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Squared Circle

by Todd Ciolek, Feb 6th 2013

You probably know by now that I like discussing canceled games and faded companies. Well, the newly revived Ninja Jajamariu-Kun: Princess Sakura and the Secret Dragon deals with both. It all started with a DS title that revived Jaleco's Jajamaru-kun, who might be the oldest ninja hero in the game industry. Jaleco announced it in 2006, but the company gave up on games a few years later. Just like that, Jajamaru's comeback vanished.

Last week, Hamster (yes, a publisher by that name) dredged up Jajamaru's lost game and moved it to the 3DS. It's a side-scroller of fairly primitive appearances, but that all hearkens back to the original Jajamaru games and their mid-1980s heritage. Players control either Jajamaru or the fan-sweeping Shizuha during a quest to save the aforementioned Sakura from Catfish Pirate, the closest thing the Jajamaru games had to a recurring villain.

All of the game's callbacks will be lost on the majority of Western players, as Jajamaru's games seldom were translated in his heyday. Two of his spin-offs squeaked out for the Game Boy, and those Haggleman titles in Retro Game Challenge are pure Jajamaru. His best hope for a breakthrough was an NES game called Squashed, in which he and Sakura became ninja astronauts to fight space vegetables. It went unreleased in the West after some higher-ups decided it was a Super Mario Bros. 3 rip-off. Which it is.

Will this 3DS game be Jajamaru's return to stardom, or at least profitable subsistence? Perhaps in Japan. I'd be surprised if it came to North America.

NEWS

XSEED SETS THE TABLE FOR 2013
XSEED isn't in the mood for a trickle of announcements. Last week, the publisher announced five new titles at once, essentially laying out a schedule until the fall. Some of the new additions are surprising, and some really aren't.

Killer is Dead might be XSEED's biggest acquisition, as it's a futuristic cavalcade of violence from the invariably self-indulgent Suda51. Yet most of us knew it was coming, as the sharper websites spotted a domain that XSEED registered for the game. Well, it's official now, and it'll hit the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 this summer...roughly the same time it'll come out in Japan.

Also unsurprising is XSEED's announcement of more Ys titles, as they've been the biggest domestic backer of the series for some time. Steam gets Ys I & II Chronicles next week (more on that at the end of this column), and the Vita receives the somewhat more notable Ys: Memories of Celceta in the fall. Celceta is Falcom's version of the fourth Ys game, as the two previous takes on Ys IV were fashioned by different developers nearly 20 years ago. Brought up to modern Ys standards, Celceta is an action-RPG with three-character parties and rather nice 3-D environments. It's one of the more interesting Vita games on the horizon, and it might just sell the system to some RPG zealots.

A fall release for Valhalla Knights 3 isn't all that shocking either. Though the action-RPG series isn't too popular over here, XSEED steadfastly released the three previous games (including The Eldar Saga) over here. Moving to the Vita, the latestValhalla Knights has 21 jobs and seven races available for player customization, though the game's apparently limited to local multiplayer options.

The real surprise of the bunch? Rune Factory 4 for the 3DS. Natsume normally handles the Rune Factory games, as they're fantasy-themed RPG descendants of Natsume's signature series, Harvest Moon. But this isn't the first time XSEED's borrowed it, as they released Rune Factory Frontier on the Wii. And this isn't the first time Natsume let one of its traditional franchises wander; Atlus published the mediocre Lufia: Ruins of Lore for the Game Boy Advance, after all.

CALADRIUS HAS UNFAMILIAR APPROACH, FAMILIAR ARTIST
Today's subculture shooters usually start off as arcade games and then proceed to home consoles, picking up whatever fans and merchandising they can find along the way. Well, Moss isn't doing that with their vertical shooter Caladrius. It's going straight to the Xbox 360 this April 25.

Caladrius bills itself as a “gothic horror" shooter, though that seems to involve frilly costumes more than it does, say, antebellum plantations stalked by vampires. The game sports extensive voice acting (for a shooter, anyway) and a character's ship levels-up with each stage. Moss isn't the best-known developer in the shooter niche (they're responsible for that dreadful Raiden III a few years back), yet they improved with the recent Raiden IV and Neo-Geo Heroes Ultimate Shooting. Perhaps they'll hit the mark this time.

