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Three Things

by Todd Ciolek, Jan 26th 2011

SNK is one of the most depressing game companies still alive. During the 1990s they built a good reputation and an all-too-loyal fan base on the strength of their fighting games and the Metal Slug series, but today's they're mostly in the news for unfortunate reasons. So it was last week when rumors spread that Masaaki Kukino, producer of SNK's very important The King of Fighters XIII, had departed the company in November. Those same rumors had it that Ryo Mizufune, the current president of SNK Playmore, wants to shutter all new game development and concentrate instead on re-releasing and licensing out SNK's older titles.

A PR rep at SNK Playmore was quick to clarify that no no no they're still releasing games and all. Yet the picture isn't rosy. SNK doesn't have any major new properties, and there's far too much riding on The King of Fighters XIII. Despite its impressive hand-drawn animation, The King of Fighters XII emerged with lousy online play and a small roster devoid of new characters. The King of Fighters XIII may well be SNK's last chance.

SNK always had a difficult time letting go. The Neo Geo, a console version of SNK's arcade hardware, was an amazing feat back in the early 1990s, when home versions of arcade games were rarely perfect. Yet SNK clung to the Neo Geo and its zealous owners well into the next decade, supporting the console after bootleggers and ROM dumpers had cracked and emulated it. Even Sega knew when to quit the game-system business, but not SNK. So they made the portable Neo Geo Pocket. It was released in a black-and-white version a year before a color system was available, and the poor thing was swiftly dispatched by the Game Boy Color and the Pokémon craze. Then SNK filed for bankruptcy.

The company was rescued by a merger with Playmore, but nothing's gone right for SNK since then. They've lost most of their interesting prospects, such as the developer Sacnoth. Formed by ex-Squaresoft employees, Sacnoth made the solid strategy-RPG Faselei! and a weirdly compelling historical-fantasy RPG series called Shadow Hearts (including Koudelka). But it didn't catch on, and the franchise was snatched up and later put to bed by SNK's former backer Aruze. SNK's made mostly fighting games and Metal Slug sequels for the past few years, with only occasional hits. What's the only successful new SNK property? It's Doki Doki Majo Shinpan. You know, the DS game about groping anime witches.

Nowhere is SNK's misfortune more obvious than in comparisons to Capcom. As major players in the fighting-game market, the two companies had friendly competitions and crossover fighting games, but they're the Goofus and Gallant of the game industry. Capcom builds profitable franchises like Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, Phoenix Wright, and Megaman to support their fighting games; SNK stakes everything on yet another slightly different version of The King of Fighters. Capcom wisely avoids competing in the costly world of game systems; SNK takes on Nintendo's insanely popular Game Boy. Capcom is one of Japan's biggest game companies, in image if not financial size; SNK is not.

Fix yourself, SNK. Re-issuing Nam 1975 and other old Neo Geo games is not the answer. Try reviving your past successes, perhaps with the help of other companies. Get Arc System Works to do a new Ikari Warriors. Get Treasure to do a Metal Slug reboot. Get someone good to do a Crystalis sequel. They might succeed. They might not. But it's better than putting everything behind The King of Fighters XIII and waiting for more people to quit.

NEWS

NINTENDO NAILS DOWN AMERICAN 3DS LAUNCH
Want a Nintendo 3DS? Well, you can get to the store on March 27, pay $250, and pick from two colors: Aqua Blue and Cosmos Black. Nintendo's quick to point out that you'll have about 30 3DS games to buy between the March launch and June's E3 gathering. They're vague when it comes to naming all of those games, but at least a dozen arrive on March 27: Super Street Fighter IV, Dead or Alive Dimensions, Pilotwings Resort, Nintendogs + Cats, Resident Evil: Mercenaries and Nintendo's submarine side-scroller Steel Diver are the standouts. Ridge Racer 3D, Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 3D, Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars, Madden NFL, Asphalt 3D, and Combat of Giants: Dinosaurs 3D fill out the launch. Square Enix's Bust-A-Move Universe might also make it, though the publisher's giving it a more conservative “spring” release window.

As with most new systems, the most intriguing games aren't making the launch. Kid Icarus: Uprising may arrive by the summer, and the same goes for Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked, an expanded port of the Atlus strategy/RPG. It may not be the first Atlus release for the 3DS, though, as Tomy has a side-scrolling Naruto game, Naruto Shippūden: Nin-rittai Emake! Saikyo Ninkai Kessen, in the works for the system, and Atlus releases Tomy's Naruto offerings here.

