The X Button
The During Years

by Todd Ciolek, Mar 4th 2009

It's high time this column ran a contest of some kind. It just so happens that I have a brand-new Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero? Premium Box Set for the PSP, and it begs to be given to one of you.

How can you win it? Well, Prinny is a brutally challenging game, one that dearly wants to make players fume, swear, and break things in frustration. So I want to hear about the most aggravating experience you've ever had with a difficult video game. Was it Ninja Gaiden's sixth level when you were a kid? Was it trying to beat Seth in Street Fighter IV last week? Maybe it was that Battletoads speeder-bike stage that traumatized a generation. Whatever that experience was, describe it in 300 words or less and send it to me at toddciolek[at]gmail.com by next Wednesday. The most amusing submission gets Prinny.

Of course, we need to lay down some rules: Entrants must be at least 13 years of age. You can only enter once. The contest is limited to those of you in the United States and Canada. By entering, you implicitly give me permission to publish your essay here, even if I'm just going to make fun of it. I would also ask all professional writers out there to avoid entering in the interest of fairness, but I'm not about to background-check every name I see. You're on your honor there.

NEWS

FINAL FANTASY IV'S CELL-PHONE SEQUEL COMING TO THE WII
Last week I mentioned that Final Fantasy IV: The After Years had been trademarked in the West, and now it's been rated by the ESRB, strongly suggesting that this cell-phone Final Fantasy IV sequel will come out here for the Wii. Of course, any Earthbound fan could tell you that getting an ESRB rating doesn't necessarily mean a Wii release, but I find it hard to believe that Square would go through this much trouble for a project that won't be realized. While The After Years gets an “E” for its non-threatening violence, it raises a number of questions. Will it be sold as one game or in downloadable chapters, like it was on Japanese cell phones? Will it get a visual overhaul, or will we be playing a cell game blown up for a TV screen? And will Rydia and Edge finally hook up?

The After Years focuses nine of its twelve chapters on a different character, starting with Ceodore, son of the original Final Fantasy IV's Cecil and Rosa. Subsequent chapters introduce more new characters and bring back old ones, most of whom haven't aged much in the 17 years since the first game's conclusion. For example, one chapter has karate master Yang investigating crystal thefts with the help of his daughter. Another has Edge and his ninja retinue taking on the same crystal thieves, and the last three chapters draw all of the characters together for a final challenge. Japanese cell users paid for each of those chapters separately, and I'd expect Square to sell the game in similar chunks over WiiWare. I'd also expect Final Fantasy IV's fan base to buy every one of them.

THE KING OF FIGHTERS XII COMES HOME IN JULY
It was a foregone conclusion that The King of Fighters XII would come to a console, but it's doing so rather quickly. Ignition Entertainment, which just released The King of Fighters '98 Ultimate Match, announced that the latest KoF game will arrive in July, when its astounding 2-D animation will prove to the world that traditional hand-drawn graphics are still of value. Or so the diehards hope.

Astute fans of The King of Fighters will note that the lineup consists entirely of returning characters, though familiar combatants like Iori, Leona, Kensou, and Athena get new outfits (and Athena looks to have been de-aged five or six years). There's no K', no Blue Mary, no Kula, no Billy Kane, and, most surprising of all, no Mai Shiranui. SNK Playmore might slip in some more old characters for the home version, though I don't think they'll create any new ones.

STARFY FINALLY HEADS HERE

Among Nintendo titles, the five-game Starfy series has long been an enigma, mostly because Nintendo refused to translate it for Western audiences. Unlike, say, Mother 3, Starfy posed no real public-relations problems, as he's a cute, smiling star and his games are light, kid-safe side-scrollers with no unexpectedly grim death scenes or animal torture. Perhaps Nintendo was afraid that he'd take too much attention away from the next Kirby game.

Whatever the problem, it's been alleviated. Nintendo announced Starfy's fifth game (and his second DS appearance) for North America under the title The Legendary Starfy. While it finds Starfy helping an alien rabbit who's pursued by interstellar pirates, the game is still set in and around terrestrial oceans, where Starfy dons different animal suits to pull off new attacks, burning his enemies to cinders and smiling all the way. Tose also throws in a collection of minigames and a co-op feature that lets a second player control Starfy's pink sister, Starpy.

