The X Button
Long Live the Fighters

by Todd Ciolek, Dec 21st 2011

The X Button takes its usual Christmas vacation next week, and it'll return with the new year. Have fun in the meantime, and try Mighty Switch Force if you need something new to play over the holidays.

With that out of the way, let's talk a little about The King of Fighters and its odd relationship with anime. If you followed anime in the 1990s, you likely saw Fatal Fury turned into two OVAs and then a movie which was THE MEGA-POWERED MARTIAL ARTS MEGAHIT OF THE YEAR. But after the chorus of “Oh Angel” faded and The King of Fighters took over for Fatal Fury, there wasn't much anime to be made.

Aside from some intro footage in the actual The King of Fighters games, the only anime inspired by the franchise is The King of Fighters: Another Day, a four-part series originally broadcast online. It's a routine production that lacks both the budget and the dynamic animation that Masami Obari brought to Fatal Fury, though at least the characters all look closer to humans than Obari's bug-people. Another Day is based on the The King of Fighters Maximum Impact 2, a 3-D fighter that SNK now pretends never happened, and so the anime was bundled with the game in Japan.

When Maximum Impact 2 came to the U.S. as The King of Fighters 2006, SNK Playmore offered Another Day as a pre-order bonus DVD. As the story goes, the discs didn't ship to stores until after the game hit, and they were available only in limited quantities. In my limited estimate, this may make The King of Fighters: Another Day the rarest anime DVD released in North America. It's certainly hard to get a hold of—eBay doesn't seem to have the official U.S. version, and I'm not even certain if the above art is the right cover. Sure, it's a touch lame and you can watch the whole thing for free you-know-where, but there's something to be said for an obscure find.

NEWS

POKEMON AND NOBUNAGA JOIN IN MIND-BOGGLING UNION
Pokémon games are several things: they're profitable, they're well-made to a point, and they're awfully predictable. Every Pokémon title is set in the same blandly modern universe, and they're all full of cute little animals to train and enslave. It's the last place you'd expect to find Japan's most famously vilified feudal warlord, Oda Nobunaga. But that's where he'll be next year.

Yes, the newest Pokémon game crosses Nintendo's cash cow and KOEI's line of Nobunaga's Ambition strategy games. A collaboration between Tecmo KOEI and the Pokémon Company (yes, there's a company), the game assigns familiar Pokémon to figures from Nobunaga's 16th-century attempt to unify Japan. Nobunaga's disloyal general Mitsuhide gets an Articuno, his more honorable general Kenshin gets a Mewtwo, his sister Oichi gets a Jigglypuff, and his rival Shingen gets a Groudon. And to complete this absurd arrangement, Nobunaga himself gets a Zekrom. True to the Pokémon tradition, the player controls a hero or heroine, and both get Evees.

Early screens of Pokémon + Nobunaga's Ambition suggest a Pokémon-like RPG, with perhaps a dab or two of Japan-conquering strategy. It's due out for the DS next year, and I'd give it a 50-50 chance of making it here. True, it's a DS title about a complex bit of feudal history, but it's also Pokémon, and that overrides a lot of objections.

SQUARE ENIX PRIMES A GO-BOTS RIP-OFF CALLED GYROZETTER
While Pokèmon proves confident enough to spin off into feudal Japanese conquest, Square Enix tests out their attempt at making the next Pokèmon equivalent. This new challenger is Super Speed Transforming Gyrozetter, and it's essentially Transformers pared down to the cars that change into robots. It has all of its bases covered: a manga series started in Saikyo Jump earlier this month, there's a TV series on the way, and product placement's already secured in the form of the characters themselves. They're all based on real-life vehicles from Mitsubishi, Nissan, Toyota, and other car companies. And it has what are perhaps the most important ingredients of any franchise hoping to ensnare today's youth: video games.

The first Gyrozetter game will arrive in Japanese arcades next year, and it features both driving scenes and robot-on-robot battles. The most interesting point is the arcade cabinet itself, which changes its control panel to suit either mode; upon pushing up the wheel, players transform the console into a combat-mecha cockpit, just like the one in the Gyrozetter show and toy line and comic that all stand ready to consume many a childhood. There's also a 3DS title in the works.

Gyrozetter might not be confined to Japan, either, as Siliconera dug up related copyrights for North America and Europe. Perhaps the age of Yu-Gi-Oh! and Beyblade has passed, but you might spot a Gyrozetter machine at a mall arcade later next year.

