Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
I usually start these columns off with something glib. I won't do that this week. Because Satoshi Kon passed away.
Kon was everything anime needed: a director whose work impressed by any standard. His films are vibrant, sharply meaningful treasures that rise far above the baggage of the industry. He was among the interviews I wanted most during my time at an anime magazine, and I'm sorry that the closest I ever got was sitting in the audience at a film festival devoted to him. All I can do now is to recommend Millennium Actress, Paranoia Agent, Tokyo Godfathers and the rest of his work as often as I can, while knowing the most we'll see of future Kon projects is his possibly unfinished Yume-Miru Kikai film. The anime industry's in a lonely place right now, and it'll be even more empty without Satoshi Kon.
ATLUS ANNOUNCES PERSO…UH, CATHERINE
Catherine isn't a Persona game, but there's little question that it takes after Atlus' long-running series of RPGs about demons, sexuality, and bleak modern life. It has the same eerie, cinematic look, and it's made by the same team: Persona 4 director Katsura Hashino, composer Shoji Meguro, and regular Persona character designer Shigenori Soejima. What's more, Catherine's main character, Vincent, briefly showed up in Persona 3 Portable as a nightmare-stricken bystander.
In Catherine, Vincent's introduced as a thirty-ish office worker whose static life is shaken by two things: a brazen young woman named Catherine and his own reoccurring dreams about sheep, an unending staircase, and other Persona-ish imagery. The trailer is concerned mostly with this premise and its introductions of Catherine, Vincent, and a woman who's very cross with Vincent at the end of the whole preview. This may be related to the frequent flashes of Catherine and Vincent naked and in bed together. It's nothing we haven't seen in anime that carries parental-guidance warnings (possibly of the "Manga Man Says" variety), but it's a relief to encounter a game with stylish sex scenes instead of Dragon Age's humping mannequins.
But what sort of game is Catherine, anyway? Atlus denotes it as a nebulous “action-adventure,” but they haven't yet described the gameplay in detail. Perhaps it's a stealth-based deal where Vincent dodges talking sheep and engages in button-slamming sex mini-games in the style of God of War. I'm sure the game will reveal something more interesting than such conjectures, and we'll learn more before Atlus ships Catherine for the Japanese Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 this winter.
ATLUS IS ALSO PUBLISHING NARUTO GAMES
Atlus has a semi-popular series or two, with Persona being the standout. Yet the publisher's latest acquisition might be their biggest, as Atlus is apparently bringing out Naruto games. In a partnership with Tomy, Atlus will deliver Naruto Shippūden: Dragon Blade Chronicles for the Wii and Naruto Shippūden: Naruto vs. Sasuke for the DS this November 16. Atlus, knowing the audience through and through, announced a set of five figures available with the game through Amazon. Pre-orders at Amazon also get a bonus keychain, while GameStop customers can get a Naruto cap (not a headband) the same way.
Naruto Shippūden: Dragon Blade Chronicles seems a Naruto movie in game form. It's an free-roaming brawler with an emphasis on controlling Naruto and Sasuke instead of a huge cast of Naruto characters, even though most of the lineup gets new ninja armor to strut. There's also an original storyline featuring a new villain in the form of a rogue ninja named Kuroma, as well as a new female character, the red-haired Akari, for Naruto to befriend. Not to spoil anything, but don't look for Kuroma or Akari to appear in other Naruto productions.
Naruto vs. Sasuke is the sixth installment of the Naruto: Ninja Council series, and it features the same tag-team fighting as previous games. This is apparently the first in the franchise to feature Sai as a playable fighter, a fact which will surely delight the Naruto-watching youth of today. Its pre-order bonuses are unknown right now, but Naruto vs. Sasuke arrives on the DS the same day as Dragon Blade Chronicles hits the Wii.
DO-DON-PACHI RESURRECTION IS OUT AUGUST 26TH
…on the iPhone, that is. As a port of the arcade's Dodonpachi Dai-Fukkatsu, it's impressive for an iPhone title, though, and Resurrection has two modes: the original shooter and a new version that lets players launch salvos of gunfire by spinning their fingers on the screen. It's also five bucks for a limited time.
