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Rise Above

by Todd Ciolek, Dec 15th 2010

In last week's edition of Hey, Answerman, a reader suggested that columnist Brian Hanson and I should stage a slapfight of sorts. Brian declined, but he also implied that he likes video games more than I do. My honor is now at stake, and there's only one measure available. I challenge this Answerman upstart to a duel. A duel of Time Killers.

This is not a thing lightly done. Time Killers is quite possibly the worst fighting game ever made, but its primitive horrors create a certain purity of conflict, as it discards all forms of graceful gameplay in favor of two players slamming buttons at random until a space mantis decapitates a samurai. Naturally, we mustn't settle for an emulated Time Killers or the inferior Sega Genesis version. We need a genuine Time Killers arcade machine, so let us know if you see one within convenient driving distance of both New York City and Arizona.

So the gauntlet is thrown down. I'll even let Mr. Hanson play Thugg, who's judged a top-tier character in all of those Time Killers tournaments held in Japan every year.

NEWS

FINAL FANTASY XIV DIRECTOR FALLOUT
For those who haven't kept up with the Final Fantasy XIV debacle, here's a recap: the game is awful and everyone hates it. Well, that's an oversimplification. It's more accurate to say that the game's incomplete, bug-ridden, and awkward, and that it probably shouldn't have been loosed on a player base that's used to accessible online RPGs. It's gotten such that the PlayStation 3 version was delayed so that Square Enix can work out the problems with the PC edition of the game.

Square, showing the acuity that's made the company what it is today, punished the wrong people. Producer Hiromichi Tanaka, who's worked on Square games up through Secret of Mana and Xenogears, stepped down as the main producer of Final Fantasy XIV, even though he's probably the company's best hope for fixing the game. That responsibility now falls to Naoki Yoshida, who's previously worked on Enix's Dragon Quest arcade games. His staff is a hodgepodge of various Square Enix members, with the most prominent being interface designer Hiroshi Minagawa. A member of Quest, Minagawa's handled art direction on Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, and other Yasumi Matsuno games He also co-directed Final Fantasy XII after Matsuno quit/got sick/went crazy. So at least we'll have a nice-lookin' user interface.

Can Square fix Final Fantasy XIV? Or should they just start over, take a cue from Enix, and make a compact, playable online Final Fantasy XV for the DS?

In news of Final Fantasy games that people actually like, Square's porting Final Fantasy IV to yet another system. Final Fantasy IV Complete Collection compiles the original Super NES game and the sequel The After Years into a PSP package with enhanced graphics and new character portraits. There's also a new chapter that bridges the original game and its sequel.

This marks the fourth time that Final Fantasy IV has been ported, but never before has it so tormented fans who must have every piece of the game. It cost about forty bucks to get all of the chapters from The After Years off the Wii's Virtual Console, and now Square will sell the whole of it, plus the original game and an extra chapter, on the PSP for about forty bucks when it comes out here. This doesn't matter if you hated The After Years, but I have a grudging fondness for it. So I'm sightly tormented.

CRIMSON VIPER, STORM JOIN MARVEL VS. CAPCOM 3
As Marvel vs. CAPCOM 3 nears its February release date, it's filling in some blanks. For one thing, the game needed Storm from the X-Men. She doesn't come to mind when the casual fan thinks of Marvel vs. CAPCOM 2, but she was in that rather unbalanced game's upper level of fighters, and some devoted players would've thrown fits over her absence.

Strangely enough, Marvel vs. CAPCOM 3 went with Storm's more old-fashioned costume instead of the white outfit she had in previous Versus fighters. It's also the outfit remembered by fans who stopped reading X-Men comics back in the 1990s.

The other new addition finally brings in a Street Fighter IV character. Crimson Viper, fauxhawk-sporting Secret agent (and single mom), appears in Marvel vs. CAPCOM 3 with her electrici gauntlets and fiery aerial attacks. I won't lie: I would've preferred Juri, who's just more fun to play. But Viper has some creative moves, with ground-based projectiles borrowed from CAPCOM's own Captain Commando, and she's a good addition to the cast.

