The X Button
Wish Fulfillment

by Todd Ciolek, Dec 24th 2008

This column's taking next week off due to the inevitable Christmas/Hanukkah/Boxing Day festivities, so it won't return until that far-off year of 2009. It works out nicely, because there's only one relevant new game coming out between now and the first days of January.

Fortunately, you can enliven this dead zone by getting Phantasy Star IV for the Wii's Virtual Console. I harped on the game's absence several months ago, and I clearly have the power to make Sega and Nintendo add it just in time for the holiday break.

The fourth Phantasy Star is not only the best of the series. It's also the ideal jump-in point for newcomers used to modern RPGs. While the first two are rigidly difficult and lacking in story (and the third is a general failure), Phantasy Star IV captures everything that made the earlier games so successful without slowing to a plotless crawl. I'll admit that Phantasy Star IV's tale of planet-hopping adventurers is (and always was) a routine smattering of anime clichés, but it's all part of the game's engrossing stage, a star system full of spaceships, androids, sandworms, bounty hunters, and bizarre technology.

It's this mix of science fiction tropes that elevates Phantasy Star IV well above the usual Genesis-era RPG. Instead of plunging through caves and castle dungeons, you're exploring the innards of a crashed starship. Instead of hurling fireballs at goblins, you're launching a genetically engineered beast-girl to strike like a ninja at a pod of giant mantid aliens. Instead of playing a kid who saves the world, you're…well, you're still a kid who saves the world, but you're also a bounty hunter, a tank pilot, and an interplanetary explorer along the way. The game's also impressive on the technical side. While you'll have to endure random battles, they'll be quick, vibrantly colored sessions full of impressive attacks and spells apparently named after Star Wars background aliens. Nasar! Gifoi! Hinas!

So enjoy Phantasy Star IV, and all of its Nawats and Flaelis, this holiday season. It's my gift to you all.

NEWS

FIFTH SAKURA WARS MAY COME WEST, ALONG WITH X-EDGE
For the longest time, it seemed as though Sakura Wars (a.k.a Sakura Taisen) had missed its chance. The series was a titan of the industry in Japan during the late 1990s and still commands a large fan base there, but no company in the West tried to localize any of the half-dozen Sakura Wars games, and English-speaking followers of the franchise pretty much gave up hope a few years ago. However, the North American market now has a comfortable niche for voice-heavy RPGs with dating-simulator elements, Ar Tonelico and Persona 4 being the most prominent. Some unspecified company is planning to add Sakura Wars V to that pile, or so NIS America representatives said in a recent interview.

It may seem odd to localize the fifth Sakura Wars game instead of the PlayStation 2 remake of the original, but Sakura Wars V: Farewell, My Love is the first to be set in America. Since the entire series occurs in a world where transforming, steam-powered mechs clash with demonic forces, Sakura Wars V's America has a 1920s battle at Gettysburg fought between motorcycle cavalry and psychic girls. It's not quite as insane as the United States that Sakura Wars co-creator Hiroi Ohji and Red Company envisioned for the fourth Tengai Makyo game, but you can't really expect historical accuracy here. Nor should you want to.

While Sakura Wars V still cuts from strategy-RPG battles to relationship-building conversations, the cast is mostly new. The opening scene even finds previous hero Ichiro Ogami handing off male-lead duties to Shinjiro Taiga, an eager young cadet who's transferred to New York to work with the Star Division of demon-fighters. His cast of fellow mecha pilots includes a variety of young women, though the story clearly favors redheaded samurai cowgirl Gemini Sunrise (right). She even starred in the game's Episode Zero prequel.

While NIS America's representatives declined to say just who's planning on translating Sakura Wars V, they confirmed two more titles for NIS translation. Coming in March for the PlayStation 3 is X-Edge (left), the strategy-RPG crossover between Gust, CAPCOM, NIS, and Idea Factory. Developed by Compile Heart, X-Edge (pronounced "Cross-Edge") has characters from Darkstalkers, Disgaea, Mana Khemia, Atelier Marie, and Spectral Souls mixing it up in battles that apparently didn't incur troublesome cross-licensing fees. NIS America will also deliver Mana Khemia II for the PlayStation 2 at some point next year. Yes, this means that the PS2 will survive well into 2009. I'm sorry I didn't put down a bet on that five years ago.

