The X Button
Fly With the High

by Todd Ciolek, Jan 20th 2010

I rarely get a sense of déjà vu about video games, but that's what happened when Metal Slug XX was announced for the PSP. In addition to featuring the two-player mode the game should've had when it hit the DS, this PSP port will also have Leona Heidern from The King of Fighters as a playable character. Atlus will sell her for 99 cents on the PLAYSTATION Network when the game arrives February 23.

It makes perfect sense, since Leona's part of the Ikari Team in The King of Fighters universe, and its two other members, Ralf and Clark, are already in Metal Slug games. The strange thing was this: I could've sworn that Leona was already part of Metal Slug, and not some forgotten cell-phone Metal Slug, either. It took me a while, but I finally figured out where I'd seen Leona in Metal Slug: a joke.

Someone made this convincingly fake screen back when Ralf and Clark were added to Metal Slug 6. And when you consider that Metal Slug 6 came out in 2006, that means the author of this joke managed to halfway fool me for four years. That's got to be worth something.

NEWS

MEGA MAN 10 BOSS LINEUP!
Capcom recently announced the complete lineup of robot masters for Megaman 10, having previously teased fans with the awesome Sheep Man and the boring Commando Man. The entire lineup is, sadly, divided between these two extremes.

Left to right from the top, we have Solar Man, Strike Man, Commando Man, Blade Man, Pump Man, Chill Man, Sheep Man, and Nitro Man. Now, I fully support Megaman bosses being as ridiculous as possible, so I love Sheep Man, Blade Man, the sports-based Strike Man, and the transforming motorbike Nitro Man. The others apparently come from that lame design school that spat out most of the bosses from Mega Mans 4 through 8. Seriously, Chill Man? I know every Megaman game needs elemental masters, but he's just boring, no matter what sort of biography Capcom gives him. And why isn't there a female boss, like Megaman 9's Splash Woman? Way to turn this back into a boys' club, Capcom.

AR TONELICO III EXTOLS, SUBVERTS CUTE-GIRL ANIME CLICHES
I reviewed Ar Tonelico II around this time last year, and I criticized it for its frequent appeals to cutesy-creepy anime fans. I now wonder if I was too hard on the game, because Ar Tonelico III makes Ar Tonelico II look like it was programmed by 17th-century Jesuit nuns. View this new trailer, which is full of operatic music, frantic battles, and slender anime heroines posing suggestively. And then the last few seconds do their best to induce seizures.

Outside of all that, Ar Tonelico III modernizes the series, and most of the in-game graphics, from the spiraling cities to the spiky-haired hero, are now in 3-D. The actual conversation scenes still use cutout illustrations of the characters, but Gust can't be expected to change everything. The battles are also expanded beyond the basic, linear affairs of the first two games, and the special attacks get rather elaborate. Gust is apparently intent on tying all three games together, as this third (and supposedly last) installment features Cocona and Sasya from Ar Tonelico II, both conveniently young women. But hey, there's at least one Ar Tonelico III character who contradicts all of this frail-little-girl “moe” stuff.

That's Mute, commander of some military detachment and a member of the game's rather large supporting cast. The primary characters are once again a nondescript warrior, Aoto, and two women from the artificial race of Reyvateils: the lab-born Saki and the more-than-she-seems Finnel. Their song-based magic plays a key role in battles, and it's fueled by the different outfits they wear (and what they don't wear). To expand on that, the game even lets the player ask female characters to take off certain parts of their clothes. This will be loosed on Japan this January 28, and an American release is likely, despite NIS America's much-criticized localization of Ar Tonelico II.

AKSYS LICENSES DEATHSMILES, GOES FOR BROKE
It was inevitable that someone would license a Cave shooter for North America, but I didn't think Deathsmiles would be that shooter. I expected a U.S. publisher to go with ESPgaluda, Dodonpachi, or some other Cave title not strewn with girls dressed in gothic lolita fashions and other things that might scare off unfamiliar players.

Deathsmiles has plenty of that, and it's also one of Cave's rare horizontally scrolling shooters, as the developer usually prefers the vertical stuff. Yet it's still stocked with Cave's characteristically clever stage designs and weapon systems, and that's likely what drew Aksys Games to the game. After taking an equally big chance on Cho Aniki Zero, Aksys plans on releasing Deathsmiles for the Xbox 360. There's no exact release date, but I doubt the translation will take long.

