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Blade Arts

by Todd Ciolek, Jun 24th 2009

As someone who squandered way too much money on arcade fighting games during the heydays of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat, I'm glad to see the 2-D fighter making a minor comeback this year, thanks to BlazBlue, The King of Fighters XII, and Street Fighter IV (which at least plays like a 2-D fighter). Yet before we launch into BlazBlue and The King of Fighters XII coverage in the coming weeks, I'd like to point out that one of my favorite 2-D fighters ever is showing up on XBox Live this Wednesday.

The game is Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves (or Garou: Mark of the Wolves), an enjoyable SNK fighter released back in 2000. Unlike The King of Fighters, it has a small and manageable cast of characters, all of them relatively easy to learn and fun to play. It's also full of that good ol' bizarrely translated SNK dialogue and the most amusing Americanisms that Fatal Fury protagonist Terry Bogard has ever spouted. Mark of the Wolvescame out for the Neo Geo, the Dreamcast, and, in Japan, the PlayStation 2, but this Live version is only $10 and supports online matches. And that makes a huge difference for a fighting game.

There's also Marvel vs. Capcom 2, which should arrive on XBox Live Arcade and the PLAYSTATION Network next month, but everyone's going to buy that. It doesn't need my shilling.

NEWS

CLAMP DOES TEKKEN DESIGNS
One of Soul Calibur IV's nicest extras was a lineup of characters crafted by manga artists and prominent anime designers: Hiroya Oku, Oh! great, Yutaka Izubuchi, Mine Yoshizaki, and Hirokazu Hisayuki. Trouble was, most of their creations were scantily clad women straight from any boys' manga (with the surprising exception of Oh! great's Ashlotte), and Namco figured that their next collaboration with popular artists should placate the girls' manga crowd. So they went to CLAMP, unceasing engine of shojo overkill, and had them design an outfit for Jin Kazama to wear in the home version of Tekken 6. Or rather, Namco had them use some leftover costumes from Code Geass.

The long-delayed Tekken 6 also has a North American release date: October 27 for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions. Of course, the arcade edition came out quite a while ago, but the home ports will have Jin's CLAMP-issue suit. Namco's also putting together a $150 bundle with the PS3 game, a wireless joystick, and an art book. For those of you who preorder, there's a calendar and a Yoshimitsu costume based on Penny Arcade's Cardboard Tube Samurai.

Yep, a webcomics character represented in a fighting game. I'm waiting for Gastrophobia outfits in the next Soul Calibur.

TALES OF GRACES UPHOLDS TRADITION
Namco has the Tales series down to a predictable science, so each new game is simply an exercise in guessing what odd names the battle system and characters will have. For the upcoming Tales of Graces on the Wii, battles are run by the relatively simple-sounding Style Shift system. It allows for slightly more convenient actions in battle, as each button controls a different type of move: magic attacks, physical blows, or health-replenishing options. It also seems that the game will shun a world map in favor of seamlessly connected locations.

Basic names also apply to the prime heroine of Tales of Graces. She's Sophie, a purple-haired girl with, shockingly enough, severe amnesia and a host of mysterious abilities. Even more shockingly, hero Asbel Lhant has to protect her! Yeah, that's par for the course among Tales games, though Sophie at least isn't useless in battle, as footage of the Style Shift system shows. Even if it doesn't break many conventions, Tales of Graces is still another anime-style RPG for Wii owners. Between this, Arc Rise Fantasia, and Monado: Beginning of the World, the system is slowly gaining ground in that category.

UMIHARA KAWASE FOR PSP DIES A QUIET DEATH
I imagine that every fan of Bionic Commando has memorized the name of Umihara Kawase. Like Capcom's classic action game, Umihara is a side-scroller driven by a grappling hook, or in this case a huge fishing hook and line wielded by a young woman. She uses that hook to navigate various puzzle-like stages, and the results make for an unquestionably inventive series of games, which have never before been released in North America.

