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by Todd Ciolek, Aug 12th 2009

This column is primarily about new games, with old ones mentioned only when I dig up some forgotten anime by-product. This week, however, I'd like to start by pointing out two recently unearthed titles from a bygone era: Virtua Hamster and X-Men: Mind Games.

Virtua Hamster and X-Men: Mind Games were intended for the 32X, a mushroom-shaped system that plugged into the Genesis and lasted about a year before Sega realized what a mistake the whole thing was. When the 32X was abandoned in 1995, so were Virtua Hamster, X-Men, and a handful of other games still in development. Fortunately, the website Sega Saturno unveiled incomplete ROMs of Virtua Hamster and X-Men, so now everyone can see what might have been.

There's not much to see, in truth. Virtua Hamster sends a mass of vaguely rodent-shaped polygons through mostly empty tunnels, and it doesn't live up to the appeal of its design material. X-Men also looks quite repetitive, if visually impressive for a 32X game. But hey, it's the mystique of unreleased games that matters, right?

NEWS

FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST HITS PSP THIS WEEK
Fullmetal Alchemist: Senka wo Takuseshi Mono isn't technically new ground for the anime series, since the DS saw a brawler based on the anime a few years back. Yet this new PSP game, arriving in Japan this October, takes a somewhat bold approach by pairing up characters and pitting them against other two-member teams.

Most of the promotional screens still show Ed and Al Elric taking on Hawkeye and Mustang (and occasionally Scar), with Ed's environmental alchemy varying with the terrain on which he stands. There must be more to it than fights between the game's five most prominent characters, and we'll find out how much more there is very shortly.

KONAMI PLANS ANOTHER SHONEN SUNDAY X MAGAZINE CROSSOVER
Konami's last attempt at using characters from Shonen Sunday and Weekly Shōnen Magazine resulted in a 3-D fighting game where Tiger Mask fought IPPO and Shinichi Mechazawa battled Ringo Noyamano. It apparently worked so well that Konami's doing the same thing in slightly cheaper form, with a DS adventure game where a player-named protagonist meets the stars of the two manga anthologies' series.

As a graphic adventure with RPG trimmings, Sunday & Magazine White Comic lacks the hectic battles of its fighting-game predecessor, but it might trump it in sheer cameos, as Konami promises 350 different characters from nearly 100 manga series. Those series will be listed when White Comic gets closer to its October 15 release date in Japan, and I'm sure they won't ignore Violence Jack this time.

IGNITION DELIVERS NEW SAMURAI SHODOWN IN NOVEMBER
Samurai Shodown has been in a weird place ever since peaking with Samurai Shodown II way back in 1994. The series survived the 1990s, but SNK never showed it as much attention as The King of Fighters, and neither did the fighter-playing public. In fact, few people noticed when Samurai Shodown Anthology was released here with Samurai Shodown VI, even though the game had a character based on America's favorite genocidal president, Andrew Jackson.

Now there's a new Samurai Shodown, a 3-D fighter called Edge of Destiny. It went through Japanese arcades last year and it's coming to the Xbox 360, with a North American release courtesy of Ignition Games. The character lineup brings back 13 familiar Samurai Shodown combatants: Haohmaru, Charlotte, Hanzo, Wan-Fu, Nakoruru, Galford, Jubei, Ukyo, Kyoshiro, Rimururu, Genjuro, Kazuki, and Sogetsu. The 11 new fighters reach a bit in their search for fresh ideas (there's even a Viking warrior), though the new leads seem to be aspiring samurai Takechiyo (left) and the vengeful Suzu (right), who, as her profile tells us, “can't forgive such the guy.”

Past 3-D Samurai Shodowns haven't fared well, though at least Edge of Destiny will get a crack at a large audience in November. That's more than Samurai Shodown 64 ever had.

