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Ghost in the Game

by Todd Ciolek, Dec 8th 2010

Nintendo's made much of the 25th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., and it's easy to see why. Donkey Kong aside, Super Mario Bros. truly established Nintendo in the game industry, and no other Nintendo title (hell, no other video game) is quite so recognized in pop culture. So I hope Nintendo doesn't ignore the most important character in Super Mario Bros. It's not Mario. It's not the identical-looking version of Luigi. It's not Princess Peachstool. No, it's the first Goomba.

As the first enemy encountered in the game, the Goomba at the start of stage 1-1 was a testing moment for anyone new to Super Mario Bros. Like the Marshmallow Experiement, it revealed your true nature. Some hopped over it, adopting a live-and-let-live philosophy toward the mushroom interloper. These were the gentle spirits. Some hopped on it and squashed it flat, perhaps having taken the game manual's kill-or-be-killed advice of “one stomp and he dies.” These were the aggressive types, the go-getters, and the soon-to-be-incarcerated.

Others players, too young or too trusting to do anything else, just ran into the Goomba and died. And this would haunt them throughout every other moment of playing games. They would be driven to conquer every Mario game from Super Mario Bros. to the barely finished Hotel Mario for the Phillips CD-i, mercilessly crushing each mushroom-shaped enemy they met along the way. And yet they'd never make up for their defeat at the fungal non-hands of that first Goomba.

NEWS

CATHERINE IS PARTLY COVERED
Catherine isn't one of the Persona games, but it's cut from the same cloth, or at least the same bizarre, sexualized, nightmarish vision of the often-narrow divide between dreams and reality. And Atlus has been rather coy about explaining just what kind of game it is.

We at least know that the game follows Vincent, an office drone who's passed thirty without any direction in his life. As rumors swirl of a serial killer stalking men in their dreams, Vincent finds himself facing two women: Katherine is his longtime girlfriend, while Catherine is a brazen young women who throws herself at Vincent in a cafe one day. And that's when Vincent's nightmares begin.

Far from a menu-driven RPG, Catherine apparently mixes genres. Vincent's nightmares are action-oriented, as the wishy-washy hero traverses strange and deadly terrain, often accompanied by equally frightened and vaguely humanoid sheep. When not plumbing the depths of his (or someone else's) subconscious, Vincent slacks his way through work and his social life, and things take on a more laid-back, adventure-game tone as he associates with friends and co-workers.

Catherine's earned a lot of attention with its unflinching depictions of Vincent's sex life, including scenes of Catherine straddling him in bed. The game divides Vincent's devotion between this interloping Catherine and the steadfast, bespectacled Katherine that he's known for years, and the ending's decided on which of them likes Vincent more. In fact, the game's Japanese cover art poses the same dichotomy.

The blonde, mysterious Catherine adorns the PlayStation 3 edition of the game, while the less-than-pleased Katherine appears on the Xbox 360 version's cover. Vincent, clad only in his underwear, is shown attempting to scale both of them. Someone I doubt Atlus will use the PlayStation 3 version's artwork for the North American release, considering how things went with Trauma Team's cover. At any rate, Catherine will unveil its gameplay and its unnerving psychological issues to Japan next February, with an American release likely arriving within the year.

ALLEGED NEO GEO CLASSICS HIT THE PLAYSTATION NETWORK
I'll give SNK some credit: the Neo Geo home console was far too expensive for most kids to enjoy at home in the 1990s, but SNK made it up to them by bringing a bunch of Neo Geo titles to the Wii's Virtual Console. Now the publisher's doing the same thing on the PLAYSTATION Network with the Neo Geo Station, a legal emulator service that allows PSP and PS3 owners to download and play Neo Geo titles. The first round of them, debuting December 21 in America, features Alpha Mission II, Art of Fighting, Baseball Stars Professional, Fatal Fury, The King of Fighters '94, League Bowling, Magician Lord, Metal Slug, Samurai Shodown, and Super Sidekicks.

