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Mega Matters

by Todd Ciolek, Feb 1st 2012

Last week, I mentioned the recently released Katawa Shoujo, a free PC title that's drawn quite a bit of attention due to its origins and premise. It's a visual novel (or “dating simulator” if you're cynical) featuring a cast of disabled characters, and it's based on a single joke illustration. Some readers objected to my curt assessment of the game, suggesting that I needed to play it for myself before fully judging it.

So I played it.

It surprised me. The entire concept first appears to fetishize the disabled in a genre already catering to fetishes, but Katawa Shojo aims above that. It follows an arrhythmia-stricken young man named Hisao as he enrolls at a special school and finds his way into the affections of five female classmates: Shizune is deaf, Lilly is blind, Rin has no usable arms, Emi has artificial legs, and Hanako has severe burn scars and social anxieties. And their stories are handled with unexpected dignity. In each relationship explored, there's an underlying Important Lesson about treating the disabled with respect. It's the stuff of after-school specials coated in cutesy “moe” stylings and awkward prose, but there are good intentions at work.

Unfortunately, Katawa Shojo is still a dating simulator (or “visual novel” if you're not cynical), and it carries many of the problems inherent to its field. For all of its earnestness and subversion, the game can still be taken as an appeal to lonely players who fear the uncertainties of real life. It's a reminder of why “moe” is such a detestable trend, as it often blurs the line between honestly sympathetic characters and mawkish pandering. Perhaps the problem lies with the entire genre and not so much with Katawa Shoujo itself. At least Katawa Shoujo has a message beyond “you need to get out more.”

All that aside, this is the sort of game that's worth discussing. It's intriguing as a fan creation and a cross-cultural study, as it's the result of an amateur, presumably non-Japanese staff imitating a Japan-bred genre and tackling a subject that no mainstream developer would dare touch. And this alone makes it more notable than most of the games that inspired it. I hate “moe” in nearly all of its forms, but I don't hate Katawa Shoujo.

NEWS

STREET FIGHTER X TEKKEN ADDS UGLY MEGA MAN, OTHERS
Capcom's original U.S. cover for Megaman was immortalized long ago as one of the worst box illustrations ever to afflict a video game. And Capcom embraced that in 2010, when a trailer for Megaman Universe showed the miscolored. middle-aged version of Megaman shambling around. Megaman Universe was canceled, but the joke lives on in Street Fighter X Tekken. The PlayStation 3 and Vita versions of the game will include Pac-Man (astride a Mokujin mecha), Sony mascots Kuro and Toro, Cole from Infamous…and a tubby, full-sized version of the Megaman that so many NES players mocked back in the day.

Some were quick to see this as a jab at Megaman steward Keiji Inafune, who left Capcom in 2010. However, Street Fighter producer Yoshinori Ono confirmed that it was done with Inafune's blessing. Perhaps it comes across as an unintentional potshot at fans of Megaman Legends 3, which Capcom dropped last year. This rotund Megaman's profile on the Street Fighter X Tekken website describes him as a “Digger” who works with “his partner Roll,” all references to the Legends series. That seems particularly cruel, but it's hard to deny that this horribly Americanized Megaman is hilarious.

One question remains, though: why are he and Pac-Man only in the Sony-backed versions of the game? The two characters represent the game's Namco-Capcom crossover angle (trailers opened with them chasing each other), so why aren't they in the Xbox 360 edition as well? Is there something even better planned for the other version? Ono's promised to announce another character or two before the game's March debut, but those will be actual Street Fighter and Tekken pickings. Perhaps we'll get someone from the cover of the original Street Fighter's PC port.

RISING STAR COMES TO U.S., BRINGS AKAI KATANA SHIN
Rising Star Games was founded back in 2004, but it was only in recent years that this European outfit was noticed by North American players. That's because Rising Star picked up the Xbox 360 versions of Dodonpachi Resurrection and Akai Katana Shin, two Cave shooters yet unavailable in North America (unless you count the iPhone port of Resurrection, and some devoted shooter fans don't). Well, that's no longer a problem. Rising Star now has a California office and a plan to release games on this continent, starting with Akai Katana Shin.

Like many Cave games, Akai Katana Shin began as an arcade shooter, minus the “Shin” part. Unlike many Cave games, though, Akai Katana Shin is a side-scrolling shooter, as opposed to an overhead one. Of course, it's full of multicolored bullets for players to avoid…or deflect, in Akai Katana's case. The Xbox 360 port, which added the “Shin” part, upgraded the graphics to that fancy-pants “HD” thing, added two extra modes, and threw in an entirely new stage. Rising Star plans to release it here in the second quarter of this year, apparently under the original title of Akai Katana. Between this and the newly formed 7sixty's upcoming release of Phantom Breaker, it's an interesting time for anyone who ever complained about obscure Japanese games never being localized.

