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Something's Wrong

by Todd Ciolek, Jan 7th 2009

Well, it didn't take long for 2009 to get interesting in the worst way, even when it came to video games. During 2008, many whispered about Hearst's UGO network buying 1up.com from Ziff-Davis, and today it came to pass. At first, it seemed as though 1up would stay completely intact while Ziff simply shut down Electronic Gaming Monthly, a fixture among gaming magazines since 1989. I've read EGM since the early 1990s, so I remember the 400-page holiday issues from 1994, full of ads, supplements, and awkward writing. I remember the leaner but much-improved issues of the late '90s. I remember watching Next Generation, GameFan, Gamers' Republic and Game Players all go under, leaving me glad that EGM was still around and still a solid magazine. So I'm not too happy about this.

EGM's sad yet long-rumored demise isn't the worst of it. Moments after news of the merger hit, word leaked about many 1up staffers getting axed, putting an end to the website's podcasts. I was laid off from a magazine job last year, and I hate to think of the people behind the best major gaming website going through the same thing. I hope that this turns out well for each and every one of you.

It seems there's more to come, in both the 1up.com shakeout and the industry around it. Print magazines are suffering, the economy is terrible, and the cul-de-sacs of geek journalism are anything but immune to it all. Happy 2009, everyone.

NEWS

MISTWALKER'S CRY-ON CANCELED
Mistwalker's Cry On offered some intriguing ideas when it was announced early in 2008. To hear producer and writer Hironobu “I created Final Fantasy” Sakaguchi tell it, Cry On's goal was to make players sob with sheer melodramatic sorrow as well as effervescent joy. In more solid terms, the action-RPG was also the tale of giant stone-and-sand creatures who walked the earth, with mankind often caught underfoot. The human heroine, Sally (right), hung around with a tiny, shoulder-riding golem named Bogle, who was capable of transforming into one of the enormous titans. The game was also set to sport a soundtrack by Nobuo Uematsu and some programming by the rarely reliable Cavia. I use the past tense in the above sentences because Cry On got canceled around Christmas.

In announcing the game's demise, AQ Interactive mentioned “the current market environment,” a veiled reference to the way that new, unproven RPGs and adventure games, Mistwalker's Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey among them, have met with only slight success in the past few years, while Dragon Quest and the Tales series ride high. Cry-On apparently didn't get too far along, as no game screens were ever shown. All the public saw were illustrations by Kimihiko Fujisaka, who designed characters for Cavia's two Drakengard games. Mistwalker's website also contains a few unlabeled production sketches. Let's preserve them all, so that future generations may know everything possible about the game that might have been Cry On.

SHONEN VS. SHONEN ON THE PSP
Konami's new shonen-manga crossover fighter may remind many of Nintendo's Jump Super Stars, but they're different in several key areas. While the DS-based Super Stars was a 2-D fighter that drew from hit Shonen Jump series, Konami's apparently untitled PSP game borrows across publishing lines, taking characters from Shogakukan's Shonen Sunday and Kodansha's Shonen Magazine. The playable fighters shown so far include Natsu from Fairy Tail, Yoshimori from Kekkaishi, Inuyasha's title hero, Ippo from Hajime no Ippo, Negi from Negima! Magister Negi Magi, Hayate from Hayate no Gotoku!, the lead trio from Zettai Karen Children, Ikki from Air Gear, Kenichi from Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple, R from Kyukyoku Choujin R, and, best of all, Shinichi Mechazawa from Cromartie High School.

The game appears to involve small arenas and 3-D visuals that accurately recreate the special attacks of the manga-derived cast, though I imagine that the characters will drive this more than the fighting system. One has to wonder if Konami's free to choose from any manga that ever ran in Shonen Sunday or Shonen Magazine. I'm sure they'll pick mostly recent stars, but we can always hope for selections from Urusei Yatsura, GTO, or, dare I suggest it, the original run of Violence Jack.

