japan, of course), the three parts of Final Fantasy XIII got some new scraps of footage, and other games came into slightly better focus.

The most interesting new material came from Parasite Eve: The Third Birthday (right). A gameplay-free trailer was shown, with seemingly ageless heroine Aya Brea wandering through a snowy New York. The game's in development at Hexadrive (whose only previous project appears to be the Rez HD port), and it remains to be seen just how well it'll do as a cell-phone title turned PSP game. I found that Parasite Eve fell shy of its potential: the first was too much a shallow Hollywood sci-fi bore, the second too far into the realm of Resident Evil rip-offs. Perhaps The Third Birthday will put Aya someplace worth visiting.

Kingdom Hearts plunged deeper into the Disney-free parts of its mythos during the TGS. For Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, the DS prequel to Kingdom Hearts II, the developers added another character to the nefarious Organization XIII. The new member is Xion, a black-haired girl who probably won't be a major force in Kingdom Hearts lore. Still, she might figure into the four-player mode that the game supports. On the PSP, Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep also added a new female character: Aqua, who joins previously introduced heroes Terra and Ventus as a playable lead.

Square also revealed the current lineup for Dissidia: Final Fantasy, the 3-D fighter that draws protagonists and villains from the first ten mainline games in the franchise. The roster features a “Warrior of Light” and Garland from Final Fantasy; Frionel and The Emperor from Final Fantasy II; an “Onion Knight” and the Cloud of Darkness from Final Fantasy III; Cecil Harvey and Golbez from Final Fantasy IV; Bartz Klauser and Ex-Death from Final Fantasy V; Terra Branford and Kefka Palazzo from Final Fantasy VI; Cloud Strife and Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII; Squall Leonhart and Ultimecia from Final Fantasy VIII; Zidane Tribal and Kuja from Final Fantasy IX; and Tidus Whinypants and Jecht from Final Fantasy X. Yes, they're ignoring Tactics and Final Fantasy XII, and it's a crime against taste, I tell you.

STREET FIGHTER IV, TATSUNOKO VS. CAPCOM CONTINUE CHARACTER CAVALCADE
Street Fighter IV, now established in its arcade phase, is now revealing new-old characters for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions. The latest returning cast member is Sakura, the chirpy schoolgirl who idolizes Ryu to a potentially unhealthy extreme. There's even a trailer of her in action. That's more than we've seen of Dan and Fei Long, who were reported as new additions a while ago. Oh, and Cammy. They've promised us Cammy.

Meanwhile, Capcom's other major fighting game added two more characters, stealthily revealed by a giant banner. On the more anime-affiliated side of Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, the newest face is Gatchaman's Jun, who's been known as Princess, Agatha, June, and Kelly across various English treatments of the series.

The Capcom roster gets Roll, and not the competent Roll from Megaman Legends, which already lent its Megaman incarnation to Tatsunoko vs. Capcom. No, this Roll is the original housekeeping robot from Megaman proper, and she's armed with a broom and, uh, a dress. Capcom fans will remember that she was previously in the Marvel vs. Capcom series, and that she was among the worst fighters one could pick.

Both Roll and Jun will presumably be in the home version of Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, due on the Wii this December 11. And in Japan only, it seems. The official word is that the game most likely won't come to North America due to licensing issues, though I find it hard to believe that Capcom would make a high-profile fighter without plans to bring it over here.

NEVERLAND CARD BATTLES OFFERS STRATEGY, BATHING SUITS
Neverland Card Battles from Yuke's seems straightforward: it's a PSP strategy game where battles are fought by laying out cards as well as taking over sectors of a stage map. Yet it's also part of a broader franchise that includes the Carnival Arc card game and Idea Factory's Neverland series, which was recently introduced to North America through the Xbox 360 RPG Spectral Souls. Many of the characters in Neverland Card Battles should seem familiar to anyone who's spent time with Idea Factory's creations, as should the storyline about ancient gods warring through mortals and their decks of cards. Yuke's will have the game out by the end of the month, and the designers are already courting anime fans by putting the cast in a beach episode—or at least an illustration of one.