STING MAKES AN ORIGINAL PSP RPG: HEXYZ FORCE
Sting previously brought Yggdra Union and Riviera: The Promised Land to the PSP, but Hexyz Force is the productive little developer's first original RPG for the system. The battle system has players arrange characters in three rows, each bestowing different levels of defensive and offensive powers, and glitzy special attacks arise whenever party members take certain amounts of damage.

The officially uploaded trailer is more concerned with the game's dualistic storyline, in which players throw their allegiance to either the light or dark side of a world. The former camp is represented by the priestess Cecilia, while the latter's champion is the warrior Revenant. There's also a catch: no matter which side you prefer, you'll be playing as characters from both of them, with your moral decisions dictating which ending you get. Hexyz Force arrives in Japan in November, and a 2010 release seems likely in North America.

IN BRIEF: PERSONA 5, LUMINOUS ARC 3, AND MASTER OF VERMILLION II
The success of Persona 4 left no one dubious about a Persona 5, though the game hasn't yet been formally announced. Nor do we know which system will host it. What we do know is that composer Shoji Meguro will be…doing something for it. The vague attribution comes from a website that lists Meguro as the “producer” of Persona 5, though the sensible among us will take that to mean “music producer.” The sensible will also tell us that Meguro was a lock for Persona 5, having scored the previous two.

The two Luminous Arc games have built a small fan base both here and in Japan, and Marvelous is perhaps wise to keep up the series on the Nintendo DS. Boasting slightly improved graphics, Luminous Arc 3 will continue the series' habit of hybridizing strategy-RPG battles and dating-simulator events, most which happen to involve witches. It's out in Japan this winter.

Lastly, Square Enix's latest big secret countdown game turned out to be Lord of Vermillion II, the sequel to the company's card-based arcade game. Among the usual assortment of generically adorned cards, the game features some bearing characters from Final Fantasy IV, Romancing Saga 2, and, surprisingly, Magic: The Gathering. Does this mean Lord of Vermillion II will come to the three or four remaining arcades in North America?

REVIEW: THE KING OF FIGHTERS XII

Developer: SNK
Publisher: Ignition
Platform: Xbox 360 / PS3
Players: 1-2 (online)
MSRP: 59.99

The King of Fighters is SNK's biggest fighting-game line, but it's often a victim of its own prolific success. From 1994 through 2003, SNK tried to put out a new The King of Fighters every year, and, unlike the Madden series, this wore thin with mainstream players. Why invest in The King of Fighters 2001 when 2002 would be out before long? Why get the first 3-D The King of Fighters when SNK would soon make a sequel with more characters? Even SNK tired of this, and so the company dedicated several years to fashioning the true rebirth of The King of Fighters.

The King of Fighters XII is that rebirth, or at least it's supposed to be. The cast of characters, which regularly breaks 30 fighters a game, is scaled back to a mostly familiar bunch, and they were all re-drawn and re-animated with shocking hi-res detail. The game looks spectacular, with fluid characters and vibrant backgrounds that almost overwhelm the fighting. In this visually astounding crucible, SNK aims to remake the series into something amazing. And they will. In the next game. Maybe.

The actual fighting underent considerable adjustment for The King of Fighters XII. While most of the characters retain their moves in one way or another, the game engine is noticeably and intentionally slower than those of past entries. It's a somewhat subtle change, and it deletes a lot of the features that previous games accumulated, including The King of Fighters XI's chaotic tag-team combos. KoF XII still boasts the series' trademark 3-on-3 battles, fighters can dodge and roll around opponents' attacks, and there's a new Critical Counter system seemingly borrowed from Street Fighter Alpha 2. Activated by a bar that builds up with each hit landed or taken, Critical Counter moves allow the player to throw a heavy punch through an enemy's oncoming attack, leaving them open to whatever moves the player cares to throw.

The problem, quite simply, is that The King of Fighters XII isn't finished. Just as SNK released a rough-edged The King of Fighters '94 and followed it up with a much-improved The King of Fighters '95, their latest seems a mere step toward the amazing fighting game that The King of Fighters XIII could be.