Sadly, they're going to stay that way for the time being. Natsume announced the rights to the PSP version of Umihara Kawase Portable last year and even gave it a new title: Yumi's Odd Odyssey. Unfortunately, the game vanished from Natsume's schedule and, when asked, the company stated that it's on “permanent hold.” That's apparently different from Chulip, which sat at Natsume for years before finally coming out on the PlayStation 2. Perhaps the fate of Yumi's Odd Odyssey has something to do with the bug-ridden Japanese version of the game. Or maybe Natsume will get behind the upcoming DS port.

IN BRIEF: ATELIER ANNIE'S U.S. RELEASE, MACROSS ACE'S SEQUEL
Fans of the Atelier series are now primarily concerned with Atelier Rorona, the 3-D RPG that shipped for the Japanese PlayStation 3 this month. It's an open question as to whether Rorona will come to North America, but it seems that the next part of the franchise headed here is Atelier Annie, a DS game that features the Atelier mix of alchemic item-making and RPG gameplay. That's what a GameFly listing says, anyway. NIS America and KOEI haven't announced anything yet, though, and NISA has its plate full with Sakura Wars V and Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman.

Macross Ace Frontier made an impression on anime fans last year by recreating robots and dogfights from various Macross anime series, all in a convenient PSP game. A sequel, Macross Ultimate Frontier, is headed to the Japanese PSP this fall. The “Frontier” part of the title suggests that it'll still showcase pilots and transforming jets from Macross Frontier first and foremost, but other parts of the Macross franchise will get their due. Yes, even Macross 7 and Macross Zero.

WEIRD-ASS IMPORT ROUNDUP: JUNE

BAMBOO BLADE: SOREKARA NO CHOUSEN
Developer: Flying Dog
Publisher: Gadget Soft
Platform: PSP
Players: 1-2

I must admit that I never watched enough of Bamboo Blade to determine if it was a moe nightmare or merely a lighthearted show about girls in a kendo club. Regardless of its aims as a TV series, Bamboo Blade is now out to exploit fans with a new PSP game, Sorekara no Chousen, which even comes in a special edition with five flat keychains of the main characters. The game puts players in the role of Toraji “Kojiro” Ishida as he tries to turn a gaggle of teenagers into kendo stars, and here it's played out through conversations, coaching scenes, and battles controlled by cards. Yes, Gadget Soft made a complete fighting engine for their exploitive Kamen no Maid Guy brawler, but they couldn't be bothered to put one in Bamboo Blade. Here, dramatic clashes between Kojiro's team and other kendo groups use cards that denote attacks, moves, and the occasional specially animated strike. The visual quality is hardly the best for a PSP game, but I doubt Gadget Soft will return to Bamboo Blade for improvements.
Chances for a Domestic Release: Not good.

GOLGO 13: FILE G-13 NO OE
Developer: Marvelous
Publisher: Marvelous
Platform: DS
Players: 1

There's nothing terribly strange about Golgo 13: he's a taciturn, super-efficient assassin who shoots everything from dictators to satellites, all without spiky blue hair or glowing auras or any of that nonsense. What's strange here is the game that Marvelous chose to make about him. Instead of aiming for a straight shooting title or some multi-genre action creation like the Golgo 13 NES games, Golgo 13: File G-13 No Oe is a weird mixture of text and quizzes, with a little gunfire thrown in here and there. As with most Golgo 13 lore, the quiz-driven story focuses less on Golgo's character development and more on the people who invariably end up in awe of his abilities. At the start, you're a presumably disposable guy investigating the elite sniper, and in order to proceed, you've got to answer questions that relate to him in one way or another. For those who prefer more action, there's a shooting-gallery mode called “Ace in the Hole,” where you empty a revolver into a procession of cutouts by tapping the DS screen. Seriously, there must be some player-controlled sniping in there somewhere. Is the recent Last Bullet, with its costume-changing schoolgirl killer-for-hire, going to outdo a Golgo 13 game in terms of blocks-away headshots? That ain't right.
Chances for a Domestic Release: Gone are the days when Golgo 13 games like Top Secret Episode and The Mafat Conspiracy could entice North American kids. Then again, those games weren't 90 percent text.

