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Fantasy Stars

by Todd Ciolek, Jun 20th 2012

Canceled games aren't easily found. They're the near-extinct species of this industry, and tracking them down sometimes demands a lot of research, legwork, and luck. And sometimes it's just a matter of talking to the right person.

Back in 1993, Westone tried out a game called Aquario of the Clockwork in a few Japanese arcades. It was a colorful side-scroller that showed off the same bright humor as Westone's Wonder Boy and Monster Land games, and it introduced some unique ideas to the run-and-jump formula. Unfortunately, this also made it a dying breed in a world where fighting games ruled arcades, and so poor Aquario's official release was quietly canceled. The game seemed to survive only in a few pieces of artwork, a soundtrack preserved by the game's composer, and this screenshot.

Last week, Hardcore Gaming 101 interviewed Westone Bit Entertainment co-founder Ryuichi Nishizawa, and Aquario was one of the games mentioned. Nishizawa discussed the game's development and wondered if anyone would buy it on a modern console, in the same way that three Monster World games were recently brought out through the Sega Vintage Collection on XBox Live and the PLAYSTATION Network. Shortly after that, he revealed on Twitter that he'd found the source code for Aquario. Then he asked if anyone wanted to play it.

Anyone with a fondness for good old-school games should want to see Aquario. Westone rarely made a bad game, and 1993 saw them near their creative peak, less than a year away from the amazing Monster World IV. Aquario is reportedly similar to Westone's Monster Lair, and it lets three players work together by using a typical trio of arcade-game heroes: Hack Rondo (the Guy), Elle Moon (the Girl), and Gash (the Robot). Early versions of the game also gave the player a meter that granted temporary invincibility, and that's a novel idea in side-scrollers.

Nishizawa isn't yet certain if the Aquario source code is complete, and it's hard to say just how he'd get it to the market. Yet the Sega Vintage Collections are a good starting point, and Sega's Yosuke Okunari clearly likes to preserve older games. So if you want to play this little lost treasure, tell the people behind it. Okunari and Nishizawa are both on Twitter, and Nishizawa set up a Facebook page for Monster World trivia. And it couldn't hurt to pick up the Sega Vintage Collection of Monster World in the meantime. It's great.

NEWS

VALKYRIA DUEL IS A BROWSER GAME
So, about Valkyria Duel…yes, it first appeared as a trademark filed by Sega, and many assumed it'd be another installment of the Valkyria Chronicles strategy-RPG series. Well, they were right. But Valkyria Duel won't appear on the PlayStation 3 or PSP or Vita. It's just a card-battle game for your browser.

The game simulates the anime-styled look and battlefield maneuvers of previous Valkyria games, but players now raise their armies through cards featuring characters from all three titles. Those cards are apparently how the game makes its money; Valkyria Duel is free to play, but players can always pay for items and other advantages. Sega and developer NHN Hangame also plan on putting out a smartphone version of the game. It stands a better chance of getting an official English release than Valkyria Chronicles 3.

G.REV'S KOKUGA ARRIVES IN JAPAN THIS SEPTEMBER, TANK PUNS AT THE READY
The name of G. Rev isn't bandied around too often, but you've likely sampled their work if you have any interest in old-school shooters. The developer created the Senko no Ronde duel-shooters (aka “WarTech”), worked on Treasure's Ikaruga, and most recently put out Strania for XBox Live. Their first 3DS game, Kokuga, is all about tanks.

Kokuga sends the player's tank through stages viewed from overhead, much like Wolfteam's Granada or Success' Guardian Force. The tank's turret can fire independently of the direction the tank moves, a standard practice that allows effective strafing. G.Rev's choice of palette is particularly uncommon. Instead of detailed backdrops, the game features neon grids and glowing projectiles that'd be right at home in a Tron title.

The game's levels are also arranged in an unorthodox way, and players can choose a path through a pyramid-shaped chart of stages. And for multiplayer, the game allows four 3DS owners to work off the same cartridge. That's always nice. Kokuga arrives in Japan on September 26. An American release is unlikely, but hey, that's what they said about Code of Princess.

