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Ninja Science

by Todd Ciolek, Feb 3rd 2010

This past week carried a strange dose of nostalgia for me. I became a game nerd, or “gamer” as the kids today like to call it, back in the early-to-mid 1990s. It was a grand and stupid age: fighting games were huge, Sega was viable, and the Super Nintendo was the place to go for console RPGs. From classics like Chrono Trigger all the way down to Inindo: Way of the Ninja and Paladin's Quest, the system had plenty of RPGs to offer American kids, and there were ten times as many if you looked to the Japanese market.

Those days are long gone. In fact, I'd say that the Super NES was the last Nintendo system with a strong RPG presence. The Nintendo 64 had few straight-from-the-bottle RPGs to speak of, and the GameCube had few major ones. Yet the Wii is now pulling in some prominent J-RPG names, with the upcoming Dragon Quest X, Hironobu Sakaguchi's The Last Story (see below) and Tetsuya Takahashi's Xenoblade (also below!). All it needs is a real Final Fantasy, the next Persona, and a Yasumi Matsuno RPG. Too bad this is happening at a time when Japanese RPGs are yielding much of the spotlight to their American and European co-stars.

NEWS

LAST STORY ANNOUNCED FOR THE WII
Hironobu Sakaguchi and his Mistwalker studio spent much of last year working on an unnamed RPG, and that game recently came to light. Sakaguchi, best known as the creator of Final Fantasy, left Square to make RPGs like Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey, so one might guess just what he named his new Wii game.

That's right: The Last Story. And here's its theme: human emotion. No further details are known right now; no screens, no characters, no nothing. The only thing we have is the circulating suspicion that Hideo Manaba drew the title art. Minaba, art director for several old Final Fantasies, designed the characters for Mistwalker's DS-based bomb ASH, so it's no stretch for him to work on The Last Story. Despite the lack of information about the game, Mistwalker and Nintendo plan to release it for the Japanese Wii this year.

MONADO RENAMED XENOBLADE, ALSO COMING TO WII
Little was seen of Monolith Soft's Monado: Beginning of the World in recent months, but it was recently renamed for Japan. The Wii RPG is now known as Xenoblade, in tribute to its creative team of director Tetsuya Takahashi and writer Soraya Saga. They were behind the Xenosaga trilogy and the cult-favorite RPG Xenogears (and, if I'm not mistaken, they're married in real life), and Saga also contributed to Monolith's action-RPG Soma Bringer.

Not much has changed beyond the Japanese title; in fact, it'll still be called Monado in the West. The game's still an action-RPG with multi-character parties and crawling buglike monsters, and there's still an unwieldy looking sword at the center of it all. That sword and a nice splash illustration are all that can be seen at the official website, though there's a rather striking piece of music to accompany them. Is this the work of Yasunori Mitsuda, the composer for Chrono Cross and Xenosaga?

DISGAEA INFINITE COMING TO THE U.S. IN MAY
Just how devoted are Disgaea fans? They've bought the strategy-RPGs, the Prinny-based platfoming game, the various reissues, and all sorts of merchandise. But will they buy an adventure game, one played entirely through dialogue and plot branches?

You know, I think they will. While it lacks much action, the PSP adventure Disgaea Infinite is immersed in the goofball humor that drew many to Disgaea in the first place, as it portrays an attempted-murder mystery in the Netherworld. Using a specialized clock, a Prinny penguin-demon possesses various Disgaea characters in search of the mastermind behind an assassination attempt. This means that you can add mind control and ghostly possession to the checklist of fetishes that Disgaea covers. And you can do it in May, when NIS America brings Disgaea Infinite stateside.

REVIEW: TATSUNOKO VS. CAPCOM: ULTIMATE ALL-STARS

Developer: Capcom/Eighting
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: Wii
Players: 1-4 (in the mini-games)
MSRP: $49.99

The name of Tatsunoko may be unfamiliar to much of the American game-buying public, but it makes perfect sense to see it in Capcom's Versus line of fighters. After all, the Versus series started off with the X-Men taking on the cast of Street Fighter, and from there it expanded to all of the Marvel and Capcom empires. Why shouldn't Capcom do the same for the world of Japanese superheroes, using the anime catalog of Tatsunoko Productions? And why shouldn't Capcom release the results, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars, in North America?

