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Penguin Dreams

by Todd Ciolek, Feb 18th 2009

Street Fighter IV may command everyone's attention this week, but we must tear ourselves away from it on Thursday. That's when Noby Noby Boy, the new game from Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi, will arrive on the PLAYSTATION Network. Visually similar to Katamari and its excessive sequels, Noby Noby Boy stars a multicolored snakelike lad as he eats to increase his stretching ability. Each milestone he reaches in length helps a world-encircling female counterpart toward her goal of extending herself to distant planets.

Noby Noby Boy is only $5, and yet I wonder if it'll be as widely played as Takahashi's first hit. The original Katamari Damacy grew into a success by winning over many people who didn't normally play video games, and it appeared on the cheap, commonplace PlayStation 2 of 2004. Noby Noby Boy needs a PlayStation 3, and it may be that a lot of Katamari fans simply don't have any desire to own a $400 system barely into its third year on the market. That's not a jab at the PS3. It's just the way people think when they barely know what Killzone and Final Fantasy mean.

Then again, Noby Noby Boy might be too damn strange for even the Katamari Damacy crowd.

NEWS

GAME COMPANIES MERGE, WORLD KEEPS SPINNIN'
Yes, everyone's merging with everyone in the game industry. With some support from Time Warner, Square Enix made an offer of $120 million to acquire Eidos, which has seen its presence grow dimmer since the days of Deus Ex and Legacy of Kain. It's still a large Western publisher, though, and that's clearly what Square Enix's bid is all about. Eidos shows every sign of accepting, so it'll be interesting to see just how this affects the company's current projects, which include a Deus Ex prequel. Perhaps we'll get another game in the critically lauded and even-handed world of Total Overdose and Chili Con Carnage.

Meanwhile, Namco Bandai set its sights on D3 Publisher, having already acquired a 70- percent controlling interest in the smaller company. D3's best known in Japan for their Simple Series budget games, which spawned both the Earth Defense Force and Oneechanbara franchises. In America, however, they've mostly brought out licensed games based on everything from Ben 10 to Naruto, which I imagine involved some cooperation with Namco Bandai in the first place.

Finally, a Tecmo-KOEI merger is still on schedule for April 1. Assuming it's not some elaborate joke, the corporate marriage will link the makers of Dynasty Warriors and Nobunaga's Ambition with the company behind Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive. This after Tecmo shunned Square Enix's takeover attempt last year.

POWER INSTINCT RETURNS
Way back in 1993, Atlus made a little fighting game called Power Instinct. It stood out mostly because it featured an elderly woman who launched giant dentures (captured on film at left) at an otherwise standard cast of monks, street brawlers, and other warriors designed by Range Murata. That has been Power Instinct's draw ever since; it may not differ much from the typical 2-D fighter in play or looks, but the series is the only place where you can control a skating, shape-shifting magical girl, a life-draining evil grandma, a princess with a bishop's miter and chainsaw shoes, a pants-less boy who turns into a fursuited dog superhero, or a 2-D version of famous-in-Japan MMA star Bobby Ologun.

History aside, Atlus recently announced a new Power Instinct game, one that doesn't seem all that different from the last, Power Instinct Matrimelee. A preview in the Japanese arcade-oriented magazine Arcadia boasts two “unknown character” silhouettes, both of which could easily hold Range Murata artwork of young girls. Or possibly duck-billed, baker-samurai fighters. With Power Instinct, you never really know.

PROJECT CERBERUS COMES TO ARCADES FOR SOME REASON
Slinking around Japanese arcades, Project Cerberus is another 2-D fighting game that came out of nowhere. Based on a Tama Soft visual novel called Lost Child, it's stocked with various heroes who pair up with girls and transform into mecha-suited warriors, resembling crosses of Bubblegum Crisis armor and the robots from Zone of the Enders (minus the huge mechanical dongs). It runs on Sega's Naomi hardware, uses four attack buttons, and looks a lot like a fan-made game, at least as far as the ugly, empty backgrounds and bland mechanical designs go. Despite that, Project Cerberus will have its chance in the arcades. It's already been location-tested, and a wider release should follow. But that's for Japan. Never here.

In a way, this is all because of Melty Blood, the Tsukihime-based fighter made by an indie developer called French-Bread in 2002. It looked crude, but it played well enough and proved quite a success. It even saw an arcade release and a PlayStation 2 port, honors that were then unheard-of for humble PC-based doujin games. Now other small-circuit game publishers are putting out fighters based on their own visual novels. Nitroplus' Nitro Royale already disappointed many, so Tama Soft might be biting off more than they can chew with an arcade release for Project Cerberus.

