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The World Warriors

by Todd Ciolek, Feb 25th 2009

The 2009 Arcade Operators' Union Amusement Expo, or AOU, was held in Tokyo last weekend, and it left me a bit depressed for two reasons. Firstly, it's a reminder that, despite the irrelevance of modern arcades, the Japanese arcade scene is still much more active than what we have in North America. Secondly, it reminds me of Treasure's canceled arcade game, Gun Beat.

Announced and briefly location-tested in 1999, Gun Beat was an action-racing game that featured mechanical hovercraft and hamster-riding kids (shown above) barreling through obstacle courses. It was quietly canceled shortly thereafter, guaranteeing that it would be forever missed by Treasure nerds. Sure, the game supposedly wasn't shaping up and might have turned out worse than Stretch Panic, but Treasure still should have released it and let the market decide.

Read on for a look at the major games from the 2009 AOU, but know that I hate them all because they're not Gun Beat.

NEWS

ARCADE GAMES STILL VIABLE IN JAPAN
The biggest new title of the 2009 AOU was arguably Sega's multiplayer 3-D mecha-shooter Border Break. Some were expecting it to be the next step for Virtual On, but the gameplay bears more of a resemblance to a faster, flashier Armored Core with anime portraits for the pilots. It runs on Sega's new Ring Edge arcade hardware (which was on display in all its PC-case glory) and looks competent enough: robots dash, jump, and wield both firearms and melee weapons. Combined with downtrodden-looking environments and a tingling, bleak score, Border Break seems in line with Square's Front Mission or the latest Gundam game.

Despite Border Break's showing, the true highlight of the show was the return of Parse Rorunpe. Shown at the AOU for three years now, this Korean-made game is both a 3-D flight-action simulator and an experiment in just how much modern arcade-goers will humiliate themselves to control an anime witch. The player sits on a plastic broom jutting out from the cabinet, controlling a chosen witch's direction in the game. Players also trace patterns on the screen itself, which seems less awkward once you've resigned yourself to humping a broom handle in public. Parse Rorunpe will most likely never come to North America, as any arcade that dares to import it will find the machine's broom wrecked within minutes. The same fate would greet Taito's Hopping Road, in which players bounce up and down on footpads to make adorable little animals pogo-stick across the screen.

In other ridiculous AOU news, Team Frontline's Music Gungun is apparently the first combination of rhythmic gameplay and plastic-gun shooting. It's also cute beyond all levels of tolerance, with rabbits and cats and anime girls squeaking shrilly at the player as pop-classical remixes and Zuntata tunes blare. Still, the gameplay is promising, and perhaps it'll show up here, since music games and gun games are two of the three genres that can survive in U.S. arcades. If not, it's very likely you'll see Elevator Action Death Parade, a Time Crisis-style gun game, in some domestic Dave and Buster's, though the cabinet's opening and closing elevator doors are just begging to be broken.

Somewhere in all of this was Cave's Deathsmiles II: Hell's Christmas (left), sequel to a somewhat popular side-scrolling gothic-lolita arcade shooter that's coming to the Xbox 360 in Japan. Adopting a festive wintertime theme, Hell's Christmas is packed with the same little girls in frilly dresses (drawn by Junya Inoue, I assume) that were seen in the first game, and it has the same shooting controls that let the player's chosen little-girl avatar fire either left or right. The most noticeable difference is in the 3-D backgrounds of Hell's Christmas, a change that seems to have upset some longtime Cave fans. Also spotted at AOU was the arcade release of Trouble Witches, a 2-D shooter that's very much a successor to the Cotton games and Magical Chase, right down to its floating mid-level item shop. Trouble Witches has been out as a PC-based indie game for a while, but someone's clearly interested in getting it noticed at arcades.

With Street Fighter IV already out and no new Guilty Gear in sight, The King of Fighters XII had little competition for the spotlight among fighting games. That said, there wasn't much new revealed: it still looks great and still has a cast of familiar characters. One interesting detail: the presence of an English voice cast in the credits, suggesting that there's either some extensive English narration in the Japanese version or an actual new voice track for the characters, something rarely done in 2-D games.

The new Power Instinct (right), meanwhile, looked a lot like the last Power Instinct. Range Murata didn't even draw new select-screen art for the returning characters, though he did at least create five new ones. Two were revealed at the show: the girl in the open karate gi is Rin, and the kid in the gas mask is Takumi.

Also shown was a near-final version of Examu's Daemon Bride, which tries hard to be Guilty Gear with more angel wings, more gothic-lolita outfits (seriously, one girl carries a revolver with wings), and less subtle man-love undertones. It lags well behind KoF XII and even the most recent Guilty Gear in visual push, but it has the best match-concluding quote in a long while: “CRUSADE IS END.” In other B-list fighter news, Tama Soft's Project Cerberus showed up, still seeming a bit bland compared to just about every other fighting game out, including that DS-based Windy X Windam game that no one liked.