Of course, things have changed for fighting games since Capcom last trotted out the Versus label. This Tatsunoko entry is rendered in 3-D graphics, with every character recreated as cartoonish polygons. The lineups also reflect modern games on the Capcom side, where standbys such as Ryu, Chun-Li, Mega Man and Darkstalkers' Morrigan share space with the stars of Viewtiful Joe, Lost Planet, and Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams. The Tatsunoko half is much the opposite, focusing the older, best-known characters: Gatchaman's Ken, Joe, and Jun are perhaps the only ones the West will immediately recognize, but the game also offers Casshan, Tekkaman, Ippatsuman, the towering robot Gold Lightan, Polimar of Hurricane Polymar, and Yatterman's Doronjo, Yatterman-1, and Yatterman-2. Oh, and some recent names from Karas and Tekkaman Blade sneaked into the game.

In other ways, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom is familiar territory for Capcom's Versus games: pick two characters (or just one if you want either huge robot) and swap between them in the middle of a fight. Every character hurls ridiculously flamboyant attacks, racking up combos in the millions and generally derailing any real attempt at a deep fighting game. Sure, it's a reasonably complex game, with plenty of special moves and useful techniques, but it never approaches the competitive extremes of, say, Street Fighter IV or Virtua Fighter 5. In fact, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom may be less complex than recent entries like Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Capcom vs. SNK 2. Those had at least four attacks buttons, while Tatsunoko vs. Capcom has three, with a fourth letting the off-screen partner tag in. If it's not intricate, it's at least fun; characters belt each other into the air for combos, fireballs and lasers fill the screen, and previously staid fighters get reckless new moves. Chun-Li, for one, is more fun to play here than she is in Street Fighter IV.

Solid mechanics keep Tatsunoko vs. Capcom engaging, but the game owes a lot to its staggering look. Colors explode and warp with every attack, and the characters are sharp, striking a balance between the hand-drawn Capcom art of old and the polygon look that never quite fit fighting games until 1999 or so. The backgrounds also recall both Capcom and Tatsunoko sights, from the mechanical dogs of Yatterman to the scampering Servbots of Mega Man Legends. The soundtrack is warbling, catchy stuff (the dreadful opening song aside), and the voice acting includes both Capcom regulars and such Tatsunoko anime actors as Isao Sasaki and Noriko Ohara.

It's strange to see a major arcade fighter ported to the Wii, the modern console with the least traditional controller. Yet Capcom's taken care of that. The game can use the remote and nunchuck for extremely simple controls, but it's much better to use a GameCube pad, a Wii classic controller, or one of those pricey joysticks. It's a fighting game, one that was never really meant to work with motion-sensing remotes and waggling.

Ultimate All-Stars may seem like the definitive version of Tatsunoko vs. Capcom; compared to the game's initial Japanese release, this new edition sports five more characters and a four-player mini-game called Ultimate All-Shooters. Still, it loses a few of the original's multiplayer party games, as well as the genie from Hakushon Daimaō and his related math game. The endings, which were fully animated in the original game, are now just still images and text. Yet those are mostly minor extras, and Tatsunoko vs. Capcom is still stocked with features to be purchased (using in-game money instead of real stuff, thank heavens) and secrets to be uncovered. Press some buttons during the credits and you'll see what I mean.

In fact, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom is the sort of solid fighter that leaves you with only petty personal complaints about the characters. For one thing, the Tatsunoko lineup leans too heavily on tights-clad superheroes. The Gatchaman crew are icons of their era, but does a game really need Ippatsuman and Polimar? Large chunks of the company's post-1980 output are skipped, the Samurai Pizza Cats were denied a spot, and Speed Racer is curiously absent (possibly due to legal issues, possibly due to him fighting with a car). Capcom, meanwhile, is intent on representing current games, even when the choices aren't particularly interesting. Dead Rising's Frank West is great, Viewtiful Joe is a welcome addition, and it's nice to see three different brands of Mega Man represented. Yet Kaijin no Soki from Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams is just boring, and the PTX-40A from Lost Planet is a bland, faceless chunk of metal when compared to older Capcom robots like Cyberbots' Blodia and the entire Tech Romancer bench. And while Capcom has publicly explained why Phoenix Wright didn't make it in (language problems?), his absence is still a sore point.