WEIRD-ASS IMPORT ROUNDUP: FEBRUARY

GAME CENTER CX 2
Developer: Bandai Namco
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Platform: DS

The first Game Center CX arrived in North America this past month as Retro Game Challenge , and Japan just saw a sequel full of more old-school classic games that never were. The first Retro Game Challenge stuck to emulating the 1980s and the world of 8-Bit Nintendo games, though the second makes a few careful steps into the decade that followed. For example, there's the action- platformer Demon Returns, a mixture of Mario-ish play mechanics and Ghouls 'N Ghosts aesthetics, and it's followed by a slightly 16-bit Super Demon Returns. Most of the other games still go back to the '80s, of course. The maze game Wiz Man is part Pac-Man, part Mr. Do!, part Bubble Bobble. Mutekiken Kung Fu is, unsurprisingly, like Irem's Kung Fu Master and Karateka. Kugure! Girijan MAX is a jumpy platformer that recalls Nintendo's old LCD-based Game and Watch titles. Trio Toss is a Tetris clone for the Game Center CX universe's Game Boy facsimile. Then there's the two-volume Kacho wa Meitantei, a visual novel driven by dialogue and menu-based investigations. Some sequels even show up: Gun Duel is a two-player vertical shooter that follows the first Retro Game Challenge's Star Prince, while Guadia Quest Saga is the visually improved successor to the original game's Dragon Quest imitator.
Chances for a Domestic Release: Pretty good, as long as enough people buy Retro Game Challenge. So do that right now.

THE HIKYOU TANKENTAI: CHOUTOKO SPECIAL
Developer: D3
Publisher: D3
Platform: DS

Say what you might about the quality of D3's “Simple” series of games, there's no question that it explores genres few companies would touch. The Hikyou Tankentai: Choutoko Special, for example, is the game I would have wanted more than anything when I was an 11-year-old kid who'd checked out every Loch Ness Monster book in the school library. Taking control of three cryptozoologist explorers, the player hunts down all sorts of strange creatures, including Bigfoot, Mothman, the Dover Demon, a realistic kappa, Owlman, the most ridiculous and horselike version of the Jersey Devil, Nessie, and, I sincerely hope, that skirt-wearing Flatwoods alien that was probably just an owl in a tree. The overhead view sticks with unspectacular, sprite-based graphics, but there's an elaborate system for taking and classifying photos of, say, Mothman's ear canal. The wilderness trek to find such undiscovered species leads to bears, snakes, and other creatures that must be subdued with repeated taps of the DS stylus. I'm sure 11-year-old me would've loved it.
Chances for a Domestic Release: Pretty low. Also, Nessie isn't real.

KIRA KIRA ROCK 'N ROLL SHOW
Developer: Overdrive
Publisher: Princess Soft
Platform: PS2

Japan's field of “adventure” games covers just about every possible anime-girl preference: schoolgirls, pop stars, cat girls, angels, mercenaries, 20,000-year-old demons who look 14, etc. Kira Kira Rock 'n Roll Show is for those who can't get enough of pop-punk anime girls. Players control Shikanosuke, a high-schooler who joins his classmates' band, d2b, by posing as a nun-like female bass player. Soon they've got a record contract and Shikanosuke's keeping up his cross-dressing act while sharing the stage with upbeat singer/guitarist Kirari, snobbish backup guitarist Sarina, and Chie, who's the drummer and Shikanosuke's childhood friend. As with any remotely interesting rock outfit, egos, money, romances, and creative differences rapidly spark discord in the group, with the player finding a path through it. That discord was accompanied by some adults-only content in Overdrive's original PC release of the game, but that's likely been toned down for the PlayStation 2. The game's cutesy, j-rock-ish aura remains intact, complete with theme songs that sound slightly less punkish than your basic All-American Rejects single. I doubt there will be heroin overdoses, murder-suicide pacts, concert riots, or public-indecency arrests in this little punk outfit.
Chances for a Domestic Release: Not good as far as the game goes. Perhaps a Kira Kira Rock 'N Roll anime series would fare better. I'm surprised one doesn't exist already.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 3-8

