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Neo Model Army

by Todd Ciolek, Oct 7th 2009

This year hasn't been particularly amazing for the game industry, and I wonder how the rest of it will fare with many interesting titles delayed until 2010. Yet 2009 will always be a magnificent year for games in my book, because it's the year I finally played Bounty Arms.

Bounty Arms is a PlayStation action game that Data West developed back in 1995 and, for some reason, never released. I saw it in an issue of GameFan many, many years ago, and I couldn't help but notice that it had everything I wanted in a game back then: explosions, hand-drawn graphics, and anime chicks who wreck everything in their path.

In the years after discovering it, I learned that Bounty Arms had been canceled, and this only made me want to play it more. Research gave me reasons beyond mere adolescent gratification: Bounty Arms is actually a unique little game, one where the heroines, Chris and Rei, wear huge extending cybernetic arms that work as whips, grappling hooks, and flamethrowers. Of course, Bounty Arms couldn't be found anywhere. It was barely covered by magazines outside of Japan, and locating information on the game was itself a challenge.

And yet I kept looking for it off and on, and a few weeks ago I laid hand on an early PlayStation store demo disc that contained a playable preview of Bounty Arms. It's not much, as it covers only half of the first stage and doesn't let Chris or Rei take damage, but it's surprisingly fun. More importantly, it's probably all the Bounty Arms I'll ever play.

Propriety keeps me from directly linking to the Bounty Arms demo here, but a quick search should turn it up for you. You shouldn't expect much more than a taste of what could've been a good action game. For me, though, it's enough that I can play it.

NEWS

ROCKET KNIGHT RETURNS IN DOWNLOADABLE SEQUEL
We didn't know it then, but Konami first teased a Sparkster revival last year by including the possum hero (with jet-boosted armor) as a playable character in New International Track and Field. Well, we know now that a new Sparkster is coming to XBox Live Arcade, the PLAYSTATION Network, and Steam. It's a 2-D action-platform deal, but with impressive 3-D environments not unlike those of Namco's Klonoa games.

The new Sparkster also retains the jetpack-boosting maneuvers and sword attacks from the original three games (that's counting the Genesis and Super NES versions of Sparkster separately), and it adds flying shooter sections in between stages. There's even a reasonably complicated plot involving Sparkster's 15-year absence from the kingdom of animal-people he once saved. It's out early next year, and it looks like everything a sensible Sparkster fan could want.

SUPER ROBOT TAISEN OG SAGA ENDLESS FRONTIER'S TITLE GETS EVEN LONGER
Maybe I was a little too hard on Super Robot Taisen: OG Saga Endless Frontier earlier this year. Its battles grew tedious after a while, but they had a certain button-mashing appeal, and the game had sense enough to laugh at its constant displays of underdressed princesses and catgirls and mermaids and I don't know what. Perhaps Endless Frontier Exceed will be better, at least as far as combat goes. It's pitched as having twice as much "material" as the first game, which I'll assume refers to attacks and subquests and other innocent pursuits.

As with the first Endless Frontier, Exceed spans several different worlds in a universe where dimension-hopping is seemingly more routine than a trip to the supermarket. Exceed also introduces two new leads, teenage warrior Aldi (possibly “Aledy”) and 117-year-old pixie Neige Hausen. In testament to the stylistic mash-up of Endless Frontier games, Neige is an elf princess who dresses like a maid and wields some hybrid of speargun and laser. On the mecha side, Exceedoffers the mane-sporting Arkwon and the spikey Faecryed, both as elaborately over-detailed as all Super Robot Wars machines before them. It's due out on the DS this winter, and it stands a better chance of making it over here than just about any other Super Robot Wars game.

IN BRIEF: FINAL FANTASY XIII TRAILER IN ENGLISH, TOSHINDEN IN MOTION, METAL SLUG BACK ON PSP
This week in Final Fantasy: An English-dubbed version of the Tokyo Game Show's Final Fantasy XIII trailer emerged, suggesting that we might not have to wait very long for a localized version of the entire game.

SNK's Metal Slug series, beloved as it is, often takes small steps forward. Just as the company put out Metal Slug X as a refined version of Metal Slug 2 years ago, SNK is now bringing a revamped Metal Slug 7 to the PSP as Metal Slug XX. It promises to pack in the DS version's combat school with over 70 missions and a flirty instructor, plus the option of playing with a friend over ad-hoc wireless mode.

