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Afro Mentioned

by Todd Ciolek, Feb 4th 2009

You know, last month really wasn't kind to video games. EGM died, Cry On got canceled, and, most recently, two low-level Japanese game companies folded. I hope you'll all join with me in briefly mourning Seta and Jaleco, whether you remember them or not.

I'm sure anyone who owned an NES and liked baseball games remembers Jaleco, or at least the Bases Loaded series. Jaleco put out many other titles, including the puzzler Rodland, the slightly cinematic Astyanax, the righteously badical Totally Rad, the Megaman clone Whomp 'Em (get it?), the body-switching action game Avenging Spirit, and the Rushing Beat line of brawlers. Yet Jaleco's biggest series in Japan, the Ninja JajaMaru-kun action games, never came to the U.S. The company slid into mediocrity during the late 1990s and never quite emerged. Most Jaleco games from this decade are noted for unintentional comedy like Stepping Selection's music videos and Pulse Racer's cover. Any legacy is better than nothing, I guess.

Seta, unlike Jaleco, was never well-known in the first place. The company's NES releases are all obscure, and their Tom Sawyer game is mentioned only when someone confuses it with Square's considerably more racist import title. Seta's Super NES catalog peaked with some amusing quips in the otherwise average side-scroller Kendo Rage, and their most ambitious project, a gothic action title called Nosferatu, took years to come out and impressed few when it did. After that, Seta survived on filthy mahjong games, Nintendo 64 chaff, and bit parts in larger titles, the last of which was GameArts and Square Enix's Project Sylpheed. In fact, I recall Seta most fondly because of a canceled game, Bio Force Ape, and how it inspired a forum prank I'll never forget. So I can't say that Seta never gave us anything.

NEWS

KONAMI'S SHONEN FIGHTER GETS NEW CHARACTERS
Konami's shonen-manga fighting game was announced for the PSP late last year, drawing in a dozen or so characters from various Weekly Shonen Sunday and Weekly Shōnen Magazine series. Now the 3-D fighter has an official title, Shonen X Magazine Battle Action, and another six heroes in a cast that already includes Inuyasha's fox-demon hero and Shinichi Mechazawa of Cromartie High School. Some of the new combatants are recent and familiar: The Law of Ueki's tree-making hero Kosuke Ueki, Ryo Takatsuki from Project ARMS, Ban Mido from Getbackers, and Samurai Deeper Kyo's titular dual-personality swordsman. Kotaro Shindo is less recent, though his manga of origin, Kotaro Makaritou, was fairly popular in the 1980s. The oldest and most surprising addition, however, is Noboru Takizawa from Blazing Transfer Student, a parody manga that started in 1983. It also inspired the first laserdisc-only OVA release, made by Gainax during a direct-to-video phase that the studio pretends never happened.

Also in the works is Konami's Sunday X Magazine Nettou Dream Nine, a DS baseball crossover between the same two shonen magazines, both of which have published plenty of sports manga over the years. Mitsuru Adachi is well-represented, with both Touch and H2 showing up in the game, along with Star of the Giants, Ace of Diamond, and even Detective Conan and Fighting Spirit. It'll be out in Japan on February 26. And here? Never.

FINAL FANTASY TRAILERS SHOW SOME ACTUAL GAMEPLAY
I admit that I didn't pay much attention to Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers when it was announced, as the Chronicles brand is perhaps the least popular sub-series under Final Fantasy's aegis. In fact, a rumor even suggested that Square had canned the game last year. Yet it's still coming to the Wii, and its latest trailer shows off some impressive environments and action-RPG gameplay that leans heavily on the art of picking up and hurling enemies. You'll also see a lot of the game's hero, Layle, being a cocky jackass who jumps off airships and saves less-than-innocent women from lizard thugs, all while characters say “crystal bearer” in the same awed or vexed voices reserved for pulp superhero serials. For anyone who sat through the multiplayer Crystal Chronicles on the Gamecube, it might be a shock to see a sequel that emphasizes a single-player quest in the tradition of more popular Final Fantasies. Rest assured that it takes place in the same Crystal Chronicles world of child-faced humans, ball-shaped Moogles, and gangly bird-people.

Here's where I sneak in a weekly Final Fantasy XIII update. There's a new trailer up at Square's European site, where clicking the British flag enables English subtitles. Unlike past footage of the game, this new clip shows the battle system, a bit of the city of Cocoon, and even a glimpse of three yet-unnamed and possibly important characters who follow Snow just before he gives some huddled masses a pep talk. Maybe they're party members. Or maybe they're just the Biggs and Wedge of this particular Final Fantasy. We all know how Biggs and Wedge usually end up.