Dodonpachi is arguably the shooter that put Cave on the map. The original 1995 Donpachi was a routine Raiden-ish retread, but the 2007 sequel took that Raiden ethos and pumped up the designs, the pace, and the screen-choking hailstorms of enemy bullets to ridiculous levels. Each subsequent Dodopanchi is even more hectic, right up to 2008's Dai-Fukkatsu. Several of the games were ported to Japanese consoles, but the iPhone's Resurrection is a rare case of the franchise hitting on a non-arcade system in North America. I can only hope that this screen is in there someplace.
And if you don't have an iPhone, you can still enjoy Cave shooters at home by buying imported Japanese Xbox 360 games. Dodonpachi: Resurrection arrives on November 25 with two new modes (possibly including the spinning mechanic) and high-definition graphics.
In the spring, Cave's bringing out a two-in-one package of shooters featuring anime girls instead of sleek jet fighters: Pink Sweets and Muchi Muchi Pork. A 2006 release, Pink Sweets stars fancily clad women as controllable avatars as well as bosses, and it requires players to build up a shield around their chosen floating female lead and release it in a huge burst of enemy-flattening fire. Muchi Muchi Pork repulsed some back in 2007 with its lineup of vaguely grotesque cartoon women dressed in frilly, pig-eared outfits. That aside, the game features Cave's typical bullet-hell challenges and a power meter that fuels a screen-sweeping laser and creates plenty of food-related imagery. Neither Dodonpachi nor the two-pack is likely to be region-free for importers, as Cave decided that they didn't love us anymore after ESPgaluda II.
Okamiden is one sequel many thought they'd never see. The original Okami was a wonderful game, but it wasn't a profitable one in CAPCOM's eyes. In fact, the developer, Clover, was disbanded not long after the game's release. Yet Okami endured as a cult favorite, inspired a Wii port, and then turned up on the DS.
Not a remake or a side-story, Okamiden is a direct sequel to the first game, and it replicates the idea of a wolf-deity named Amaterasu solving puzzles and fighting enemies with a magic Celestial Brush. In the DS sequel, however, the wolf is a puppy called Chibiterasu and the brush is controlled directly by the stylus. It's not easy to stuff a heavily detailed game like Okami into a DS sequel, and we went to producer Motohide Eshiro to learn about how Okamiden took shape.
How did you come to work at CAPCOM?
Motohide Eshiro: I've been at CAPCOM for over 20 years. Before that, I was a photocopy machine engineer, and I transferred into CAPCOM doing that. I officially started working on CAPCOM titles with Street Fighter II. I was a programmer on that, and I took that experience over to the Darkstalkers series. After that, I was a planner on Onimusha and a director for the sequel. I continued directing with Shadow of Rome. After that, I moved on to being a producer, and I recently produced the second and third Ace Attorney games as well as Ace Attorney Investigations.
Were you involved with the original Okami for the PlayStation 2 or the Wii?
No, I was not involved with either, but I am a big fan of Okami. What happened is that the director of Okamiden [Kuniomi Matsushita] and some other people in the company made a test version of Okamiden and showed it to me, and I got behind it. That's how I got involved with it. So the goal was to see if we could recreate the entire look and feel of the Okami world on the DS.
How much of Okamiden will consist of locations from the original game? Will we see a lot of new areas?
The specs are obviously different on the handheld, so we had to trick the system by reducing the polygon count and doing some magic on the art to fit the original Okami world into the DS version. So a lot of the settings from the original Okami you will find in Okamiden on the DS, but you'll also find some new places that weren't in the original game. On top of that, time has passed, so if you revisit places from the first game, you might see new buildings and places that weren't there the first time around.
Was it a challenge to fit Okami's paintbrush strokes on the small DS screen, since the original Okami had a much broader canvas?
It was unbelievably hard to get the graphics just right on the DS, to maintain the feel of the original game. Especially the background art of the stages. The programmers worked really hard to reduce the polygons to get them all into the game.
As far as the controls go, the touch screen is how you use the Celestial Brush in this game. So you can directly draw onto the game, and that entailed just rebuilding the Celestial Brush mechanic from the ground up, because it's a completely different frame. The touch screen also afforded us a few luxuries we didn't have with the PlayStation 2 or Wii versions. For example, because it's like actually drawing with a calligraphy brush, you'll get those thick, inky lines if you draw slowly. But if you draw quickly, the lines will be scratchy and not full of ink.
How many different partners are there for Chibiterasu in the game? Are they used for attacking, defense, and solving puzzles?