XSEED GAMES LANDS SUMIONI ON VITA
The Vita's not yet out in the U.S., but Xseed Games won't wait for Sony's new system to prove itself here or in Japan. Xseed already announced that their first Vita title is a localization of Sumioni: Demon Arts, a side-scrolling action game from Acquire.

Sumioni's ink-demon hero controls much like any hopping, running game protagonist, but he's in a world like few others. Resembling a Japanese Sumi-e painting, Sumioni allows the player to create weapons, objects, and puzzle-solving accessories by making brush-like swipes at the Vita's touch screen. It's unabashedly like Capcom's Okami, even down to the red logo, but Okami is exactly the sort of game that more developers should rip off. It's out in North America this spring, not long after the Vita itself arrives.

IN BRIEF: NEW .HACK GAME IS CLARIFIED, SO IS PROJECT DRACO
I didn't expect the .hack franchise to last so long when it emerged nearly a decade ago. But .hack is still around, and there is a new chunk of it to be detailed. CyberConnect2 leader Hiroshi Matsuyama disclosed that another game's in the works as part of the .hack 3rd season project. Other details are spotty, but this game does feature Haseo, lead of .hack//G.U. It remains to be seen if it's the same character as the original Haseo or just someone else playing the avatar. The whole .hack thing is set in a virtual world, after all.

Project Draco, the Kinect-based Xbox 360 shooter and spiritual sequel to Panzer Dragoon, is still without a release date. But there's good news all the same: Yukio Futasugi, creator of Panzer and director of Draco, mentioned that the game's lead designer, lead programmer, and concept designer are all former members of Sega's Panzer-making Team Andromeda. Project Draco's also sounding better and better, with three separate skills to equip on a customizable dragon, plus a world where humans are setting up colonies among dragons. That sounds like those boring Pern novels, but I don't really mind so long as it has enough in common with Panzer Dragoon .

REVIEW: THE KING OF FIGHTERS XIII

Developer: SNK Playmore
Publisher: SNK Playmore
Platform: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $49.99

The past decade was seldom kind to SNK. In 2000, the company stood at its creative apex, and years of experience shone through in Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves, Metal Slug 3, and two portable SNK vs. Capcom crossovers. Unfortunately, the same year saw the company at its financial worst. The prosperous early 1990s were long over, and the accountants at parent company Aruze abruptly killed SNK. The climb back up has been slow and none too steady for SNK Playmore, the resurrected form of the original SNK, but The King of Fighters XII looked to be its redemption: a gorgeously animated 2-D fighter that brought the series back to the fore. Yet it was no savior. The King of Fighters XII was a prototype, an unfinished mess that SNK foisted on the public as a $60 proof-of-concept, in the hopes that it'd make enough money to finance a complete game. The King of Fighters XIII is that game.

As if to make up for its plotless predecessor, The King of Fighters XIII does its darnedest to make its story count. Apparently the end of a three-game arc centered on the smug, freckled Ash Crimson, the game ties his power-stealing ways to a secret cabal of villains, time travel, the long-running King of Fighters MacGuffin of Orochi energy, and a tournament ostensibly staged by the croissant-haired Rose Bernstein (daughter of former End Boss Rugal, for those who track fighting-game backstories). It's all quite silly, but it adds a much-needed round of characters to King of Fighters XII's lacking roster. Absent mainstays like K', Maxima, King, Billy, Kula, and Mai Shiranui, who now appears to be suffering back problems, are restored, and kickboxer Hwa Jai is recruited all the way from the original Fatal Fury.

Better still, The King of Fighters XIII simply feels much more solid than XII, and gameplay's a good part of that. Many of XII's ideas are discarded: the Critical Counter and Guard Attack systems give way to largely superior ideas. EX moves will be quite familiar to newcomers who've known only Street Fighter IV, as such moves deal out additional damage at the cost of one length of the player's super meter (or two if you're pulling off a Desperation Move). Also welcome is the Drive Cancel system, which lets players chain one move into another and pull off rather brutal combos. That's an idea seen many times before, but it's used to remarkable effect in The King of Fighters XIII, particularly when a full Hyper Drive Gauge lets you pull off such cancels with abandon.