TWO OF THESE THREE SHOOTERS WILL GET U.S. RELEASES
Since it's a relatively slow week, let's recap the latest events in the cul-de-sac of 2-D shooter fandom. Cave, one of Japan's leading shoot-'em-up developers, is preparing Deathsmiles for an Xbox 360 port, complete with a new mode that polishes up the game's graphics. Of course, Deathsmiles was born well after Cave discovered how to pander to both shooter geeks and emotionally stunted anime fans, so the game is filled with far-too-young girls in the latest gothic-lolita finery. The gameplay itself takes a novel approach by letting the characters fire either left or right, as opposed to the fixed direction of the typical side-view shooter (Tecmo's Raiga: Strato Fighter tried the same idea back in 1991, but it sucked). A Deathsmiles joystick and system faceplate will accompany the game on its April 23 release date in Japan, and, naturally, we'll see none of those here in the U.S.

What will we see? Raiden: Fighter Aces for the Xbox 360, if Amazon listings are to be believed. Zoo Games is planning a March 3 debut for Aces, which collects all three Raiden Fighters games, a spin-off series that started in the mid-1990s when arcades still gave a shit about Raiden. The Fighters games offer a wide selection of ships and a fun little feature that lets two players mix their gunfire together in some destructive sexual congress of purple lasers and cluster bombs. That pleasant imagery aside, Raider: Fighter Aces should please many a shooter fan, now that Ultimate Shooting Collection is finally out for the Wii.

Also of note: R-Type Dimensions arrives in the Xbox 360's Arcade section this Thursday. A prettied-up revamp of the first two R-Types, it offers a two-player mode, something that the series has never enjoyed outside of the arcade-only R-Type Leo. It's a great package, considering that R-Type is a classic strategic shooter (in other words, a shooter that kills you constantly), its sequel is…presentable, and purists can shut off the fancy new graphics and play the games as they were back in the 1980s.

REVIEW: AFRO SAMURAI

Developer: Namco Bandai
Publisher: Surge
Systems: Xbox 360 (reviewed here) and PS3
Rating: M

Much of Afro Samurai's appeal lies in its simplicity. Yes, it offers a depressing tale of revenge, a lot of expensive animation, and the voice of Samuel L. Jackson in two separate roles, but the original Afro Samurai and its sequel are truly about delivering scene after scene of a generously coiffed swordsman filleting his enemies amid stylish flurries of blades and viscera. That's Afro Samurai, and that's what the Afro Samurai game captures at its best and worst.

The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games cover the same ground as the first Afro Samurai anime series, though in a rather abridged form. Every important point is here: the death of Afro's father at the hands of a rangy gunslinger named Justice, Afro's search for the second-best warrior's magical headband, his stilted romance with the healer Okiku, his war with a clone-run cult, and how all of this tends to leave the people who meet Afro (voiced, of course, by Jackson) either dead or set on killing him. Through it all, Afro's accompanied by the largely hallucinated Ninja Ninja (also voiced by Jackson), whose commentary is at least a shade less annoying here than it is in the Afro Samurai anime.

No chapter of Afro's story ended without copious bloodshed, and the game wisely emphasizes the art of slicing up enemies. Afro's 3-D brawls involve the usual methods of combat (horizontal slashes, vertical slashes, kicks, and jumps), but he also possesses a “focus” move. Hold down the left trigger, and the world becomes slow and gray, allowing Afro to charge up and aim deadly strikes. It's easy to grasp and time moves, making it satisfying to active the focus mode as a foe's about to strike, then kick him into the air, trigger a special slash, and switch out of focus-time to watch your enemy fall to the ground in dripping pieces. Yes, Afro Samurai is M-rated for reasons that become apparent well before its main character reaches a room of naked, murderous, pole-dancing women and hacks them to shreds.

Afro Samurai also sports an extensive combo system, adding new mixes with each level gained. While it's not necessary to learn every button equation, other special attacks are vital to the game. Afro can snag bullets with his sword, either reflecting the shot or splitting it into shrapnel that hits nearby foes, and it's an essential skill unless you're fond of taking cheap hits while you climb up to a sniper's perch. Also important is the art of leaping on stunned enemies and throwing them into things, as it's sometimes the only way to defeat a boss or pass one of the game's rather basic puzzles.

