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Misfit Joys

by Todd Ciolek, Dec 17th 2008

You know, I wasn't looking forward to the self-promoting Square orgy of Dissidia: Final Fantasy all that much. A 3-D fighter that stuffs in characters from various Final Fantasy games is exactly the sort of thing I wanted to see when I was 17, but Dissidia plays it too formal, filling its roster with the heroes and villains from Final Fantasies I through X and ignoring the fact that the best characters from the franchise are often supporting ones. However, it it's done something right this week. To balance the recent addition of Shantotto from Final Fantasy XI, Dissidia stuck in another villain: Darth Vader Judge Magister Gabranth from Final Fantasy XII.

The figure shown briefly at the end of the new Dissidia trailer looks like Gabranth, at least. He has the same armor and the same cape emblem, though anyone who finished Final Fantasy XII knows that it could be a certain other character. Or possibly the Loch Ness Monster, considering the quality of that image.

In other news, Dragon Quest X was announced, Sony went bankrupt and was bought by Sega of Australia, and…uh, more things happened without being related to Final Fantasy XII.

NEWS

DRAGON QUEST X ON WII, BLUE DRAGON REFUSES TO GIVE UP
Dragon Quest X will be on the Wii. It's the biggest news from the Japanese game industry since…well, since Dragon Quest IX: Protectors of the Starry Sky (right) was announced for the DS. You see how things are. We have no subtitle or images from the tenth proper Dragon Quest so far, but I would bet substantial sums of money that the character designs will be provided by Akira Toriyama and the music will be composed by Koichi Sugiyama.

Rumor has it that Dragon Quest IX might get a Wii version, but it's definitely headed for a DS release on March 28 in Japan, where it will cost 5980 yen, roughly $12 more than the normal DS game. Yes, Japan's DS titles are rather pricey compared to North America's, and, yes, people will pay it for a new Dragon Quest title. Dragon Quest IX breaks with some series traditions by including cooperative multiplayer features and letting players see monsters coming, though it'll still have menu-based battles and churches where you can save.

Not to be outdone so easily, Mistwalker is preparing another game in its Blue Dragon series, which company founder and Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi clearly envisioned as a competitor for Dragon Quest. A multiplayer RPG, Blue Dragon: Enormous Beast of the Underworld will arrive on the DS next year, though without the familiar Blue Dragon characters in the lead. Instead of playing Jiro or Zola or that horny, squealing cat-thing, players will create their own protagonists in this new Blue Dragon spin-off. Like all of Mistwalker's games, the actual development's being handled by another company; in this case, it's Namco Bandai, with Hideo Baba (producer of Eternal Sonata and the execrable Death by Degrees) directing the project. It'll have plenty of opportunities to come over here, as Namco Bandai has a robust Japanese lineup and Ignition Entertainment is already planning to release the first DS Blue Dragon over here next year.

TATSUNOKO VS. CAPCOM OUT, STILL NEWSWORTHY
Seeing as how I wrote about every new character added to Tatsunoko vs. CAPCOM: Cross Generation of Heroes, it would be horrible of me not to point out that the game arrived in Japan last week. Many imported the game, having lost faith in CAPCOM ever releasing a domestic version, and I note with some relief that the Japanese edition doesn't demand painful sacrifices of anyone trying to run it on a North American Wii. Like most expected, it falls into the lighter category of fighting games, just like CAPCOM's older “versus” titles, and the controls demand a classic Wii controller; you can use the remote, but you won't want to. The game also has fully animated endings that make the most of crossovers. Yatter-Wan disgorges exploding robot Chun-Lis, Ryu uppercuts Lost Planet's giant bugs, and Doronjo gets a visit from Princess Devilotte of Cyberbots.

A Western release hasn't been ruled out entirely, but CAPCOM is evidently still deciding whether or not it'd be worth it to get the North American rights to all of Tatsunoko's characters. Fortunately, decorum is on our side. See, someone's already found a strange glitch that involves Viewtiful Joe staying in the air for too long, and CAPCOM simply must make a North American version to fix that awful mistake.