HACHI KOI LETS DS OWNERS TOUCH, FEED ANIME GIRLS
Japan's industry of dating simulators really hasn't made much use of the DS and its touch-screen. Sure, you have the witch-fondling depravities of Doki Doki Majo Shinpan, but any student of unwholesome Japanese culture would be surprised at how little the field has exploited the potential misuses of the DS stylus. Relatively unknown developer Neuron Age (which helped with a bunch of CAPCOM's titles last generation) is out to explore this creepy new world with Hachi Koi. The game finds a young hero stricken with an imminently fatal illness, one that can be cured only if he finds true love with a girl. Players make this life-saving match by using the DS stylus to touch the game's various young women, whether it's the innocuous application of sunscreen, the bandaging of gym-class scrapes, or mini-games that I'd rather not think about. One look at the game's special pop-idol character (played by voice actress Haruka Nagashima) should tell even the casual observer exactly who this game is courting.

Hachi Koi may seem typical, but it goes one step beyond the usual candidates for a dating-sim hero's desperate love. Amid a predictable assortment of athletic girls, sweet girls, and halfheartedly delinquent girls, there's a…shall we say…Rubenesque young woman named Kurumi Kasugaoka. Her profile page on the official site even has food icons that can be moved around and fed to her, with accompanying sounds of repast. Is this Neuron Age's response to Sony's Fat Princess? Will this popularize a new fetish in pathetic Japanese nerd culture? Will fans invent some cutesy otaku portmanteau phrase for anime girls with measurable body fat percentages? Will everyone be insulted by it?

SPECIAL FEATURE: 2009 PREDICTIONS

It's quite popular to hate the future, especially when it comes to those doomsaying articles that crop up with the start of the new year. Well, despite the rotten news that's already arrived, I've made up my mind not to be gloomy about something as inconsequential as video games. They're a source of joy and escape in this bleak, crisis-plagued modern world of ours, and my personal predictions for 2009 are going to be hopeful, even if I have to lie a little.

FINAL FANTASY XIII HAS HIGHLY ACTIVE BATTLES, UPSETS FANS
Square made some strange promises with its early Final Fantasy XIII footage. For one thing, it showed heroine Lightning dashing around and carving up Star Wars troopers in combat that seemed less like a traditional Final Fantasy battle and more like a neon futurepunk Devil May Cry with superimposed menus. There's no way that the final game could move that fast while still offering the same battle options as a conventional RPG, so Square will compromise. The first demo of Final Fantasy XIII (due out in March with the Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Blu-Ray) will prove slightly different from the active-time battle system hinted at in previews. It'll be a quick, menu-driven setup, demanding both rapid-fire commands and some situational strategy. And half the fan base will hate it, as is the case with every new Final Fantasy.
Seriously? No. It'll probably play just like Final Fantasy X-2's battles, except you'll be able to knock enemies off cliffs and into streetlamps.

NINTENDO LAUNCHES RPG FRANCHISE, AND IT'S NOT EARTHBOUND
Nintendo rarely makes traditional, anime-style RPGs, and Nintendo doesn't need to make them. After all, there's little sense in siphoning resources from the next big Mario project to develop a new RPG that'll just get swept aside by Final Fantasy spin-offs. Yet there are signs that Nintendo might tread into this dangerously crowded territory. Nintendo acquired Monolith, the team behind Xenosaga, parts of Baten Kaitos, and Namco X CAPCOM. Rumors also suggest that Nintendo's working with Yasumi Matsuno (creator of the Ogre Battle/Tactics Ogre series and self-exiled director of Final Fantasy XII) and Matsuno has worked on nothing but RPG-ish games since 1995. Soon Nintendo will strike out with a stunning new high-budget RPG, combining Matsuno's love of medieval politics with Monolith's propensity for fantasy space opera. It'll take four years to come out, and it'll be amazing.
Seriously? Yes, but Nintendo still won't release Mother 3 in English.

LOST ODYSSEY 2 LIVES, BLUE DRAGON 2 DIES AND IS REBORN
With Cry On canceled and ASH a failure, Mistwalker is most certainly re-thinking its plans for its two established titles: the kid-oriented Blue Dragon and the somewhat more mature Lost Odyssey. As the best thing Mistwalker and Microsoft have to answer Final Fantasy, Lost Odyssey's sequel will indeed materialize, sporting some reused designs from Cry On and only tenuous connections to the first game. In the meantime, Blue Dragon won't get a direct sequel on the Xbox 360. Instead, it'll get more and more spin-offs, including a Blue Dragon fighting game and an online RPG. An actual Blue Dragon 2 will arrive on the DSi in 2011.
Seriously? Yes.

