The X Button
Riding, Roping, and Robots

by Todd Ciolek, Apr 21st 2010

It's always good when a long-lost piece of game history comes to light, and it's even better when that piece involves message-board pranks and giant apes. Such is the domain of Seta's Bio Force Ape. It's an NES action game starring a huge simian pro-wrestler, and it's one of the more sought-after titles among old games that were never actually released. It also fueled an excellent hoax among game collectors, and some people suspected that this was as close as they'd get to seeing the real Bio Force Ape. They were wrong.

Thanks to a Yahoo! Japan auction and a good amount of money, a prototype of Bio Force Ape was brought to the world, and 1up.com debuted it this very night. As they point out, the game isn't a finished product. It has only three stages with no actual boss battles, and the control and hit detection are rather loose. It's technically complete, with an ending and a grueling final stage, but there's no way Seta could've released this back in 1991. Well, not without getting a frowny Gamepro face or two.

Yet Bio Force Ape is still fun. The game moves shockingly fast for an NES title, and Bio Force Ape himself has all sorts of strange moves and mannerisms. He flails his arms as he falls! He rolls through stages at breakneck speeds! And he uses pro-wrestling attacks on his enemies! Those enemies are a cavalcade of animal-man mutants, including a half-kangaroo that walks on human arms and a man with crocodile jaws for feet. Bio Force Ape may be ragged and incomplete, but it's not just another routine NES side-scroller. And with any luck, more of us will find that out first-hand.

NEWS

MARVEL VS.CAPCOM 3: MORRIGAN MAKES OUT WITH IRON MAN
Yes, CAPCOM finally announced Marvel vs. CAPCOM 3: Fate of Two Worlds. While rumors of the game stirred last week, fan anticipation about it has built up over nearly a decade. Players debated just who should be in the next massive conflict between comic-book heroes and CAPCOM characters, and now we can see the results of CAPCOM's hard work: Chris Redfield from Resident Evil.

OK, so Chris is only the first new fighter to be announced, and CAPCOM also unveiled some predictable choices: Ryu from Street Fighter, Morrigan from Darkstalkers, and the introduction-free Wolverine, Iron Man, and Hulk. Check the silhouettes in the background of the above illustration, and you might pick out some other characters. I see Chun-Li, Felicia, Dante, and what's probably Deadpool.

CAPCOM started the game back in 2008, and the roster's currently at 30 characters, with more to be added. Other details have yet to be worked out. Will the game have teams of two characters or three? Just how much will it simply the interface? And, even if it uses the same engine as Resident Evil 5, will it look anything like the trailer?

Perhaps CAPCOM had good reason to keep the game under wraps for so long, as Marvel vs. CAPCOM 3 won't be out until Spring 2011. It'll head straight for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, skipping an arcade release. This means that I won't have to make good on my promise to buy an expensive arcade version of the game if the developers include Alien vs. Predator's Linn Kurosawa or trucker-superhero U.S. 1. Not that they ever would.

OKAMIDEN, GHOST TRICK, SAMURAI HEROES COMING TO U.S.
As if to remind that they do more than team up with Marvel, CAPCOM announced North American releases for Okamiden, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, and Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes.

Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes is the third numbered game in CAPCOM's line of feudal-Japan brawlers. The first was published here as Devil Kings, which did its best to hide its Japanese roots. There'll be no such renaming for Sengoku Basara, which'll be out on the PlayStation 3 and Wii in Japan this summer, with an English version arriving in the fall.

It's not surprising that Okamiden's coming to the U.S., as the original Okami was a beloved cult hit (so much so that CAPCOM rewarding its developers by firing them). Okamiden stars the wolf-deity Chibiterasu, who uses a paintbrush capable of bringing just about any illustration to life. In Okamiden, the DS stylus controls Chibi's human sidekick, though I wonder if any of those sidekicks will prove as likable as the little wolf pup. Too bad the game won't be here until early 2011.