OKAMI REISSUED AGAIN, THIS TIME FOR THE PLAYSTATION 3
It's easy to forget that CAPCOM disdainedOkami when it was first released. The game didn't sell up to CAPCOM's standards, and the developer, Clover Studio, was shuttered. In recent years, however, CAPCOM's ported Okami to the Wii, stuck wolf-goddess Amaterasu in Marvel vs. CAPCOM 3, and produced a DS sequel in Okamiden. And now they're reviving the original game on the PlayStation 3.

Okami HD will sport high-resolution graphics and use the PlayStation m.o.v.e motion-controller to carry out the game's brush-sweeping elements. It's out in November on the PLAYSTATION Network, and it'll carry the fairly reasonable price of twenty bucks.

SETH KILLIAN LEAVES CAPCOM
In other news from CAPCOM, the company's own Seth Killian will soon depart his post as community manager. Killian, who first joined CAPCOM USA in 2006, was heavily involved with the resurgence of CAPCOM fighters and the fan networks that surround them (I interviewed him last year, too). He leaves this Friday, June 22, and his farewell post can be read here. Between this and a recent interview with overworked Street Fighter producer Yoshinori Ono, CAPCOM's fighting-game market looks to be on shaky ground.

OPINION: FIXIN' UP FINAL FANTASY

Several notable games were absent at this year's E3, and Square Enix's Final Fantasy Versus XIII was among them. This was no great surprise. The game has glacially trudged through development since it was unveiled in 2006, and Final Fantasy XIII's mixed reception made Square extra cautious about Versus, a semi-contemporary tale with only vague ties to the Final Fantasy XIII mythos. It's yet another setback for one of the world's most recognizable RPG franchises.

In the past two years, the series witnessed the much-derided Final Fantasy XIII, the nearly stillborn online RPG Final Fantasy XIV, and a few halfhearted spin-offs and sequels. It's struggling for direction, for purpose, for some way of attracting both new teenage audiences and the adults who've drifted away from it. Despite its continued presence and financial successes, Final Fantasy is in need of repair. And there are a few ways of fixing it.

LET THE GAMES STAND ON THEIR OWN
First of all, we must admit something: Final Fantasy is never going to be as new and interesting as it was back in 1994. Fans often complain about how they miss the games' sense of wonder and discovery, but what they really miss is being 10 years old and wrapped up in RPG storylines without the Internet's rampant opinions to ruin it. Like it or not, Final Fantasy is no longer a cult favorite to be treasured and promulgated by a nerdy few. It's a considerably large cog in the game industry. And this is no longer a world where game criticism is confined to magazines and a few circles of friends. It's a big mean country where games large and small are taken to task, and Final Fantasy goes under the spotlight just like any other franchise.

That said, Square observed one important rule during the 1990s: a Final Fantasy game had impact. Numbered titles came out every two years or so, and fans could build up their expectation, enthusiasm, and bizarre theories. Even spin-offs like Final Fantasy Tactics and Mystic Quest didn't have to share their release windows with other Final Fantasies. In the past decade, however, Square's gleefully branded all sorts of games with that familiar title, foisting them on the market every few months. While the numbered Final Fantasy games are now farther apart, they're braced by a supply of sequels, spin-offs, and sub-series. And it all dilutes the name. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers may be a sharply different game from Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light, but there comes a point where the average consumer's simply tired of seeing Final Fantasy on the shelf.

Final Fantasy Versus XIII illustrates this all too well. In a ridiculous stroke of ambition, Square revealed it as part of a marginally connected trilogy, Fabula Nova Crystalis Final Fantasy, that also included Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy Agito XIII. Then Final Fantasy XIII came out, and the backlash was ugly. Then Final Fantasy Agito XIII became Final Fantasy Type-0 and drifted away from the trilogy. Versus XIII is still apparently part of it, even though the game would clearly be better off as a separate title, or perhaps Final Fantasy XV. With its super-pretty characters, half-modern cityscapes, and action-oriented gameplay, Versus looks like the next big Square creation. So why is it still tied to this Fabula Nova sub-series that no one really cared about in the first place?