Recreating the detailed look of the Afro Samurai mini-series is a challenge, and Namco Bandai's game at least replicates the gore, with blood splattering against the screen as rival swordsmen and slinking assassins are split in half or sent reeling away in arterial explosions. The character models rarely look as stylish as the anime does, but they're serviceable enough to get through cutscenes, and the environments show off a lot of detail and deliberately muted colors. The soundtrack, “inspired” by the RZA, ranges from effective, pounding rhythms to unintentionally amusing lyrics about just how fierce and deeply tragic Afro is. There's a good amount of narration making the same points, though it's hard to sympathize with a hero who gets children killed in pursuit of his vengeance. Afro's really kind of a dick.

The Afro Samurai anime entertained by skipping from one dramatic battle to the next, sparing little time for Afro's clashes with low-level thugs. Sadly, the game doesn't have that luxury. It lasts about seven hours, and a lot of that time is padded by fights with similar flocks of pale, sword-waving flunkies in blue, as sleek ninja, club-wielding thugs, or stripper-assassins occasionally break up the flow. The game clearly wants to give Afro ample opportunity to perfect his smooth dicing and bullet-catching moves, but it's wearying to carve up some blue-shirted attackers and dash through a mountain passage, only to face another phalanx of blue-shirted attackers. At least make some of them green or red.

In all fairness, the game's boss encounters are memorable enough, though many are rooted in patterns that are simply repetitive instead of genuinely challenging. Compared to the variety and precision of Ninja Gaiden or even the showy, monotonous duels of No More Heroes, Afro Samurai seems a lightweight. At least the levels are large, though the camera work can be confusing to the point where one needs to call on Ninja Ninja to point out the correct route and yell “I ain't your GPS, bitch!” Oh, that Ninja Ninja.

Afro Samurai's voice cast reunites the talent from the first mini-series, with Kelly Hu's Okiku and Ron Perlman's Justice accompanying Jackson's gruff Afro and misguided-comic-relief Ninja Ninja. The new characters are well-acted, and Morgan Sheppard nearly steals the show as the bitter, gentlemanly first-stage boss known as the Daimyo. Even the generic enemies, from the common blueshirts to the topless pole-dancers played by Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, get voices to shout “Your story is OVER!” or hurl profanity at Afro while in their death throes. If you've ever wanted to hear Motoko Kusanagi call someone a motherfucker, Afro Samurai is the game for you.

Provided one can stomach its assaults on taste and decency, Afro Samurai offers impressive art design and a battle system well above the usual anime-based tedium. It's just too repetitive to compete with Devil May Cry or any other major action franchise on the market. A short, gruesome ride that most brawler veterans will finish during a rental, it's an appropriate tribute for an anime series that's little more than a blood-drenched burst of guilty pleasure.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 2-8

HOUSE OF THE DEAD: OVERKILL
Developer: Headstrong Games
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Wii
MSRP: $49.99
When did Sega first realize that everyone was laughing at the storylines and dialogue in House of the Dead games? Perhaps the first was hokey by accident and the next three titles followed its lead, but with Overkill, Sega and developer Headstrong Games know exactly what they're doing. The trailer plays up the smoky camp of a zombie outbreak in Bayou City, where recurring House of the Dead hero G joins detective Isaac Washington, and the two help a stripper named Varla Guns investigate a crime lord's role in the undead revolt. It's also new in gameplay; the Wii remote serves as a light gun stand-in with motion-sensitive slashing moves, and Overkill adds three mini-games and a slow-motion feature for delicately sniping the infected, shambling horrors before you.
Get Excited If: Your idea of a richly spent evening involves watching Grindhouse and playing through House of the Dead 2 and 3.

ONECHANBARA: BIKINI ZOMBIE SLAYERS/BIKINI SAMURAI SQUAD
Developer: Tamsoft
Publisher: D3
Platform: Wii/Xbox 360
MSRP: $29.99/$39.99
I'm not sure why D3 left “Onechanbara” in the title. True, it's the original Japanese name (translated as “big-sister/young lady swordfighting) and may promote last year's OneeChanbara movie, but I doubt many Westerns will call these games anything but Bikini Zombie Slayers and Bikini Samurai Squad. And that's what they are: games where women hack through zombies and wear whatever demeaning outfits the players chooses for them. The OneeChanbara series is perhaps the biggest success to come from Tamsoft and D3's cheap and frequently mediocre Simple Series 2000 franchise, even if it's acknowledged as a basic, ironic amusement at most. Bikini Zombie Slayers is technically the more recent game, with a new control system involving the Wii remote, while the older (but more expensive) Bikini Samurai Squad uses a traditional 3-D action game's approach to combat.
Get Excited If: You think the women in Resident Evil wear too much.