I'm still following the progress of the new Tōshinden game with morbid fascination, and a trailer reveals how the game plays out: the fighters run around open areas and unleash all sorts of anime-cliché attacks. It looks a bit like Konami's unfortunate Castlevania: Judgment fighting game, and we all know how that ended up. Also, if you were wondering whether or not the new Tōshinden would uphold the original's standards of ridiculous attempts at titillation, you should watch the trailer to the finish.

REVIEW: THEXDER NEO

Developer: Zereo
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PSP
Players: 1-6 (online versus)
MSRP: $9.99

I have fond memories of the original Thexder disappointing me. It stems from the many occasions when my dad would let young me wander the computer pit of the local department store, and I would stare long and intently at the artwork on game boxes, imagining adventures more elaborate than any technology of the era could possibly deliver. My favorite studies were the covers of Barbarian and Curse of the Azure Bonds, for reasons my grade-school mind did not fully understand. At least I knew enough not to show them to my parents. Instead, I'd give them a sales pitch for Thexder, the cover of which showed an awesome transforming robot and the tagline “The Best-Selling Action Game from Japan!” My parents never bought it, of course, but I later played Thexder at a friend's house and realized that, inspiring as the cover art was, the game itself was repetitive and not that much fun.

Lots of people liked Thexder, though, and so it became an early success for Game Arts, who would later make Lunar, Silpheed, and other reasonably popular games of the 1990s before hooking up with Square Enix. And since Thexder was already remade once in 1995, it was a prime choice when someone went looking for old Game Arts action games to update for the PSP. While Thexder wouldn't be my first choice for a Game Arts remake (that, I note without a trace of bitterness, would be Alisia Dragoon), Thexder Neo is admirably faithful to its source.

As a prettier version of a very simple game, Thexder Neo sticks a transforming robot in side-scrolling stages cluttered with enemies. When in humanoid mode, the Thexder can jump and fire a laser that automatically targets nearby foes (an idea that was improved by the lock-on lightning in Alisia Dragoon, just sayin'). Upon changing into a jet, the Thexder can fly in eight directions and, in exchange, only fire in the direction it's facing. A shield protects the Thexder for brief periods, and the robot's energy slowly depletes with each attack, turning every stage into a race to find power-ups. Red glowing dots restore the Thexder's life, and green ones increase its overall energy capacity.

Thexder Neo's gameplay lies not so much in the basic controls as it does in the level designs. Each stage is a winding stretch of passages and open rooms where swarms of tiny drones hound you, forcing you to find the easiest route, or at least the one that refills your health. The stages grow more cunning as energy fields, traps, and even bosses show up. But don't mistake Thexder Neo for anything but a faithfully old-fashioned action game. There's no real plot, and the game rapidly establishes itself as a search for high scores and low clear-times. And that's just fine.

The game also looks fairly impressive for a PSP download, with decent environments and 3-D models (with strictly 2-D gameplay, remember) and a nice modern redesign of the Thexder. A lean, angular robot in its '80s incarnation, it now resembles a hulking Super Robot Wars original in its mecha form and, when transformed, the VF-19 from Macross Plus. The soundtrack also spins some of the original Thexder's music into booming, semi-orchestral scores, and it always changes when it's getting dull.

Most of Thexder Neo's flaws can be blamed on the original Thexder, a simple shooter that didn't offer enough variety once the transforming-robot gimmick wore off. Thexder Neo has similarly repetitious design in spite of a more varied enemy lineup, and its control suffers in tight spaces. Thexder still has trouble switching to jet mode when in a corner, and it could've used a lock-down firing button for the jet mode. The weapons are also limited; if you're going to remind us of Macross, why not throw in some whirls of homing missiles? At least the control comes through for the game's best moments, when you're darting through steel hallways, going jet mode in mid-air, and spraying nasty flocks of enemies with laser fire.