Lastly, the Higurashi anime-game franchise will soon expand into arcades with AQ Interactive's Higurashi no Nakukoro ni-Jong. Yes, it's a Mahjong game based on a mystery series wherein flirty, sweet-faced girls slice up their boyfriends and force their sisters to rip out their own fingernails. The possibilities are staggering.

LOST PLANET 2 HAS MORE JUNGLES, LESS SNOW
Capcom's sequel to Lost Planet was rumored for months, but it wasn't until this Monday that the game was shown. In a special XBox Live video, Capcom unveiled the new Lost Planet's environments, seemingly more diverse than the original's planet of snowy wastelands. That planet, E.D.N. III, is now thawing out and getting terraformed, as reflected in the new jungle scenery and a storyline told from the perspectives of three different pirate factions. Producer Jun Takeuchi, who just finished up Resident Evil 5, promises co-op play throughout the game, even in boss battles against giant Akrid creatures.

The actual plot is kept out of the way in the game's trailer. I doubt it'll have any lines on par with the original, in which a woman, wearing cleavage-baring attire in sub-Arctic temperatures, complains that a rift between her and the hero is “fast becoming a canyon!” That sort of lightning doesn't strike twice in one console generation.

ATLUS STARTS UP ONLINE RPG
Now that Atlus has conquered wide bands of the J-RPG market in North America, what remains? The MMORPG scene, for one. Atlus Online recently announced its first title, NeoSteam: The Shattered Continent, along with a website where eager fans can register for the next beta. The game presents a fantasy setting mixed with what people like to call “steampunk,” which means elves and trolls wearing engine-powered armor and carrying rifles with little smokestacks. The art has a somewhat Western-fantasy style, while the in-game characters look more in line with the larger eyes and horizontal elf ears anime fans have seen many times in the past. It's the first MMORPG for Atlus in the West, but the developer, the Korea-based JoyImpact, also had a hand in online games like AIKA Online and With Your Destiny Global.

FINAL FANTASY IV SEQUEL MIGHT NOT STAY IN JAPAN
In recent years, Square Enix has announced a number of intriguing sequels and spin-offs for Japanese cell phones; sequels and spin-offs that will likely never come to North America. Along with Final Fantasy VII: Before Crisis and Tobal M, there's the taunting presence of Final Fantasy IV: The After, a cell-phone sequel to the revered 16-bit RPG. It stars Ceodore, son of Cecil and Rosa from the original game, and features older versions of the Final Fantasy IV cast as well as a bunch of new characters. We'll never play it without buying or emulating a Japanese cell phone. Or so we all thought.

Siliconera recently discovered “The After Years” among the trademarks registered by Square Enix in Europe and North America. It's likely referring to the Final Fantasy IV sequel, though this is no guarantee that The After will come out here on XBox Live or WiiWare. After, Square Enix registered “Chrono Break” long ago, and it never turned into a game.

REVIEW: I LOVE STREET FIGHTER IV, BUT...

Developer: Capcom/Dimps
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: Xbox 360/PS3
MSRP: $59.99/79.99 (Special Edition)

Street Fighter IV is excellent. Please keep that in mind as you read the rest of this review, because it may seem a bit negative. See, I've already noticed many reviews extolling Street Fighter IV's quality, and I imagine you've noticed them too. I would feel redundant if I spent this review describing just how nicely layered the gameplay is or how well the visuals bring the franchise's cartoonish element into 3-D. Instead, I'm going to elaborate on what I don't like about Street Fighter IV, and you can assume that I love everything else.

THERE ARE ONLY FIVE NEW CHARACTERS
I realize that Street Fighter IV producer Yoshinori Ono wanted to make the game palatable to those people who gave up on Street Fighter back in 1994. With that aim, it makes sense to bring back the original Street Fighter II's twelve characters and a few standouts from later and earlier games. It's far less risky than Street Fighter III, which, if memory serves, wasn't even going to have Ken and Ryu, the franchise's main characters, at first. Capcom relented there, but everyone else in the first edition of SFIII was new, with Chun-Li and Akuma the only returning names added in later versions. The move cost Capcom a few fans and didn't attract too many new ones, but anyone who dug into the three iterations of Street Fighter III found that the fresh lineup of fighters offered all sorts of fun, rewarding play styles.

