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From the Future

by Todd Ciolek, Jan 6th 2010

Now that the new year has arrived, I'd like to talk to you all about a serious problem facing the artwork in anime-influenced games. Here's an illustration of Morte from Sega's upcoming Sands of Destruction.

Notice anything odd about Morte's shoulder? Yes, it has that gleaming pink spot seen on many female characters in artwork for games and anime. Apparently it's supposed to suggest that a woman's skin is so shiny, pure, and smooth that it's actually blushing. This visual motif is showing up more and more in game illustrations. In fact, it's exhibited by the first character you see at the new Etrian Odyssey III website.

Artists of Japan, this does not look attractive or stylish. It looks like Morte and that apparently nameless Etrian Odyssey character are breaking out in huge, pulsating, and selectively placed pimples. It's ugly, and it needs to stop. I'm not sure who started this minor trend, but I first noticed it in Makoto Uno's art for Witchblade and Dragonaut.

I'm not about to argue that these blush-zits are the worst things about Witchblade or Dragonaut. Uno can draw whatever he wants for shows like that. But when that style spills into otherwise conventional artwork for games, it's my moral and insufferable duty to complain.

NEWS

NIER DETAILS EMERGE, SOMEONE IS UPSET
Square Enix's Nier project once consisted of two very similar games that offered different stories about the same character: Nier Replicant has a white-haired kid named Nier hacking through a dark-hued world in search of his sister, with a sentient book and a foul-mouthed woman helping him along the way. Nier Gestalt has an older, grumpier version of the hero doing much the same thing. Square Enix recently revealed the perhaps obvious truth: Nier Replicant is for Japanese audiences, while Gestalt is for Americans. To that end, Gestalt is coming to North America for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and Replicant is staying in Japan. So if you wanted to play as the slender, billowing-haired young Nier, get used to seeing this guy instead.

Either way, Nier has one of the most memorable trailers in a long time. There are no staggering visuals, no hideous monsters, and no overwrought narration. There's just Kaine, the possibly hermaphroditic sidekick, swearing up a storm. It brings back those fond memories of Manga UK's anime dubs.

AGAREST SENKI TRAILER IS JUST WHAT YOU THINK IT IS
Speaking of filthy trailers, Aksys Games debuted a new one for Record of Agarest War, and Aksys pretty much knows what they have on their hands: a standard strategy-RPG intercut with scenes of the player dating and marrying various women. Of course, the lead character hooks up with the game's female cast just to have other playable heroes to carry on the game. No, really. That's the reason.

Aksys also has a lot of it to share. The PlayStation 3 version of Agarest is a download-only release, and it pushes 10 GB on the PLAYSTATION Network. The Xbox 360 version comes as a standard retail disc. The two are otherwise identical, with the PlayStation 3 release getting all of the extra content that was added to the Xbox 360 version. Either way, Agarest will be out later this year, with plenty of fictional anime women in the game to birth heroes and eat ice cream in the most suggestive way possible.

LAST RANKER HAS TALENTED STAFF, BORING TRAILER
CAPCOM isn't known for RPGs beyond the now-dormant Breath of Fire series, and that may be why the PSP game Last Ranker wasn't really noticed back in September. Any RPG nerd who bothered looking up the game's development staff would be nominally impressed: Etrian Odyssey director Kazuya Niinou is helming it, the story comes from recurring Final Fantasy writer Kazushige Nojima, the soundtrack's by Yoko Shimomura (Legend of Mana, Kingdom Hearts), and the characters were even designed by Breath of Fire's Tatsuya Yoshikawa.

This makes it all the more disheartening when the latest trailer for Last Ranker resembles every generic Japanese RPG trailer that came before it. Every single character is an obvious stereotype in design or tone, and the battle system appears stiff and repetitive. Nor is there much potential in the storyline, which has a young man named Zig working his way up in the military outfit that dominates his world. This would be understandable if the game were the product of some low-ranking developer, but surely CAPCOM has more time and money to devote. Then again, perhaps this is why CAPCOM isn't known for RPGs.

Also, I command game developers to stop putting “Last” in RPG titles. After The Last Remnant, Last Rebellion, and now Last Ranker, we're due for a break.

SPECIAL FEATURE: 2010 PREDICTIONS

Each new year brings new opportunities, and among them is the opportunity for game critics to wildly predict just where their precious industry is headed. Most of my 2009 guesses turned out to be right only in that nebulous Nostradamus way, but I'm not shrinking from bold prophecies. Yes, I'm going to predict that Sega will make another Sonic the Hedgehog game, and that fans won't like it very much.