RETRO GAME CHALLENGE
Developer: Bandai Namco
Publisher: Xseed Games
Platform: DS
MSRP: $29.99
Retro Game Master (or Game Center CX) is a Japanese TV gem, consisting of comedian Shinya Arino getting his ass handed to him by games from the crappy old Ghosts 'N Goblins Famicom port to modern girl-oriented dating simulators. The game version, in a welcome turn, makes its own 1980s titles and challenges the player, sent back in time by a vindictive Arino, to complete them in various ways. While technically new, the games mine familiar genres from the age of Nintendo domination: Cosmic Gate is a single-screen shooter that resembles Galaga with warp zones, Rally King is a overhead racer, Star Prince is a vertical shooter much like Star Soldier, and Guadia Quest is essentially Dragon Quest. Then there's the Haggleman series, three ninja-based platformers that start with two Mario-ish offerings and then turn to a complex Ninja Gaiden clone for the third title. It's indulgent nostalgia carried off beautifully, with fabricated game magazines and a younger version of Arino to comment on the player's progress.
Get Excited If: You've ever shunned a modern game to play some NES relic from your childhood.

SONIC'S ULTIMATE GENESIS COLLECTION
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Platforms: PS3/Xbox 360
MSRP: $29.99
Sega has bundled Genesis games together since the days of the Sonic Classics cartridge, but Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection is billed as the largest such compilation yet. Restricting the catalog to first-party Sega games denies us off-the-radar Genesis classics like Alisia Dragoon, General Chaos, and Herzog Zwei, but the sheer volume is impressive. Right off the bat, you get Phantasy Star II through IV, the complete 16-bit Golden Axe and Streets of Rage series, all of the system's Sonics (including the Puyo Puyo-derived Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine), two Ecco games, and the loose-knit trilogy of Shining in the Darkness and the first two Shining Forces. Also note Ristar, Comix Zone, and Beyond Oasis, all under-appreciated highlights of the system's last productive year on the market. The rest of the collection varies in quality, with the enjoyable Shinobi III, Columns, Flicky, and Dynamite Headdy sharing space with Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle, Alien Storm, Altered Beast, Bonanza Bros., Decap Attack (a remake of a game based the anime series Magical Hat), E-SWAT, Fatal Labyrinth, Gain Ground, Kid Chameleon, Super Thunder Blade, and the two Vectorman titles. Also included are some unlockable games: Golden Axe Warrior and Phantasy Star for the Sega Master System, and the arcade versions of Alien Syndrome, Altered Beast, Congo Bongo, Fantasy Zone, Shinobi, Space Harrier, and Zaxxon.
Get Excited If: You know exactly what Sega censored in the third Streets of Rage.

X-BLADES
Developer: Gaijin Entertainment
Publisher: Southpeak Interactive
Platforms: PS3/Xbox 360/PC
MSRP: $59.99/$49.99
Judging by the cover art, X-Blades was apparently made by wealthy, anime-obsessed preteen boys from 1999, eager to realize their dreams of a 3-D action game starring a triple-pigtailed, huge-eyed blonde vixen in a string bikini and some scraps of armor that don't really cover anything. Granted, there's a second playable character, but he's so generic that Gaijin Entertainment barely mentions him on the game's website. X-Blades is all about the scantily clad Ayumi, who faces werewolves, demons, and slightly more inventive creatures while scouring ancient cities and temples for the remnants of slumbering, powerful forces. While the combat leans heavily on Devil May Cry-level combos involving Ayumi's “gun blades” (two words, so they're not like the Final Fantasy VIII weapon at all!), there's a magic system with various elemental attacks. X-Blades came out for Russian PCs in 2007, but the U.S. console versions and new PC editions are supposedly enhanced ports. Visually enhanced, at least.
Get Excited If: You already have an Ayumi-based desktop on your computer.

EXTRA LIVES: ALMOST GAMES

The Japanese game industry is both ally and rival to the anime industry, as the two tend to mutually prosper while also throwing garbage on each others' lawns. Popular anime series become mediocre games, while the game side retaliates by inspiring anime like Marriage and Variable Geo. Some anime features even start life as games, only to switch mediums at an early stage of production. This rarely ends well.

EARLY REINS
Many a dating-simulator “adventure” game is rooted in high-school melodrama or similarly modern venues. That made Early Reins, a 1999 Playstation game unveiled by Atlus and a company called Marcus, unique simply for tackling a wild-west theme. Not that it was remotely inventive beyond the setting, as the whole point of the game lies in courting a stereotypical assortment of anime women designed by manga artist Youshi Kanoe.