But let's not complain too much about what Tatsunoko vs. Capcom doesn't have, because it still has plenty to offer both the casual fighting game fan and the hardcore follower who doesn't mind a little fluff. It'll even break through the facades of those who don't care about Tatsunoko's catalog of anime. It's not an old 50-episode TV series that aired only in Japan and Brazil. It's only a well-crafted fighting game, and that's something just about anyone can enjoy.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 2-7

BIOSHOCK 2
Developer: 2K Marin/2K Australia
Publisher: 2K Games
Platform: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360/PC
Players: 1-Multiplayer
MSRP: $59.99

I almost wanted the original BioShock to go without sequels. That way it would have the mystique of a stand-alone classic, like Planescape: Torment or Vagrant Story. Not that BioShock 2 looks to be a careless cash-in; it's set ten years after the original, and the vast underwater colony of Rapture is once again the stage. Players are cast as a slightly more intelligent prototype for the lumbering, biologically engineered Big Daddy guardians, and there's another corrupt ruler to be deposed, though she's more of a collectivist than the first game's Ayn Rand fanboy. The Little Sisters still play a major role in the gameplay, with the other Big Daddies and the newly introduced Big Sisters providing much bio-cyborg antagonism for the player. More dramatic is the game's multiplayer mode; taking place before the events of the first BioShock, it lets players act out the violent disintegration of the colony's society by controlling one of six specific characters (eight if you reserve the game at the right store). Of course, it involves more shooting and hacking than discourse over the failings of Objectivism.
Get Excited If: You wanted multiplayer in the first game so bad.

DATA EAST ARCADE CLASSICS
Developer: Data East
Publisher: Majesco
Platform: Wii
Players: 1-Various
MSRP: $19.99

If you need to remember the glory days of Data East arcade games, think of that scene in Robocop 2, in which our cyborg hero slams a crooked cop into one Data West arcade cabinet after another. Sadly, neither of the company's Robocop games is included on Data East Arcade Classics, but many other familiar titles are: Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja (a.k.a. Bad Dudes), Burnin' Rubber, Heavy Barrel, Caveman Ninja (a.k.a. Joe & Mac), Side Pocket, Secret Agent, Magical Drop III, Street Hoops, Express Raider, Crude Buster (a.k.a. Two Crude Dudes), Lock 'N Chase, Wizard Fire, Super Real Darwin, BurgerTime, and the BurgerTime sequel Peter Pepper's Ice Cream Factory. Not every one of those can be called a classic (Super Real Darwin is one of the most boring shooters ever), though it's nice to have fifteen Data West games in one package, complete with unlockable bonuses. Maybe those Robocop games are hidden in there after all, expired copyrights be damned.
Get Excited If: You remember the special joystick from Heavy Barrel.

SHIREN THE WANDERER
Developer: Chunsoft
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: Wii
Players: 1
MSRP: $39.99

I have no hard numbers, but I'd guess that Sega's release of Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer on the DS wasn't a complete failure. Despite its angry American cover art, it sold well enough for Atlus to grab the Wii follow-up and drop the Mystery Dungeon part of the title. Shiren has always been a dungeon hack, so the Wii title is all about exploring mazes. Sure, it looks like a modern game, and computer-rendered clips tell the tale of a long-slumbering princess, a wandering warrior, a talking ferret, and a huge hat. But don't let that distract from the randomly generated dungeons, filled with monsters and traps for the heroic Shiren and his various partners to tackle. Combat uses the same turn-based style as other Mystery Dungeons, with monsters moving and attacking only when the player acts. Fortunately, said player has a lot of options, from various magical spells to throwing weapons. There's also an easy setting, and I fully expect it to be ignored by most of the people who buy this.
Get Excited If: You like it when games actively hate you.

STAR OCEAN: THE LAST HOPE INTERNATIONAL
Developer: tri-Ace
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PlayStation
Players: 1
MSRP: $59.99

The Xbox 360 version of Star Ocean: The Last Hope was perhaps a disappointment, which explains why Square Enix is taking a different route in selling Star Ocean: The Really Really Final and Absolute Last Hope and We're Not Kidding I Swear on the PlayStation 3. For one thing, the cover shows off the anime-like look of the characters, while the front of the Xbox 360 version hid them in shadow. Beyond that, the actual game isn't much different: set well before any other Star Ocean, The Last Hope finds a team of explorers striking out from a war-torn Earth in search of new planets. They find a mixture of space opera and fantasy-RPGs staples, plus one of those chaotic and flashy battle systems tri-Ace loves so very much. The PlayStation 3 version's improvements are largely cosmetic: players get both English and Japanese voice tracks, plus the choice of seeing either CG portraits or anime-like headshots of the characters in battle.
Get Excited If: You gave up on the Xbox 360 version of Star Ocean: The Last Hope not because of the pacing or plot, but because of the battle portraits..