Thexder Neo upholds the cruel challenges of the original, at least in its Normal Mode. There, you're given one life, and once your robot runs low on energy, it's back to the title screen. The Easy Mode lets you continue from a level's beginning and keep your built-up energy meter, though it's still difficult in its own modern way. Unfortunately, there's no option to later restart from a level you've already cleared, and every time you fire up the game anew, you'll have to trudge through the increasingly easy first levels. Bangai-O Spirits, the other recent amazing free-roaming robot shooter, let players pick freely from its challenges right from the start.

For a $10 download, Thexder Neo may seem primitive and perhaps even unnecessary, but it has the quick, pick-up-and-play appeal that works so well on handheld systems. Only a few devoted fans will appreciate the tributes to the original Thexder, and they'll enjoy a laser-spewing run through Neo's futuristic trenches. The rest of us will find only a short burst of entertainment.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 10-11

BRÜTAL LEGEND
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platform: Xbox 360/PlayStation 3
Players: 1-2 (online versus)
MSRP: $59.99

Brütal Legend sounds like a product of the modern ironic-heavy-metal trend: a gleefully violent brawler about a roadie who's played by Jack Black and transported to a butt-rock fantasyland that's Army of Darkness by way of Metalocalypse. But this is the creation of Double Fine Productions and Tim Schafer, who stewarded LucasArts adventure classics like Grim Fandango and Full Throttle. So Brütal Legend seems a clever spectacle that mashes together all sorts of ideas: music-based powers, vehicle-based attacks, multiplayer strategy campaigns, guitar mini-games (that resemble the button-based sheet music of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time), and, throughout it all, humor that's both mocking and reverent toward its totally metal culture. Plus the voice cast has Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy Kilmister, Lita Ford, and other hard-rock celebrities. Oh, and a hundred-song soundtrack that puts Ministry and KMFDM next to Deathklok and Tenacious D. It's stylistically far from Double Fine's last outing, the engaging platformer Psychonauts, but the Brütal Legend demo already suggests an entertaining game, if not a completely original one.
Get Excited If: You like old LucasArts adventure games, Psychonauts, or heavy metal, ironically or otherwise.

JU-ON THE GRUDGE: HAUNTED HOUSE SIMULATOR
Developer: Feelplus
Publisher: XSEED Games
Platform: Wii
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $29.99

Yes, that's the real title. XSEED doesn't want to leave anyone out; not the J-horror fans who watched the original Ju-On movie, not the viewers who saw only the pale remake called The Grudge, and certainly not the casual Wii fans who want a haunted house simulator for their Halloween parties. Of course, Ju-On really isn't a party game, as it takes after its source genre. It's the sort of experience that'll scare you if you're playing in silence at night, as you poke around the game's simulated creaky buildings and poorly lit scenery. The Wii remote is used to navigate rooms in first-person view, and its motion-sensing functions enter play when ghosts confront you. Combat is far from the game's focus, as the emphasis is on escaping spirits and solving the occasional puzzle, with the option of a second player manipulating all of the game's horrors. Like the movies it follows, Juon: The Grudge: Haunted House Simulator might be more ominous than genuinely scary, but it's nice to see a survival horror game built entirely on suspense.
Get Excited If: You're still mad about Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse not making it out for the Wii in North America.

HALF-MINUTE HERO
Developer: Marvelous
Publisher: XSEED Games
Platform: PSP
Players: 1-4 (wireless)
MSRP: $29.99

Half-Minute Hero comes from humble origins, starting life as a flash game designed to be played for the few moments when your boss wasn't looking. With the PSP release, Marvelous broadened the game to include four different modes, all conveyed through simple 2-D bit graphics and timed to last about 30 seconds per challenge. Hero Mode is a conventional action-RPG in which a lone warrior quests to defeat monsters, build up levels, and, intriguingly, buy himself more time. Princess Mode has a trope of arrow-shooting soldiers guarding royalty, Knight and Wizard Mode sends two adventurers into a cavern to cooperatively slay a dragon, and Devil King Mode twists the tale so that you're controlling the villain, summoning monsters to take out various heroes. It's a clever little collection, and the addition of a four-player wireless mode is quite welcome.
Get Excited If: You ate up the cute carnage of Little King's Story and Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman!