HAMMERIN' HARRY RETURNS ON PSP, WORLD SHOCKED
A brief history of Hammerin' Harry: the main character was called Genzo or Gen-san in Irem's original 1990 arcade game, and while that game came to many North American bowling alleys and pizza parlors as Hammerin' Harry, the NES port was denied an American release, showing up only in Japan and Europe. Harry puttered out after GameBoy and Super Famicom versions (again, only in Japan), but Irem decided to revive him earlier this year with the PSP game Ikuze! Gen-san, complete with its own web-based anime series of 9-minute shorts. I rather doubt the anime will get its own North American DVD release, but Atlus will bring the game here as Hammerin' Hero, and they've already put together an official trailer.

Like the original, Hammerin' Hero stars a gutsy young man who swings around a mallet as large as he is, though the PSP revamp also tosses him baseball bats, anchors, and other improvised melee weapons to go along with his costume changes. Genzo (who I hope is renamed “Harry” in the U.S. version) is joined by his playable friend Kanna, who gets only a paper fan with which to wreak her personal havoc, and both of them can bash things simultaneously in the two-player mode. The only thing missing will be the cover from the canceled U.S. NES version.

It was canceled for a reason.

WEIRD-ASS IMPORT ROUNDUP: DECEMBER

FATE UNLIMITED CODES
(CAPCOM/Eighting, PS2)
Poor Fate/Unlimited Codes. You're arriving in the same month as Tatsunoko vs. CAPCOM and Dissidia: Final Fantasy, meaning that no one's going to notice you apart from the Fate/stay night fans who'll squabble over the special edition Fate/Unlimited Codes package with a poseable Saber figure. Then again, I suspect that Fate/Unlimited Codes isn't made for the discerning fighting devotee who enjoys a rich web of techniques and combos. It's a simple-looking 3-D fighter developed by Eighting, maker of many decent but undemanding Naruto head-to-head brawlers. Proof of its aims can be found in the elaborate, flashy special attacks unleashed by Shiro, Saber, Rin, Archer, Rider, Caster, Gilgamesh, and other Fate/descriptor characters. Despite the polygon visuals, the gameplay stays two-dimensional most of the time, and the extras go no further than the usual mission mode and art collections. Still, it's a visually powerful alternative for fans tired of the big heads of Cavia's Fate/tiger Colosseum.
Odds of a Domestic Release: Gone are the days when CAPCOM would give the U.S. fighters based on unproven anime licenses like JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. Fate/stay night isn't popular enough to pull any game over here, so Fate/Unlimited Codes will probably end up just like CAPCOM's Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple fighter did back in 2007.

LET'S TAP
(Prope, Wii)
Some may wish that Yuji Naka were making NightS sequels, good Sonic games, or another Burning Rangers, but there's no question that he and his new company, Prope, got some attention by promoting Let's Tap as the first game that a penguin could play. While mocking the noble waterfowl for their lack of hands, Let's Tap commands players to set the Wii remote face down on a special Tap Box, which they then strike rhythmically to jostle the remote without actually touching it. One suspects that an actual penguin would tire of this quickly unless the remote were dunked in fish entrails beforehand, yet it's a new approach to the party-game genre that's clogging the Wii library like so much bad cholesterol. Let's Tap includes block puzzles, races, music-matching and a less easily classified bubble-making game, all designed to be played by four people at once.
Odds of a Domestic Release: Pretty good, even if Sega sells the game alone and tells everyone to get their own boxes.

SHOOTANTO: KAKOHEN
(Grand Prix, Wiiware)
In the somewhat staid realm of Japan-only Wiiware games, Shootanto: Kakohen stands out on premise alone. It plays much like a gallery shooter (Cabal, Wild Guns), with the player's character running in the foreground while enemies appear and fire in front. One starts the game as a male or female ape pelting dinosaur-like creatures with rocks (at least I think they're rocks), but the ape evolves with each completed stage. Over the course of the game, players become missing-link simians, cave people, medieval archers, and modern soldiers. The game's time periods and enemy lineups change as well, and skilled sharpshooters earn the right to mix up avatars and time periods. It's a fairly basic game, with the structure and repetition one might expect from a budget PlayStation 2 release. But let's not get picky. Where else will we play monkeys fending off an invasion of armored knights in the middle of plague-ravaged Europe?
Odds of a Domestic Release: Not bad, considering how easy it would be to bring it to Wiiware in English.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEKS OF 12-28 AND 1-4