SAKURA WARS LIVES ON IN BROWSER GAME
Sega's Sakura Wars series may have spent its one chance at making it in America (more on that later), but it still survives in Japan. And “surviving” is perhaps the best word for a franchise that's reduced to browser-based games. Not that Sakura Taisen Taishou Roman Gakuentan is a primitive text adventure or anything. It's a strategy-RPG with that typical mix of Sakura Wars romantic comedy.

The game's website gives brief flashes of the gameplay and the setting, which is apparently a military academy where the youth of 1920s Japan train to pilot team-powered mechs into battle against demonic creatures. Then they invade Korea, or so I assume. Anyway, the first artwork for the game shows at least two new characters standing before previous Sakura Wars leads: Sakura Shinguji, Erica Fontaine, and Gemini Sunrise.

The mecha seen in the website's promotional movie also look familiar, so perhaps the game will feature characters and war machines from throughout the series. Sega's apparently made a promise with those flashes of robot battle, and so has co-developer RocWorks with their slogan: “Game Must Be Fun.” Or else.

IREM PUTS OUT CLASSIC COLLECTION
I've said it before and I'll say it again: I like Irem. I never counted any of their games among my favorites, but the company has…well, pluck. Other game developers fall by the wayside or give in to the shiftless otaku crowd, but Irem soldiers on, making decent, unique little games and putting together April Fool's Day jokes. And now they're taking the strange but commendable step of putting 18 of their arcade games into a single $15 download for PCs.

It's all a reminder that Irem made some excellent arcade games back in the 1980s and 1990s. A bunch of them are in this collection: Ninja Spirit is an amazing side-scroller that Ninja Gaiden II ripped off, R-Type Leo is a faster-paced and awesome piece of the R-Type series, Cosmic Cop (a.k.a. Armed Police Unit Gallop) is a creative speed-based shooter and technically also part of the R-Type series, Gun Force II is a super-detailed action game that's basically Metal Slug Zero, and Undercover Cops (below) is a visually striking brawler where you can throw the first boss into a trash compactor.

The lineup also includes some lesser-seen Irem curiosities like the novel shooters Dragon Breed and Mystic Riders, along with Superior Soldiers, a meek attempt at joining the fighting-game craze. The collection's rounded out by Kung-Fu Master, The Legend of Hero Tonma, Battle Chopper, Blade Master, Hammerin' Harry, Image Fight, Air Duel, and a few lousy offerings. In the Hunt is still a boring submarine shooter, the original Gun Force sucks, and Vigilante is a dud from the age of Double Dragon clones.

My only question: why put these just on the PC? Not to be cynical, but most of the PC owners interested in Irem games probably stole and emulated everything in this collection already. I can only assume that Irem's testing the waters for releasing these games on a console, and I hope Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo let them do just that.

NAMCO PICKS UNUSED SCRABBLE LETTERS, ANNOUNCES TALES OF XILLIA
Tales games are so common in Japan that they'll be used as home insulation one day, but it's been a while since a major Tales title was announced for a home console. News just leaked about Tales of Xillia, a PS3 RPG scheduled to hit Japan in 2011.

Concept art, including the shot above, is all that proper websites can put up right now, but Namco's unveiled two main characters: medical student Shuto Matis and spiritual sorcerer Mira Maxwell. The two meet at a royal academy, and they'll apparently split the game's spotlight between them. Another new step for the series is the collaboration between artists Kosuke Fujishima and Mutsumi Inomata. The two have designed characters for past Tales games, but they've never worked so closely on the same title. For Xillia, Fujishima drew Shuto while Inomata drew Mira. We'll see more of both of them as the game nears its formal announcement later this week.

THE TOP FIVE OVERLOOKED GAMES OF 2010

This list proved surprisingly difficult to write, and that's a good thing. Every year sees excellent games ignored, but 2010 found the game industry welcoming titles that could've easily dropped off the radar. The fascinatingly awkward Deadly Premonition won praise and its own cult following days after it hit the market, while Recettear, an obscure indie Japanese RPG from 2007, sold far better than its small localization studio ever expected. So it was harder than usual to find five genuinely interesting games that didn't get the recognition they merited. But they're out there, and it's time to see what they are, why they failed, and how much they feature seemingly omnipresent voice actress Laura Bailey.