In less surprising turns, Aksys announced a March release date for the PSP port of BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger Portable. While early screenshots of the game suggest something less vibrant and visually detailed than the proper BlazBlue, this Portable take will at least have Ultimate versions of the characters.

IN BRIEF: FINAL FANTASY XII SEQUEL STILL ALIVE, SONIC GAME ACTUALLY STARS SONIC
Last week, I mentioned a Final Fantasy XII sequel that was developed by Grin and presumably canceled. Well, that might not be the case. Even though Grin is gone, Square Enix is supposedly keeping this “Project Fortress” thing alive with another developer. Since they haven't confirmed anything yet, we have only rumors and a trailer that Square's deleting from video sites left and right.

Another game in development, Sega's Project Needlemouse is apparently going to feature only Sonic the Hedgehog as a playable character. The game may yet have all sorts of insufferable animal friends in the supporting cast, but Sega has confirmed that it's only Sonic under the player's control this time around. Now Sega will apparently work on making the game not terrible.

REVIEW: THE SKY CRAWLERS: INNOCENT ACES

Developer: Namco Bandai
Publisher: XSeed
Platform: Wii
Players: 1
MSRP: $29.99

The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces sounds like a really bad idea. It's based on a deliberately slow Mamoru Oshii film that used meaningless, chaotic dogfights to underscore the aimless lives of its characters, and a game can't celebrate that concept without destroying it. It's also a flight-action title that uses the Wii's remote and nunchuck for precise aerial battles, and that seems like a mess just waiting to happen. Yet Innocent Aces is the work of Namco's Ace Combat team. And if it betrays what Oshii's movie stood for, it's at least a fun betrayal.

While Innocent Aces ostensibly shares no characters with Oshii's The Sky Crawlers film, it's set in the same world, a European theater where bored, adrift young pilots fight constant aerial battles for the amusement of the populace and the benefit of large corporations. The cast of Innocent Aces initially seems a little more human than the recycled, genetically bred “Kildren” of the film, though the game's angle becomes clear when the player's avatar, Lynx, and his squadmates are shocked at the sight of their new recruits. They seem mere teenagers, and they're methodical weirdos except for the talkative Maumi Orishima.

Innocent Aces may portray technology no more advanced than the Second World War's, but Namco is willing to insert some anachronisms. The game uses both the Wii remote and nunchuck in unexpected ways: tilt both controllers to turn the plane, lift the remote to speed up, and keep the nunchuck high unless you want to crash. It's hard to grasp at first and downright awkward in the heat of combat, but the game cuts you many breaks. Specific aerial twists are mapped to the directions of the nunchuck's analog stick, and entering an enemy plane's radar field brings up the Tactical Maneuver Command meter. Tap a button at the right time, and you'll spin into some daring move that puts you right behind your target. It may irk those who prefer their flight games with grating realism, but the TMC system makes Innocent Aces a little simpler and a lot more enjoyable. Monitoring gauges and radar isn't half as satisfying as whirling around an pursuing plane and machine-gunning it to cinders.

Innocent Aces walks somewhere between a devoted flight sim and an arcade flier, and it's all the better for it, particular when the game gets tough. From the third mission on, it constantly challenges you to stay in command of your plane, whether you're bombing ground targets or trying to pin down an armored air fortress. The 18 missions range in their objectives, though they're rarely anything not seen in Ace Combat and its derivatives. Innocent Aces is more about its atmosphere, its distinctly antiquated visions of a World War II forever unfolding over the skies of Germany and France.

Oshii's movie was a mixture of subtle beauty and deliberate blandness, and Innocent Aces sometimes struggles to make that exciting. It looks decent enough, but the unlockable stream of pragmatically designed planes may bore anyone in search of visual panache. Games can stretch plausibility much more than movies, and I often found myself wishing for some over-detailed, Miyazaki-like fighters to take to the skies. At least the soundtrack, a Celtic-themed rush straight out of the film, works wonders for the dogfights, raising the tension without trying too hard.