On another level, Neverland Card Battles is perhaps the highest-profile release yet from the recently formed Yuke's of America. The Japanese parent company, founded by Yukinori “Yuke” Taniguchi, has a 15-year history that includes the action-platformer Hermie Hopperhead, the kitschy anime-style fighter Evil Zone, two licensed Berserk games (including the one we know here as Guts' Rage), Square's best-unplayed Soukaigi, and all sorts of wrestling titles. They even programmed Konami's Rumble Roses, for whatever that's worth.

REVIEW: BLEACH: DARK SOULS

There's a point in Tite Kubo's Bleach, somewhere after the first ten volumes, where the plot heads to Soul Society and becomes little more than a series of introductions to all of the otherworldly Soul Reapers, their gimmicks, and their specialized attacks. It's a terrible way to tell a story, but it's a great way to set up a fighting game. And when it comes to Bleach fighters, no developer has done a better job with the source material than Treasure, which took all of Kubo's major characters and crammed them into two surprisingly detailed DS games. The first, Bleach: The Blade of Fate, arrived last year, and the second, Dark Souls, now faces the unfortunate task on improving on a game where everything worked just fine.

Yes, The Blade of Fate already has a well-crafted fighting engine. Up to four characters face each other on 2-D background and foreground planes, hopping between them with taps of the shoulder button. Their attacks are simple weak-medium-strong options, with dashing and guarding each mapped to a button. In a design choice that recalls SNK's Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves, all of the characters here perform attacks with the same sets of controller motions. It's the attacks themselves that vary drastically. Ichigo has routine projectiles and rising strikes, Soifon favors up-close strikes, Momo creates mid-air fireballs and explodes them like mines, Ukitake hurls balls of light and reflects lasers off of them, and so on.

Dark Souls makes only minor alternations to its predecessor's bedrock. Fights still play out fluidly, with characters dashing, spinning, double-jumping, and launching into screen-choking special moves. The card system is more useful this time around, as up to four face cards are displayed at a time on the lower screen, each granting different effects in battle. It's now much easier to build a deck, and also easier to execute moves at the same time. The game allows you to input attacks the old-fashioned way, but a player's cards and special moves are linked to buttons on the touch-screen, just in case you want to cheat. And the fighting system behind it all is exceptionally solid. Built on Treasure's Guardian Heroes and their licensed Yū Yū Hakusho brawler, the Bleach fighters strike an excellent balance between hectic button-mashery and skillful maneuvers, leaving just enough leeway for newcomers to get lucky.

A more drastic change lies in the story mode. The Blade of Fate gave each character a linear series of conversations and fights, but Dark Souls ditches that in favor of a more complex network of encounters. While you're stuck playing Ichigo for the early chapters, there's a wide selection of challenges. One square on the story mode's map might yield a regular fight. The next might have Ichigo racing around the screen to catch butterflies or steal food from the hungry maws of Orihime and Yachiru.

There's some underlying story about mod souls and Hollows infesting Soul Society, but Bleach fans will be far more entertained by the way familiar characters interact in both the story mode's conversations and the resulting displays of swords and chakra power levels spiritual pressure. The graphics in Dark Souls are the same quality as before, and there's nothing wrong with that, since Treasure squeezes fantastic detail into sprites a few inches high. Every fighter has unique voice samples, and a few of the returning cast members get new animations. The soundtrack's still unremarkable and the dialogue scenes are still static, though the game at least attempts an anime-style intro, theme song and all.

And it's the cast that really sells the game, with 17 new additions pushing the total character count up to 44. Sure, some of them are simple Hollows and others are just gimmicks (poor Tatsuki is still two steps past useless), but there are at least three dozen unique choices in the roster. Most of the fresh blood shows the same creative touches as the older cast, and it all sticks to Bleach canon. Take the well-endowed Rangiku Matsumoto; her short blade leaves her with limited range, so her entire game revolves around creating clouds of ash and turning them into projectiles. It demands a noticeably different strategy than, say, Renji's selection of quick and dirty strikes.