HERO'S SAGA: LAEVATEIN TACTICS
Developer: GungHo
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platform: DS
Players: 1-2 (wireless)
MSRP: $29.99

On the subject of odd subtitles, we turn to a game that dresses up the generic-sounding “Hero's Saga” with a word that no one's going to remember when they ask for it at GameStop. At least it gets across the tactical element of the game, because Hero's Saga: Leviathan Tactics is a strategy-RPG in the tradition of Final Fantasy Tactics, Hoshigami, Luminous Arc, and other games where you direct little soldiers around grids. Hero's Saga: Levitation Tactics takes some inspiration from Dragon Force and Yggdra Union as well, since each character icon on the map represents a unit leader and a phalanx of archers, swordsfolk, or other specialized units. The plot has a prince getting a sword from a mysterious armored woman, which we can only hope sets off warfare and political struggle on the scale of the Tactics Ogre games and Final Fantasy Tactics. It's also dressed up in references to “Einherjar,” the “Valhalla Break,” and other Norse-myth derivatives, so I'll have to play it.
Get Excited If: You've already devoured Devil Survivor, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, and Knights in the Nightmare.

MAGNACARTA 2
Developer: Softmax
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Platform: Xbox 360
Players: 1
MSRP: $59.99

The Magnacarta franchise's efforts to create a Korean-born Final Fantasy are often overshadowed by the accompanying artwork of Hyung-Tae Kim, who specializes in lithe, shiny-skinned female characters with comically voluptuous forms. Kim's art grows even more influential in Magnacarta 2, wherein Softmax took care to ensure that the in-game characters resembled the artwork. That might not be a selling point for some, though the RPG also overhauls the slow-paced battle system that bored many in the previous Magna Carta (back when it was spelled as two words). Battles are now fought in real-time, much like in Final Fantasy XII, and carefully timed button-presses enable chain attacks and stat increases. The story promises the usual melodrama of an anime-influenced RPG: a rebellious princess, a medieval-fantasy nation gripped by war, an amnesiac hero with mysterious dark powers, and a voice cast apparently straight outta Animaze. If nothing else, Magnacarta 2 has little competition when it comes to lengthy, big-budget, anime-like console RPGs this holiday season.
Get Excited If: You didn't give up on the PlayStation 2 Magna Carta after the first few hours. Or after seeing the box art.

MARIO AND SONIC AT THE OLYMPIC WINTER GAMES
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Nintendo DS/Wii
Players: 1-4
MSRP: $29.99/49.99

No, this isn't a reissue. Mario and Sonic teamed up for the Olympics back in 2006, but those were the summer games. This version has the two mascots and all of their popular supporters appearing in skiing, snowboarding, bobsledding, figure skating, and other winter events. Yeah, so it's a cash-in party game, but players can use the Wii's Balance Board for the various challenges, making it a exercise opportunity at the very least. And for those who prefer traditional controls (in Wii terms), Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games lets you use the Wii remote to make Knuckles the Echidna pirouette gracefully across the ice. There's a phrase I thought I'd never type.
Get Excited If: You've wanted a Mario vs. Sonic since that kid lied to you on the playground back in 1993, and you don't care how their battle is staged.

POKEMON MYSTERY DUNGEON EXPLORERS OF THE SKY
Developer: Chunsoft
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo DS
Players: 1
MSRP: $29.99

Even casual acquaintances of Pokémon may notice that the beasts on the cover of Explorers of the Sky include some older characters, as opposed to the art of all-new pocket monsters that normally adorns the latest Pokémon games. That's because the Mystery Dungeon games are spin-offs that focus on popular Pokémon and the children who want to be them. Like its predecessors, Explorers of the Sky starts by turning a human lead into one of 19 Pokémon, including Bulbasaur, Torchic, Mudkip, Pikachu, Shinx and Evee (Meowth was apparently cut from the roster). The game plays much like the regular installments of Chunsoft's Mystery Dungeon: Pokémon wander randomly generated stages, collecting items and attacking enemies in back-and-forth strikes. It's a basic concept, but as with any dungeon hack, there's strategy within its primitive confines.
Get Excited If: You're grateful for a Pokémon game that cuts out the annoying go-between of human characters.