ONORE NO SHINZURU MICHI WO TATASHIKE
Developer: From Software
Publisher: From Software
Platform: PSP
Players: 1-2

From Software's last ninja-based game was Ninja Blade, a 3-D action smorgasbord clearly made with Western markets in mind. Onore no Shinzuru Michi wo Tatashike, From's newest, is pretty much the opposite, a diagonally viewed game where a ninja scuttles across dungeon floors and takes on creatures that could've leaped straight from Ukiyo-e paintings. The entire game brims with such traditional Japanese art, unspooling gorgeous scenery behind the relatively simplistic stages. Similar in concept to Taito's stylized puzzler Exit, Onore no Shinzuru and its multi-level fortresses demand regular puzzle-solving and the judicious use of the hero's shadow clones. It's no game for the leisurely player, as every challenge has a harsh time limit.
Chances for a Domestic Release: Most companies will write off Onore no Shinzuru as “too Japanese” for wider release, but Atlus, XSEED, and Ignition are still hunting for under-the-radar games. Don't give up on seeing this in English.

TIME LEAP
Developer: Frontwing
Publisher: Frontwing
Platform: Xbox 360
Players: 1

Unlike Bamboo Blade, Time Leap is clear in its purpose. I'm not even sure if I should cover it here, since it's basically an adults-only PC game with its filthiest content deleted for the Xbox 360 version, echoing a decades-old tradition of censorship among Japan's pornsmiths. So what, if anything, makes Time Leap notable? Well, it's a fully 3-D “adventure” game, a rarity in a genre that still sticks to the low expectations of cheap 2-D artwork whenever it can. Time Leap is also unclouded in its imitation of Namco Bandai's The iDOLM@ASTER series, as Time Leap has its female cast dressing up in demeaning outfits and dancing around. Yes, The iDOLM@ASTER is just that popular among Japan's meager Xbox 360 owner base. And no, Time Leap has nothing to do with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.
Chances for a Domestic Release: Non-existent. Thank God.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 6-28

BLAZBLUE: CALAMITY TRIGGER
Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platform: PS3/Xbox 360
Players: 1-2 (Online Enabled)
MSRP: $59.99

You can call it Guilty Gear's leftovers if you want, but BlazBlue is still an all-new 2-D fighting game on North American consoles, and that doesn't happen too often nowadays. Sure, the whole thing resembles a Guilty Gear stripped of heavy-metal overtones, though BlazBlue still has the detailed, anime-inspired backdrops, the bizarre techno-fantasy world, and searingly vibrant character sprites. When you're done pointing out how much Blazblue lead Ragna the Bloodedge (seriously) resembles Guilty Gear's Sol Badguy in design and backstory, you might notice some unique traits within Blazblue. Each character gets a “Drive” ability that creates effects unorthodox for the tight confines of a 2-D fighter: freezing enemies, controlling the wind, or using a weapon remotely, for example. It also looks much sharper than Guilty Gear, and the home version has an extensively voiced story mode for those of us who sometimes play fighting games by ourselves.
Get Excited If: You want a fighting game that's not Street Fighter, not The King of Fighters, and only stylistically similar to Guilty Gear.