Consider the characters. The King of Fighters series is voluminous in its cast, with nearly fifty warriors showing up in the games over the years. SNK stunned quite a few longtime fans by going back to the most recognizable names from the franchise's early days, plus a few more recent stars. Most mainstays of the first few games are here: Kyo Kusanagai, Benimaru Nikaido, Goro Daimon, Terry Bogard, Andy Bogard, Joe Higashi, Iori Yagami, Ralf Jones, Clark Still, Leona Heidern, Kim Kaphwan, Athena Asamiya, Sie Kensou, Chin Getsai, Ryo Sakazaki, Robert Garcia, and the apparently back-from-the-dead Mature. Hailing from the more recent titles are Ash Crimson, Duo Lon, Shen Woo, and Elizabeth Branchtorche. The only first-time KoF character in the bunch is the heavyweight wrestler Raiden, and his prior appearances in Fatal Fury and CAPCOM vs. SNK dispel his novelty.

And that's it. For any other fighting game, 22 characters would be more than enough, and yet it seems woefully inadequate for The King of Fighters. SNK had to cut some of them; the game's animation takes months for each character, after all. Yet SNK preserved too many of the boring characters instead of the more appealing ones. Ryo and Robert were dull back in 1995, and it seems overkill to have the huge Raiden and the equally huge Daimon in the same game, especially when that game is missing Kula, Billy Kane, Yuri, Blue Mary, K', Yamazaki, King, and other popular cast members. The absence of Mai Shiranui actually sparked calls for boycotts among some insane followers, but it's a clear case of SNK not understanding what the fans wanted. If studies of the game disc are to be believed, SNK planned on adding Mai and other characters. They just didn't have the time for it.

To compensate for its limited selection, The King of Fighters XII plays with the returning characters in both their designs and special moves. Athena reverts to the diminutive schoolgirl she was back in the Psycho Soldier arcade game 23 years ago, Iori finally abandons his shirttails and bondage pants, Mature dons a business suit instead of a secretary's dress, and so on. More intriguing are the changes to their gameplay. Kensou's been overhauled extensively, Terry and Robert return to earlier movesets, and Leona is greatly improved. Her charging slash was predictable and unwieldy in previous games, but The King of Fighters XII lets her change direction while dashing low, creating all sorts of delightful ways to screw with opponents.

The King of Fighters XII might excuse its lean roster with carefully honed gameplay, but it's harder to overlook the game's absence of things commonplace in fighting games. For one thing, there are no endings and no final boss. Instead, the “arcade” mode offers a studio of chattering sportscasters to comment on your progress as you take on five sets of opponents and try to beat your best time. It's unsatisfying and pointless. Players are better off tackling the computer in exhibition matches (which at least conclude with win quotes) or facing other players, even though the game's online versus play is so troubled that Ignition released a public statement about it.

The game comes up short in more trivial areas. It has only six backgrounds, and it lacks a lot of the little touches fans will surely expect. In previous The King of Fighters iterations, characters would often break into unique pre-match rituals depending on who they fought: Kyo and Iori would extol their rivalry, Terry would spout hilarious Engrish, King and Ryo would ineptly flirt, Kasumi would yell at a harried Shingo, and Mai would wave a fake baby at Andy. The King of Fighters XII does away with that sort of thing, and it's yet another small piece of evidence pointing to a rushed game. There are, however, English voices for the characters, and they range from competent to laughably awkward. The music backs the scenery and smoothly animated fighters well enough, but it's not remotely memorable.

