The X Button
Idiot Wind

by Todd Ciolek, Aug 22nd 2012

It's always bad news when a gaming magazine shuts down. I realize that it's the way of things, and that print will gradually decline and evaporate as we embrace this new digital future to its fullest. But it's still hard to see a cherished staple of your youth disappear, particularly when that staple is Nintendo Power.

Ars Technica reports that Nintendo Power will shut down in the near future, ending a 24-year run as Nintendo's official periodical. The magazine was planned as a successor to Nintendo's Fun Club News, and in the summer of 1988, some five million registered NES owners got the first issue of Nintendo Power. So it became a cornerstone of the Nintendo Era, supplying all the officially sanctioned Nintendo-related news that a reader could choke down. It was all a marketing tool to inculcate young minds with the Nintendo brand, but most of the kids who figured this out didn't care. Not when they could see all the story paths in Maniac Mansion, clip out a Solar Jetman poster, and read about the new bosses in Megaman III.

This isn't the first real shakeup for Nintendo Power. In 2007 the magazine was transferred from Nintendo's in-house staff to Future Publishing. In these new hands, Nintendo Power took on a slightly more irreverent and far-reaching focus. Though everything was still backed by Nintendo proper, the magazine expanded its covers and took on interesting features and interviews you wouldn't see anywhere else. The staff even scored some exclusives in this online era, breaking news about Megaman 9 and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate before any websites caught wind of them.

If anonymous sources are to be believed, it was Nintendo's decision to shutter the magazine, and there'sno digital incarnation in sight. This means that Nintendo Power might be gone for good. Electronic Gaming Monthly and GameFan were revived, but there won't be any Nintendo Power unless Nintendo itself brings it back. At least there's word that its last issues will be a proper sendoff. Most magazines don't get that.

NEWS

CAPCOM CELEBRATES MEGA MAN'S 25TH ANNIVERSARY WITH IPHONE GAME, FURRED COLLAR
The original Megaman was released 25 years ago this December, and CAPCOM hasn't done much to commemorate that. The entire Megaman franchise now lies in disrepair, seeing as how CAPCOM canceled both Megaman Universe and Megaman Legends 3 last year. Fortunately, CAPCOM remembered Megaman and commissioned an anniversary gift: an iPhone social game called Megaman Xover.

Yes, it's come to this. Megaman Xover (pronounced “Crossover”) finds players customizing a Megaman hero and venturing through the side-scrolling levels of Xover World, a realm where all of the incarnations of Megaman, from the original to Legends, are held captive. It's not a terrible idea, but the iOS touch-screen is hardly the favored interface for a series marked by rigid action-platforming, and early screenshots even show an “autoplay” button.

The only interesting angle lies in creating a personal Megaman character, a concept leftover from Megaman creator Keiji Inafune's aborted Megaman Universe. The default Megaman shown in Xover's artwork sports a new helmet and furred attire, so perhaps the game will allow more options when it arrives later this year. Either way, this is probably how Megaman will celebrate his 25th birthday: not with a bang but a ski jacket.

SQUARE MAYBE, POSSIBLY MIGHT REVIVE THE WORLD ENDS WITH YOU
In Square-related news, a new teaser suggests the return of The World Ends With You. Released in 2008, the DS-based RPG was acclaimed for its novel battle system and elaborate vision of Tokyo's bustling Shibuya district. Square Enix seemed to ignore it for a few years, but the game's characters popped up in the most recent Kingdom Hearts. And now there's a mystery website where many clues to point to The World Ends With You.

The clues? Well, both Gen Kobayashi and Tetsuya Nomura are credited on the site, and two of them worked on the original The World Ends With You. The site's URL also refers to the game's Japanese title (Subarashii Kono Sekai), and the music's a remix of a track from the first game. The title won't be revealed for another six days, but something will likely leak early. It happened with the last few websites that tried this trick.