SHAKE THINGS UP
Each Final Fantasy game is, in theory, a separate endeavor. If you doubt that, just make the “How can it be Final if there's thirteen of them?” joke in front of a game nerd. Yes, each Final Fantasy tries out new ideas and changes series staples, just enough to delight some fans and upset others. Well, that's how it should be, anyway. In truth, the games broadly repeat things. There's usually a spiky-haired hero, a bunch of gobbledygook about crystals, a mix of high-tech trappings and medieval culture, and a trio of female characters: one serious, one passive, and one spunky. And ever since Final Fantasy X, there's been a sequel of some kind.

The games toy with different settings and narrative styles, but the results are sadly repetitive for a series that actually has an excuse to do things differently. For one thing, there's a lack of female leads; aside from the troubled Final Fantasy XIII and its follow-up, most of the games are centered around men of either white or quasi-Asian backgrounds. Women and darker-skinned characters are often secondary, and it's been far too long since the series tried something like Final Fantasy VI, in which the spotlight was shared by several characters. Again, Final Fantasy XIII and Type-0 ventured back in this direction, but each met with problems. Final Fantasy XIII was poorly paced and soundly criticized, while Type-0 still hasn't been released outside of Japan.

Final Fantasy also lurches around when bringing its battle system up to modern standards. Final Fantasy XII was a fine step forward, eliminating random encounters and merging combat with exploration. Final Fantasy XIII shrank back from this, whittling down the battle system even further while cutting away from the main viewpoint for the actual fights. I for one liked the combat, but it felt retrogressive when each enemy encounter involved a break with the scenery.

What's behind Square's lack of new ideas? An exodus of talent, for one thing. The company's PlayStation outings saw several RPGs with interesting ideas, from Tetsuya Takashashi's crazily massive Xenogears to Yasumi Matsuno's focused, lyrical Vagrant Story. Square went through hard times after that, resulting in a merger with erstwhile competitor Enix, but the real damage was dealt to the creative sector. Takahashi left to co-found Monolith Soft, Matsuno quit Square midway through directing Final Fantasy XII, and Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Final Fantasy itself, departed after his big-budget film, Final Fantasy: The Sprits Within, lost far too much money.

No younger talents have stepped up to fill their roles, and the remaining big names are growing stale. Character designer and director Tetsuya Nomura's overused, Yoshinori Kitase did better work as a director than a producer, and many fans blame Motomu Toriyama for Square's recent letdowns. Toriyama's certainly not fighting sexism, at any rate. Final Fantasy XIII's Lightning wasn't bad, but Toriyama's script for The 3rd Birthday makes Metroid: Other M look like a Sleater-Kinney album. Square needs new blood, or at least some new ideas.

OH THE HELL WITH IT, JUST REMAKE FINAL FANTASY VII ALREADY
On the other hand, there's one old standard that Square should revisit. The company's always willing to mine early Final Fantasy history: the original two games were ported and revamped everywhere from the PSP to the iPhone, and Final Fantasy III and IV were turned into new DS versions. All of these dance around the remake that fans truly want: Final Fantasy VII. It's still the most popular piece of the franchise, and Square expanded on it with three games and a movie several years ago. The results were mixed, but fans kept on wanting their redone Final Fantasy VII. Square even teased this by showing Final Fantasy VII's opening scene recreated in modern rendering.

A Final Fantasy VII remake has merit beyond sating fan nostalgia, for the original game has aged worse than most other Final Fantasies. Crafted in the early years of 3-D graphics, Final Fantasy VII's character models and video sequences are quite dated, and even the game design could use an overhaul. A remake could give the game a new cinematic edge, integrate “hidden” character Yuffie and Vincent, refine the Materia system, and retranslate the whole thing without embarrassing mistakes and insulting patois. Square's stated that such a project would take years, but the company's spending just as much time on games that recycle many of Final Fantasy VII's concepts. Why not put that time and money to something that fans really want? It'd make enough money to finance more experimental games.