There's a decent fighting game lurking at the core of The King of Fighters XII, but it's hard to recommend such a bare-bones package at the full $60 price. Not when BlazBlue and Street Fighter IV both shame The King of Fighters XII in content, online play, and bonus material. Even the biggest fans of this franchise are better off if they sit back and simply wait. Wait for a price drop, wait for more game patches, and wait for SNK to create something better with The King of Fighters XIII.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 8-16

SPECTROBES: ORIGINS
Developer: Genki
Publisher: Disney Interactive
Platform: Wii
Players: 1
MSRP: 49.99

Yes, it's another one of those weeks, but let's give Spectrobes: Origins a chance. It's tied to the same kid-oriented anime culture that props up Pokémon and Naruto, and the developer, Genki, has a decent reputation stemming from the Shutokou Battle Tokyo racing games (of course, they also made Kileak the DNA Imperative, remembered with horror by anyone who bought their launch-day PlayStation after the store sold out of all the other games). Origins is an action-RPG with an emphasis on the monster sidekicks that aid you during battle; they can be swapped out, leveled up, and dug out of the earth. The last of these provides a mini-game, as the Wii remote controls various excavation tools used for Spectrobe prospecting.
Get Excited If: You've been through both Spectrobes games on the DS.

EXTRA LIVES: DEVILMAN

Among American fans, Devilman is a frequently ignored corner of Go Nagai's vast and filthy manga-anime empire. It didn't set quite as many trends as Cutey Honey or Mazinger, but Devilman was reprinted and re-imagined a number of times since its 1972 debut. It's always had a fan base, and Namco clearly knew that when the company launched a Devilman game for the Famicom in 1989.

At first, Devilman seems terrible. Akira Fudo, the prominently sideburned youth who supposedly transforms into an ancient demon, starts off trotting down a street. He's accosted by bald men in jumpsuits, who refuse to die no matter how many times they're punched. Akira's only hope is to duck into homes and office buildings, where he has fairly simple conversations with other members of the Devilman cast.

Fortunately, things improve once Akira runs into his friend Ryo and not-yet-girlfriend Miki Makimura, both of whom help him change into the eponymous Devilman. The insufferable attackers in the street then change into pterosaur-like monsters, and they can now be destroyed by Akira, his Devilman incarnation, and even Miki herself, once the player has the option of controlling her. It's all part of Devilman's frequently baffling RPG-like options. In order to trigger Akira's transformations, the player must find and talk to the right people, and choosing the wrong reply in a conversation can leave you stumped. It's even more frustrating to those who aren't at least conversant in Japanese, but them's the breaks when you play imports.

There's still an interesting sense of growth about Namco's Devilman. While the initial street stage with Akira is pathetic, the game soon lets him change into Devil Man and then turn into an even larger Devilman, towering over buildings and taking on the angelic monster Silene. Devilman's later stages include subterranean caves and ruined cityscapes, all a bit closer to Go Nagai's gruesome vision of the series.

Even with somewhat complex play mechanics at work, it's hard to get past a visually horrendous game. Devilman's copyright reads 1989, but the game resembles a first-generation Famicom title from several years before, with considerably bad palette choices. The eye-searing pinks and greens of building interiors are annoying, while Devilman blends into any background that isn't a single solid color. Only the game's conversation scenes and pre-title sequence make any effort to capture Nagai's style, and the soundtrack grates terribly.

Did Namco's Devilman ever come to America? Of course not. Nintendo refused to publish its own Devil World and insisted that Broderbund rename Hell's Bells to Deadly Towers. Any game called Devilman would need some significant changes if it wanted to play in Nintendo's America, and Namco clearly didn't think it was worth the trouble. Devilman's shown up in other games, including a PlayStation title all to himself. He most recently appeared in Konami's Sunday vs. Magazine shonen-comic fighter, and there's a good chance he'll be in the upcoming RPG that merges the two manga anthologies. All of that makes it even tougher to recommend this humble old Famicom game.

Devilman cartridges can be had for around $15 online, which isn't so bad if you're a giant Go Nagai fan with a Famicom on hand. Otherwise, you could just buy some fourth-rate NES game like Demon Sword for one-fifth the price and pretend that the main character has huge sideburns.


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