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Secrets of Mana

by Todd Ciolek, Mar 25th 2009

This column can take me to strange places, especially when I look into older games that might have had anime connections. It's usually easy to spot them. A few Google searches can tell me when I'm looking at an altered Doraemon puzzle game or a shooter that just has Haruhiko Mikimoto character designs. Yet there are still games that mystify me.

For one thing, I'm surprised that Toei Animation apparently had a hand in developing games with no ties to anime. You'd think that a company like Toei would form a separate division for game development, but you can see Toei's animation department credited on the title screens for C-list Game Boy games like Dead Heat Scramble and Go! Go! Tank.

So, is this a remnant of some aborted anime project? Was Toei going to make cartoons about talking tanks and planes and cars, all of whom would learn valuable lessons about teamwork and hygiene? Probably not, but they should have.

NEWS

PUNCH-OUT MAKES THE OLD NEW AGAIN
I got my original Nintendo Entertainment System too late to fully appreciate Mike Tyson's Punch-Out and how it helped define the NES in its first few years, but even I can take heart at the news that the upcoming Punch-Out for the Wii will feature a bunch of familiar boxers. Don Flamenco, Glass Joe, Von Kaiser, and King Hippo have all been confirmed, plus a new character named Disco Kid. I wouldn't be surprised if the game's lineup of 13 boxing opponents included every memorable character from Punch-Out and Super Punch-Out. Except Tyson, of course.

Better yet, the new Punch-Out has a multiplayer mode, something that past Punch-Out games really needed after you got tired of putting in the password for Tyson and getting knocked out in the first round. Naturally, the game uses the remote and nunchuck in a system somewhat more complex than Wii Boxing, though you can also use the remote by itself, titled like an old NES pad. And they say Nintendo doesn't care about older, long-term fans.

DRAGON BALL KAI RPG ON ITS WAY
So you thought that Dragon Ball Kai, Toei's remastered and recut version of Dragon Ball Z, would arrive without some sort of game tie-in? Boy, were you wrong. Perhaps the only surprising part is that the inevitable Dragon Ball Kai DS game is an RPG made by Monolith Soft, developers of the Xenosaga series and Super Robot Taisen OG Saga: Endless Frontier. The trailer speaks of “original episodes,” but the game's also supposed to include the events of the first Saiyan Saga, with battles against Raditz, Vegeta, and that horrible Internet meme that nobody should mention again.

In fact, the game looks a bit like Endless Frontier. It's an overhead-view RPG when you're exploring towns and chatting with supporting Dragon Ball cast members, and the battles line up your three-character party and have everyone throw powerful attacks at enemies. Not that I'd accuse Monolith of recycling the game engine, but it wouldn't be a crime against the source material. Endless Frontier did over-the-top anime fighting with lots of flash, and that's what a Dragon Ball game needs, no matter now many times the source material is redone. Dragon Ball Kai will be out for the DS in Japan by the end of April, and let's not even bother pretending it won't get released here.

EDGEWORTH-CENTRIC PHOENIX WRIGHT SPIN-OFF COMING TO U.S.
Miles Edgeworth, cravat-wearing prosecutor and rival of CAPCOM's Phoenix Wright, stars in his own game this May in Japan, and the odds are very, very good that it'll come to North America. So good that Siliconera uncovered a new CAPCOM trademark, Ace Attorney Investigations, that likely refers to the Edgeworth game. It finds Edgeworth and detective Dick Gumshoe dissecting crime scenes and questioning suspects, which leaves less time for courtroom drama. It opens up the adventure-game portions of previous Phoenix Wright games, and the game now resembles a point-and-click puzzle game similar to the Monkey Island series, with sprite-based characters who wander around various scenes. Cast members from previous Phoenix Wright games join in (with Franziska von Karma prominently featured on the website's character page). The newcomers include prosecutor Makoto Yuki, key-wearing thief/investigator Mikumo Ichijo, and Edgeworth's new rival, inspector Shiryu Ro. Expect to see all of them creatively renamed for the English version, whenever it comes out. Don't expect to see the amazing box set that Japan's getting.

REVIEW: MANA KHEMIA: STUDENT ALLIANCE

Developer: Gust
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PSP
MSRP: $29.99

In Gust's catalog of RPGs that surround bland heroes with numerous love interests, Mana Khemia might be the least troubling. It's very much in line with the Atelier Iris series, and Mana Khemia aims to stand on its own not so much by daring innovations, but by setting itself at a magical academy instead of a fantasy kingdom or a far-off world of floating continents. It's a promising mix of ideas that may impress fans of laid-back RPGs, but not if they try its PSP port, known as Mana Khemia: Student Alliance.