MEGA MAN STAR FORCE 3: BLACK ACE/RED JOKER
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: DS
Players: 1 (Plus online item-trading)
MSRP: $29.99

The latest Megaman Star Force games exhibit Capcom's typical cunning, as they're showing up in the U.S. exactly a week and a year after the Megaman Star Force 2 titles arrived. Capcom doesn't want to over-expose the series, oh no no no. At any rate, Star Force is the descendant of the Megaman Battle Network games; both series are made up of action-RPGs that mix virtual-reality concepts with Pokémon-like item collecting, and they're both aimed more at kids than at bitter adults who grew up beating Megaman 3 every Saturday Morning after cartoons. Black Ace and Red Joker use diagonal perspectives for exploring and a grid for RPG battles, as players race around collecting creatures called “noise.” True to the franchise's Pokémon-inspired roots, Black Ace and Red Joker each offer unique items, though I hope kids will actually exchange those with friends instead of buying both games.
Get Excited If: You remember what the different versions of Star Force 2 were called.

STEAMBOT CHRONICLES: BATTLE TOURNAMENT
Developer: Irem
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: PSP
Players: 1-4 (Multiplayer Ad-Hoc)
MSRP: $39.99

Steambot Chronicles 2 has simmered in PlayStation 3 development over in Japan (where it'll be known as Bumpy Trot 2) for several years, and Irem's now resorting to portable spin-offs to remind people that the franchise exists. The first Steambot Chronicles was a mix of Victorian robot combat and slow-paced side quests, and while Battle Tournament puts an emphasis on Trotmobile fights, it also requires the player to fund those battles by doing various odd jobs. Roaming the industrialized stage of Orion City yields all sorts of tasks and fetch-work, and earning cash funds customizable Trotmobile upgrades as you work through the battle-robot ranks. Perhaps Irem will even throw in a connection to Steambot Chronicles 2, if it ever comes out.
Get Excited If: You wanted more fighting in Steambot Chronicles.

Also shipping: Street Fighter IV for the PC.

EXTRA LIVES: MAGICAL HAT

Magical Hat lies well off the radar when it comes to kids' anime series from the late '80s and early '90s. Studio Pierrot dutifully maintains a website for it, but there's no great fan following around to cherish the show or beg financially burdened U.S. anime publishers to take a ridiculous chance on licensing it. At least it got a Mega Drive game, Magical Hat no Buttobi Tabo! Daibouken, back in 1990, and that game reached Sega Genesis owners in America through one of the era's weirdest localization jobs.

Despite its anime attachments, Magical Hat no Buttobi Tabo! Daibouken is rooted in an older, loosely connected line of action-platformers developed by Vic Tokai, or perhaps by the mysterious alliance between Vic Tokai and an arcade company called Seibu Lease. Their partnership produced early NES hits like Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode, and in 1988 it resulted in Kid Kool (nerd law requires that I tell you it was called Kakefu Kimi no Jump Tengoku: Speed Jigoku in Japan). A mediocre Mario-ish jumping adventure for the NES and Famicom, Kid Kool would have been tolerable if it hadn't inflicted all sorts of bad ideas on the player. Among these were awkward running controls, constant screen-switching perspectives, a bloblike ally to be thrown at foes, and lethally inconsistent physics.

Vic Tokai still saw potential in Kid Kool, and the game's concepts inspired Psycho Fox, a similar platformer with animal characters. It was often as clumsy as Kid Kool, but it looked better and added animal-switching powers for its lead character. More importantly, Psycho Fox appeared on the Sega Master System, where supporters were desperate for any remotely interesting game, and they dug into Psycho Fox like starving ravens. Today, some Master System proponents still defend the game and its shortcomings. No one defends Kid Kool.

Upon scoring the rights to a Magical Hat game in 1990, Vic Tokai took the easy route and used Psycho Fox as a base. It's quite easy to see the links: Magical Hat's hero, Hat, has the same sort of punch attacks, the same throwable sidekick (here's it's an egg), and the same odd sense of inertia. Just as Psycho Fox was a slight improvement on Kid Kool, Magical Hat sharpens its play mechanics a little. Hat still moves with weird momentum, but at least he can extend his jumps by flailing his legs in mid-air, a move that Miyamoto totally stole for Yoshi's Island. Hat also gets a decent supply of items to collect. Throughout the game, he smashes various Moai-like statues to reveal pills, tonics, and other items that have various effects, from freezing enemies to making Hat temporarily invulnerable.