YASUMI MATSUNO STARTS MAKING GAMES AGAIN
This is unlikely to interest anyone beyond the two or three people who like Yasumi Matsuno games as much as I do, but I must point out that the creator of Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy XII, Vagrant Story, and the Ogre Battle series is now apparently making games once again. Or at least he's co-writing the story for MadWorld, the gruesome Wii brawler from Platinum Games and Sega. I doubt this means we'll see Shakespeare references and noblemen with names like Beschalroy Vohn Pergulious popping up as MadWorld's Jack chainsaws thugs in half and sprays a black-and-white city with their blood, but it couldn't hurt.

REVIEW: PRINNY: CAN I REALLY BE THE HERO?

Developer: NIS
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PSP
MSRP: $39.99

The Disgaea games are at their best when they're making fun of something. Most often they take shots at the whole of video-game culture, and the strategy-RPG part of the series makes a mockery of its own genre by encouraging players to abuse the battle system in every way. So it follows that Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero?, a side-scrolling action game starring the devil-penguin foot soldiers of the Disgaea underworld, humorously starts off the player with 1000 Prinny lives. And it's likely the player will use up half of those lives before seeing the game's end. That's the real joke here.

Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero? looks cute enough, as it's set in the same cuddly yet cynical universe as previous Disgaea games, and the main impetus has the explosive Prinnies, with their peg legs and habit of closing each squeaky sentence with “dood,” recovering a legendary dessert for their abusive employer, Etna. Made slightly tougher than usual by a magic scarf (which devoted Disgaea fans may recognize), a Prinny heads off through side-view levels brimming with familiar Disgaea creatures, from hopping zombies to cat-suited demons who send remote-control drill machines after the penguin heroes. Knights, mages, catgirls, and other character classes from the Disgaea strategy-RPGs show up as bosses alongside bigger, nastier monsters, and it's all sewn up with the franchise's ably cartoonish voice acting and rarely off-target humor. Amagi, a recurring would-be heroine from various NIS games, even shows up to break the fourth wall and demand a starring role. It's all lightweight, and there's little to offend those who find Takehito Harada's artwork unnerving when it involves young girls. This is the fluffy, harmless side of Disgaea and, for that matter, the otaku industry.

Don't be fooled by the atmosphere, though. In execution, Prinny is brutal. Each penguin warrior can take either four hits or only one, depending on the difficulty level, and there's ample opportunity for them to get pelted by pig-orc cannon fire or fried by dive-bombing gargoyles. The Prinny has meager attacks: it can double-jump, strike with swords, duck, dash, butt-stomp enemies, and stop mid-air to hurl a diagonal flurry of bladelike energy bolts at foes. There are no power-ups or health-refilling gewgaws to be found, but the game occasionally borrows from the Metal Slug series and lets a Prinny commandeer a jumping, pistol-shaped mecha, a laser-spewing UFO, or a tank with a chargeable energy beam. Most of these vehicles don't last long in the game's nasty little demon world.

Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero? is an offering to Ghouls 'N Ghosts, Castlevania, Strider, and other unmerciful gods of challenging 1980s game design. Sometimes, it's rewarding in its tasks, with levels that hide secret routes and buried daruma-like idols. At other points, you're slaughtered by stiff controls. A Prinny can't adjust its jumping momentum in mid-air, making for awkward leaps and unfair deaths. Far from a forgiving Mario game or Sonic joyride, Prinny forces you to time your moves and memorize a level's layout, or else you can just die when that cruelly positioned butterfly knocks you into a pit for the twelfth time. The boss fights are also based entirely in patterns, and most have the same solution: wait for an opening, butt-bounce on the boss's head until he or she is dazed, then swipe away. It gets particularly annoying in the second-to-last stage, when all of the former bosses return with longer life meters and fiercer attacks. That wasn't fun back in 1988, and it's not fun now.

Hard as it is, Prinny knows when to cut players a break. There's the extolled supply of a thousand Prinnies (losing them all unveils a special ending), and a checkpoint-based continue system that re-starts a fallen penguin close to the scene of its demise. It's easy to die, but it's always easy to pick yourself back up. The average Prinny player will swing madly from hating the game to basking in the triumph of finally surviving it, and it's all executed better than most of the overly hard alleged classics it imitates. It's never quite as hateful as Ghouls 'N Ghosts or as unappealingly torpid as every Castlevania before Rondo of Blood. In an industry where people still praise Ninja Five-O for resurrecting old-fashioned gameplay in all the wrong ways, Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero? should find more than a few fans.