In the Early Reins game, lonely players were to meet a naïve aspiring sheriff, a town doctor, a farmer's daughter, a rich girl, a saloon singer, a eyepatch-sporting bandit whose lack of depth perception doesn't interfere with her aim, and a Native American woman named, quite seriously, Feather Rivers. Inching beyond the usual conversation scenes that drive a dating sim, Early Reins also sported 3-D environments with sprite characters. There were even tie-ins with the world of Atlus-backed print club booths, where all of those Early Reins fans could get their photos taken beside computer-pasted cutouts of Alice Dawson and Feather Rivers.

Shortly after unveiling some screens, artwork, magazine spreads (shown above), and promotional crap for Early Reins, Atlus canceled the game. Someone didn't want to waste a few generic Old-West character designs, though, so OLM and TOHO turned the project into a banal anime OVA in 2003. Over 45 exceptionally dull minutes, six of the game's seven leads ride an ugly, CG-rendered train besieged by lecherous thieves, prompting the heroines to shoot down their attackers and learn valuable lessons about friendship and killing. Curiously absent from the gunplay is Feather Rivers, who missed her chance to join such dignified Native-American anime characters as Walken from BAOH and T. Hawk from Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie.

Atlus and Marcus appear to have disowned Early Reins, as neither company's name appears in the movie's credits. I can't imagine why.

Should it have been a game? Yes, if only because it's harder to screw up a routine dating-sim game than it is to botch an OVA that no one really wanted to see.

GUNDRESS
Oh, Masamune Shirow. You made some fun and, dare I say it, intelligent manga back in the late 1980s and early '90s, but then you were apparently replaced by a pod-spawned alien clone who drew greasy porn and lent his name and art to awful anime. Anime like Gundress.

An ugly, lifeless movie with an equally ugly production history, Gundress follows some Shirow-designed policewomen as they track down terrorists in a futuristic Japanese city, all while facing rote emotional crises and making jokes about sexual harassment. Masochists can hunt down the original theatrical cut of Gundress, which may rank as the worst anime film ever. Many terrible movies have been animated in Japan, but only Gundress was brought to theaters unfinished, in an attempt to finance the completed film. No other anime production suggests such unfiltered contempt for its audience.

Yet this faux-gritty “hard-boiled giga-punk” mess of cyber-police hackwork wasn't always a film. According to Shirow's notes in the artbook Bullets, Gundress was originally planned as an RPG in conjunction with a studio called Orca (Landlock, another terrible Shirow-influenced anime from Orca, supposedly started the same way). No screenshots were ever shown of the game, and Orca quickly decided to take Shirow's character designs, ignore most of his suggestions, and make a movie by passing it between four different directors.

Should it have been a game? Probably not. Sitting through 82 minutes of terrible film is preferable to spending 30 hours flicking through menus and assuredly bland combat in a hard-boiled giga-punk RPG. A Gundress game was indeed released, but only after the movie went down in anime history.

KEY THE METAL IDOL
If anime ever had a dark age, it came in the early 1990s. A collapsed Japanese economic bubble rapidly deflated the generous budgets of the '80s, resulting in strings of cheap, boring TV series and rehashed, risk-shy OVA releases swarming by 1994. In this world, it was a small miracle that Key the Metal Idol lasted 15 direct-to-video episodes and told a complete story without getting canceled. Key's mixture of science fiction and spiritual vagaries is strange from the start, when a frail robot girl is told by her recently murdered grandfather that she can become human if she makes 30,000 friends. This odd advice sends Key off to Tokyo, where she wanders into old friends, a religious cult, the ugly side of J-pop stardom, and her late grandpa's evil corporate rival (who lacks only a mustache to twirl and a starving orphan to kick).

Key the Metal Idol was a risky project for director Hiroaki Sato, who gives it an eerie, dreamlike tone that seldom bothers satisfying anime-fan predilections. He also loses its story in the last act and only nudges the compelling themes of later oddities like Serial Experiments Lain and Boogiepop Phantom, but there's no denying Key has gravity. It's curiously entrancing proof that anime of the 1990s broke some ground even before Evangelion came along.

In interviews, Sato explained that Key the Metal Idol was originally planned as a video game. Though he didn't specify the genre, Key's slow pace and lack of giant robots suggest an “adventure” game where still images of characters talk endlessly amongst themselves, interrupted only by the occasional animated scene.

Should it have been a game? No. Key's atmosphere wouldn't be half as striking in a stiff, talky video game. More importantly, it wouldn't have come to North America.


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