FINAL FANTASY II PROTOTYPE APPEARS
I suspect that many of you like Final Fantasy. But just how much do you like Final Fantasy? Did you spend hours trying in vain to revive General Leo? Did you go to your prom with your hair lacquered into an unconvincing façade of Cloud Strife's spiky coiffure? Did you pay $50,000 for the only known prototype of Final Fantasy II for the North American NES? The answer to the last question is certainly “no,” because that prototype is still sitting on eBay at this writing.

There's a good story behind the auction. The original Final Fantasy was released for the NES in 1990, and Square decided to bring the sequel over in similar fashion. Trade-show pamphlets from the era depict a box for the NES version of Final Fantasy II, and the game was fully translated into English. Then Square changed the plan. Final Fantasy II's English-language release was scrapped, Final Fantasy III was never considered for translation, and Square's U.S. branch just skipped to Final Fantasy IV on the Super NES, renaming the game Final Fantasy II for North America.

Square forgot all about their plans for the real Final Fantasy II, and so did everyone else. But the localized version of the game survived on a sample cartridge, and it sat in obscurity for over twelve years. In 2003, the cartridge found its way to Lost Levels, which chronicled the game's development history. It was dumped and shared online so that all could delight in awkwardly translated dialogue about Xtal Rods, and the cartridge itself remains in perfectly playable condition.

Lost Levels proprietor Frank Cifaldi threw that cartridge on eBay just last week. The price may seem exorbitant, but offers are accepted (mine stands at trading a complete copy of Conquest of the Crystal Palace, but eBay won't process that). It's also a way to gauge the limits of collector mentality. Is a crazed Final Fantasy geek or NES hoarder going to buy it? Before you laugh at the very idea, remember that someone paid $55,000 for a prototype of The Legend of Zelda.

OPINION: THE LIGHTER SIDE

The gaming media skips from one contentious statement to the next, and the most recent of these came from Assassin's Creed III creative director Alex Hutchinson. During an interview with Computer and Video Games, he suggested that game journalists and the industry around them practice “a subtle racism” by forgiving Japanese-made games “where their stories are literally gibberish.” As an example, he contrasted the reactions to the plotlines in Gears of War and Bayonetta. The implication is that critics view the Japanese game industry as incapable of proper storytelling, so they pat it on the head and put the script to Ninja Gaiden II on the refrigerator.

It's not all that hard to dissect Hutchinson's remarks. One need only look to the actual reviews of Bayonetta, a game that's quite open in its ridiculous grandeur. Those critics who take the story seriously disparage it for its silliness, but many have the sense to accept it (and in most cases, praise it) as the exploitive excess it so clearly aims to be. Aside from some inane exalting of the lead character as an empowered woman, most of Bayonetta's fans liked it for the right reasons. Nor is it difficult to find cases of Japan-made games upbraided for their storytelling: Final Fantasy XIII was disparaged for its poor pace and reliance on meaningless neologisms, while carping over Metroid: Other M's sexist treatment of Samus Aran overshadowed opinions of the actual gameplay.

Hutchinson's comment illustrates a shortcoming of many game developers: they insist on being taken seriously. Most of today's major franchises with “mature” ratings (and allegedly mature audiences) present themselves with the straight-faced bravado you'd expect from the latest big-name summer movie. This approach holds even when the games break for comedy relief. Uncharted's Nathan Drake may quip amid danger and Assassin's Creed may joke about coffee, but it's all in the controlled, scripted manner that doesn't scrape any fourth walls. Yet the games do indeed break those walls simply because they're games. And this makes the cracks all the more noticeable when happy-go-lucky Nathan Drake kills dozens of enemies or when Assassin's Creed unveils a backdrop of virtual reality and the potent technology of pre-human civilizations. It's much easier to forgive a game that's goofy from the start, and that's precisely what a title like Bayonetta does.