SUPER MONKEY BALL STEP & ROLL
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Wii
Players: 1-Various
MSRP: $49.99

Of all the major Sega franchises, Super Monkey Ball had the most low-key rise to fame. It was originally just a cute game for the arcade and the Gamecube, but it's seen steady sequels and updates, and now the mascot Ai-Ai plays tennis with Sonic and Ulala. Like all Super Monkey Balls before it, Step & Roll packs cartoon monkeys in suffocating bubbles and sends them rolling through tropical courses. There's something new this time around, though: the WiiFit balance board. Players can manipulate their spherical avatars by riding that big piece of white plastic. It's an idea that suits the simple style of Super Monkey Ball very well, though it raises a problem for the game's multiplayer mode. There's an elaborate array of mini-games to play with others, but you'll need a balance board for each player if you want to avoid arguments.
Get Excited If: You move your body around when you play even regular Super Monkey Ball.

EXTRA LIVES: METAL WARRIORS

LucasArts is known for several breeds of game: Star Wars cash-ins, enjoyable and now-scarce graphic adventures like Grim Fandango, and perhaps even the 16-bit shooter Zombies Ate My Neighbors. LucasArts is clearly not known for Super NES side-scrollers rooted in the Gundam standard of robot-waged wars in space, but that's exactly what Metal Warriors is.

Created by most of the team behind Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Metal Warriors most clearly resembles Cybernator and other games from Masaya's Assault Suits series, with their lumbering mecha, rampant explosions, and carefully detailed environments. It's also set on a very similar stage: in the early 22nd century, a ragged alliance is at war with dictator Venkar Amon and his Dark Axis (subtle!) forces. As the largely voiceless Lieutenant Stone, players take on all sorts of missions, from space colony raids to forays through jungle bases.

Fortunately, players aren't limited to one bulky mecha. Six different types of robot lie waiting to be discovered in stages, and only the Nitro and the Havoc are standard Gundam-esque machines. The Prometheus is a clanking, non-jumping heavyweight armed with aerial mines, cannons, and a flamethrower. The Ballistic has a chargeable plasma gun and gets around by rolling into a ball and crashing through enemies. The Drache is a flying mecha with eight-way firing and a diving attack, while the Spider can fire immobilizing webs and crawl on any surface. Each has its own control style, and all of them can equip rocket launchers, gravity-flippers, and other temporary weapons. Better still, players can switch between them by exiting a mecha and puttering around as a jetpack-equipped pilot. You're all but defenseless when out of your mecha, though you can gun down equally tiny enemy soldiers and, if you're a jackass, unarmed scientists.

Metal Warriors is rather unforgiving in its challenges, but it's also varied. One battle has players defending a space cruiser, and another pits them against giant grublike robots that bore through a city, knocking over shelled-out skyscrapers. The game's stages often rely on switch-flicking and sadistic enemy placement, but the variety of robots makes it easy to experiment. Indeed, Metal Warriors invites players to use several different mecha throughout a stage, backtracking in puny human form when your mecha is damaged (signified by its colors fading). Metal Warriors also limits the player to five continues, and any newcomer is certain to use them all before making it through all nine missions, plus a few bonuses for the best players.

Metal Warriors is often mistaken for an Assault Suits game, even though it's a LucasArts creation through and through (watch the later stages for a Zombies Ate My Neighbors reference). Still, it's easy to understand the confusion, as the game resembles the sort of detail-obsessed mecha-anime homage rarely made outside of Japan. The robot designs of Metal Warriors are all excellent, avoiding generic appearances in favor of novel machines that borrow equally from Battletech, Star Wars, and Macross. The game's levels are detailed as well, and they handle a lot of exploding robots before slowing down. A shame the soundtrack's barely adequate and too repetitious to be memorable.

The single-player campaign is solid enough, but Metal Warriors truly shine in its two-player mode. Players pick one of the six robots and hunt each other through stages, as a split-screen shows either robot's position. With traps and power-ups strewn throughout each level, matches rarely grow predictable, and crafty players can win with just about any droid. Yes, even the somewhat unwieldy Spider.

Metal Warriors had no luck in the marketplace: Nintendo planned to publish it at first, but the picky industry magnate later tossed the game to Konami, which released fairly limited quantities in the summer of 1995. Since then, Metal Warriors has become a minor cult classic of the Super NES, resulting in rather inflated prices among collectors. A Virtual Console release would fix that, and, more importantly, it would bring mecha geeks and shooter fans in touch with an unappreciated gem from the LucasArts catalog.

A mecha-heavy game like Metal Warriors would seem a perfect fit for the Japanese market, but the game was only released in America (rumors persisted of it showing up in Japan as Assault Suits Gideon, but those were debunked by the game's programmers). As a U.S. exclusive, it's tough to find, with online prices usually clearing fifty bucks. A Game Boy Advance port was in the works, but was apparently canceled.


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