NOBY NOBY BOY SLITHERS OUT INTO THE OPEN
So what exactly is Noby Noby Boy? Aside from the new game by Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi, that is. For one thing, it's a PLAYSTATION Network title that uses player contributions in a way I've never seen before. You control the apparently eponymous Boy, a multi-colored, snakelike lad who can stretch his body out to remarkably flexible lengths (a process handled by the PS3 controller's dual analog sticks, much like the giant-cluster-rolling of Katamari). Boy devours various objects in order to increase his stretching abilities, and all of his efforts similarly help his counterpart Girl elongate, the main difference being that Girl is a world-encircling version of Boy. She's trying to stretch herself through the solar system, and only the combined efforts of everyone playing the game on the PSN can help her.

Aside from Girl's interplanetary goal, Noby Noby Boy is a bizarre playground of a game. As with the limitless stages from Katamari, it's all about seeing just how far and how intricately Boy can extend himself while getting people and animals to ride him. The environments have the same simple look as Katamari's worlds, and there appears to be an option to create your own avatar to join other players' icons in frolicking atop Girl as she grows to reach other planets (and unlocks them as playable courses). It's one of the most intriguing new games coming early next year, when Namco Bandai plans to release Noby Noby Boy in Japan, North America, and Europe simultaneously over the PSN.

THE TOP 5 OVERLOOKED GAMES OF 2008

December is traditionally marked by lists of one's top games from the year gone by, but I suspect that no one wants to read yet more outpourings of praise for Fallout 3, Persona 4, or Bratz Ponyz 2. Instead of adding to that pile, I'll look to the neglected games, the lesser-knowns that, while not as high-budget as everyone's predictable favorites, deserved far more attention than they received. You'll note that most of them come from the DS. It might be that it's easier for great games to go ignored in a handheld system's crowded library. Or maybe I'm just biased and need lots of grammatically deranged e-mails to tell me that.

5. SOUL BUBBLES
(Mekensleep, DS)
A puzzle game of rare detail, Soul Bubbles hinges on a simple concept: you're a little shamanic sprite darting around the DS screen and creating bubbles to rescue roaming spirits. With these straightforward aims, the game explores a vast breadth of ideas: some levels have you blowing and squeezing the bubbles through tight crevasses, others have you filling bubbles with gas and water to solve puzzles along the way. All the while you're fending off the denizens of the temples, tombs, and caverns where the spirits are found. Soul Bubbles is rarely difficult. It prefers a gentle atmosphere with detailed plants, dirt, and fauna filling stages around you. In all fairness, it got noticed by a number of people online, but this didn't really help boost sales, as the game was (and, to my knowledge, still is) exclusive to Toys “R” Us in North America.

4. BATTLE FANTASIA
(Arc System Works/Aksys, Xbox 360)
A relaxing fighter seems logically impossible. Aren't fighting games, by their very nature, all about spiking the player's adrenaline and turning sparring matches between on-screen stereotypes into frantic struggles of life and death? For the most part, yes, and that might be why many people, devoted fighter enthusiasts among them, didn't notice Emiko Iwasaki's Battle Fantasia. Developed by Arc System Works (Guilty Gear, the only good Fist of the North Star fighter) and quietly released here for the Xbox 360 by Aksys (while the PS3 version stays in Japan), Fantasia is a 2-D fighter with the usual combos and dashes and phony, overexcited announcer. What sets it apart is the look of everything. The backgrounds overflow with ornate fairy-tale whorls and arches, and the cast of characters, including a Santa-like warrior and a rabbit mage, fall far from the usual array of vein-sprouting karate masters and naughty nurses. It's very much the thematic opposite of Guilty Gear's screaming excesses, but it's no less captivating.