NEW CONSOLE CASTLEVANIA IS AN ALUCARD PREQUEL, UPSETS FANS
Castlevania has some semblance of an underlying plot in Dracula's constant revivals and the implication that he was momentously defeated around 1999. You can trust Konami not to address this anytime soon, despite the promise of a shiny new Castlevania on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. This game will, I predict, be all about Alucard, Dracula's moody son, having no fun at all in the centuries between Castlevania III and Symphony of the Night, all while pushing Castlevania's mythos forward by a few small increments. It'll also be a 3-D game that takes Castlevania even further into the realm of action-RPGs, leaving old-school fans to pine for the days when the series was linear and mostly terrible.
Seriously? Yes. Don't hold out for another Castlevania fighting game, though.

ONE-SENTENCE PREDICTIONS FOR ALL SYSTEMS
The Wii's popularity plateaus and stays high, while games like Muramasa: The Demon Blade and Sin and Punishment 2 earn the system more “serious” fans. The PSP enjoys an upswing thanks to Dissidia: Final Fantasy and a bunch of successful niche games. The DSi is only a modest hit in North America, as millions of kids stick with their DS Lites. The Xbox 360 stays much as it did in 2008: below the Wii and above the PlayStation 3. Sadly, the PS3 also remains the same, while the PlayStation 2 stays a viable system until the Mayan-heralded apocalypse of 2012. Sega draws suicide threats from diehard fans after rumors of a new Dreamcast turn out to be an announcement of its games hitting the Wii's Virtual Console.
Seriously? Hell if I know.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 1-11

MOON
(Mastiff/Renegade Kid, DS, $29.99)
Well, this is disheartening. Even after a week off, I see nothing in the release schedule related to Japanese games or even unnatural hair colors. The biggest release next week is The Lord of the Rings: Conquest, but we all know that The Lord of the Rings is just a rip-off of Record of Lodoss War, anyway. So instead I'll focus on Moon, a first-person shooter brought to the DS by Mastiff, which you may remember as the localizers of anime-washed games like La Pucelle Tactics and the under-appreciated Gurumin. Moon finds a rational soldier of the future plowing through mysterious lunar ruins and alien incursions, all somewhat typical grounding for a first-person shooter. Yet technical feats give Moon some punch; the game looks quite impressive for a DS title, and it goes beyond the usual corridor padding by adding a Halo-like buggy and a remote-control scouting droid. Little of this would be novel in a PC-based title, but they don't very well make Half-Life 2 and Crysis for the DS.
Get Excited If: You've wanted another first-person shooter on the DS since finishing Metroid Prime: Hunters.

EXTRA LIVES: CYBERNATOR

Let's say you're a middleweight game developer in the early 1990s, and that you want to make a Mobile Suit Gundam game. The problem is that Bandai wants money to license out their precious cash cow, and Bandai already has a bunch of smaller, cheaper developers on hand to crank out mediocre Gundam games in short order. But all is not lost, for you can do what the anime industry's done for years: make your own Gundam rip-off! Just take some well-designed, semi-realistic robots, stick them a war between a noble federation and orbital Nazis, and sprinkle it with a few grim battlefield deaths. This was what Masaya did back in 1992, and Western Super NES owners saw just how well it worked out in an action-shooter called Cybernator.

Cybernator's origins go back to 1990, when Masaya started up a Gundam-inspired series with Assault Suit Leynos, released in the U.S. as the Sega Genesis B-lister Target Earth. A side-scrolling carnival of mecha combat, Target Earth dropped a small robot sprite into stages littered with enemy fire and dying comrades. The game looked basic and suffered from sluggish controls, but it quickly emerged as one of the most brutal challenges the Genesis could boast. Masaya softened things up ever so slightly when they created a prequel on the Super Famicom and called it Assault Suits Valken.