The partners aren't really like items to be swapped out when you like. They're an integral part of the story, which focuses on themes like friendship and the bonds between people. So it's not like they're there to serve as tools. It's not like an RPG where you just switch out whoever you need at the time. You'll need these partners at key points, but you'll need them for the sake of the story as well. During the journey, you'll meet a new partner and you'll say goodbye to an older partner.
But each partner does have a unique ability that they use to help Chibiterasu. It's not as simple as them being attack or defense specialists, but each has a specific power that's useful at points in the game. Unfortunately, I can't tell you right now what their powers are or how many partners there are exactly in the game.
Where else would you like to take Okami? The 3DS?
Right now the team has focused all of their efforts on the regular DS version of the game. Personally, I think the 3DS is a possibility. I got my hands on it at E3 this year, and I thought it offered a lot of potential for different games…not necessarily just Okami, but perhaps a new title. I have nothing concrete in mind, though.
ACE COMBAT: JOINT ASSAULT|
Publisher: Namco Bandai
I'll always remember the original Ace Combat thanks to GameFan's review of it back in 1995. Well, it wasn't a review so much as it was a disjointed, racist pile of filler text that one of the magazine's designers slipped into the sports section. It's still the most bizarre screw-up ever seen in the video-game press, and it clings to Ace Combat in my mind. Of course, Ace Combat has since become the leading flight-action series on consoles, so perhaps I'm a bit behind things. Joint Assault, the second Ace Combat title for the PSP, breaks with the series traditional of building stories around alternate-world nations and wars that just so happen to correspond to our own very closely. In Joint Assault, players guide a pilot named Antares and his fellow private-contractor mercenaries through a conflict with a group of Eastern European malcontents out to establish their own nation. The game adapts the play of a console-based Ace Combat to the PSP's single-joystick scheme, with either simplified controls or an advanced system that lets players closely adjust yaw, pitch, and other things that made us turn off Microsoft Flight Simulator when we were 12 years old. Joint Assault is also well-stocked, as there are over 40 planes to fly, plus a host of weapons to customize. I'd say Ace Combat has escaped the shadow of GameFan's prank by now.
METROID: OTHER M|
Developer: Nintendo/Team Ninja
Well, it's finally here. This is what fans have wanted ever since rumors of Metroid 64 swirled back in the 1990s. Sure, we have the Metroid Prime titles, but they're mostly first-person shooters and side-stories. And there was Metroid Fusion, but it was a traditional side-scroller. Other M, set just before Fusion, is Metroid's biggest leap forward in a long time: an action game with bother the explorative elements of Metroid and the 3-D sensibilities of the modern day. It's also a daring and potentially ruinous step for storytelling in a series that's usually played it minimalist. Other M jumps headlong into cinematic narrative, with extensive voiceovers by normally silent heroine Samus Aran, plus a throng of other human characters to help her explore an eerily devastated space station. Even the gameplay steps beyond Nintendo's usual focus. It was co-developed with Team Ninja, and it brings close-up violence and quick action to the attacks Samus can pull off. Of course, there's a lot of typical Metroid in it, from the swarming, insectile aliens to Samus' slowly expanding arsenal. It may not be a success on all fronts, but nothing else this year will take a classic franchise so bravely in a new direction.
VALKYRIA CHRONICLES 2|
The original Valkyria Chronicles was a strangely discordant mixture of cute, routine anime storytelling and jabs at the ethnic hatreds and violent warfare of an alternate-reality World War II. Fortunately, it had an excellent battle system to smooth over everything. The PSP sequel doesn't look quite as sharp as the PlayStation 3 original, but it still captures the gameplay quite well. Battles are still carried out with map-based strategy/RPG directions that give way to direct control of soldiers when skirmishes break out. The character classes are modified for Valkyria Chronicles II, with fully armored, bullet-absorbing troops as an interesting new addition. The storyline picks up two years after the first game with a mostly fresh bunch of military recruits taking a stand against racially motivated revolutionaries. That doesn't keep the game from sneaking in appearances by characters from the first Valkyria Chronicles, though Sega probably drew the line at putting Sonic and Ulala into the Valkyria world of bloody faux-European warfare. The game seems at home on the PSP, and that's where Valkyria Chronicles 3, which Sega recently registered in name, will likely end up.
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