The King of Fighters always was a shade more demanding than its closest competitor, Street Fighter. It's partly in the joystick motions required for special moves, but it also requires more time to firmly grasp the game. The characters offer a bunch of different combat styles, and mastering each one of them requires some work. The King of Fighters XIII is essentially about combos: the timing of turning one move into another, the brief little moment you have to counter-attack after blocking, and the careful use of the two power meters to pull off the moves that really matter. Most of the standard-issue characters are tuned for a well-balanced game—except, of course, the ones that you like to use. Leona, for example, loses the much-improved moveset she had in The King of Fighters XII, so she's back to the bottom of the heap. And I still don't like flame-less Iori, though he's far from useless.

If the The King of Fighters XII had one thing going for it, it was a good appearance. Instead of pursuing the 3-D cartoon look of Capcom's Street Fighter IV, SNK went with traditional hand-drawn art rendered in gorgeous, hi-res detail. The King of Fighters XIII has even more of it, with amazing little touches in the characters' clothing and some staggering backdrops. The best may be the London stage, which has double-decker buses bursting with cheering onlookers, each synced in a unique animation. It's a must-see for anyone who appreciates 2-D art in video games.

When it comes to little touches, The King of Fighters XIII is an exhibit for SNK nerds. Between the story mode and the gorgeous backgrounds, the game manages to include just about every major King of Fighters regular who isn't in the main roster, from Duck King to B. Jenet (Angel and K9999 are curiously MIA, however). The King of Fighters has never been about plot so much as it's about character interaction, and XIII has unique conversations for every possible matchup of characters. Some are boring, but others are amusing little nuggets for the long-term fans, the ones who know exactly who's dating who, who hates who, and who's going to play off who in some ridiculous way.

As for the story mode itself, it's a largely incoherent morass of the same clichés that dog low-effort fighting anime: stolen powers, time travel, mind control, and noble sacrifices. Yet the crisp look of everything gives the trite melodrama better impact than past King of Fighters games, and the coda even tries for a classy moment with a few oft-quoted verses from Pippa Passes. That Robert Browning sure knew how to write a video game.

Unexpected poetry isn't the only bonus The King of Fighters XIII has in store. There's a decent training mode, some nice artwork, and a color-editing mode extensive enough to allow all sorts of creative (and unnerving) paint jobs. It's a shame that online play, the biggest attraction in a fighter, may also be the biggest problem here. Connections are often unreliable at this writing, though Atlus and SNK have promised a patch to remedy this.

For all of its strengths, The King of Fighters XIII probably won't revive its franchise the way Street Fighter IV did its own. It's still a little too tough to learn, and the public at large just isn't as impressed by sharp 2-D art as they are by three-dimension attractions, the philistines. And there's a bigger problem, the one that's dogged The King of Fighters ever since 1995. If all goes well, there'll be a King of Fighters XIV within 18 months, and it'll probably be a lot like XIII except with more characters. Maybe it'll even have all-new ones next time!

But that doesn't take much away from The King of Fighters XIII. Here and now, it's a magnificent refinement of SNK's biggest series, and it's an ideal jump-in point for any fan of the genre. The name of SNK will never stand as proudly as it did fifteen years ago, but at least it can get behind an achievement like The King of Fighters XIII.

THIS WEEK'S RELEASE

MIGHTY SWITCH FORCE
Developer: WayForward Technologies
Publisher: WayForward Technologies
Platform: Nintendo 3DS eShop
Players: 1
MSRP: TBA

The coming two weeks at first looked completely empty as far as games were concerned, and…well, they still are. This week, however, WayForward dealt a surprise, as they often do. Their breakout hit came with Shantae, a capable action-platformer that arrived in the dying days of the GameBoy Color. Since then, WayForward's specialized in 2-D games, from original creations like Sigma Star Saga and Shantae: Risky's Revenge to the brutally faithful tribute of Contra 4. WayForward recently launched the Mighty series, with the puzzle game Mighty Flip Champs and the shooter Might Milky Way. It's now a trilogy with Mighty Switch Force, a side-scroller in which cyborg officer Patricia Wagon (yes, there's a pun) sets out to bring the five Hooligan sisters (pictured with the logo) to justice.

Officer Wagon gives chase with a novel game mechanic. The touch of a button lets her switch around certain blocks in a level, and said blocks come with many different effects: some just shift from background to foreground, letting Wagon traverse a stage. Others rocket her around or let her launch special moves. All of the blocks turn a level into an elaborate puzzle, though Wagon still has a firearm (and a police mecha) for help. As with previous WayForward titles, Mighty Switch Force also has polished, well-animated visual style, with squat characters and cute little robotic foes. What's more, buying it gives WayForward more money to make another episode of Shantae, and I'm completely behind that.


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