Disgaea games are often derided for their PlayStation-era visuals, but Prinny improves on that look with vibrant, hand-drawn sprites and colorful backdrops, pleasantly mixing 3-D into an invariably two-dimensional platformer. A perky soundtrack carries it along, and nearly every enemy has a voice. It plays on your conscience when a Prinny viciously hacks at an archer girl who's just sitting there, chirping with enthusiasm. And then she hits you with three arrows at once.

There's also a lot to see. While Prinny has only ten or so levels, the first six change layouts depending on the order in which they're tackled. The bosses vary the same way; in the water level, you might face a soldier instead of a catgirl at the end. Revisiting stages also opens up another chance to hunt down special items. Magic orbs add new helpers to the Prinny castle, and finding enough dropped letters unlocks the game's second story mode, one focused on Amagi (the impatient can enter a code at the title screen). Technically, Prinny isn't very long, but with the remixed stages, the extra discoveries, and the frequently infuriating difficulty of it all, there's at least 20 hours of gameplay. And if there are game-crippling bugs in Prinny, I couldn't find them.

Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero? is another of Disgaea's practical jokes: a precious little penguin-filled action game that's really a savage test of platforming abilities and patience. It's a little too tough to stand with the best side-scrollers, but the rewards of victory make it worth each Prinny's untimely demise. Just don't expect that victory to come easily.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 2-22

BLUE DRAGON PLUS
Developer: Feelplus/Brownie Brown
Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
Platform: DS
MSRP: $29.99

This is perhaps the future of Blue Dragon. Instead of appearing as another big-budget RPG on a system that might not even promote it well in Japan, Hironobu Sakaguchi's would-be Dragon Quest alternative is now going to the DS. It's not an irrelevant spin-off, either, as Plus picks up a year after the first Blue Dragon, with Shu, his allies, and their summonable blue spirit-creatures facing a new threat, or possibly just another threat from Blue Dragon villain Nene. No longer a 3-D Dragon Quest clone, Plus is a strategy-RPG where sprite versions of the characters march around grids and, in keeping with the rules set down in the first Blue Dragon, use their gigantic shadowy avatars to deal out attacks and other special maneuvers. Plus also gets a number of video scenes that mimic the original game's vaguely claymation-like look. It's technically not Blue Dragon 2, but, eh, close enough.
Get Excited If: You wanted a Blue Dragon sequel.

DEAD RISING: CHOP TIL YOU DROP
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: Wii
MSRP: $39.99

It's a surprise to see Dead Rising on the Wii of all places, since it hasn't yet hit the PlayStation 3, the PC, or another system that would easily handle the Xbox 360 original's demands. Yet Capcom must have a Wii port, and it presents some changes to Dead Rising's artistic vision of a square-jawed photojournalist stomping, skating, and slashing through a zombie-filled mall. For one thing, rescuing survivors is no longer a demanding, time-sensitive affair, as those tasks are now portioned out as missions, and completing them advances the game. On the other hand, the gameplay now involves the Wii remote and nunchuck, and early impressions were less than favorable. Fans are similarly disappointed with the Wii game cutting down on the number of zombies in any area, as the Xbox 360 game drew heavily upon the massive throngs of undead and the various ways of cutting through them.
Get Excited If: You own only a Wii and are under religious vows to never play the Xbox 360 Dead Rising and thereby see what you might be missing.

LEGACY OF YS: BOOKS I AND II
Developer: Falcom
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: DS
MSRP: $34.99

The original U.S. version of Ys Book I and II was the first (and perhaps the only) showcase game for the TurboGrafx-16's CD system, strutting then-amazing anime cinema scenes, voice acting, and a gorgeous soundtrack…in 1990, that is. Legacy of Ys offers a similar bundle of the first two Ys titles. It's still the tale of a silent hero named Adol rummaging through the ancient history and goddess-empowered girls of a medieval-fantasy kingdom, but the game has been reworked with new visuals, story sequences, and controls that use either the d-pad or the DS stylus. That last feature has proven sticky for some, as the stylus only allows 8-way movement instead of analog-style controls. Still, it's a convenient portable package for two influential early J-RPGs, and Atlus is politely offering a CD soundtrack with the game. Even if Ys won't show off the DS like it did the TurboGrafx 19 years ago, at least it'll sound nice.
Get Excited If: You already own an Ys soundtrack or two. Or twenty. They made lots of them.