SNK IN DIRE STRAITS
I have no hard data about how well The King of Fighters XII sold, but that doesn't stop me from openly suspecting that it didn't benefit SNK all that much. The game was noticeably unfinished, and developing it was reportedly time-consuming. In a year where Street Fighter staged a comeback and Guilty Gear gave way to BlazBlue, The King of Fighters couldn't mount much of an attack. And that may hurt SNK, which has recently spun down the Metal Slug series into portable games (and reissues thereof). Samurai Shodown: Edge of Destiny is set to arrive in the U.S. this year, and there's perhaps more riding on it than just another attempt at making Samurai Shodown into a 3-D fighter. SNK needs something new, or at least a nice The King of Fighters XIII, with endings and polished gameplay and Mai Shiraniu and all of the others things SNK's fans want. As the Neo-Geo's bafflingly long life proved, SNK has some of the most devoted fans in that business. And in today's market, that might not be enough.
Counterpoint: Eh, SNK's been through rough patches before. I'm probably just bitter over the company never making Crystalis 2.

LUNAR 3 FINALLY ANNOUNCED
The recent PSP port of the original Lunar is likely a test run for the franchise, to see just how popular it remains in Japan and the U.S. While Lunar seems a bit boilerplate in comparison to modern JPGs, it's a source of largely justified nostalgia to an entire generation of game nerds. Emboldened by Lunar: Harmony of the Silver Star and the new Lufia II remake, Game Arts will finally take the plunge on a Lunar 3 for the Nintendo DS. The quality of such a game would be, of course, up in the air. Game Arts is a shell of the company it was in Lunar's heyday, as most of the talent has fled to other developers. Yet the current staff's ideas may be no worse than the old Game Arts' scrapped plans for a Lunar 3, which was reportedly called “Over the Rainbow” and didn't impress anyone.
Counterpoint: The time for Lunar 3 is long, long gone. Unless Game Arts can rope in some of the original staff and build a game around the original characters, no one will care.

SEGA REVIVES SOMETHING OLD
Sega has the unfortunate habit of listening to its fans in the worst possible ways, as shown by the much-mocked state of Sonic the Hedgehog. Yet there's a glimmer of benevolence in Sega's drunken abuse, and 2010 will see the revival of an old Sega game.

Because this is Sega, that game won't be a new Shenmue, Space Channel 5, Panzer Dragoon (above), or anything else that large numbers of fans actually want to see again. No, it'll be some largely forgotten remnant from Sega's catalog, like Sonic Team's ahead-of-its-time Burning Rangers, the mediocre arcade game Bonanza Brothers, the duck-driven brawler Dynamite Dux, or the bleak Chakan: The Forever Man (which had a canceled Dreamcast sequel). And while I would love another Burning Rangers, I'm not sure if I trust the modern Sonic Team to make one. Perhaps Dynamite Redux for the Wii's Virtual Console would disappoint fewer people. Counterpoint: Sega makes a lot of dumb decisions, but most are driven by some faint hope for profit. Profit does not come from reviving Dynamite Dux.

JAPANESE RPGS MAKE A COMEBACK
The Japanese RPG spent 2009 underground as far as home consoles were concerned, and a Gamasutra article even summed up the genre's fall. That fall was possibly a faked suicide, of course, as Japanese RPG developers grew tired of seeing big-budget creations like Xenosaga and Shadow Hearts slaughtered by Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest throughout the PlayStation 2 generation. They've now turned to the cheaper pastures of the DS, with only a few companies still plugging away on consoles. This year will be better, with the arrival of Final Fantasy XIII and Resonance of Fate, the latter of which seems to be tri-Ace's apology for Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Lower-tier publishers are similarly putting out more Japanese RPGs on consoles in 2010, and the real test of the genre's staying power will come with NIS America's Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love. It's the first U.S. release of a franchise long thought unmarketable in this game market, and if it can succeed here, the Japanese RPG is anything but moribund.
Counterpoint: Japanese RPGs were never huge in North America, Final Fantasy aside, and the best they can hope for is a comfortable niche driven by DS games.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 1-10

SANDS OF DESTRUCTION
Developer: imageepoch
Publisher: Sega
Platform: DS
Players: 1
MSRP: $34.99

Sands of Destruction first got attention for bringing together three key staff members from the cult-favorite RPG Xenogears: writer Masato Kato, artist Kunihiko Tanaka, and composer Yasunori Mitsuda. While that doesn't guarantee anything, Sands nonetheless looks like an RPG from the time of Xenogears, with a turn-based battle system, pixel-built characters, fairly detailed 3-D backgrounds, and a mixture of conventional anime characters and animal-people. Those creatures, called “Ferals,” have actually enslaved the human race in Sands, and that's given rise to a rebel group that just wants to destroy the whole world. Led by a woman named Morte, the World Annihilation Front tracks down Kyrie, one of those young heroes with a Mysterious, Potentially World-Wrecking Power. There's only mild potential for a different sort of RPG story here, though the game's combat and three-dimensional dungeon design may prove inventive enough on their own. And if you're wondering why Sega didn't release this game until 16 months after its Japanese launch, look no further than FUNimation's impending release of the Sands of Destruction anime series.
Get Excited If: You like a somewhat generic RPG now and then.