Picking through the story mode is mildly fun (and necessary if you want to unlock characters), but Dark Souls finds its best moments in four-player melees, playable both online and through local connections. True, the game isn't brilliantly balanced, as Ichigo, Byakuya and other characters with powerful bankai supers can easily overwhelm lesser opponents. But that's not important. Dark Souls and The Blade of Fate are about controlling your favorite Bleach names in action, enjoying the heated clash of characters, and laughing in triumph after you've turned giggly little Yachiru into a pint-size, pink-haired, blade-whirling frenzy that just completely slaughtered three larger Soul Reapers.

If Dark Souls is a mere upgrade of The Blade of Fate, there's no question that it's still a standout among anime-based games and portable fighters. The casual player, seeking only some good DS-based punching and kicking, won't see enough of a difference, yet Bleach adherents and Treasure freaks will find this simple touch-up well worth the investment. Dark Souls may not be the most daring of sequels, but Treasure's treatment of Kubo's universe is even better in re-runs.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 10-19

CASTLEVANIA: ORDER OF ECCLESIA
(Konami, DS, $29.99)
I was worried that Order of Ecclesia wouldn't make it out. Sure, Konami has a vested interest in publishing as many Castlevanias as can be deemed profitable, but those with lone female leads have met unfortunate fates. Castlevania: Resurrection was canceled, and Castlevania: Origins was retconned into oblivion by series producer Koji Igarashi, possibly because it had Alucard impregnating the Belmont clan's future matriarch. But all signs point to Ecclesia getting released, supplying us with yet another entry in the maze-like “Metroidvania” tradition. The lead vampire slayer is Shanoa, who's hunting her thieving rival (and, I assume, Dracula) with the use of glyphs that grant her all sorts of weapons, spells, and maneuvers. In other respects, it's a familiar portable Castlevania, with the same sort of sprite-based graphics, the same sort of RPG-ish item collecting, and the same sort of Michiru Yamane soundtrack. I imagine series fans might prefer this traditional outing with whip-based arcade games and 3-D fighters lying in Castlevania's future.
Get Excited If:You bothered getting the hidden ending in the last DS Castlevania.

ETERNAL SONATA
(Namco Bandai, PS3, $59.99)
Many critics have upbraided Eternal Sonata for wasting a good idea, as the game asks what composer Frédéric Chopin might have envisioned as he lay dying of consumption at far too young an age. The answer? He'd have imagined himself in a magical anime fantasyland full of cutesy, big-eyed kids named after musical terms. The Xbox 360 version of Eternal Sonata was seldom praised for its storyline, though the battle system and combat integration reflect the action-based ethos of the Tales series or Star Ocean. There are no bothersome random encounters, characters move freely in real-time around the battlefield, and everyone has a good variety of attacks and spells. Even sunlight comes into play, as some enemies change their forms when in the shade. And it at least presents Chopin's music and details of his life, in what may be the most elaborate "edutainment" title ever. For those who skipped this on the Xbox 360, the PS3 version turns two supporting characters into playable party members and adds an option for changing characters' outfits.
Get Excited If: You once named a party of blank-slate RPGs characters Brahms, Wagner, Beethoven and Mozart.

MASTER OF THE MONSTER LAIR
(Atlus, DS, $29.99)
I think I like Master of the Monster Lair's approach to the often numbing dungeon-hack genre. Instead of puttering through an unfamiliar maze full of creatures and inevitable deaths, you build a similar underground labyrinth to trap and destroy the monsters terrorizing your village. It's a little bit like Tecmo's Deception, only without the mean-spirited joy of murdering fellow humans. Designing your dungeon and rigging all of the rooms is only half the equation, though, since you'll also have to venture into the warren you've created in order to slay the trapped monsters. The real fun, I imagine, would come from trading dungeons with friends and watching your creations unfairly slaughter their adventurers. You can do exactly that, but only over local wireless.
Get Excited If: You own all the Deception games, including Trapt.