There's no Metroid game for the 3DS launch, but Tecmo's Dead or Alive Dimensions features heroine Samus Aran and a stage based on Metroid: Other M, complete with a fireball-spewing Ridley. Developer Team Ninja (which also co-produced Other M) stopped short of making Samus playable. That may be a relief to those who dislike the way Dead or Alive portrays women, but I think it's cheap to put Samus in at all if she's not controllable. Then again, I also think Dead or Alive should bring in Irene Lew, Robert T. Sturgeon, Ashtar, and every other forgotten character from Tecmo's old Ninja Gaiden NES games.

YUJI NAKA SHOWS OFF RODEA THE SKY SOLDIER
Leaving Sega did wonders for Yuji Naka's creativity. He helped make Sonic the Hedgehog, NightS, and Burning Rangers for Sega in the 1990s, but the past decade saw him putting out nothing new besides Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg. Since founding an independent developer called Prope (“Pro-Pay”), Naka's created the charming Ivy the Kiwi? and a new Wii-and-3DS action game called Rodea the Sky Soldier.

The game's first trailer presents a pastiche of other titles, some of them not even Naka's. The flying gameplay seems straight from his NightS games and it's mixed with dashing and homing attacks out of the 3-D Sonic games, with a boss battle filched from Fumito Ueda's Shadow of the Colossus. Our hero Rodea isn't limited to simple, nonviolent attacks, though; he can whip out a gun in flight and blast enemies.

Rodea the Sky Soldier's setting steps away from previous Naka games. It's a steam-tech world of floating islands and the same sort of aerial anime adventure tone that games like Megaman Legends and Solatorobo stole from Miyazaki movies. Rodea, clad in the finery of a sky soldier, uses a kitetail-like fin to maneuver through the air, while his begoggled sidekick Ion and a princess named Cecilia fret about his devil-may-care ways.

Publisher Kadokawa Games showed only the Wii version of Rodea and the Sky Soldier, but both it and the 3DS edition seem bound (and copyrighted) for North America.

PHANTOM BREAKER COMING TO XBOX 360
Phantom Breaker, a new fighter from boringly named developer 5pb., isn't based on any specific anime license or “visual novel,” but it may as well be. The characters were all designed by Hiro Suzuhira, best known for his work on dating-sim games like Shuffle! and light novels like that awful Akikan! thing. Visual novels are 5pb.'s bread and butter, though, and now they've turned to the generic new world of otaku-baiting fighters.

Phantom Breaker is a simple effort at a glance. It stars a maid, a priestess, a gothic swordswoman, and other painful stereotypes pounding each other in the hopes of getting a wish granted by a mysterious stranger. It also clearly divides its characters into quick-and-dirty types or hardened tanks, and the game's “overdrive” system makes the fast fighters faster and the defensive characters tougher. The Xbox 360 version is out in Japan this April, and few in the fighting-game scene seem interested. But perhaps they're not the audience anyway.

IN BRIEF: FINAL FANTASY XIII-2 DETAILS, UDON'S VALKYRIA ART BOOK
Final Fantasy XIII-2 producer Yoshinori Kitase and director Motomu Toriyama cleared up a few things about the game: the new character shown in the game's logo is male, and he's a rival for established FFXIII heroine Lightning. The sequel will also expand on the original game's pantheon of godlike beings, and that's not terribly good news for anyone who disliked Final Fantasy XIII's prattle about fal'Cie and l'Cie and L'Arc-en-Ciel. It's more encouraging that Kitase and Toriyama also mentioned improving the Final Fantasy XIII battle system. Perhaps they'll let us control more than one character at a time.

Video-game artbooks are rarely released in North America, and when they are, they're usually thin promos for people who reserve games. Udon, best known for publishing Street Fighter comics, goes against the tide and brought out thick, informative artbooks based on Street Fighter, Megaman, and Darkstalkers. Their next artbook is the Valkyria Chronicles Design Archive, a collection of illustrations and background details about Sega's World War Fantasy strategy-RPG.

IMPORT ROUNDUP: JANUARY

ARCANA HEART 3
Developer: Examu
Publisher: Arc System Works
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Players: 1-2