ELEBITS: THE ADVENTURES OF KAI AND ZERO
(Konami, DS, $29.99)
Next to nothing is coming out the week after Christmas, but Konami is braving the doldrums of early January game schedules to deliver its DS sequel to Elebits. A launch game for the Wii, the original told of a kid named Kai tracking down problematic little energy-generating creatures called Elebits. It was both lighthearted and lightweight, the sort of game with possibly too many “casual” concessions for the devoted geek. The sequel finds Kai and his squirrel-like Elebit companion Zero in an overhead action game, where the DS stylus is used in solving puzzles, capturing Omega Elebits, and controlling those captives' special abilities. It all sounds and looks a lot like a certain Nintendo game-and-cartoon series about catching monsters, though Konami's take on it at least has some rather amazing concept art.
Get Excited If: You can name a dozen ways in which Elebits differs from Pokémon.

EXTRA LIVES: GLORIOUS COMMERCIALISM

There's a shameful history of video games becoming lousy anime, dating all the way back to director Masami Hata's disposable and once-rare Super Mario Brothers: Peach-hime Kyuushutsu Daisakusen. Sadly, it's a field well-represented in the West, where the anime adaptations of Melty Lancer, Power Dolls, and Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer will stumble on in shame and mediocrity long after everyone's forgotten about the games that inspired them. Yet there's one sector of the anime-game nexus that doesn't waste the viewer's time, and it's seldom seen over here.

I'm talking about anime made specifically for game commercials. Many Japanese publishers don't bother to create special animation just for thirty-second TV spots, but there are times when someone slaps together brief, high-quality footage that perfectly embodies a game.

VALIS
There's occasionally some confusion over whether Telenet's Valis series existed as an anime production. It didn't, but it had a lengthy commercial spot produced back in 1987. The ad introduces heroine Yuko Ahso, a schoolgirl who's repeatedly pulled into an alternate fantasy world and transformed into an underdressed, super-powered swordswoman, all because her best friend decided to become some evil overlord's leather-clad plaything. Strangely, the animation shills the Famicom version of the game, and it was perhaps the worst port of Valis around.

A persistent rumor suggests that a young Hideaki Anno directed this Valis spot, though I've never heard that confirmed. Even if he had nothing to do with it, the commercial, seen in its briefest form above, sums up Valis in all its suggestive swordplay and mythic nonsense. The Valis series continued through three more games, making its way to the U.S. on the Sega Genesis and TurboGrafx-16, and yet it never expanded into a full-length anime creation. It's just as well; the franchise's simple story and limited character lineup would have struggled to fill even a half-hour OVA. Valis lay dormant until 2006, when Telenet sold its rights off so someone could make a Valis-themed line of pornographic adventure games. Sadly, this now gives Valis a better chance of getting an anime adaptation.

MEGA MAN
If you don't count the hideous, raspy munchkin from Nintendo's Captain N TV series, Megaman took until the 1990s to show up in an animated show. Perhaps CAPCOM's lawyers were worried about lawsuits from the Astro Boy camp. Yet they were lenient enough to allow some clips of Megaman fighting his original six robot-master foes to promote his first Famicom game. Meanwhile in America, Megaman's first title got the ugliest cover art ever and, as far as I can tell, no commercials.

This trend continued through Megaman's five Famicom successors and into the X spin-off line, though the best of them, Megaman 2, got a disappointingly stiff commercial. Perhaps the most memorable of the group was the footage for Megaman 5, in which Megaman and his brother Proto Man (“Blues” in Japan, or “Bruce” if you read GamePro in 1990) face off in a Dragon Ball Z grudge match.

BREATH OF FIRE
CAPCOM also recruited some animators to liven up the Japanese commercials for Breath of Fire, the dragon-centric RPG series that didn't really impress anyone until the third or fourth installment. And so it was the third one that got the nicest clips for its TV appearances.

It's also fair to mention the brief animation in the first Breath of Fire's ad, which does its best to make a smiling goldfish-man look like something from Fist of the North Star.

MENDEL PALACE
Finally, there's the enigma of the North American commercial for Hudson's Mendel Palace. I'm not sure if it was the work of Japanese animators, but it brought a bizarrely anime-esque interlude to U.S. television back in 1990. Somewhere between promos for Flintstones cereal and manly G.I. Joe assault vehicles, children were blindsided by scenes of a huge-eyed girl being menaced by slobbering demons.

It's a strangely dark commercial, considering that Mendel Palace (which was developed by GAME FREAK, the future creators of Pokémon) is a cute NES puzzle game about as threatening and spooky as a round of Dig Dug.


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