Street Fighter IV has, in contrast, five new characters, and that's counting the boss, Seth. They're all well-designed and engaging (even the overweight Rufus, who I though I'd hate), and they fit comfortably into the Street Fighter mold (even Crimson Viper, whose suit-and-tie look still screams "Please return to The King of Fighters when finished"). However, adding five new characters is the stuff of Street Fighter upgrades, like Super Street Fighter II or Street Fighter III: Third Strike. Perhaps this is what I get for paying too much attention to Street Fighter over the years, but when a genuinely new game in the series arrives, I expect a lot of never-before cast additions.

There's also plenty of familiar material in the returning characters. Instead of cramming the older Street Fighter II cast with new maneuvers, Capcom and Dimps stuck mostly to their standby moves and refined what was already there. Some of the changes are much appreciated, especially a more complex throw system and a greater variety of unique "regular" moves for each fighter. All the same, it's jarring to go from Guilty Gear or Soul Calibur IV, where each character gets at least a half-dozen moves, to playing Ryu or Ken, who have the same three specials they've always had. In fact, Ryu, Ken, and Chun-Li are missing some of the moves they had in Street Fighter III. That's the price one pays for classic game balance.

YOU NEED MORE THAN JUST THE GAME
This problem lies not with Street Fighter IV, but rather with the default Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 controllers. Each has only four face buttons, which means that two of Street Fighter IV's six attacks have to be mapped to the controller's shoulders. Some of us endured this for the Super NES version of Street Fighter II, but it's really hard to shrug off the Xbox and PS3's d-pads. If you want to get the most out of Street Fighter IV, you need a joystick or, at the very least, one of those controllers with six face buttons. You'd think Capcom would sell them with the game in some special bundle, but instead you'll get a figure, a soundtrack, a Street Fighter animated OVA of dubious quality, a strategy-guide booklet, and a handful of bonus costumes.

The costumes present another problem. Aside from the five you can grab with the special edition of the game, Capcom's selling all of the bonus outfits as downloadable packs for about $4 each. It's not the first modern fighter to do this, as Soul Calibur IV had items and characters available as downloads, but at least Soul Calibur IV gave its characters multiple outfits in the basic, off-the-shelf game.

THAT'S ABOUT IT
I think I'll stop before I find myself complaining that Chun-Li's hands are too large or that her thighs aren't large enough. The fact is that Street Fighter IV is superb is every way that matters. It's an example of the respectable bedrock that's made Street Fighter II and III enduring successes. It's accessible for the newcomer, complex for the devoted player, and offers just enough of learning curve to make it satisfying when you master (or re-master) a character. I have no doubt that the competitive fighting-game fans of the world will soon find cheap combo loopholes and sort the characters into strict tiers, if they haven't already, but there's much enjoyment to be found at even that basic level where you play Honda and Blanka just because their moves are easy to remember. The online play works just fine, with a nice option that lets players interrupt your solo sessions just like an arcade game.

It also looks and sounds great. I was worried about the game's ability to render the physiques of hand-drawn Street Fighter characters in a 3-D environment, but everyone has the right amount of exaggeration and style. Yes, even Chun-Li. The soundtrack is memorable even in its unintentionally humorous opening song, and the English voices all fit the in-game characters fairly well. The anime clips in the story mode, on the other hand, sometimes run into odd lip syncing. The acting is capable, but some long speeches simply don't fit their speaker's mannerisms.

And there I go again. Really, Street Fighter IV is exceptional. It may not launch a new era of Street Fighter toys and movies and Jackie Chan movie references, but it captures the all-important essence of a good fighting game. It's perfect for devoted fans, and it's even a must-rent for the dilettantes who think they left Street Fighter behind long ago.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 3-1

THE KING OF FIGHTERS '98 ULTIMATE MATCH
Developer: SNK
Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
Platform: PS2
MSRP: $19.99

The King of Fighters '98 Ultimate Match may seem a hard sell, since the original The King of Fighters '98 is available in the recent KoF Orochi Saga collection, and SNK may have mentioned something about this Ultimate Match revamp coming to XBox Live somewhere down the line. But for the moment, Ignition's Ultimate Match for the PS2 is a nice, cheap way to get this collection of every important part of The King of Fighters '94 through '97. The 1998 game has long been upheld as the most balanced, competition-friendly part of the entire franchise, and the Ultimate Match version expands it with a dozen or so new characters and a mode in which the player cherry-picks features from the game's two fighting systems, Advance and Extra. Of course, all of the new characters are older characters who were excluded from KoF '98 back in the day, and about half of them are just “EX” or “Orochi” versions of existing fighters. I'm also not sure if the game will be quite as balanced with Orochi Leona and Iori, but anyone who's sensitive about that can just play the original version of the game, which is also on the disc.
Get Excited If: You shun this “Street Fighting” thing in favor of The King of Fighters.