Moss isn't relying wholly on the level design of Caladrius, of course. The developer enlisted Suzuhito Yasuda (Devil Survivor) for the game's art, and the special edition release comes with an illustration book and a soundtrack. That's all for Japan, of course, and it's tough to say just what shooters will come to North America. If G.Rev's Mamoru-kun can make it here, anything's possible.

FEATURE: WHAT'S WRONG WITH SQUARE ENIX

Square Enix is in trouble. The company posted a loss of 5.7 billion yen for the nine-month period that ended with December 2012, despite a boost in overall game sales. Square Enix cites “the increasingly difficult condition of the world-wide console game market” as the primary reason. Yet the problem isn't so much profit reports.

The uncomfortable fact is that half of the Square Enix empire isn't what it once was. Many now-jaded fans of Square came to know the company through the Final Fantasy series and a multitude of other games. Square had a reliably diverse lineup in decade pasts, particularly during the PlayStation era. If you didn't care for the breast-beating drama of Final Fantasy, you might still like the novel shooting mechanics of Einhander, the complexities of Final Fantasy Tactics, or the daringly direct combat of Bushido Blade. Even with the inevitable missteps, there was usually something to enjoy about Square.

Things have changed. Square's Final Fantasy series is foundering, with Final Fantasy XIII and two sequels polarizing and alienating fans while Final Fantasy Versus XIII hides from the public and Final Fantasy Type-0 stays in Japan. Little remains to pick up the slack. Square's Mana series is long dulled, and even the relatively successful Kingdom Hearts line seems to be running in place.

What led to this? Square's management has grown increasingly reluctant to try new things on consoles and portables, relegating most of the company's original titles to smartphones. The real cause, however, is likely Square's steady loss of talent since the late 1990s.

EXODUS 1: SACNOTH AND LOVE-DE-LIC
By 1997, Hiroki Kikuta was one of Square's top composers. Though he wasn't as well-known as Final Fantasy's Nobuo Uematsu or Chrono Trigger's Yasunori Mitsuda, Kikuta was behind the memorable soundtracks for Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3, and Soukaigi (which didn't have much beyond great music). Kikuta expanded his horizons and founded a studio called Sacnoth with other former Square employees. Backed by SNK, he gambled on a grim pseudo-RPG called Koudelka. The game's production was troubled, and it shows: Koudelka combines Resident Evil gameplay with random battles, mixing together the tedious portions of each genre.

Kikuta left his own studio after Koudelka failed, but Sacnoth continued onward. Re-christening itself Nautilus, the developer went to work on a pure RPG sequel called Shadow Hearts. The game grew into a trilogy full of warped history, and its similarities to Final Fantasy gameplay were noticed and appreciated in the PlayStation 2 era. Nautilus was disbanded not long after the final Shadow Hearts, though feelplus Inc. scooped up many of its members.

Sacnoth wasn't the only '90s offshoot of Square. In 1996, designer Kenichi Nishi left the company and founded Love-de-Lic Inc. The studio's first title was Moon: Remix RPG Adventure, a subversive take on the more vicious, unthinking tropes of video games. It wouldn't been a stunning achievement for an RPG powerhouse like Square, but the game was published by ASCII instead, and it wasn't played as widely. Nishi's future projects, including L.O.L.: Lack of Love and Captain Rainbow, would be similarly remarkable, but he'd never again do anything for Square.

EXODUS 2: MONOLITH SOFT
Xenogears proved one of Square's most notorious titles during the PlayStation era, and it was a wonder that the game survived its development. Square pulled staff from the project to work on Final Fantasy VIII, and so Xenogears had hours of planned dungeons and cutscenes trimmed down to stiff narration. Yet Xenogears was only one chapter of a broad epic devised by director Tetsuya Takahashi and writer Kaori “Soraya Saga” Tanaka, and Square wasn't to fund any more of it. When the opportunity arose, Takahashi and Tanaka joined Yasuyuki Honne, Kou Arai, and other Square staffers in forming a separate studio, Monolith Soft.