It's something of a relief to see Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective lined up for a translation. Though it comes from the creator of Phoenix Wright, Ghost Trick dropped out of sight last year and seemed like the sort of obscure DS project that CAPCOM might overlook. A weirdly stylish mixtures of side-scrolling puzzles and dialogue-driven gameplay, Ghost Trick has a vagrant spirit possessing various objects in the hopes of solving his own murder…or at least preventing other killings. Ghost Trick's out in the U.S. this winter.

SQUARE ENIX SNEAKS OUT CHAOS RINGS
Square Enix has supported mobile-phone games for years, but Chaos Rings is their most ambitious project yet: a full-blown RPG that looks elaborate enough for a PlayStation-era Final Fantasy. Set in a world where gladiator teams live short and brutish lives for the greater benefit of civilization, the game follows several pairs of men and women as they trek across ruined cities, fiery caverns, and other locales you'd expect in a Square Enix RPG.

And just like that, it's out for the iPhone today. It costs a little more than the usual iPhone app, but you can always pretend that it's 1994 and that RPGs are pricier because they're longer.

REVIEW: SAKURA WARS: SO LONG, MY LOVE

Developer: Sega
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PS2/Wii
Players: 1
MSRP: $39.99/$29.99
Note:Two-disc PS2 set includes poster, art booklet, and the Japanese-language version of the game.

Nothing represents the bizarre melding of video games and anime quite as well as Sakura Wars. There are thousands of games that combine dating simulators with the accumulated clichés of the anime industry, but Sega's Sakura Wars is a shade different. It has the backing of a major publisher, the detailed gameplay of a solid Sega title, and a competently realized alternate-history 1920s for its stage. Most importantly, it has a reason to exist apart from making social cripples slightly less lonesome. Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love doesn't escape its preposterous origins completely, but it stands apart from the usual anime-RPG trash.

As the fifth game in the series, Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love rebooted everything: the stars of the first four titles appear only briefly to introduce new hero Shinjiro Taiga, a slightly nervous Japanese naval ensign who's sent off to New York to command the local demon-hunting Star Division (how Shinjiro got the gig is unclear, but being the nephew of the former main character has its advantages). In the heart of an amusingly sanitized version of 1920s New York, Shinjiro joins the staff of Little Lip Theater, where the actresses and stage crew are all secretly part of the city's front-line defense against hell-spawned invaders. And because this game is set in an alternate version of the 1920s envisioned by Japanese developers, Shinjiro and the rest of the cast pilot squat, steam-driven mecha that can transform into short-range jet fighters.

Sakura Wars games rely on clear archetypes, though Shinjiro's co-stars in So Long, My Love are elaborate pile-ups of anime staples. Lawyer Cheiron Archer is an uptight firebrand doing her best to ignore her street-tough past. Subaru Kujo is an androgynous, distant intellectual with a sly vein of humor. Mexican bounty hunter Rosarita Aries is a constantly hungry ball of energy coping with her dad's death. Frail doctor Diana Caprice is almost too sweet-natured to function in real life. The game's ostensible lead is one Gemini Sunrise, a redhead Texan cowgirl versed in (and obsessed with) samurai arts, which may connect her to a mysterious masked rider prowling the city streets. To round things out, the theater's run by the flirtatious Cherry Cocker and the initially cold Anri Yoshino, with supportive captain Ratchet Altair overseeing everything.

Sakura Wars is often described as some hybrid of dating simulator and strategy-RPG, but that's only a rough outline of the series. In truth, it's an actual TV show strung together with game conventions. In each episode, Shinjiro explores New York and interacts with the cast through conversations, and his player-chosen responses either endear him to the female cast or piss them off (just like in real life, a helpful tone plays to tell you when someone's upset). During these discussions, mini-games pop up for all sorts of events (playing basketball, washing dishes, etc.) where simple twists of the controller guide Shinjiro's actions. There's a good reason to keep Shinjiro on friendly terms with everyone: his fellow pilots are all ranked in terms of how motivated they are in combat, and the game's ending depends on just who forms the closet bond with our hero.