3. PRINCESS DEBUT
(Cave/Natsume, DS)
It's hard to directly compare Princess Debut to another game. True, lots of Disney-princess fare walks young players through opulent royal adventures, but they don't have Princess Debut's extensive dancing simulator or its web of princely suitors. And while the relationship-building conversations with those princes play out like any given dating simulator, there's an uncommon air of innocent fun in Princess Debut. It's a girls' manga made game, where a gleeful schoolgirl is thrown into a world of dashing, troubled boyfriends and all the romantic intrigue you'd expect. The rhythmic dancing eats up a lot of the game, so there's a suitably wide range of music and steps to learn. And when our glistening heroine isn't practicing the waltz and tango, she's choosing outfits and figuring out just how to get one of the game's twelve endings (two for every prince). It's all aimed at a younger crowd, but considering where these games often go in Japan, Princess Debut is better off keeping everything E-rated.

2. KORG DS-10
(XSEED Games, DS)
The KORG DS-10 isn't a game in the traditional Pac-Man sense. It's effectively a synthesizer running on a DS with all of the complicated mixing arrangements that a real KORG MS-10 keyboard uses. Sounds like the sort of thing retailers would jump on, right? Well, Target and EB Games were apparently put off by the DS-10's $40 price tag (a sum that only Square Enix is allowed to charge for DS games) and the not-really-a-game aura hanging around it. In similar fashion, the KORG DS-10's mechanical assortment of knobs, jacks, and stylus-connecting wires may intimidate anyone who's never tried a bit of DJ posturing. Once you're accustomed to it, however, there's an awful lot that can be done with the software, including a link-up feature that lets you sync several DS systems together, just as long as you've got a copy of the game in each unit.

1. BANGAI-O SPIRITS
(Treasure/D3, DS)
The pure shooter is a neglected art in these times, often relegated to the corners of Japanese arcades and obscure fan-made imitations. So it's not surprising that Bangai-O Spirits failed to blaze a trail through the game industry, leaving critical acclaim and suicidally devoted fans in its wake. But it should have, dammit. In re-imagining the original Bangai-O for the DS, Treasure created a perfect quick-fix action game, a multi-directional 2-D shooter that skips rapidly from free-roaming destruction to tight, puzzle-filled maze runs. As the tiny sprite of the Bangai-O mecha weaves through enemy missile fusillades and launches its own bouncing napalm canisters and baseball bats, Spirits truly grasps the most basic joy in video games: the thrill of survival. Not content to stop with 160 pre-made stages, the game adds an intuitive level creator, with a truly weird, sound-based method of sharing what you make. The reckless joys of a shooter still have their place in this modern, cinematic game landscape, and nothing proves this better than Bangai-O Spirits.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 12-21

RISE OF THE ARGONAUTS
(Codemasters/Liquid Entertainment, PS3/Xbox 360/PC, $59.99)
Yeah, it's that time of the year. Nearly every major release of the holidays is already out, leaving list-compilers like me to scrounge up stuff that falls well outside this column's focus. I figure it's better to cover this week's Rise of the Argonauts than to dig for possible anime influences in, say, Driver's Ed Portable. Rise is an action-RPG adaptation of the myth about Jason and his loyal crew, though its take on the legends seems to result in a slightly more faithful and RPG-like version of the God of War series. Developer Liquid Entertainment is quick to emphasize the “action” part of the game, which promises all sorts of gruesomely rendered battles against the Greek pantheon's most appropriate boss monsters. The supporting cast also includes names like Achilles and Hercules, though I'm most interested in seeing how the game will adapt Medea's role in all this.
Get Excited If: You thought God of War changed too much.

EXTRA LIVES: U.N. SQUADRON

If the scores of kids who rented CAPCOM's U.N. Squadron back in 1991 were anything like me, they had no idea they were playing an anime-based game. Granted, U.N. Squadron opens with a close-up of a big ol' manga eye, and the game's pilots, commanding officers, and mechanics are all drawn with what most children of the '90s could recognize as “anime” style. Yet most of us had never heard of Kaoru Shintani's manga (despite Viz Media's attempts at translating it several years prior) or the anime OVA it inspired. As far as we knew, U.N. Squadron was just a fun shooter and a way to show off our brand new Super Nintendo systems.