Monolith's first project was the tellingly named Xenosaga: Episode 1. While Takahashi and the rest of Monolith played coy about the game's connection to Xenogears, Xenosaga was clearly the re-imagining that Square hadn't let them make. Under Namco's auspices, Xenosaga wouldn't have a smooth ride. The series was truncated to three games, while Takahashi was given less directorial oversight. Still, it was more than the staff would ever get from Square. Monolith later found a home at Nintendo, and they're currently at work on a follow-up to their acclaimed Xenoblade Chronicles.

EXODUS 3: HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI AND YASUMI MATSUNO
Square owed quite a bit to Hironobu Sakaguchi. He had devised the Final Fantasy series for the company back in 1987, inspiring oft-exaggerated stories about how his “final” creation had saved Square (in truth, only Sakaguchi would have left the industry if the game hadn't succeeded). Over the years, Sakaguchi built the Final Fantasy series into an icon of the industry. Yet Sakaguchi had bigger plans, and he wanted to break into film.

His ambitions came to a head with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, a four-year, $137 million endeavor by a studio that Square had founded just to make CG cinema. The film bombed, and Sakaguchi gave up his executive V.P. seat at Square. After Square merged with onetime rival Enix, Sakaguchi left the company entirely. His new studio, Mistwalker, set to work crafting RPGs for Microsoft, and both Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey appeared on the Xbox. The former seemed targeted at Dragon Quest fans, while Lost Odyssey resembled Final Fantasy not a little (perhaps due to the contributions of developer feelplus). While they've yet to manage a hit on the scale of Final Fantasy, Sakaguchi and Mistwalker are still trying, and their recent RPG The Last Story did very well in North America.

Sakaguchi was perhaps Square's greatest loss. He had been instrumental in recruiting and encouraging gifted game creators, including Nasir Gebelli, Yoshinori Kitase, and Quest's Yasumi Matsuno. Before leaving Square, Sakaguchi had given Final Fantasy XII to Matsuno, the director of Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Vagrant Story. Matsuno's penchant for depressingly medieval stories and complex battle systems earned him a favorable reputation, and Final Fantasy XII had many of his preferred motifs. Yet Matsuno wouldn't see it through. Whether due to meddlesome Square management or disputes among the game's immense production staff, Matsuno left Square Enix in 2005. He would work with company on the PSP remake of his strategy-RPG Tactics Ogre, and he later popped up at Level-5. The tabletop-styled RPG Crimson Shroud found Matsuno up to his old ways, but he'd leave Level-5 shortly after the game debuted in North America.

Square's most recent escapee was Toshiro Tsuchida, creator of the Front Mission series. Shortly after directing the battle system in Final Fantasy XIII, he departed Square Enix's stable. Other notable Square collaborators, including Chrono Cross director Masato Kato and Final Fantasy writer Kazushige Nojima, work with the company as freelancers or through their own studios.

WHAT REMAINS
This gives rise to the real problem. For all of the talent hemorrhaged, few new creators have emerged in Square Enix's ranks. Most of its current division heads have been with the company for decades: Final Fantasy's Kitase, Romancing Saga's Akitoshi Kawazu, and Final Fantasy IX's Hiroyuki Ito. All of them have fashioned excellent and oft-experimental games in years past, but they're currently occupied by either smartphone diversions or the familiar strains of Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts.

Recent years saw the company increasingly focused on Western properties. Since buying Eidos Interactive in 2009, Square Enix backed everything from a Deus Ex prequel to the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot. Last fall brought a lineup of Hitman: Absolution and Sleeping Dogs, while the company didn't translate its only major Japanese release of the season, Bravely Default: Flying Fairy. That's not the Square Enix that RPG fans remember, but it's the Square Enix that they'll see more and more as the game industry changes. The Square of old is long gone, and the Square Enix mash-up of today sits in need of new blood, new ideas, or perhaps just a new take on an old franchise. Square will never have the reputation it once did, but perhaps it's not too late for some trace of past glory.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