Magical Hat's controls annoy at first, but things become easier once you master the jumps and Hat's aerial scrambling. Magical Hat isn't a particularly bad game. It's just a bland one. The scenery is mostly boring, the enemies lack variety, and the boss encounters are scarcely memorable. It's also a little tougher than one might expect, as one hit kills Hat if he doesn't have his egg friend right next to him. The game doesn't look or sound particularly great for a Sega Genesis title. The visual highlight might be the amusing facial contortions that Hat goes through during his all too frequent deaths, upon which he turns into a character from Rocko's Modern Life.

Trite as it is, Magical Hat is at least varied in its recycling of action-platform design methods. Each level is followed by a bonus round consisting of a slot machine or a maze, where you can pick up various items and extra lives. The game even lets you bypass boss encounters if you're nimble enough, and its many stages mix things up a bit. One might have Hat climbing, the next descending, and another running from a giant wall of saw blades and machinery.

Sega and Vic Tokai weren't interested in bringing Magical Hat to Sega Genesis owners in the West, but they liked the basic gameplay well enough. The solution? Re-work Magical Hat completely. For American and European audiences, Vic Tokai's internal teams turned the entire game into a monster-themed title called DecapAttack. Hat became Chuck D. Head, a headless mummy with eyes on its torso. Hat's egg ally became Chuck's removable projectile noggin. Magical Hat's opening screens, which showed an island breaking apart, became dispersing pieces of a skeleton. Hat's friends, an old scientist and a pink dog, became a mad doctor and his hunchback. And everywhere Magical Hat's colorful, derivative environments became cartoony Halloween décor. DecapAttack is infested with dripping slime, skull trees, and other spoooooky things that tested well with kids in the 8-12 age bracket.

DecapAttack didn't simply overhaul Magical Hat's appearance. Chuck controls much like Hat, but he now has a short life meter, making DecapAttack's flow far less frustrating than the cheap demises of Magical Hat. The revamped graphics also have a touch more expression, in both Chuck himself and the enemies. Both anime fans and game collectors are fond of crying foul whenever a Japanese game is “butchered” for an American release, but it's hard to deny that DecapAttack is more enjoyable than Magical Hat.

In fact, DecapAttack even sounds better. Compared to Magical Hat's warbling, unremarkable music, DecapAttack is a stunning improvement, with the sort of bouncy, organ-like beats that a monster movie needs. Oddly, the music that plays at the end of every DecapAttack stage is the same as the level-closing tune from Vic Tokai's own Trouble Shooter (covered here last week). How economical.

Vic Tokai's best game may be hard to pinpoint (I'd go with the Trouble Shooter sequel Battle Mania: Dai Gin Joh or maybe the NES action title Clash at Demonhead), but it's not DecapAttack or Magical Hat. Neither is offensively bad, but they're average in design and less accessible than they should be, considering the young audiences for which they apparently aim. Vic Tokai (and Seibu Lease, maybe) grew sick of the Kid Kool/Psycho Fox/Magical Hat game engine after DecapAttack, and the company's next jumpy-runny-action game was the more predictable Socket (a.k.a. The Time Dominator). It plays smoother than Magical Hat, but it's also the most painfully derivative Sonic the Hedgehog rip-off in history.

DecapAttack and Magical Hat still make for an interesting study, more for the differences between them than the actual gameplay. They're worth investigating if you happen to like the Magical Hat anime or weird action-platform games from the Genesis era, though there are better diversions to be found on the system. Me, I'll just play Trouble Shooter.

Released in America and Europe by Sega itself, DecapAttack is easy to find and cheap when you do. Magical Hat is much less common, though it isn't nearly as expensive as other Mega Drive games (it's also labeled as Magical Hats sometimes, so watch for that). Perhaps there isn't even a Magical Hat fan contingent in Japan.


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