AVALON CODE
Developer: Matrix
Publisher: XSEED
Platform: DS
MSRP: $34.99

Avalon Code has laid low for the past few months; so low, in fact, that I'd forgotten it was coming out in North America. It's an original RPG from Matrix, the developer of that 3-D Final Fantasy IV remake that Square released on the DS last year. Like that particular remake, Avalon Code uses polygon graphics that are considerably impressive for a DS title, though Avalon's characters have proportions slightly more realistic than Final Fantasy IV's apples-on-twigs people. It's also refreshing in its premise: the world is ending, and it falls to the player to record everything in a book. As you traverse the doomed globe, everything you encounter is cataloged in somewhat whimsical “codes.” Mixing these codes helps out a lot in the game's action-RPG battles, which involve both bookish strategy and heavy combos. Get Excited If: You want an RPG that's different in structure, if not in character design.

MADWORLD
Developer: Platinum Games
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Wii
MSRP: $49.99

MadWorld isn't shy about taking comic-book violence to extremes. Hell, the look of the game is pure Sin City: black-and-white but for the copious bloodsprays and onomatopoeic worlds that pop up as enemies are slaughtered. That's only one of MadWorld's inspirations, as it also seems to draw on the kitschy, futuristic social commentary of The Running Man (both the Richard Bachman story and the Schwarzenegger flick) and Rockstar's notorious, gory Manhunt. In MadWorld, a TV series called Death Watch tracks the resulting carnage when the inhabitants of a cordoned-off city are required to butcher each other. The player's avatar in all this is Jack, a most unapologetic ruffian capable of killing his opponents in various interesting ways, from grinding them in machinery to slicing them up with chainsaw gauntlets, from impaling them on various sharp objects to just bashing them into viscera-strewn stains on the ground. There's some supposedly wry plotting behind it all, and Platinum Games surprised some by roping in script assistance from Yasumi Matsuno, architect of medieval-flavored (and comparatively dignified) games like Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy XII, and Tactics Ogre. There are few Eastern European political struggles in MadWorld but if you want the old Matsuno, you can just buy Ogre Battle on the Wii's Virtual Console.
Get Excited If: No More Heroes wasn't bloody enough for you.

MANA KHEMIA: STUDENT ALLIANCE
Developer: Gust
Publisher: NIS America/KOEI
Platform: PSP
MSRP: $29.99

To clear up any confusion, Student Alliance is not Gust's Mana Khemia 2. It's just the PSP version of the original Mana Khemia: Alchemist of Al-Revis. As implied in that subtitle, Mana Khemia owes a bit to Gust's own Atelier Iris series, in that alchemic item-creation is key to making sure characters have the latest items, weapons, and armor. Unlike the last Atelier Iris, Mana Khemia plants itself at an alchemy college, where a formerly secluded young man named Vayne enrolls to discover things about himself and his famous alchemist dad. As this is a Gust game, there are many young women waiting for him. Jessica is clumsy, earnest, and tragically ill. Nikki is an energetic beast-girl. Pamela is a ghost-girl fixated on cute things. And so on. Mana Khemia infuses this familiar setup with a school-like game system, where alchemy and RPG-style quests must be accomplished in set periods of time. One more thing: Student Alliance has bounced around release schedules for a while, so another delay is possible.
Get Excited If: You wanted Atelier Iris to be more like Harry Potter.

RESIDENT EVIL 5
Developer: CAPCOM
Publisher: CAPCOM
Platform: Xbox 360/PS3
MSRP: $59.99/$89.99 (Special Edition)

One can assume that anyone interested in Resident Evil 5 has played the demo and gotten a good idea of what they're in for: roaming through the streets of a African slum filled with parasite-infected humans whose heads explode into buglike remains when shot. If the gameplay seems no more fluid than Resident Evil 4's, Resident Evil 5 broadens the scope of it all considerably and adds a partner for the lead character. Chris Redfield is that lead this time, and he's accompanied by Sheva, who proves more nimble in jumping across gaps between buildings, climbing to high points, and, well, needing cover fire from a player-controlled Chris. This also creates a two-player mode that works out fairly well in the demo. In its plot, Resident Evil 5 expands on the Las Plagas conspiracy started in Resident Evil 4, though I prefer to judge Resident Evil stories by just how often their corniest lines get quoted. I expect that the latest will deliver on that at least.
Get Excited If: You still call these games “survival horror.”