ALIENS: COLONIAL MARINES
Developer: Gearbox
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Xbox 360/PlayStation 3/Steam
Release date: February 12
MSRP: $59.99

There isn't much shipping next week, but Sega's contentious Aliens: Colonial Marines will arrive at last. Why is it contentious? Well, it's a direct sequel to Aliens, and that gets into complex territory. The game follows a rescue team in search of the missing expedition from the original movie, and it shares a lot of the same scenery, stretching from the Sulaco transport ship to the surface of LV-426, which includes the ominous derelict craft that started everything. As players explore the ruins of a colony and other xenomorph-overrun areas, they'll watch as a team of heavily armed interplanetary marines is once again in over their heads. It's all rather direct for Alien-inspired games, which tend to either adapt existing movies or invent their own largely unrelated side-stories. In fact, the storyline that unfolds in Colonial Marines is supposedly canonical in the eyes of 20th Century Fox. Good thingAliens fans long ago learned how to ignore undesirable parts of the franchise. I still refuse to accept the events of Alien 3, for example.

Colonial Marines isn't being upbraided for its plot all that much. No, the chief worry is that it'll be a first-person shooter with too much emphasis on action. In the minds of many fans, a good Aliens game should emphasize the creeping dread of pacing through empty corridors while largely unseen Giger-designed phallus monsters stalk you. Most of the footage of Colonial Marines suggests some of this creepy pacing, but Sega's also careful to promise plenty of the film's neat weapons and gadgetry. Players can wield the standard round of pulse rifles and flame throwers, and the power loader's also available at times. The opposition isn't limited to movie-faithful aliens, as the creatures now include a crusher variant and a “boiler” type that sprays acid everywhere upon dying (which is pretty much what movie xenomorphs do anyway). The monsters themselves can be controlled in the multiplayer mode, as well, though it loses something without any Predators to balance things. Colonial Marines might not satisfy fans, but I hope it succeeds wildly. So wildly, in fact, that 20th Century Fox will reissue older Alien-related games like CAPCOM's awesome Alien vs. Predator punch-fest. There's my angle.

YS I & II CHRONICLES+
Developer: Falcom
Publisher: XSEED
Platform: Steam
Release date: February 14
MSRP: $14.99

Twenty-two years ago, playing Ys I & II in top form called for a TurboGrafx, a clumsy CD attachment, and about $400 to purchase it all. Next week, Steam will demand fifteen bucks for the most approachable version of Ys I & II yet. Your friends won't be as impressed by the animated intro or orchestral soundtracks as they would've been back in 1991, but those are the breaks.

Though they were never half as successful in North America as they were in Japan, the original Ys games were a cornerstone of the RPG genre, much like Final Fantasy or Wizardry or Dragon Quest. True, the traditions Ys established were less about gameplay and more about storyline clichés; later RPGs were fond of largely silent heroes, ancient civilization, and mysterious young heroines with godlike connections, and all of them owe some small debt to the first two Ys titles (and their scenarist, Tomoyoshi Miyazaki). Of course, Ys I & II are also decades old, and the Chronicles incarnation is a welcome touch-up for the games. The storyline is mostly the same: a redheaded adventurer named Adol heads out in search of the ancient land of Ys, and along the way he encounters ancient tomes, kidnapped women, and a blue-haired maiden who could not be tied to the Ys legend at all, no sir.

The Steam version of Ys I & II Chronicles is much the same as the PSP compilation that XSEED released in 2011. It retains the steamroller approach of the old Ys games, but the system's refined to be far less random in its results; Adol runs directly into enemies to damage them, and he must dodge their couterattacks manually. Chronicles also offers some variety in its atmosphere, with three different soundtracks and two types of character portraits (and no, it doesn't have the X68000 version's artwork where everyone looks like a digitized Ren Faire worker). It also has the standard Steam achievements and a nice, wide perspective on everything. That's a handy feature when you're dashing headlong into everything that opposes you.


Todd Ciolek occasionally updates a website, and you can follow him on Twitter if you really feel like it. He'll understand if you don't.


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