SKY CRAWLERS: INNOCENT ACES
Developer: Namco Bandai
Publisher: XSeed
Platform: Wii
Players: 1
MSRP: $29.99

A deliberately slow and critical Mamoru Oshii film is dubious ground for a flight simulator, but Innocent Aces shows signs of being one of those rare good anime-derived games. For one thing, it's from the Namco half of Namco Bandai, specifically the team that made the respectable Ace Combat series. Innocent Aces also carries over the bleak stage of The Sky Crawlers, where dour young pilots fly constant sorties in a big, meaninglessly prolonged war. The game's characters aren't the same as the film's (at least not at face value), though the planes are largely identical prop-engine machines from a slightly more stylish World War II. The dogfights use the Wii's remote for aerial maneuvers, and if they're not as chaotic as they were in the film, that's all for the better. Perhaps Oshii meant the movie's action scenes to be deliberately inane, but he clearly approves of what Innocent Aces has done with it.
Get Excited If: You could watch the aerial battles in The Sky Crawlers on their own.

EXTRA LIVES: SHATTERHAND

My recent look at Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight led me to the history of video games based on tokusatsu shows, those live-action cavalcades of masked men and big rubbery monster costumes. The field remained largely unknown to the American game industry until the Power Rangers craze of the 1990s, but one game based on a live-action Japanese superhero show made it out for the NES. Well, sort of. In 1991, Tokkyuu Shirei Solbrain was a run-of-the-mill TV series that had the good fortune of becoming a Natsume game, and someone decided that it needed a splash of Americanization for its journey West. With a few changes, Solbrain became an NES game called Shatterhand.

In a backstory found only in the game's manual, Shatterhand sees a police officer mangled in the line of duty and subsequently given cybernetic hands of steel. The logistics of cyber-hands aside (wouldn't punching just break his arms instead?), Shatterhand has its title hero racing through seven side-scrolling levels littered with gunmen, robotic foes, and various environmental hazards. Shatterhand can hang from conveniently placed chain-link fences and collect coins to buy power-ups, but his only method of attack lies in short-range punches. Fortunately, he can summon hovering robots by collecting three of any power-up symbol. While these sidekicks are just as vulnerable to attacks as Shatterhand himself, they use a variety of useful weapons: Pyrobot has a flamethrower, Ricobot fires reflecting energy balls, Grenadebot hurls explosives, and so forth.

Natsume created remarkably solid action games for the NES, and Shatterhand finds the developer in top form. The levels mix it up in their hazards and scenery, and players can choose to tackle the middle five stages in any order. Controls are sharp, and Natsume even managed to give Shatterhand a sense of inertia without slowing him down. Somewhat frustrating is the inability to position one's helpful robot, which will often run right into an enemy and take needless damage. Shatterhand also struggles with limited punching range, making robot assistance all but mandatory for the game's tougher stretches.

In fact, most of Shatterhand is a tough stretch. It's the sort of NES action game best played slowly, taking on every enemy and obstacle with strategic aims. Shatterhand is above using one-hit kills, but the game still presents countless moments of inescapable damage, such as a race through falling butterfly-bombs in one early level. There's also the uncommonly long pause the game makes after Shatterhand dies, as though players are supposed to sit there and contemplate their many failings and direction in life while the game cycles in another Shatterhand.

Shatterhand shows little changes from Tokkyuu Shirei Solbrain. Both games have the same excellent graphics by NES standards, and mostly the same bouncing Natsume music. The main characters and their robot assistants were redesigned, some bosses were altered, and a theme-park level in Solbrain became a fight through a submarine (inexplicably filled with acid lakes and alien fetuses) in Shatterhand. Natsume and Jaleco's work on Shatterhand is rather minor compared to some other NES translation jobs.

Like so many other promising NES games launched in 1991, Shatterhand was ignored by an industry caught up in the coming war between the Super NES and the Sega Genesis. It's an appealing game nonetheless, and enjoyable as far as nastily challenging old NES titles go. It may not have any robotic heroes captured in pixelized Nintendo style but Shatterhand was still the best tokusatsu game American kids ever got in the 1990s.

Shatterhand is fairly easy to find among late-release NES games. If your local run-down secondhand game store fails you, try some of the cheaper auctions on eBay. Solbrain is noticeably harder to track down.


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