SAMURAI SHODOWN ANTHOLOGY
Developer: SNK
Publisher: Crave
Platform: PSP/Wii/PS2
MSRP: $29.99 (PSP, Wii)/$14.99 (PS2)

Most of those who remember Samurai Shodown fondly are thinking of the second game, which arguably stands as the finest example of the franchise's strengths: gorgeous backgrounds, likeable fighters, lots of little hand-drawn details, and slow, rewarding gameplay. Every sequel after that did something wrong. Samurai Shodown III complicated everything, ditched popular characters, and had far too high damage settings; IV added only two cast members and did little beyond patching up III's faults; V was pretty bland despite some promising new fighters; and VI, while perhaps the best game in the series since II, was barely noticed by anyone. All of these games can be found in the upcoming Samurai Shodown Anthology, along with the Special version of Samurai Shodown V. You'll likely ignore half the series, but it's worth grabbing this for the other half.
Get Excited If: You've been waiting for an affordable version of Samurai Shodown VI

EXTRA LIVES: APPLESEED

Appleseed may be the oldest and lengthiest of Masamune Shirow's manga series, but it's also the only one that never really lived up to its potential. Its anime adaptations tend to be action spectacles that are fun to watch yet quite mindless, and even Shirow himself forgot about the manga's interesting ideas by the third volume and just started drawing its prettier characters going to spas and getting into knife fights. In a similar way, Visit's 1994 Appleseed game for the Super Famicom wastes a good opportunity. The Appleseed manga is 70 percent shootouts and mecha fights (shower scenes and talky science-philosophy fill the other 30 percent), so it should be hard to make a boring game out of that. Somehow, Visit managed.

Visit's game at least sets the stage for Appleseed properly: after World War III messed up most of the planet, an experimental city named Olympus was established and filled with docile, genetically engineered humans. It's here that military specialist Deunan Knute (amusingly rendered as “Deunan Nut” in the game) and her rabbit-eared, multi-eyed cyborg boyfriend Briareos try to survive as members of the Olympus SWAT team. Borrowing a bit from the second Appleseed manga, the Super Famicom game has a white-suited villain trying to hijack Gaia, the motherly central computer of Olympus. This sets up a string of firefights as Deunan and Briareos take on green-suited soldiers and various robots in buildings, sewers, construction sites, and the innards of Gaia itself.

If you've read the Appleseed manga or watched the movies, you've gathered that Deunan and Briareos are supposed to be highly trained soldiers. In the game, this means that they can walk, jump, duck, throw grenades, carry two different types of weapon, jump a little higher than normal, and, shockingly, inch forward while crouching. They can also fire those weapons, but not while they're moving. It's the same limited control setup that was standard in the NES days and became tolerated less and less as the 1990s wore on. It's of no help that the weapons are boring, and that, despite Landmate mecha-suits in the scenery, there's no chance to climb into a large robot.

Appleseed's stage design is driven by one idea: you can make a dull, repetitive game, but don't make a simple one. Four of the five stages involve fairly complex path-finding, often forcing the player to toss explosives or shoot various objects to open a door or free up an elevator. Sadly, all of these tasks are made uninteresting by generic enemies and primitive backgrounds. The one possible exception is the fourth stage, which drops Deunan or Briareos onto a multi-level treadmill as flying security machines attack. Even that gets tedious after a few minutes of facing the same foes.

Appleseed is boring to play, and it's just as boring to look at, with Shirow's art done justice only by brief cutscenes. It at least has a memorable soundtrack: a clanking, ominous score that uses the Super Famicom's sound channels to achieve tracks somewhere between early techno and the lighter moments of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. It's hardly capable of shaming modern game music or even the best 16-bit composers, but it's the only part of Appleseed that might stick with players.

Shirow's Appleseed manga was hardly new when Visit delivered its Super Famicom game, and no one really paid it much notice. Visit slid into a career of low-budget PlayStation games, and they seem to have vanished entirely. The 2004 Appleseed film inspired a PS2 game called Appleseed EX from Dream Factory, which reused the engine and animation from one of their previous games, Crimson Tears. The results were widely panned, leaving Appleseed with a video-game track record worse than what it's found in comics or animation.

Copies of Appleseed are easy to find, but they're usually overpriced on auction sites, where people want $30 for a game with a box and instructions. See if they'll throw in a few Mario games or something else you'll actually enjoy.


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