You know the story of Area 88, right? How up-and-coming pilot Shin Kazama gets duped into joining a Middle Eastern mercenary outfit just so his best friend can steal his pink-haired fiancée and his future? How it's a bit like The Count of Monte Cristo with F-14s? Well, CAPCOM's Area 88 game doesn't care about that. It's an arcade beast, and it's concerned more with showing players lots of little planes to shoot down than it is with exploring the backstories of Shin and the other two selectable pilots, Mick Simon and Greg Gates. The only part of the manga integrated into the game is Shin's single-minded quest to save up and claw his way back to his old life. Instead of contractual buy-outs, however, players are earning cash to afford the latest missiles and bombs sold by McCoy, the base mechanic.

U.N. Squadron quickly dropped out of sight in arcades, and it wasn't until CAPCOM ported the game to the just-released Super NES that it truly had an audience. Along with Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts and Final Fight, it joined CAPCOM's lineup for the first wave of Super NES games. As with Final Fight, U.N. Squadron lost the two-player mode from its arcade version; unlike Final Fight, U.N. Squadron added a lot to make up for it. Most immediately noticeable is the plane selection. Shin, Mick (translated as “Mickey Scymon” for some reason), and Greg start off with basic F-8 Crusaders, but they can buy five additional types of fighter, each with different attacks and sub-weapon capacities. Also improving on his arcade version, McCoy shows up to sell a bunch of different arms, from generic bombs to a screen-wiping cluster attack.

U.N. Squadron further distances itself from standard shooters with its selectable stages. After finishing the first mission, players pick from three subsequent raids on a battle grid. Also on the map are attackable convoys and enemy fleets, the latter of which steadily inch toward your base each time you visit the screen. Let them get too close, and you'll automatically take them on. Similar to the selectable paths of the Darius series or the map in Bionic Commando, U.N. Squadron shows a freedom that many modern shooters don't even bother with.

The variety of weapons and routes makes up for U.N. Squadron's major flaw: it's based on Area 88. Shintai's detailed modern jets and stabs at grim realism may make for compelling dogfights in manga and anime, but they seem rather bland in a 16-bit shooter. Compared to the sleek mecha and extraterrestrial bosses of genre staples like M.U.S.H.A. and Axelay, U.N. Squadron looks flat. In testament to CAPCOM's programmers, the level designs offer many intense moments, but there's not a lot of selection in the tanks and jet fighters that circle and strafe your plane. Only the massive, stage-ending bosses show off the Super NES's ability to move large sprites.

The home version of U.N. Squadron also shares its arcade father's limited exploration of Area 88. All of the characters who show up are accurate to the anime, yet there are no cutscenes full of bitter disappointment and betrayal. The endings are brief and vary only slightly from pilot to pilot, and you won't find any voice samples. There's only a standard set of sound effects and punchy arcade music to move things along.

U.N. Squadron proved a success back in 1991, as it offered a lot more depth than other Super NES shooters, including the sluggish Gradius III and the unremarkable Earth Defense Force. Yet CAPCOM wasn't interested in making more Area 88 titles. U.N. Squadron saw only an arcade psuedo-sequel in Carrier Airwing, a shooter that mimicked the original Area 88 game's small sprites and real-world planes, but without the anime cast. Perhaps the strangely bug-eyed general from the game's intro was supposed to be an Area 88 officer before CAPCOM ditched the license.

Many highlights of the Super NES's first wave don't hold up so well today, but U.N. Squadron is largely intact. It's a steadfast shooter made interesting by branching structure and a plethora of special weapons, and if that shooter avoids digging deep into the manga and anime that inspired it, that's no great problem. We didn't need to know anything about Area 88 to enjoy U.N. Squadron back in the '90s, and anyone can enjoy it just as easily today.

Along with many other early Super NES games, U.N. Squadron is quite common. Most auction sites price it at ten bucks, but shopping around the real world might turn up cheaper copies. Any store that still sells Super NES titles will likely have a used copy of U.N. Squadron, wedged between a stack of football games and a Super R-Type cartridge with "DANNY ROTHMEYER" childishly scrawled on its side in faded black Sharpie.


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