WAY OF THE SAMURAI 3
Developer: Acquire
Publisher: Agetec/UFO Interactive
Platform: PlayStation 3/ Xbox 360
Players: 1
MSRP: $59.99

The original Way of the Samurai, largely overlooked on the PlayStation 2, had something rarely seen in straightforward Japan-made action games: an elaborate system of plot branches governed by moral choices. Way of the Samurai 3 likewise plants itself in a grim feudal-Japanese fantasy, one where artfully drawing a sword has effects even outside of combat. Players can change the course of the story by baring steel at the wrong (or right) time, and the game heads the other way with an “apologize” system that lets players beg forgiveness, usually after they've been defeated. It recalls the variable fighting of the Bushido Blade games, and Way of the Samurai throws in spears and bare-handed fighting atop the swordplay. It's a fairly serious take on the samurai brawler…well, until you get to the catgirl who swings around a huge tuna. Can't be grim all the time.
Get Excited If: You prefer your samurai bloodshed with diverging, player-chosen paths. And giant tuna.

EXTRA LIVES: ANIME THAT SHOULD BE GAMES, PART II

It's time once again to pad out this column by recognizing those anime series that would've made pretty good video games. Sure, most anime-based games are unspeakable abortions, but we can always imagine a world where deserving cartoons are turned into first-rate video games in the genres that suit them best. Or at least I can write about it.

GIANT ROBO
"This should be a fighting game," wrote Casey Loe, GameFan editor and underrated contributor to 1990s anime criticism, when he described Giant Robo's cast of characters and their stunningly animated battles. Apparently no one else thought this, because when somebody finally got around to turning Giant Robo into a video game, that game became a PlayStation 2 action title in which players kinda-sorta guide the lumbering title robot and watch as it smashes other stovepipe-armed mecha.

Such a game all but ignores Giant Robo's greatest strength: a lineup of special agents, superheroes, and mystics drawn from Mitsuteru Yokoyama's vast catalog of manga. Compared to Shockwave Alberto (right) or the deadly finger-snaps of Fitzcarrald, a nuclear-powered robot and its shrieky kid handler are actually kind of boring. Shouldn't a Giant Robo game be a fluidly animated 2-D fighter, with Ginrei and Tetsugyu and all of the Magnificent Ten colliding in front of one of the anime's detailed future-1950s cityscapes? Yes, it should, if only to prove Mr. Loe right after all these years.

RUIN EXPLORERS
A blip on the radar back in 1995, Ruin Explorers is a lighthearted fantasy series that lasted for four OVA episodes and about one manga volume. That doesn't keep it from being an engaging tale, and I dare say it's an injustice that Slayers spans about twelve thousand anime episodes while the more endearing comedy of Ruin Explorers goes completely ignored.

My delusions aside, Ruin Explorers was partly a mockery of fantasy-RPG clichés, and so any game based on it would likely have been a derivative RPG. But wait: the energetic characters and colorful direction of the anime series (from Takeshi Mori, once one of the few competent in-house directors at Gonzo) would have more impact as a side-scrolling action-RPG. If pulled off properly, it would be inherently more fun than a colorless Dragon Quest clone, and the characters' various abilities, most of all swordswoman Ihrie's ability to turn into a mouse, would work nicely in 2-D exploration and puzzle-solving. And if you contend that Ruin Explorers is pure fantasy-comedy drivel, you must also admit that pure fantasy-comedy drivel is easier to take when pared with decent game mechanics.

SHADOW SKILL
Another largely forgotten remnant of the 1990s, Shadow Skill had a manga, an OVA, a direct-to-video “movie,” and a TV series, all without getting a video game. Perhaps the quality of the productions turned away the game industry, as most forms of Shadow Skill are mediocre. The highlight of the entire franchise is the alleged movie's closing fight scene of heroine Elle (right) and her adopted brother Gau tearing apart an entire coliseum by kicking and glowing a lot.

Shadow Skill is not a bastion of excellence, even if it's the rare martial-arts bloodfest that focuses on a leading woman without completely embarrassing her or itself. Yet it would've made a decent enough fighting game. The characters show off unique powers and outlandish designs (which sadly get more grotesque as the series continues), from Elle's medieval-capoeira skills to the odd rings-based attacks of her ally Kou. If CAPCOM or SNK had seized upon Shadow Skill's strengths and made a good hand-drawn fighter out of it all, more people would remember the series today.


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