Innocent Aces tells a lot of its story through in-battle radio babble, though Production I.G also animated plenty of cutscenes for the intermissions. It doesn't have the focus of Oshii's version of The Sky Crawlers (or its elaborate jabs at the entertainment industry), but Innocent Aces still touches on the important parts of the film's ideas, from the vapid amusement the world finds in the fake war, to the various ways in which the Kildren deal with their repetitious, manufactured existence. The English voicework is mostly accomplished, and a strong performance by Maumi's actress makes up for the grating, Ben-Stein-like cadence of the squad's base commander.

Compared to the quick-burning enjoyment of other anime-based games, Innocent Aces is a slow starter. Like Oshii's film, it takes a while to sink in, and it's highly satisfying once it does. Of course, it's going to be completely buried this season by Bayonetta, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, Mass Effect 2, and other high-profile games. Still, fans of The Sky Crawlers or solid flight-shooters should hunt it down. Overlooked or not, this is the rare anime adaptation that delivers more than a simple, playable cartoon.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 1-24

MASS EFFECT 2
Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Microsoft
Platform: Xbox 360/PC
Players: 1
MSRP: $59.99

Mass Effect 2 owes a bit to Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, as this sequel finds the heroic Commander Shepard recruiting intergalactic warriors to join a battle against the ominous alien race called the Collectors. That said, I hope Mass Effect 2 also pays homage to the first space opera to rip off Seven Samurai: Roger Corman's Battle Beyond the Stars. And while it probably won't have space valkyries dressed in Christmas streamers, Mass Effect 2 is clearly one of the year's biggest RPGs. Developer BioWare adds in more weapons, improved conversations, more aliens, and more options to customize Shepard so he or she isn't the completely bland cipher you see in all the Mass Effect 2 ads (Jennifer Hale is voicing the female version of the Commander, so play as her). It's also dressed up with plenty of laser-spewing, grenade-tossing action, which I suppose is indirectly faithful to the spirit of Corman's camp space-fantasy.
Get Excited If: You replayed the first Mass Effect just so the choices you made there will be fresh in your mind.

NO MORE HEROES 2: DESPERATE STRUGGLE
Developer: Grasshopper
Publisher: UbiSoft
Platform: Wii
Players: 1
MSRP: $49.99

For a little while after it was announced, I wondered if No More Heroes 2 actually existed. The original game was littered with jokes at the player's expense (such as the terrible side-jobs you were forced to do), and the whole thing capped off with a character telling us “too bad there won't be a sequel.” Well, that line was actually the joke, and there's a No More Heroes 2. It finds now-retired geek protagonist Travis Touchdown returning to his hometown of Santa Destroy three years after the events of the first game. Dragged back into the ranks of an assassin-centric underworld, Travis contends with a musical cult, a crazed admirer, and the encroaching Pizza Butt fast-food franchise. Apparently noting player distaste with some parts of the original No More Heroes, director Suda51 plans on a variety of actual enjoyable side-quests. Also on hand are more satisfying brawls with run-of-the-mill enemies in between what will likely be excellent boss fights. Of course, such predictions could just be part of the next big joke on you, the player.
Get Excited If: You've ever told someone, in jest or not, that a Suda51 game was “art.”

SHADOW OF DESTINY
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Platform: PSP
Players: 1
MSRP: $29.99

Shadow of Destiny was an interesting experiment in the early days of the PlayStation 2. A short, focused adventure by first-time game director Junko Kawano, it was driven by story more than any other title for the system, and Konami clearly thought enough of it to bring it to the PSP. It's set entirely in a small German city, where young Eike Kusch finds himself unexpectedly dead and thrust into a pact with a strange, sexless individual. Eike jumps between various time periods, using everyday items to solve puzzles and prevent his own death (Kawano used a similar idea in her recent Time Hollow). Along the way, he's wrapped up in a time-traveling version of Goethe's Faust, and the game splits into various paths and leads to several depressing endings. It still looks like a first-generation PlayStation 2 game, but the voice acting's been redone completely (apparently with Yuri Lowenthal as Eike). I only wish this enjoyable little title could come out in a month that isn't so stocked with big-name releases.
Get Excited If: You like the idea of a game built entirely around dialogue, time travel, and murder.