And there's the problem. These games aren't the best of the Neo Geo library, and yet they're priced at nine bucks each for the PS3 versions and seven for the PSP ones. Most of them were greatly improved on by sequels, and it's hard to imagine anyone picking the first Samurai Shodown or Metal Slug over the games that followed. Almost every King of Fighters game is better than '94, and the original Art of Fighting and Fatal Fury titles are terrible. Still, there's nothing to stop SNK from putting more Neo Geo titles on this service, so perhaps we'll someday have Pulstar and Mark of the Wolves running on our PSPs. Legally.

PINK SWEETS AND MUCHI MUCHI PORK SHED REGION-LOCKS
I wasn't going to mention Cave's upcoming Muchi Muchi Pork and Pink Sweets collection again until it actually arrived on the Japanese Xbox 360 next February. But there's an important development: the two-shooter package will be region-free, much like ESPgaluda II and Mushihime-Sama Futari were. Of course, that's good news only if you're really into Cave. As much I enjoy the bullet-hell intensity of their shooters, Muchi Muchi Pork's lineup of pig-eared space-cadet women reminds me of everything I don't like about the Cave's current direction.

In theory, you could ignore that while playing the game, but the Xbox 360 apparently sticks the artwork right there on the screen. Full-time. Front and Center.

Pink Sweets, on the other hand, just blankets itself in light colors, and the game's lineup of female characters displays a more conventional brand of frilly gothic-anime cheesecake. And if you want to play both games at once, Cave will release a downloadable extra mode called Muchi Muchi Pork Cave Festival. It's not quite a combination of the two, though, as it merely transplants the Pink Sweets bosses into Muchi Muchi Pork. The download's included with the special edition of the game, along with two soundtracks.

MEGA MAN LEGENDS 3 LOOKS A-OK, I DECLARE
At the risk of sounding like an enormous shill for a game that's not even finished, I must say that I like CAPCOM's Megaman Legends 3 developer's journal. It has notes from the game's staff, explanations of the game's setting, and opportunities for fans to contribute. CAPCOM's going a little overboard in the last category, as they're no soliciting ideas for the backstories of townspeople. I hope the team isn't struggling for direction after Keiji Inafune, the credited creator of Megaman, left CAPCOM.

Yet I think the Megaman Legends 3 team can handle it. They have a good grasp of the world seen in the last two Megaman Legends titles: a planet covered mostly in water and the buried ruins of an ancient civilization. Megaman Volnutt (no apparent relation to other Mega Men) and his partner Roll (no relation to the other Roll) are two of many Diggers obsessed with excavating ancient treasures and labyrinths for profit and enlightenment. It's a fun, lightweight story for a fun, lightweight action game, and that's what Megaman Legends 3 looks to be.

INTERVIEW: GHOST TRICK'S SHU TAKUMI

It's hard to believe that the Ace Attorney series was once judged unlikely to appeal to Americans. Created by Shu Takumi, the games' courtroom drama and goofball characters won over many outside of Japan, resulting Phoenix Wright's assorted sequels and spin-offs making their way here. Now Takumi's turned to a new type of murder-mystery game, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, and it's headed to North America next month.

Like Phoenix Wright, Ghost Trick wraps colorful characters around a grim premise: the game's lanky, sharp-nosed hero, Sissel, is dead, unable to remember his identity or the reasons behind his murder. He transverses the world as a spirit, possessing the living to find the reasons behind his death. Of course, a lot of his corporeal allies are also in danger, starting with Lynne, a spirited young detective on the trail of Sissel's killer.

Ghost Trick breaks free of Phoenix Wright in other ways. Instead of comfortably mundane artwork, Ghost Trick features a side-view world of cartoonish, fluidly animated characters. The puzzles take on new dimensions as well. While Phoenix Wright was often a matter of pointing and clicking, Ghost Trick finds Sissel manipulating various items in order to prevent murders. CAPCOM's certainly promoting it to Western players, as there's even a demo of the game online.