STAR OCEAN: THE LAST HOPE
Developer: tri-Ace
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Xbox 360
MSRP: $59.99

I may speak harshly of the fourth proper Star Ocean, but that's just because it commits the unpardonable crime of being a tri-Ace game that's not part of the Valkyrie Profile series. So I'll try to be nice. Despite its ominous subtitle, I suspect that “The Last Hope” refers to this prequel showing humanity's space exploration after a worldwide war (thereby laying the foundation for the rest of the Star Ocean games), and not to tri-Ace preparing to shutter the whole series if Star Ocean 4 isn't successful. In fact, tri-Ace is doing things a little differently this time. It's still a space-opera RPG with heavy Star Trek influences, an anime look, and a hero with a trying-too-hard name (Edge Maverick!), but there's talk of letting players roam freely from planet to planet in a spaceship, instead of spending hours and hours and hours and HOURS on some tepidly imagined world of iron-age elves. Like other Star Ocean games, The Last Hope also has untold depths of item-creating systems, “private actions” that broaden character development, and a battle system that's heavy on button-mashing action. Sadly, Square Enix kicked up a minor fan tantrum by replacing the game's anime-art portraits with CG ones for the U.S. version. Perhaps they'll throw in both options for the final game.
Get Excited If: You know that this is technically the fifth Star Ocean game, counting the untranslated Blue Sphere for the Game Boy Color.

EXTRA LIVES: DORAEMON

Video games and Doraemon go way, way back. Actually, video games barely existed when the two-man manga team of Fujiko Fujio dreamed up a little blue robot cat in 1969, but there have been Doraemon games for nearly as long as there have been Japanese game consoles. So when Nintendo Famicom's took over the industry in the mid-1980s, Hudson made a Doraemon game. Arriving in 1986, the simply titled Doraemon is often enshrined as part of Hudson's first round of 8-Bit classics, alongside series-founders like Star Soldier and Adventure Island, and perhaps deservedly so.

Hudson's Doraemon game is an interesting experiment in early Famicom genre mixing. It begins with an overhead perspective, as a perpetually miserable-looking Doraemon, tasked with rescuing his kid master Nobita Nobi, trots around an industrial neighborhood and desperately tries to avoid enemies. As he descends into manholes, the game shifts to a side-scroller, coming across like a better version of Konami's original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES game. Though it seems primitive at first, the game demands a fair bit of exploration; Doraemon's got to find his own weapons and shoot everywhere to uncover hidden manholes and trans-dimensional doors. He's rewarded with power-ups and the route to a graveyard, where he's hounded by much meaner enemies and forced to take on a bull-headed robot inside a factory.

The second leg of the game makes an unexpected switch to a shooter, with a helicopter-headed Doraemon soaring through mountain crags while blasting enemies. The stages (and Doraemon's sprite) often shift from horizontal scrolling to vertical caverns, and Doraemon can rescue Takeshi and Suneo, Nobi's jerkwad friends, to use as satellite firepower like the options in Gradius. The three of them take on a boss or two, and then the game shifts to its third and last section.

In its final stage, Hudson's Doraemon almost approaches an early NES action-RPG. Dropped into a coral reef, Doraemon swims from screen to screen, searching for Nobi, Takeshi, and Suneo in the waters (and ultimately rescuing Nobi's OCD-afflicted friend Shizuka). Though clearly inspired by the swimming stages in Super Mario Bros., it's the most complex part of the game, as Doraemon opens treasure chests, drags his young charges around, and backtracks a lot. The monsters range from small, Koopa-like turtles to angry, screen-filling octopus-things that grab Doraemon, suffocate him, and, in the process, traumatize a few young players back in 1986.

Doraemon suffers from many of the flaws commonly found in early Famicom titles: there's no diagonal movement, the characters make rather large targets, hit detection is clumsy, and you can only continue with a special code. Still, it's impressive for its age. The visuals resemble later adventure games like Kid Icarus and the Hudson-made Milon's Secret Castle, with an appropriately cartoonish Doraemon and some impressively large enemies. The soundtrack offers one new and insufferable tune looped constantly for each stage, but those are the breaks when you delve into mid-1980s Famicom games.

There have been many other Doraemon games, including a recent DS title spawned by the Dorabase manga, and a 1996 Doraemon 3-D adventure title got some attention in North America just for showing up on the Nintendo 64 during the system's lean first few months. Hudson's Doraemon, like just about every other Doraemon-related creation, never came West, but it's been recently rediscovered by devoted Nintendo fans, and it's earned a place as one of the best anime-based games from the Famicom's first generation.

Hudson's first Doraemon game sold in the millions back in the 1980s, making it a fairly common find on the second-hand Famicom circuit. A few bucks should get you the cartridge, and a complete copy might run $15. If you're going to go the emulation route, you may as well nab the English-language patch that translates what little text the game has.


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