Not that So Long, My Love can be taken seriously. It's a brazen anime puffball masquerading as a game, and yet there's some charm in seeing it all unfold in a New York that never was. From its adorably naïve version of 1920s Harlem to its broadly sketched characters, the game has a quaint, disarming style that's unlike anything else out there. A fair litmus test is Gemini Sunrise, whose aw-shucks-pardner enthusiasm should be annoying by any measure. Instead, she's constantly amusing.

Of course, So Long, My Love still leans on the crutches of harem anime, though in a way that barely pokes past a PG rating. Innuendo abounds and Shinjiro can always make an intemperate remark, yet everything's downright innocent in comparison to any other game that could be labeled a “dating simulator.” So Long, My Love shows restraint in focusing on character interaction instead of titillation, and it's thankfully tasteful enough to couch Shinjiro's relationship with the 11-year-old Rosarita as platonic and comical. The actual romantic elements, however, often call out for a little maturity; one scene with Gemini and Shinjiro re-titles the game as Sakura Wars: Kiss Her, You Goddamn Moron.

It's all ultimately too fluffy to be off-putting or creepy. In fact, it's hard to even view Shinjiro as the audience's insertion point. His personality depends largely on the player, but he's far more defined than the heroes other games (and anime series) that group doting girls around a nebbish guy. So Long, My Love seems less like a playground for deprived young nerds and more like a quest to ensure Shinjiro finds his one true love. That's Gemini Sunrise, by the way.

The game's anime overtones are a bit much, and if more sensitive players aren't driven away by scenes of the cast giggling over making pancakes, they'll give up after a whole chapter's worth of wandering the game's sparsely populated vision of New York City. For every hour of strategic warfare, there are three of looking around streets, talking with Star Division members, and working through trite little subplots and character development. It's a slow, patient sort of game, and anyone demanding immediate warfare with demons will be disappointed.

Oh yeah, there's a strategy-RPG here, and it's a decent one. The Star Division's conflicts with demon invaders are played out as free-roaming battles, as mechs clank around NYC attractions and strike anything in range. Each character's steam-engine robot has a unique attack, and an energy bar determines just how many of those attacks you can unload in a combo. There's little customization involved, yet the combat shows off some interesting ideas, tying movement and actions to the same meter and letting characters pull off joint attacks if enemies are in the proper range. Some battles take place in multiple areas (culminating with an appearance by Japan's favorite historical boogeyman, Oda Nobunaga), and leaping from one scene to another requires a lick of strategy. It resembles a prototype for Sega's Valkyria Chronicles, even if Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is much lighter on the combat. It's a shame that the battles don't last even one-fourth of the overall game, but they're tight, fun, and occasionally challenging.

There's not much to impress visually in Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love, though it looks competent for a PlayStation 2 game from 2005. Most of the game is conveyed by still images and dialogue, with 3-D scenery showing during battles or city excursions. At least the art's pleasant enough, though Kohei Tanaka's soundtrack swings from appealingly bouncy to downright annoying.

NIS America's localization was clearly an extensive project, and it shows in the typos that sometimes pop up. Still, the dialogue gets creative when it needs to, and cultural idioms are smoothed over nicely. Less impressive is the lip-sync, which is often wildly mistimed during conversations.

Fortunately, the voice acting holds it all up. The Japanese cast is accomplished, and the English version of the game comes through quite well. Characters like Ratchet and Cheiron get relatively dignified performances, while the more stereotyped cast members cut loose: Melissa Fahn gives Rosita the same carefree energy that she brought to Cowboy Bebop's Ed, and Laura Bailey does wonders with Gemini. Playing up the down-home-y'all patois, she delivers a performance that's gleefully over-the-top. And that's completely in line with Sakura Wars.

Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is not for those with low anime tolerances: it's garish, sugary-sweet, and never even remotely concerned with making sense. And it's also like nothing else out there, with its enjoyable strategy-RPG battles and a goofily endearing tale of a New York where the worst problems are otherworldly monsters. For those who can embrace pure cartoon melodrama, Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is great entertainment.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

NIER
Developer: Cavia
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PS3/Xbox 360
Players: 1
MSRP: $59.99

Nier struck an interesting balance by dividing itself up for different audiences: the Japan-aimed Nier Replicant starred a waifish, white-haired youth out to rescue his kidnapped sister, while the America-oriented Nier Gestalt featured an older, beefier version of the hero intent on recovering his abducted daughter. Square Enix then played favorites: Japan gets Replicant andGestalt, while North America gets only Gestalt under the title of just-plain-Nier. The two versions are similar, of course, as both are bloody, hack-and-slack action games featuring plenty of hideous enemies. Our hero Nier's sidekicks are also the same: a talking book named Weiss and Kaine, a foul-mouthed female warrior possessed by a male demon (some press materials describe her as intersexed, which is at least a novel approach to the whole idea of scantily dressed game heroines). Nier certainly has the look of an ambitious bloodfest, with a strange method of attacking using shadows. Then again, it's made by Cavia, a developer that traffics in mediocre action fare such as Drakengard, Bullet Witch, and Beat Down: Fists of Vengeance.
Get Excited If: You've already burned through Bayonetta, Darksiders, and God of War III.

RECORD OF AGAREST WAR
Developer: Idea Factory
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platform: PS3 (download-only), Xbox 360
Players: 1
MSRP: $59.99 (Xbox 360 Special Edition), TBA for PS3 version

Record of Agarest War isn't the first Idea Factory strategy-RPG to come to North America. Nor is it the first strategy-RPG with dating-simulator elements. It is, however, the first domestically released game to ship with a gel-boobs mousepad and a pillowcase. Aksys Games is not remotely ashamed of this, and these bonus goods are even pitched as a “Yearning Ellis” pillowcase and a “Sensual Vira-Lorr” mousepad. Beyond that, Record of Agarest War is a traditional grid-based strategy game with a large supporting cast of female characters, most of whom can be courted and married. Such unions spawn children who eventually grow up and continue the original hero's epic quest, lending a vague point to the game's frequent shots of anime women getting dressed or taking baths or eating suspiciously large sausages. Only the Xbox 360 version is available in retail stores, though buyers will have to explain the salaciously packaged special edition to friends, family, and clerks. PlayStation 3 owners can simply download the game.
Get Excited If: You already have your virtual Agarest bride picked out.

SUPER STREET FIGHTER IV
Developer: CAPCOM
Publisher: CAPCOM
Platform: PS3/Xbox 360
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $39.99

I like to think that Super Street Fighter IV is an apology of sorts for what happened with Super Street Fighter II back in 1993. It was a disappointing attempt at an upgrade, with only one of the four new characters emerging as interesting. For many arcade brats, it marked the point where we stopped caring so much about Street Fighter II. Super Street Fighter IV isn't like that. It's an expansion, sure enough, but it adds one new Ultra combo per character, robust online modes, new costumes, bonus stages and other little details. And it expands the roster by not four, but ten characters. Most of them are faces from other Street Fighter games (including the largely unnecessary Adon, T. Hawk, and Cody), but two new fighters show up: Juri's a downright evil Tae Kwon Do kicking artist with subtle powers over time and space, and Hakan is a Turkish oil wrestler with some of most preposterous special attacks this series has ever seen. CAPCOM hinted at something extra for buyers who already own Street Fighter IV, but Super seems like an appealing package even without any bonus carrots dangled before it.
Get Excited If: You already want Juri and Hakan in Marvel vs. CAPCOM 3.


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