Final Fantasy won't run out of followers or money anytime soon. Yet it stands to lose a lot of its influence as the game industry continues to tilt Westward. Japan's biggest franchises are struggling to keep their balance, and Final Fantasy's current state represents the old order in many respects. It needs innovation, presence, and perhaps a dash of well-calculated fan pandering. If it doesn't get any of these, we'll likely reach a point where Final Fantasy XIX is as much a joke as the title first appears.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

UNCHAINED BLADES
Developer: Furyu
Publisher: XSEED Games
Platform: Sony PSP (download)
Players: 1
MSRP: $29.99

Unchained Blades took a unique approach to designing characters. Rather than assign a lead artist and a few sub-artists to crafting them, the developers had each cast member drawn by a different illustrator of moderate anime-industry renown. And the characters themselves so beyond the normal range of human warriors, so players will see a Phoenix princess designed by Haruyuki Morisawa fighting alongside a nine-tailed fox thief created by Toshiyuki Kubooka of Giant Robo and Lunar. The lead is a dragon by the name of Fang, though he's turned into a human after he mouths off to a goddess (one drawn by Bastard!! creator Kazushi Hagiwara, no less). Vowing revenge, he gathers up an assortment of monstrous allies: the above-mentioned phoenix and fox join a golem, a gorgon, two grim reapers, and a mandrake. Yes, the golem's the only one who isn't just a humanoid anime character, but at least they're creatures in spirit.

Fang's journey (his Search for Vengeance, if you will) takes him through towering creatures called Titans. Each giant is one enormous maze, and all of them play out in dungeon-heavy RPG fashion. Players map out the levels in a first-person view, and battles uses that turn-based flow these dungeon-crawlers seem to like. Here's where the “Unchained” part of the title comes in, as Fang and his comrades can entice enemies to join them, broadening the party's lineup quite a bit. RPG fans have seen most of these ideas before, but they probably haven't guided firebirds and golems through the veins of a giant stone turtle. XSEED's releasing the PSP version of the game as a download this month, and there's a 3DS version with a vaguer “summer” release date.

RECORD OF AGAREST WAR 2
Developer: Idea Factory/Red Entertainment
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platform: PlayStation 3
Players: 1
MSRP: $49.99/$59.99

See that thing next to the limited edition of Record of Agarest War 2? There's a story behind it. A while ago, Aksys announced that the game's box set would come with an inflatable Felenne doll. Many assumed it'd be some hilariously obscene creation, considering that the original Agarest came with a body-pillow cover and a suggestive mousepad. But this wasn't the case: the Felenne doll is a cute little huge-headed effigy, like you'd see in a prize-catcher machine. It's probably the least embarrassing part of this Agarest 2 package, which also includes a beach towel and an art book of salacious subject matter.

This is all true to the game itself, as the Agarest series is really about casts of anime heroines that the main character can romance. This time around, that main character is a young amnesiac named Weiss, who's informed by a heavenly emissary that he a) killed a god and b) now holds a small fraction of that god's power. If that's a heavy thing to lay on a guy, Weiss has no shortage of companions. And depending on the player's decisions, he'll end up courting and marrying one of his ladyfriends. As in previous games, the story continues with the main character's descendants, though this time around the game's ending depends on whether the player forges loving relationships or just picks marriages of political convenience.

Record of Agarest War 2 remains a strategy-RPG, of course. It actually improves on previous titles by using a tactical grid during battles, and this new touch allows players to more effectively arrange powerful combos and control multiple characters at the same time. The game also doles out bonus experience for timing attacks right or overloading an enemy with damage, and a “Cross Change System” lets characters switch between skills in the midst of battle. Perhaps that's all just a support system for Agarest's dating simulator, which will likely push the limits of the game's “teen” rating. But at least the inflatable doll's not creepy.


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