Just what else can Phoenix Wright fans and newcomers expect from Ghost Trick? We caught up with Shu Takumi to find out.

Where did you get the idea for Ghost Trick? Did it grow out of the Ace Attorney games?

Shu Takumi: It definitely came from the Ace Attorney series. I'd worked on the Ace Attorney series for so long that I wanted to do something new, something that I couldn't do in that series. In the Ace Attorney games, you have individual cases and episodic content, but I wanted to make a game with one continuous story from start to end and a lot of characters to interact with. For example, you have the main character, a dead guy who can possess characters' lives and peer into their backstories to solve the mystery of why he died. And he can also save them in the process.

In the Ace Attorney series, you could only have waist-up portraits of the characters, but now we can create characters where you can see their entire body on the screen. So that's another change we made.

Ghost Trick also has a very different visual style in the look of the characters, some of whom are almost closer to American comics than manga. How did you devise that style?

Recently, a lot of games have been in 3-D, so I wanted to make a 2-D game, but not one that's an imitation of 2-D. So I went for the full 2-D experience. I wanted to push the boundaries of completely two-dimensional environments and characters. One of the reasons the characters look that way is to create impact with their silhouettes and coloring. To show their moments better, it's important to simplify their character designs.

With Ace Attorney, the characters were anime-style, but they were still detailed and a little bit realistic. But with Ghost Trick, we're going for pure visual style and ease of recognition.

In Ace Attorney, there were a number of rivals for Phoenix Wright, and these rivals became very popular with fans, to the point where Edgeworth, one of the prosecutors, appeared in his own game. In Ghost Trick, is there a rival for Sissel?

Unlike Ace Attorney, Ghost Trick doesn't feature a prominent rival for Sissel. We wanted to make a story that's about all of the little characters; everyone he meets has a backstory and a unique mystery of their own. The main point of this game is to have Sissel go around and meet all of these characters, help them, and gain insight into their lives. The whole point of the story is to show that everyone's connected. It's a huge mystery on a larger scale.

The Ace Attorney series is well known for its offbeat characters, from people who are either really strange or subtly strange. How do you come up with characters like that? Are they based on anyone you know?

There are two reasons I create characters like that. One of them is the fact that mystery novels often have lots of characters, and it becomes easy to confuse one character for another. By creating unique characters with dynamic traits, they all stand out. If you play Ace Attorney, you'll remember all of the characters. That's what I was going for.

The other source of inspiration comes from people in CAPCOM! I can't mention anyone specific, but when I'm out of ideas, it's easy to just take a look around because we're a company full of weird people. What's most interesting is when I base a character off of someone, they'll play the game and not realize that the character is based on them.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

SUPER MARIO ALL-STARS: LIMITED EDITION
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $29.99

In some ways, it's generous of Nintendo to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. by releasing a compilation of all four NES Mario games: the original, Super Mario Bros. 2 (a.k.a. Super Mario USA in Japan), Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels (a.k.a. The Actual Super Mario Bros. 2 That's Just Like Super Mario Bros. Except It's Hard and No Fun At All), and Super Mario Bros. 3. But we must remember that Super Mario All-Stars came out on the Super NES seventeen years ago, and that Nintendo could've just brought it out on the Wii's Virtual Console for ten bucks instead of cooking up this red-packaged Wii version of it. Not that it's bare-bones: the Limited Edition includes a short collection of Mario music and a booklet detailing the history of the Mario series. And, of course, three of these four Mario games are still great; The Lost Levels, on the other hand, is just a finger-breakingly hard sequel to Super Mario Bros. They're the same games we've seen released twice before, barring some graphical changes, and I have no doubt that we'll buy them all over again. Of course, those who never tire of giving Nintendo money can also get a special-edition red Wii.


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