NARUTO: CLASH OF NINJA REVOLUTION 2
(Tomy/D3/Eighting, Wii, $49.99)
Fans roll their eyes whenever new characters are introduced in Naruto movies, as there's little chance of them having any impact. However, it's quite different when companies trot out new one-off cast members for Naruto fighters, where everyone's equal as long as they're fun to play. Clash of Ninja Revolution 2 throws in Yugao Uzuki, a briefly glimpsed character in the Naruto storyline, along with two new members of the Anbu organization and a bunch of boss characters that we probably shouldn't spoil just yet. The game plays much like the Clash of Ninja titles from the GameCube days, albeit with refined control and the option to use Wii remote motions to mimic jutsu hand signs. Of course, you can always use a classic controller or a GameCube pad. Amateurs.
Get Excited If:You imitate jutsu hand signals even when you're not playing a Naruto fighter.

STAR OCEAN: FIRST DEPARTURE
(Square Enix, PSP, $39.99)
For American RPG fans, Star Ocean was one of many Super Famicom RPGs that got away from them back in the mid-1990s. They read the previews in Nintendo Power, they sent letters asking for an English translation, and they complained when it never came out in America. They were asking a bit much, since Enix had closed shop in the U.S. by 1995 and Star Ocean would've been a huge, frustrating translation project in the best of cartridge-era circumstances. In the decade or so since, fan translators and emulation have brought us a Star Ocean we can understand, but Square Enix has First Deparure, an extensive remake of the Super Famicom title longed for all those years ago. The new PSP version re-works the original's battle system into something more in line with the free-roaming combat of subsequent Star Oceans, and the backgrounds are now fully 3-D. There's also a host of new animated cutscenes, courtesy of Production I.G The storyline is still what you'd expect from tri-Ace, which can't tell an interesting tale unless it involves Norse gods, but the Star Ocean fan base is doubtless accustomed to RPGs where the gameplay's more interesting than the plot.
Get Excited If: You had someone make you a mock-up Super NES cartridge of the original Star Ocean.

THERESIA
(Aksys, DS, $29.99)
Theresia is one of those low-key Japanese titles that sneaks up on the North American market with little in the way of fanfare. An entrance like that is entirely apt, since Theresia is also the sort of graphic adventure game where slowly creeping dread is more effective than zombie dogs jumping through windows. Played from a primarily first-person perspective, Theresia tells the stories of two different leads: one's an amnesiac girl seeking her mother, the other is a doctor struggling with the awful truth behind a cure he's discovered. It resembles a more gothic and less combat-driven Silent Hill, and Theresia is heavy on exploration and puzzle-solving while the soundtrack does its best to scare players with lurching music and burbling voices.
Get Excited If: You'd like Silent Hill games if there weren't so many monsters.

TORNADO
(Ignition, DS, $19.99)
Technically, you don't play a tornado here. You play a cat who controls tornados in an elaborate attempt to suck up all of the buildings, animals, and people stolen from Earth by an intergalactic royal criminal. It's a more destructive Katamari Damacy, with players powering the whirlwinds through DS stylus motions until nothing remains to disrupt and collect. There's a story mode as well as an arcade mode, the latter of which is played mostly for score-building. Tornado's developer, Success, is low-key but usually competent, as they also created Zoo Keeper, the Cotton shooters, Guardian Force, the Izuna series, and the Valcon-published farming simulator known as Shepherd's Crossing.
Get Excited If: You've ever wanted to level a city instead of picking it up in a Katamari title.

WII MUSIC
(Nintendo, Wii, $49.99)
Yes, it's Nintendo's big new Wii release this holiday season: a music game. Compose your own beats and see them played by orchestras of the Miis you've created! Screw around with classic Nintendo themes and public-domain songs! Burn with illogical rage that Nintendo's making this mainstream pap instead of showering you with sequels to Kid Icarus, Eternal Darkness, and Jet Force Gemini! In all seriousness, Wii Music seems an appealing musical simulator that uses Wii remote motions to play virtual instruments, and the composing element lets players make music and send it to others. It's not Rock Band, but it's likely to make your friends look even dumber when they play it. And that's what matters.
Get Excited If: You can play at least three Mario themes on the piano.