If Japanese developers get away with silly storylines more often than their Western counterparts, that's merely because Japan's game designers take the less serious path more often. And in doing so, they slide underneath the player's normal defenses against melodrama. Something humorous and cartoonish carries an inbuilt agreement that the audience won't take it quite as seriously, and this builds a Trojan Horse for many storylines, letting them turn serious without entirely losing the audience. A telling instance of this lies in Shu Takumi's Ace Attorney series and Ghost Trick. Phoenix Wright, Miles Edgeworth, and the rest of the Ace Attorney cast would hardly have the same impact if they were presented with all the stern demeanor of a Law & Order rerun, but the procession of oddball characters and courtroom theatrics makes the characters memorable. Ghost Trick revolves around a similar axis: its tale of hauntings and time-travel would be hard to swallow in the guise of, say, Quantic Dream's Beyond, but both the premise and the resulting murder mystery take on endearing new life when paired with adorable characters like a hyperactive Pomeranian.

The only subtle racism at play here lies in the assumption that Japanese developers alone possess this brand of storytelling. It's annoyingly reductive to paint odd video-game scripts as “Japanese” plotting (as though there's some collective narrative trend binding Lady Murasaki and Yasunari Kawabata to the latest Resident Evil). Numerous Western developers grasp the importance of humor in a young and awkward medium like video games. It's a large part of what made old LucasArts adventure games so enjoyable, and their ethos descended through Tim Schafer and his Double Fine studio, whose stories are frequently held up among the best the game industry has to offer. The Japanese market is hardly the only place making enjoyable games that pay no heavy tolls to realism.

Japan's game culture has its unique problems, from unsettling virtual-dating escapism to the entrenched clichés that have dogged its RPGs for the past 20 years. Yet games of any origin can elevate themselves by embracing their inherently goofy reliance on play mechanics. Whether in cartoonish atmosphere or deliberate winks at the player, they'll say the same thing: this is a video game, so have fun with it. And from the wisecracking skeletal travel agents of Grim Fandango to the bizarre asides of Metal Gear Solid, those games will find something that the latest Tom Clancy power fantasy fails to grasp.

There are games that successfully tell serious stories, of course, and they number just enough for developers to keep trying in the same vein, reaching for the respected heights of movies and books. All too often, those developers will stretch their creations to the point of snapping. And perhaps they'll wonder why they're criticized for it, when people praise such ostensibly silly things as Devil May Cry and Deadly Premonition. There's the lesson for the whole of video games. If you know what you're doing, there's nothing wrong with being dumb.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

JOURNEY COLLECTOR'S EDITION
Developer: Thatgamecompany
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 3
MSRP: $29.99

Here's a fine test of just how much today's game buyers value physical media. Journey was released on the PLAYSTATION Network earlier this year, and it was hard to argue with the critical acclaim that greeted it. Journey reduces the player to a virtually armless traveler braving a dangerous path through deserts, subterranean ruins, and snowy mountaintops. And this makes the game's landscape and play mechanics all the more compelling, particular when a second player joins in, communicating only through the game's anonymous musical notes. The Journey Collector's Edition also comes with Thatgamecompany's two earlier PLAYSTATION Network games: Flow puts you in the role of micro-organism as it devours other creatures for the sake of evolution, and Flower lets players shape the winds and other forces that buffet a stream of petals through the air, gradually bringing light to a darkened world. They're all fascinating creations. And if they're squarely in the camp of thoughtful, non-violent “art” games, they're the kind of art this industry needs.

But what does the Collector's Edition have for the player who already bought Journey—and perhaps also Flow and Flower? Well, you get the soundtracks for all three games, a half-hour documentary about the making of Journey, a commentary track for each title, three new mini-games, and concept art. It's essentially a Criterion reissue of Thatgamecompany's catalog. Is Sony presumptuous in re-issuing the games so shortly after Journey debuted on the PLAYSTATION Network? Perhaps, but at least these games deserve the attention.


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