5. FRAGILE DREAMS
Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon is the rare game that's more about mood than anything else. Nearly everything wraps around its mournful premise: a sheltered boy named Seto and a mysterious white-haired girl wander the aftermath of some great apocalypse. But instead of an irradiated, grimy Mad Max wasteland, their fallen world is a strangely beautiful stage of shadows and sounds, where even the mundane remnants of civilization tell of an age long over. It's a visually remarkable game, far from the garish RPGs that developer tri-Crescendo normally pushes.

Why It Was Overlooked: Unfortunately, Fragile's mood overshadows even its gameplay. Fighting off the ghostly remnants of armageddon grows repetitive very soon, and collecting items doesn't go beyond the realm of routine survival-horror games. The game's art may have dissuaded some casual buyers as well; for all of its deftly created appearances, Fragile gives its characters a normal big-eyed anime look, and its wispy female lead doesn't wear much.

Laura Bailey Level: Moderate. She voices a doomed ghost girl who, like everyone else in the game, has a tragedy to share with Seto.

4. NIER
Cavia's reputation wasn't particularly enviable, thanks to the generic Bullet Witch, two boring Drakengards, and a stiff Ghost in the Shell game. Nier looked to go the same way as past Cavia games, with its drab look and seemingly uninventive, blood-drenched gameplay. Yet Cavia, perhaps sensing that this would be their last game, threw in everything they could find. Amid the standard brawling gameplay, Nier has platform-jumping, bullet-dodging, fishing, and some breaks with conventional storytelling. The script starts with the simple goal of a grizzled, white-haired man named Nier seeking a cure for his daughter, but it unfolds over multiple playthroughs and several endings, twisting around the typical goal of slaying an evil overlord. Even the game's scantily clad supporting heroine is different: thanks to some demonic possession, the lingerie-wearing Kaine is both male and female, and she's rather profane about it.

Why It Was Overlooked: Cavia's reputation turned many away from Nier, and the game's characters aren't very appealing at first sight. Nier himself resembles the typically meaty Western game hero (while one Japanese version replaces him with an equally generic younger Nier), and Kaine looks to be drafted from the usual T&A temp agency. And then there's Weiss, a living book who resembles H.R. Giger's Nightmare Before Christmas fan art.

Laura Bailey Level: High. She's Kaine, and she swears like she's auditioning for the Angel Cop dub.

3. RESONANCE OF FATE
This generation hasn't been kind to tri-Ace RPGs: Star Ocean: The Last Hope and Infinite Undiscovery will be remembered only for their terrible attempts at humor, and the impressive Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume went unnoticed among other DS RPGs. Resonance of Fate was caught in the middle. It eschews the more medieval side of RPG fantasy in favor of a bleak little futuristic city that resembles Final Fantasy VII's Midgar, with three gun-toting bounty hunters falling into an ugly little conspiracy. Yet that's all window dressing for Resonance's battle system, which may be the most complex of any modern RPG. Players can maneuver characters around battle areas and wield customized firearms, utilizing power-up shards and two different types of damage. Once realized, combat becomes an elaborate and satisfying dance of ridiculous gunplay.

Why It Was Overlooked: Resonance of Fate cares nothing for learning curves, helpful tutorials, and other pitiful means of making games easy to understand. Players are thrown into things with little firm direction; they learn by playing or don't learn at all. The game also shares the heavy battle emphasis of Valkyrie Profile 2 (the development team's previous effort, in fact), and the storyline tries not to get in the way. Lastly, tri-Ace still can't do proper faces in 3-D. The game's environments and clothing show fine detail, but the characters resemble porcelain dolls up close.

Laura Bailey Level: Zero, though you can hear Scott Menville, Nolan North, and Jessica DiCicco as the game's lead trio.