In the game's mercifully brief introduction, a shy bumpkin named Vayne Aurelius is called to join the Al-Revis Academy, a turn of events that may have something to do with his talking pet cat and his famous alchemist father. Vayne makes friends with pink-haired classmate Jessica Philomele almost instantly, and the two are drafted by a gung-ho upperclassman to form an alchemy team with a rambunctious beast-girl. Mana Khemia then rides through a conventional array of plot devices and metaphysical RPG jabbering, made slightly more plausible than usual by the fact that magic and alchemy are propped up as world-defining concepts from the start. The game's lineup of characters runs down today's most popular otaku-aimed archetypes, including even a ghost girl who likes stuffed animals, but it all lands closer to some anime-filtered Harry Potter than the fetish-driven depths of Negima or The Familiar of Zero.

Mana Khemia makes decent use of its school setting, as Vayne and his comrades routinely get class assignments that send them on item hunts in forests and dungeons outside of the academy. Enemies are visible and easily avoided, and the battle system incorporates a lot of elements from Atelier Iris: special moves, character-boosting, and sidelined party members who support the main fighters. The visuals are the usual Gust hodgepodge of large, stiff sprites and static backgrounds, and the soundtrack slaps together all the guitar hooks and forgettable background numbers you'd expect from a currently airing anime series about an alchemist school. At least the voice acting is clear and competent, though Flay sounds even more fake than the writers intended.

Alchemy takes center stage, as most of the academy's assignments involve synthesizing items or equipment, and getting the best results is a matter of spinning an alchemy circle and choosing the right partner. The game soon settles into a rhythm: go to classes, chase down ingredients, fight mostly pushover monsters, make new gear, and then uncover a plot thread or two. Like other Gust titles, the story rapidly goes from breezy to tragic, and the ending varies depending on which supporting character likes Vayne the best.

Sounds like it has potential, huh? Well, it's never realized in the PSP version of Mana Khemia, because the game is amazingly sluggish, with some of the most insufferable loading I've ever seen in an RPG. The game pauses and loads extensively before every battle. It loads before any conversation that shows artwork of the characters. It loads before bringing up a status screen, and it has the gall to load as you move the cursor around that status screen. There's a “Jump Start” feature that rips the UMD to your system's memory, but it trims only some of the load times, and it's inexcusable that players (some of whom might not have enough memory space) should have to do this if they want an acceptably playable game.

As small compensation for the loading, the PSP version of Mana Khemia gets a team-up mode that lets two players fight in battles together, but it too is plagued by the access times. It hardly makes this port a prettier option than buying the PlayStation 2 game. And that's what anyone interested in Mana Khemia should do: hunt it down for the PS2. Like most NIS America releases, the original Mana Khemia: Alchemist of Al-Revis is now out of print, but it's better to spend time scouring GameStops or to pay a little extra on eBay than to settle for a slow, inferior version of the game. Mana Khemia is worth trying if you like your RPGs easy and cute, but don't play it on the PSP.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 3-29

GARDENING MAMA
Developer: Cooking Mama Limited
Publisher: Majesco
Platform: DS
MSRP: $29.99

I wonder if Gardening Mama will have the same impact as Cooking Mama. They have the same idea, at least: the noseless Mama guides the player through various tasks and doles out grades based on how fast and accurately her domestic commands are followed. Yet gardening is a slower process than cooking, so I imagine that the growth rate for tomato plants will be greatly accelerated in this DS game. Much like Cooking Mama's version of culinary skills, the Gardening variant has the DS stylus controlling all the rigors of backyard agriculture, including watering plants, plucking fruit, and distributing fertilizer. Players can also use the resulting fruits, flowers, and vegetables in various kitchen-related activities, while a four-player mode puts a competitive spin on the garden. There's no sign of Mama's international circle of friends, perhaps because gardening techniques aren't as easily stereotyped by country.
Get Excited If:You really wanted to grow vegetables instead of just dicing them in Cooking Mama.

TOKYO BEAT DOWN
Developer: Success
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: DS
MSRP: $29.99
Official Website

Games like Tokyo Beat Down rarely make it out of Japan, so let's show some appreciation for what Atlus is doing here. Sure, there's the Sega-made Yakuza series, but that's a little more straight-faced about its criminal element. Tokyo Beat Down is a loving semi-satire of hard-boiled police movies and old-fashioned brawlers, a bit like Doberman Cop and the sillier episodes of Miami Vice mixed with River City Ransom. Players control a trio of “beast cops,” including the white-suited Lewis Cannon and Captain Takeshi Bando (who's so heavily armed he wears ammo loops under his trench coat), and they get results in Tokyo's criminal underworld. The game is divided between levels full of thugs to be pounded with numerous special attacks or shot with rubber bullets (even when you're wielding a rocket launcher) and investigations full of deliberately corny humor. Between these two modes of gameplay, the official website also promises scenes of the fearless cops diving from helicopters and bringing a mad bomber to justice.
Get Excited If: You'd sooner watch movies like Yakuza Cop more than the last Oscar nominees for Best Picture.

Also shipping: Dance Dance Revolution: Disney Grooves Bundle for the Wii, plus the untempered majesty of Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust for the PC and Xbox 360.