THE NEO GEO IS BACK, THE PROPHECY IS FULFILLED
Ladies and gentlemen, the Neo Geo has returned. Yes, it looked like SNK abandoned the system back in 2004 after supporting it for thirteen years, but the Neo Geo faithful never lost hope. Even if this new SNK handheld looks like an iPhone-PSP crossbreed, it has NEO GEO on it, and that's what counts. It won't be long before SNK returns to its glory days of delivering arcade-perfect fighting games and Metal Slug retreads, all while stubbornly refusing to acknowledge piracy or the downfall of modern arcades.

Seriously, this little device is purported to be an officially licensed SNK Playmore portable made by an unspecified third-party company, and it isn't a handheld Neo Geo so much as it is a system that can emulate SNK's hardware. The iPhone-esque gadget has an SD card slot, four gameplay buttons on its face, and four somewhat strange shoulder buttons (considering that Neo games used four buttons at most). It comes loaded with twenty Neo Geo games, which would be an amazing deal if SNK weren't still pushing early titles instead of their superior follow-ups. The bundle features Fatal Fury, Fatal Fury Special, The King of Fighters '94, Samurai Shodown, Art of Fighting, Metal Slug, World Heroes, Sengoku, Mutation Nation, Nam-1975, Ultimate 11, King of the Monsters, Last Resort, Baseball Stars Professional, Frenzy, Top Player's Golf, Magician Lord, League Bowling, Super Sidekicks, and Cyber Lip. It lacks some of the better first-round Neo titles (like Super Baseball 2020), but it's a generous pack-in all the same.

There's no word yet on when the handheld will arrive, how much it'll cost, or even if the whole thing is real. Of course, that hasn't stopped some hardcore SNK fans from getting excited, and I admit that I like the idea of legally playing Mark of the Wolves or Metal Slug 3 on the train.

GAME REPUBLIC'S SHADOW LINGERS
The tale of Game Republic is a sad one: old-school arcade whiz Yoshiki Okamoto starts a development studio, and they make a new game series for Sony and even land major licenses like Dragon Ball and that inexplicably successful Clash of the Titans remake. Then it all falls apart, and the studio barely squeaks out the ill-received Knights Contract before closing down for good.

Game Republic had some titles in the works before it shut down last year, and Siliconera dug up pieces of one unfulfilled project. It was called Shadow, and it was apparently a futuristic action game with characters and backgrounds designed by the still-around NCA Works. The art suggests something aimed at Western markets, though there's less information about the gameplay. Game Republic was exploring the idea of players cooperating with computer-controlled allies (a giant beast in Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, a witch in Knights Contract), so it's possible Shadow went down the same path. But we'll never know now, will we?

OPINION: THE SEARCH FOR MEGA MAN

Megaman was never meant to survive. The original game brought Capcom little success in 1987, and the company saw no reason to give it a sequel. It was only after the game's programmers begged for that chance that Capcom let them make Megaman 2 in their free time. It arrived late in 1988, founding a franchise that didn't slow down for the next 22 years. In fact, 2010 brought some new directions. Megaman Universe was a curious, customizable return to 2-D Megaman gameplay. Megaman Legends 3, meanwhile, was a long-awaited 3DS continuation of a cult favorite among Megaman fans. Both were canceled in 2011, and this year finds Megaman facing his 25th anniversary with no new games.

Much of this had to do with Keiji Inafune, co-creator of Megaman and the driving force behind the whole franchise. A Capcom employee since 1987, Inafune served as producer not only on Megaman titles, but also on more recent successes like Onimusha, Dead Rising, and Lost Planet. Yet Inafune evidently wasn't content, and he left Capcom in late 2010, not long after delivering a caustic rant about the Japanese game industry. Capcom soon canceled both upcoming Megaman games. Universe disintegrated in March of 2011, and Legends 3, apparently developed only in a probationary sense, died in July. Nor did it take long for fans and industry gossips to notice Capcom's newfound disinterest in Megaman.

Few Megaman devotees shed tears over Universe; playable demos of the game suggested a strange throwback to basic NES-game mechanics, even though trailers promised many different versions of the little robot hero. Megaman Legends 3, however, was mourned far and wide. The Legends series is the most daring of Megaman spin-offs, a melding of the older games with 3-D gameplay and cheerful anime style. The first two games and their Tron Bonne side-story have a firm following, and the Legends 3 staff welcomed fan contributions on a development blog. And now both games are gone. All that remains is Street Fighter X Tekken's Megaman—a tubby, garish version of the NES game's ugly box art. It began as an in-joke planned by Inafune and Street Fighter's Yoshinori Ono back in 2010. Now it's the only piece of Megaman left.