Arcana Heart walks a hard path. It's full of glistening, dewy-eyed “moe” girls, and that puts off many fighting-game enthusiasts (this author included). Even fans of the series weren't very happy with Suggoi! Arcana Heart 2, at least not when it came to the PlayStation 2 in a sluggish, outdated, messily programmed incarnation. Examu apparently learned their lesson with Arcana Heart 3, brought to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 with the help of Arc System Works. It delivers another round of magically gifted girls bickering over the fate of near-future Japan, with its already large cast of characters expanded to 23 examples of what modern anime nerds want, from the gloomy, knife-packing newcomer WeiB to the returning rounds of combat maids, dog-eared ninja, demon-winged rollerbladers, uncommonly violent nuns, robot-piloting bunny girls, masked magicians, and busty priestesses. In Arcana Heart's defense, all of this exploitation results in some interesting gameplay: there are also 23 different Arcana powers, and each changes a character's most powerful strikes (and, sometimes, the regular moves as well). The game also adopts a homing button that lets characters dash quickly toward opponents, and it brings a nicely aggressive tone to a genre that's about blocking far too often. And there's a mode where players earn “Relationship Points” by winning matches, thus unlocking new character colors and making a chosen female fighter smile more. Don't say you're surprised about that.
Import Barrier: Not much, as long as you've got the gameplay down. The PlayStation 3 release is region-free, too.
Chances of a Domestic Release: Not bad at all. Zen United and pQube already signed on to publish Arcana Heart 3 in Europe, and the Arc System Works connection makes this a likely project for Aksys Games in America.

SAGA 3: RULER OF SPACE-TIME: SHADOW OR LIGHT
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Nintendo DS
Players: 1

The original SaGa 3 was born into the strange world of 1991, one where hair metal had yet to collapse, the Internet barely affected anyone, and we didn't mind staring at a green-gray Game Boy screen to play a Final Fantasy game. Or so we thought when we played SaGa 3, which was renamed Final Fantasy Legend III for North America. Following their DS remake of SaGa 2, Square Enix gave SaGa 3 a similarly extensive makeover and the subtitle Ruler of Space-Time: Shadow or Light. The game's now in the large-headed, colorfully 3-D style of the Final Fantasy III and IV revamps, and the battles now look much more dynamic. The core of the game wasn't changed much: two humans and two mutants set out to save their world in some odd time-traveling quest, and along the way they can customize themselves with the remains of their enemies. Monster flesh turns them into more bestial forms, while robotic components make them cyborgs and, if taken far enough, androids. This new SaGa 3 adopts the multiple-path system of the SaGa 2 remake, as a Times Gear allows players to twist the plot itself and open new scenarios in the game. There's also a “new game+” mode that retains player stats from the game's ending and unveils new storyline paths. Every game should have those.
Import Barrier: It's an RPG, so there's a lot of story to miss if you don't know Japanese.
Chances of a Domestic Release: Slim. Square Enix didn't bring SaGa 2 to North America, and SaGa 3 isn't any more important of a game. But hey, some fans just finished translating SaGa 2, so dedicated players might not be deprived of its sequel.

VENUS AND BRAVES
Developer: Namco
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Platform: Sony PSP
Players: 1

Venus & Braves takes a harshly realistic view of those good-versus-evil conflicts so often presented in RPGs. The game finds a warrior named (no kidding) Blood Boall granted immortality by a goddess named Aria, just so he can vanquish an invading force of demons. Trouble is, the battle takes a long time, and most of the warriors that Blood gathers tend to…well, die of old age. But their children join the cause, taking up their positions on the grids of the game's many strategy-RPG battles. As this is a Namco game, the Tales series must be involved somehow, and Venus & Braves has plenty of Tales characters popping in to join Blood's army (and presumably die). The cast includes Yuri, Rita, and Raven from Tales of Vesperia; Lloyd, Colette, Genis, and Presea from Tales of Symphonia; Leon and Phillia from Tales of Destiny; Cless, Suzu, and Mint from Tales of Phantasia; Luke, Tear, Guy, and Natalia from Tales of the Abyss; Asbel and Sophie from Tales of Graces; and a fellow named Kyle from Tales of Destiny 2. The PSP port of Venus & Braves also goes beyond borrowing from the ranks of another RPG series, as it adds numerous subquests to the original game, released on the PlayStation 2 back in 2002.
Import Barrier: RPG. Lots of text. Most in Japanese. Must know language. You know how it is.
Chances of a Domestic Release: Namco's said nothing, so the game's prospects are probably in the hands of other North American publishers. But bugging Namco Bandai wouldn't hurt.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

DEVIL MAY CRY 4 REFRAIN
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: iPhone
Players: 1
MSRP:$6.99

Yes, the coming week is a slow one for games, but there's always something on the iPhone. Capcom decided that the rapid combat and rampant violence of Devil May Cry can be translated to an iPhone display, and this remake of the fourth game in the series tests their hubris. It's a ten-level treatment of the demon-infested city from Devil May Cry 4, and it initially stars only Nero, the game's younger imitation of white-hairedDevil May Cry hero Dante. Nero's sword strikes, guns, and giant demon hand are all controlled by on-screen buttons while his movement's a looser, screen-touching affair. The game does its best to imitate Devil May Cry's style, down to the little exclamations that pop up whenever Nero completes a combo. And if you can't stand Nero, bear in mind that additional levels and a playable version of Dante are in store.


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