Konami quickly snatched up Valken for a U.S. release and renamed it Cybernator, evidently impressed by what Masaya had done. While Cybernator uses the same side-view gameplay style as Target Earth/Leynos, it's a clear aesthetic improvement. Thickly armored mecha fill the screen, while the scenery around them brims with a polished, shaded look, resembling the grimy, painstakingly rendered visuals of Irem's Metal Slug series. Cybernator is never at a loss for details, from the tiny human soldiers dashing around assault suits' feet to the empty bullet casings flying from the Cybernator's machine pistol. An excellent soundtrack fits it all perfectly, with wailing, chirping beats and the occasional majestic battle anthem.

To bring it all up to Gundam speed, there's also a gritty little plot: Jake, a determined young Cybernator pilot, helps his unit chase down the nastiest new weapon of the Axis forces. With his bridge contact/girlfriend Crea (possibly a mistranslation of “Claire”) blurting advice in his ear, Jake sees fellow pilots die and clashes with a cocky, honorable Axis commander who's not supposed to be Char at all. Nope, no sir.

More importantly, Cybernator squarely captures the feel of an intense mecha firefight. Jake's assault suit controls almost a little too much like a real robot might, tossing its heavy metal weight around the levels and slowly reacting to damage. Fortunately, it has a jetpack for boosting its leaps, and player can adjust its aim, even locking it down while the Cybernator stealthily dashes. Weapons start with punches and a machine gun, later expanding to missiles, a laser, and a punishing napalm shot that you'll get only if you scoot through the first stage without destroying anything.

Masaya could have cheated by keeping Cybernator in space, but the game covers an entire war and never wants for fierce, challenging gameplay. A battle over a falling space station and an atmospheric re-entry showdown (in which Jake nobly saves a stranded enemy pilot) leads to raids on a snow-covered base and a race against a launched rocket. The final stage runs through the enemy's burning, rubble-strewn capital city, culminating in a a duel with Jake's rival and, in true Gundam fashion, a lot of self-righteous arguments spouted in the heat of robot battle.

Sadly, Cybernator isn't quite the same as Assault Suits Valken. The gameplay is identical, but Konami hacked up the story and atmosphere: numerous conversations from Valken were removed or edited down for the North American version, while the ending lost a last-minute ominous epilogue and a scene where the Axis president commits suicide. Also strange is Konami's decision to take out the character portraits that appear during dialogue in Valken. Several magazines reviewed early versions of Cybernator with the portraits intact, but the final game replaces them by putting each character's name before his or her lines. The U.S. game market was still a little anime-shy in 1993, and Cybernator shows it.

Cybernator wasn't the last of the Assault Suit(s) line, as Masaya released Assault Suit Leynos 2 on the Saturn in 1996. While it was as brutally hard as Target Earth, Leynos 2 never reached the same cohesion as Cybernator, perhaps due to the absence of Cybernator producer Toshiro Tsuchida. Assault Suits Valken 2 hit the PlayStation in 1999, but many were surprised that it was a strategy-RPG with no shooting to speak of. Finally, Psikyo put out a fumbled remake of Valken for the Japanese PlayStation 2 in 2004, and it skipped the U.S. to arrive in Europe the following year.

While the Assault Suit(s) series foundered, Cybernator's influence lived on elsewhere. Not long after finishing the game, Tsuchida moved to Square and started up a mecha series called Front Mission. Though most of the Front Mission games are strategy-RPGs, the Super Famicom spin-off Gun Hazard borrows Cybernator's basic gameplay and broadens it with branching maps and RPG-like robot upgrades. Yet the most worthy successor to Cybernator is LucasArts' Metal Warriors. A late Super NES release programmed by the same team behind Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Metal Warriors uses the Cybernator approach while adding a selection of unique robots and a fantastic two-player mode.

Cybernator never found the same fan base as other Konami-backed action games on the Super NES. Arriving just after Christmas 1992, Cybernator slipped by many shooter freaks as well as the anime fans who would've appreciated its love letters to Gundam. Yet Cybernator's not hard to find, and it's even available on the Wii's Virtual Console. The story's still censored and the robot's still a bit unwieldy, but the game's lost very little of its rugged, robot-blasting appeal.

If you don't feel like buying Cybernator on the Virtual Console, you'll be pleased to find that the SNES version hovers around the 99-cent range on eBay, with even complete copies sitting unsold at five dollars. Metal Warriors, by contrast, is rare and expensive.


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