There's more than company politics afoot, of course. Megaman is a relentlessly appealing character, based heavily in the Astro Boy and Prince Planet school of superheroes, and his games thrive on giving the player a constant supply of new weapons and some freedom in choosing levels. Unfortunately, Megaman's also a creation of the NES era, when plucky, innocent heroes were the order of the day. Megaman's evolved to fit the times before, growing more futuristic with the Megaman X series, more RPG-ish with the Megaman Battle Network series, and more adventurous and cartoonish with Megaman Legends. But he's always clung to a lightweight charm, even in the melodramatic excesses of Megaman X4.

Perhaps that's not good enough for Capcom anymore. Most of the company's new properties have international markets in mind; Dragon's Dogma clearly apes Western fantasy, and even Asura's Wrath, based on Eastern myth, guns for the God of War crowd. Megaman's not as aggressive as Street Fighter or as self-confidently silly as Phoenix Wright, and he might not have a place in Capcom's new plan. Maybe Capcom should overhaul Megaman into something gritty, dark, and violent for this modern era of Gods and Gears of Wars and whatnot. After all, it worked for Bomberman!

Wait. No, it didn't. Remaking Megaman with today's aesthetics is a horrible idea, doubly so because there's much more that can be done with Megaman as he is now. Deliberate retro-sequels like Megaman 9 and 10 are great diversions, even if they leech off of the nostalgia for the NES era. Legends still has remarkable potential, and it proves that it's possible to take Megaman new places without destroying him as a character. It's too bad that Capcom isn't taking Megaman anywhere right now.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

RESIDENT EVIL: REVELATIONS
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $39.99

It's horribly tempting to spell the newest Resident Evil's title as “Revelaitons" now that someone spotted a rather unfortunate typo on the game's spine. But there's more to Revelations than a spelling mistake. After all, it's a major release on a system that desperately needs more of them, and it's far from the glorified mini-game that was Mercenaries. Like Resident Evil: Code Veronica, Revelations is a full-blown Resident Evil in everything but name (and appended number). To be specific, it's an old-fashioned Resident Evil, one that relies on a slower pace, limited ammunition, and more claustrophobic setting: a cruise ship. Original Resident Evil heroine Jill Valentine ends up there in a search for Chris Redfield, the original Resident Evil hero, and she's soon surrounded by all sorts of biological experiments gone astray. With the help of moderately overweight special agent Parker Luciani, Jill plumbs the depths of the deteriorating ocean liner. At certain cliffhangers in her story, other characters take center stage in flashbacks that tell of Chris, his sniper ally Jessica Sherawat, and a bioterrorist attack that wiped out an entire floating city.

Of course, Revelations plays a little better than the stiff old Resident Evils that we trudged through in the 1990s. The player can switch between a first-person view and the traditional over-the-shoulder vantage, and the circle pad of the 3DS lets characters dodge up-close enemies. Also helpful is a scanner that picks out ammunition and other items, reducing the need to wander across every inch of a room. The game's arsenal allows for some thoroughly customized weapons, all of which can be used in a cooperative two-player mode as well as the solo endeavor. Capcom may have canceled a certain 3DS Megaman game already mentioned here many times, but at least the system has a full-fledged Resident Evil.

THE SIMPSONS ARCADE
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Platform: PLAYSTATION Network/XBox Live
Players: 1-4
MSRP: Free for PlayStation Plus users/TBA for regular PSN users/800 MS Points.

Some claim that Konami's 1991 The Simpsons arcade brawler is overrated, that it would be soaking in obscurity right next to Metamorphic Force and Arabian Fight if it didn't have The Simpsons all over it. Perhaps they're right. The Simpsons Arcade isn't all that different from other four-player brawlers of the early 1990s. Bart, Lisa, Homer, and Marge are all limited to a jump button and a single attack button. Enemies up show as the stages scroll by, and they're rarely smart enough to present any threat beyond sheer numbers. It's a solid game, though. There's fun to be had in teaming up for special moves, and all sorts of commonplace objects can be picked up and used as weapons.

More importantly, The Simpsons arcade game is a wonderful little relic of the show's early days, when t-shirts everywhere bore Bart's catchphrases, Homer wasn't a complete moron, and most of the show's regulars were still in their prototype phases. The game's backgrounds and enemy lineups include all sorts of never-seen-again characters from the first season, and many modern fans won't even recognize, say, the kid who runs out of the first level's arcade. That's not to say the game is a treasure trove of totally accurate Simpsons references; playing through the game makes it very clear this was assembled by Japanese developers with a very limited (and hilarious!) understanding of the show, hence why you wind up fighting a bomb-throwing, high-pitched-cackling, cape-clad Smithers and Mr. Burns in a giant transforming mecha suit (who greets you with "welcome to your grave, suckers!"). However, there are plenty of clever touches; Konami references Matt Groening's Life in Hell comic, with depressed rabbit Bongo popping out of trees, and Marge's electrocuted pose reveals that she has rabbit ears under her hair (a rejected Groening idea for the show). And if that isn't enough to sell this to Simpsons fans and old-fashioned arcade rats alike, I don't know what is.


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