PHANTASY STAR PORTABLE
Developer: Alfa System
Publisher: Sega
Platform: PSP
MSRP: $39.99

To avoid any confusion between this and the upcoming Phantasy Star Zero, remember that Portable is the PSP game that's basically Phantasy Star Universe and its expansion pack, while Zero is a DS game that's also an online RPG, but with a slightly more plot-focused mode for solo players. Portable brings over the visual style of Universe as well as its multiplayer mode, which allows four-player parties to form via ad-hoc connections. It's all based around the Phantasy Star Online series, of course, which proved quite popular as a console-based MMORPG. It all hearkens back to the original Phantasy Star series, which Sega will never revive no matter how popular these online-RPG spin-offs get. Not that I'm bitter.

Get Excited If: You don't care about the old Phantasy Star games and just want a decent multiplayer RPG on the PSP.

SONIC AND THE BLACK KNIGHT
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Wii
MSRP: $49.99

If you are among those who believe Sega's Sonic games to be part of some long-running industrial prank, Sonic and the Black Knight's cover will do nothing to shake your convictions. The story will not disrupt your theory either, as it concerns Sonic dashing around King Arthur's realm, with most of the traditional Arthurian characters played by Sonic-canon creatures like Knuckles and Amy and…you know what? Let's just skip to the gameplay. It adopts a mission-based flow similar to Sonic and the Secret Rings, but The Black Knight gives Sonic a sword and shield, used through Wii remote-moving. The game's targeting system allows for Sonic to highlight multiple enemies at once, an apparent first for the 3-D Sonic titles, and there are nearly 200 different items to collect and trade for new weapons.
Get Excited If: You liked Sonic and the Secret Rings and still believe Shadow the Hedgehog had its good points.

EXTRA LIVES: HAJIME NO IPPO: THE FIGHTING

Treasure makes three types of game: acclaimed, memorable action titles like Gunstar Heroes and Bangai-O, licensed time-fillers like Astro Boy and Yū Yū Hakusho, and well-meaning flops like Stretch Panic and Light Crusader. Hajime no Ippo: The Fighting fits snugly into the second category. It's never amazing, but it's a sturdy adaptation of the manga, tracking young Ippo Makunouchi's rise in the boxing world.

Confined to the Game Boy Advance's small screen, Hajime no Ippo: The Fighting makes the bold decision of not showing the player's character in full. He's represented by a pair of boxing gloves at the center of the screen, with his opponent moving just beyond them. The controls make the most of the GBA's setup: the B button throws punches, and the directional pad and right shoulder determine just what sort of punch it is: up and B produces an uppercut, down and B lands a body blow, and so forth. Dodging is handled by tapping the A button, and there's a complex system of controls that unleash defensive “spirit moves” and activate special punch combinations, which vary from boxer to boxer.

Swift, reliable control is Hajime no Ippo: The Fighting's strength, as it isn't terribly concerned with bringing the atmosphere of the manga or anime to life. Much of the screen is taken up by gauges and readouts showing the time, the boxers' energy levels, and the distance between them and the ropes. It's a utilitarian display, but it works. Once you realize what everything does, it's easy to keep track of your boxer's stamina while setting up special combos. The challenge then comes from the generally difficult opponents. From Ichiro Miyata to Rocky Takeshi, each of them offers a different spate of personalized attacks. Fortunately, they're all playable in several ways once they're defeated in the game's story mode. In addition to the usual two-player link mode, practice fighting, and a tournament bracket, there's a character-customizing diversion that lets you raise a boxer's levels and buy new moves.

Each boxer in Hajime no Ippo: The Fighting is well-animated, and there's a good selection of voice samples and music in line with the anime. Still, it's the sort of thing that only Fighting Spirit fans will appreciate. For the average player, Hajime no Ippo: The Fighting lacks the cartoon appeal of the Punch-Out series or Wade Hixton's Counter Punch, which might be the best boxing title on the Game Boy Advance.

Fighting Spirit isn't unknown in the North American game industry, as two PlayStation 2 games were released here under the Victorious Boxers name, and a third came out for the Wii not so long ago. Hajime no Ippo: The Fighting, however, stayed in Japan, to be imported only by Treasure nuts and Fighting Spirit fans. It will hardly go down in history alongside Radiant Silvergun and other Treasure legends, but that's nothing to be ashamed of, not when you're a well-made GBA boxing title.

Fortunately, Hajime no Ippo: The Fighting isn't as ridiculously expensive as some of Treasure's other offerings. Complete copies generally go for thirty to forty bucks online, which may seem exorbitant until you consider that brand-new Japanese GBA games were about that expensive.


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