EXTRA LIVES: LITTLE NEMO

Any student of comics history knows about Winsor McCay's groundbreaking Little Nemo in Slumberland strips of the early 1900s. In the late 1970s, Tokyo Movie Shinsha pitched a Little Nemo animated film to several other studios, kicking off a decade-long struggle to get it made. The movie bounced from one name to another, with Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Moebius, Chris Columbus, and Ray Bradbury all connected to the project at different points. Animators Yoshifumi Kondô and Osamu Dezaki made their own Little Nemo test clips, but the movie was eventually finished by director Masami Hata. It turned out to be pretty but rather bland, as Hata's movies often do. Somewhere within this troubled production, CAPCOM decided that the time had come for Little Nemo video games. CAPCOM was ultimately wrong, but their misstep created one of the more memorable movie-based NES games.

Drawing less from McCay's comic and more from the film's take on it, Little Nemo: The Dream Master has its pajamas-clad boy hero invited to a party by the princess of Slumberland. Despite his reservations about “playing with girls,” Nemo traipses through various dreamscapes full of mushroom forests, reversed cityscapes, flower gardens, and lots of creatures that want to kill him. Nemo is initially all but defenseless; he can jump, and he can throw candy that stuns most animals. However, the right animals actually fall asleep upon eating candy and let Nemo take control of them.

Little Nemo is put together with CAPCOM's characteristically solid programming, yet it's the animals that take it above the usual line of humdrum action-platformers. Each creature has different powers: the frog jumps high, the lizard climbs, the gorilla climbs and punches, the mole digs, the bumblebee flies and fires stingers, the fish swims fast, the hermit crab digs and claws at enemies, and the mouse climbs and, well, hits stuff with a hammer. Each stage is a large puzzle, with keys hidden in places Nemo rarely can reach on his own. It requires players to figure out just which animal to take over and just when to give it up for another one.

As cartoon-based NES platformers go, Little Nemo has an upbeat charm, not unlike CAPCOM's original Duck Tales game. The soundtrack is a warm, bouncy collection of Megaman-style tunes, and the game's stages have endearing style, down to the snot bubbles that sleeping animals blow once Nemo has fed them into sugar comas. It can't match the detail of McCay's old comics, but it does its best to capture the same adventurous tone, and it succeeds as well as an NES game could hope.

The game shifts gears in its last stage, when Nemo is given a magic scepter and sent off to rescue the king of Slumberland from a nightmare realm. Nemo treads through a barren, dim world, facing animal bosses that demand rigid memorization. Nemo's able to fire off charged shots from his magic scepter, but it's still tough to get the timing right, and the last boss, the dimension's horned monarch, is a brutal exercise in old-fashioned NES controlling-flinging.

An NES game was not CAPCOM's only extraction from the Little Nemo film's creative death march. A CAPCOM arcade game, simply titled Nemo, saw a limited release in 1990. It's far simpler than the NES version, as Nemo merely jumps through levels, bouncing off of enemies and frying them with a lightning wand he has from the start of the game. The animal helpers and intricate levels are gone, and the game's complexity rarely goes beyond Nemo picking up and throwing things, as though he's a prototype for the stars of CAPCOM's Rescue Rangers NES game.

Of course, the arcade game looks much better than the NES version of Little Nemo. From a toy-train ride to a cloudy kingdom, the stages shine with lots of detail, and each level is preceded by some brief silent-movie antics from Nemo and his clown friend Flip, who can join in as a second player's character. The game rarely varies its enemies, though, and everything gets a little tedious after a few levels.

CAPCOM's Little Nemo games got no help from Tokyo Movie Shinsha's film, which wasn't even released in America until 1992, two years after the games arrived. Most Western players were unaware that there even was a Little Nemo anime attached to them, and game magazines of the day preferred to focus on McCay's comic strips than to dig up Hata's only-in-Japan movie. By the time the film showed up here, NES games were passé and Street Fighter II had driven fare like Nemo from arcades. Still, Little Nemo wasn't CAPCOM's biggest misfire in licensed NES games, as they also attempted to latch onto trends by making a California Raisins game (which was canceled and not discovered until 2003) and re-working an unrelated Japanese platformer into a showcase for the Noid from Domino's Pizza commercials.

Yet CAPCOM's NES game won out in the end. The Little Nemo movie is now generally regarded as a missed opportunity, a routine kids' flick that, in spite of its excellent animation, doesn't live up to the names involved or the test footage made. On the other hand, CAPCOM's NES version Little Nemo is still an impressive platformer. Perhaps it's easier to make a clever old Nintendo game than it is to pull together a big-budget animated film based on a classic of the comics page.

Along with most NES games, Little Nemo: The Dream Master is about $5 anywhere you'll find it. The arcade version is significantly harder to track down, and licensing issues keep it from appearing on those CAPCOM arcade-game anthologies for modern systems. It's not really a keeper, anyway.


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