TATSUNOKO VS. CAPCOM: ULTIMATE ALL-STARS
Developer: Eighting
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: Wii
Players: 1-4
MSRP: $49.99

I'll admit that I'd anticipate Tatsunoko vs. Capcom more eagerly if I were a bigger fan of Tatsunoko Productions in the first place. Their superheroes and super-robots are good material for a fighting game, but that game doesn't fill me with the same nerdish glee I'd feel at seeing Ghibli vs. Capcom, Production I.G vs. Capcom, or even Gainax vs. Capcom. That aside, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom is a great return of Capcom's Versus series, which previously busied itself with Marvel characters. The latest draws from Tatsunoko's vast history of characters, from Gatchaman up through Karas, and Capcom's stable of characters from Street Fighter, Darkstalkers, Rival Schools, Megaman Legends, and even Quiz Nanairo Dreams. Matches involve teams of two characters tagging in and out (with the largest taking up two slots), and the gameplay stays two-dimensional amid the sharp visuals, much like Street Fighter IV. Ultimate All-Stars is also loaded with multiplayer mini-games, including a full shooter and challenges right out of Mario Party. The Wii version also adds five characters to the original arcade release: Dead Rising's Frank West, Megaman X's Zero, Tekkaman Blade's lead hero, Gatchaman's Joe, and Yatterman's Yatterman-2. I could complain that the lineup lacks Capcom's Linn Kursowa, Versus series regular Jin Saotome, or anyone from Speed Racer, but then I'd be ungrateful.
Get Excited If: You can name more than one Tatsunoko character.

EXTRA LIVES: USHIO AND TORA

What, you don't remember Ushio and Tora? Kazuhiro Fujita's manga won a Shogakukan Award in 1992! ADV Films released the 10-part anime series back in the 1990s, when the company was called A.D. Vision and the anime industry was actually growing! They even released it on DVD! All right, so Ushio and Tora might not loom large and billowing in the minds of anime fans today, but it made for a not-unwatchable demon-hunting series about a kid and his pet tiger-monster. In theory, it also made for a pretty decent video game. In practice, it didn't.

Like nearly half of all anime-derived games released on the Super Famicom, Yutaka's Ushio and Tora title is a side-scroller, full of running and jumping and slashing and, well, not much more. It stars Ushio, the scratchy-nosed son of a temple priest, and the ravenous cat-demon than one of his ancestors sealed up long ago. Tora, the aforementioned feline-thing, wants to devour Ushio, but various plot contrivances keep him from doing so. Together, the two of them fend off all sorts of hideous stock anime creatures, much like those seen in such 1990s demon-hunts as Zenki, Hell Teacher Nube, and other shows I can't even remember that well.

Ushio and Tora manages to get its atmosphere right, as players can control either the kid (in long-haired, spear-wielding form) or the tiger, and the levels all emulate the dank, ghostly environments seen in the manga and anime. They'd all be a little more impressive if the whole game didn't look like a TurboGrafx title. Characters are small, effects are limited, and the game's soundtrack is lacking in both tension and voice samples. To the developers' credit, there's an actual storyline that touches on many of the usual Ushio and Tora elements, but its clipped presentation is likely to bore even fans of the series.

There are far worse Super Famicom games drawn from anime and manga, but I've never seen one that so effectively captures the quick-buck ideals of the genre as Ushio and Tora does. Everything about the game is merely adequate, from the brief levels to the limited attacks. Ushio and Tora can strike in several directions, and momentarily power-up their movies, though Tora is inexplicably less effective. Most of the boss fights require little beyond typical pattern-watching, and there's nothing in the way of secrets. Especially annoying is the lack of a two-player mode, which would've suited the character dynamic nicely. Instead, the game doesn't even let you switch between Ushio and the less useful Tora on the fly. You're forced to pick one or the other each time you start a new game.

Ushio and Tora might've made some fans happy back in the day, when it was probably a relief to find at least something playable inside the Super Famicom game you'd just bought for $120. Today, though, it'll interest only hardcore Ushio and Tora fans. I'm sure they're out there.

The Super Famicom version of Ushio and Tora isn't very expensive, running about $20 for a complete copy. It should not be confused with the Ushio and Tora RPG for the regular Famicom, as that's both more expensive and less entertaining.


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