2. SAKURA WARS: SO LONG, MY LOVE
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love got a fair bit of attention on account of its trailer and the fact that it's the first of the Sakura Wars games to find its way to North America. Yet that didn't make it a success, and NIS America president Haru Akenaga reported that it didn't sell as well as expected. Like all of the Sakura Wars games, So Long, My Love is a bizarre pastiche of strategy and dating simulator, covered by an alternate history where a Japanese naval ensign named Shinichiro Taiga and a samurai cowgirl named Gemini Sunrise become Broadway stars and defend New York from demons. Of course, they do it by piloting robots: squat, transforming jet-robots that look like old boiler machines with arms.

Why It Was Overlooked: The words “dating simulator” scare a lot of people away from any game, and not without cause. From its wide-eyed characters to its utterly ridiculous sense of melodrama, Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is the game-industry idea of “too Japanese”: too grandiose, too anime-like, and too occupied with letting its bland hero charm a variety of female characters. Yet Sakura Wars is largely innocent (particularly when compared to what passes for a dating-sim or visual novel in Japan), and it's strangely compelling in the goofy characters, the reasonably solid strategy-RPG mechanics, and, most importantly, the nonsense of a 1920s New York City that's too silly and crime-free to have ever existed.

Laura Bailey Level: Extreme. She's front and center as Gemini Sunrise, whose cartoonish twang tells you just how seriously to take the game.

1. SIN AND PUNISHMENT: STAR SUCCESSOR
In the crowded strip mall of the game industry, Treasure is a reliable mom-and-pop operation: they do action games, and they do them well. And sometimes they do them exceptionally well, as was the case with Sin and Punishment: Star Successor. Sequel to the equally overlooked Sin and Punishment: The Successors of Earth on the Nintendo 64, Star Successor once again takes the idea of a gallery shooter to amazing lengths: the lead character, either hoverboarding teenager Kachi or jetpacking teenager Isa, floats around the screen and aims as the game hurls through tunnels, across freeways, and into the depths of space. Every locale is packed with enemies and clever layouts, and the game's best moments are flurries of dodging, shooting, and praying that you can finish off a boss before the intensity of it all overwhelms you.

Why It Was Overlooked: Even Nintendo's marketing couldn't change the fact that Star Successor is still a shooter. Too many buyers see shooters as things to buy off XBox Live for ten bucks—not things that should cost as much as the new Halo. Mood wasn't the game's strength either: while Yasushi Suzuki's art is still amazing, Isa and Kachi's story is made of tepid loans from anime's most worn playbook. At least there's a closing twist for anyone who played the first Sin and Punishment.

Laura Bailey Level: Zero. She's apparently not in the game, but it's sometimes hard to tell with all of the pseudonyms those voice actors use.

NEXT THIS WEEK'S RELEASES

X-MEN ARCADE
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Platform: XBox Live/PLAYSTATION Network
Players: 1-6
MSRP:$9.99

Next week has nothing of note, so instead we turn to this week's downloadable games, which many publishers like to announce only days before release. For example, there's an XBox Live and PLAYSTATION Network version of Konami's 1992 X-Men brawler. Few arcade rats of the era have forgotten the full-size version of the game: two screens wide, one joystick for each of the six players, and the grim proclamation of “X-Men!” sounding over an arcade's digitized screams and quarter-vomiting change machines. The XBox Live and PSN versions can't really match that, but they try: both recreate the arcade game in all of its late-1980s X-Men style, with detailed stages and nicely animated cutscenes. It's a relatively simple brawler; you jump, you attack, you attack while jumping, and you hurl special attacks when you're desperate. It's in the multiplayer that the game truly excels, and this new versions supports up to six players online and four locally. Arcade protocol dictates that the last one to join gets stuck playing Dazzler.

Also This Week: MonkeyPaw Games has Sunsoft's middling Neo-Geo slugfest Galaxy Fight on the PLAYSTATION Network, and the equally drab Super NES shooter Darius Twin arrives on the Wii's Virtual Console. Also of interest is Gaijin Games' lilt line on WiiWare.


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