EXTRA LIVES: EIGHT MAN

The Neo Geo is remembered for its arcade games, for the home console that ran identical versions of those arcade games, and for the fact that the console and games were really, really expensive. It's not remembered for its anime connections. There's a mediocre Ashita no Joe boxing game that no one seems to talk about, and the terrible Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer is often overshadowed by the equally hideous anime it inspired. The first anime license on the Neo Geo, however, was a side-scrolling action title inspired by Kazumasa Hirai and Jiro Kuwata's famous robot-superhero saga, 8 Man.

The 8 Man anime series had been popular enough back in the 1960s, when it even jumped to America as Tobor: The Eighth Man. The license was a little old by the early 1990s, but SNK likely caught wind of the 8 Man revival that would later manifest in a live-action film and the 8 Man After OAVs. SNK beat them both to the market by making its own 8 Man game with Pallas, the same publisher that collaborated on SNK's impressive Super Baseball 2020. Eight Man, commonly written non-numerically, launched for the Neo Geo in both arcade and home versions in 1991, when even a long-dormant anime tie-in could help the fledgling console.

SNK and Pallas didn't stick to the old black-and-white 8 Man, of course. They redesigned him as a pastel-blue '80s superhero, and the world around him went from a conventionally crime-plagued Tokyo to a burning city of cracked pavement and mutant hordes. The abilities granted to 8 Man, however, are nothing spectacular: he can punch, kick, jump, slide, and launch “bomb” attacks. Like his animated counterpart, 8 Man can also run at blinding speeds, but only in certain levels. As for him catching bullets or throwing around giant football players...don't get your hopes up.

Like most early Neo Geo fare, Eight Man is a short, forgettable exercise in dying repeatedly. The four levels, with about twenty sub-levels divided among them, are mostly traditional side-scrolling stuff, broken up by running stages. The challenges are rarely tougher than punching the right enemies, jumping over pits (with and without pillars of fire and nuclear waste erupting), and pounding on bosses until they explode. Of course, the game also stacks the odds against 8 Man from time to time, just in case the player is getting too much out of one quarter.

It's all quite repetitive, and the game itself seems to give up by the fourth stage, when re-colored versions of familiar enemies are thrown at the player and old bosses trudge out once again. Between the limited repertoire of moves and the repeated visuals, Eight Man is challenging just for the level of tolerance it requires. Nowhere is it more obvious than the penultimate stage, where an elevator carries 8 Man up to meet the final boss and the same phalanxes of enemies attack seemingly without end.

Perhaps Eight Man was just a visual showcase. The Neo Geo could throw 2-D effects and sprites around with amazing results, and Eight Man gets a few moments of pure graphic wonder. It's impressive to see 8 Man dashing down a freeway as enemies leap into the screen, but it'd be even more impressive if he didn't fight the same rolling tank machine at the end of every running stage.

For the dedicated 8 Man fan, the Neo Geo game is an oddity, having little to do with the 8 Man movie or the gory 1993 anime series. There are no story scenes, and the game's enemies were pulled from a mix of 8 Man history and the general pop-culture continuum of 1991. A second player can join in as “9 Man,” while the enemies the two cyborgs fight include test-tube thugs, decomposing hell-tigers, a multi-screen battleship, and, well, the Predator. (I suppose if Robocop can take inspiration from the original 8 Man, the video game can steal a movie monster or two.) The final battle pits 8 Man against a giant floating robot head, which splits open to reveal a huge, fire-breathing brain. Then the enormous ganglion gives way to a looming skeletal specter of medieval death, which chases 8 Man along a shattered highway. I'd be surprised if that was taken from the old 8 Man cartoon.

With its derivative level design, limited appeal, and mediocre soundtrack, Eight Man gets little praise. Even devoted Neo Geo fans shun it, and these are people who force themselves to buy and enjoy even C-list Neo Geo games like Cyber Lip, Ghost Pilots, and Samurai Shodown V. Still, it's not as though 8 Man fans can afford to be picky. The Neo Geo title is pretty much the only 8 Man game around, so enjoy it if you can.

So you want to buy Eight Man? Good news! Both the Neo Geo home version and the arcade kit go for about $50, which seems high until you remember that the original cartridge would run you $200 back in the day. It's still an irredeemably average game either way, but at least the console version has a quaint, 1950s-style cover.


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