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Dual Divisions

by Todd Ciolek, May 15th 2013

I plan to discuss some underrated DS games this week, but first I'd like to mention something more personal: the worst DS game I own.

Guilty Gear: Dust Strikers isn't all that bad of a game. It's a multi-tiered fighter that plays a bit like Smash Bros. with smaller sprite characters and the goofy, overblown attacks that define Guilty Gear. In fact, it's probably better than Guilty Gear Isuka. Yet it really isn't all that interesting from a competitive or casual standpoint, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone but the most devoted Guilty Gear fans. That's why I still own it, of course.

But that's enough about me. I'd like to hear from you about the low points of your DS collection. Do you hang on to a lousy game because it's based on some anime you like? Do you own Bubble Bobble Revolution solely for the atrocious box art? Do you keep Tenchu: Dark Secret just so you'll have every Tenchu game? Is a copy of Sprung still mocking you from some dark corner of the closet?

NEWS

PHOENIX WRIGHT RETURNS, BUT NOT TO ACTUAL STORES
Perhaps we overestimated Phoenix Wright's popularity. The original DS games seemed to do well for CAPCOM, and everyone demanded Phoenix in Marvel vs. CAPCOM 3. But things soured. In 2011 CAPCOM shot down plans to localize Ace Attorney - Investigations 2, stating that the expected profits just weren't enough. And now we face a world where Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies, Phoenix's big 3DS comeback, will be a digital-only release in North America.

That aside, I find it hard to complain about another Phoenix Wright game. Dual Destinies picks up about a year after the events of Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney (which puts it eight years after the original Phoenix Wright games), and it finds Phoenix once again practicing law. He's joined by a bandaged-up Apollo and a new assistant named Athena Cykes, the latter of whom carries an emotion-sensing Mood Matrix device. Rumors suggest that Miles Edgeworth and Trucy Wright will return as well.

The game presents its courtroom dramas in much the same fashion as earlier Ace Attorney games, though the characters are now 3-D models instead of sprites. Athena's Mood Matrix provides a new angle, as it allows the player to pick up on someone's unvoiced feelings, even going so far as to cite a spike in emotions when certain words are uttered.

Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies arrives on the 3DS eShop this fall, which puts it just a few months behind the Japanese version's July 25 release date. Of course, this raises questions about that other 3DS game, Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney. There were rumors, retailer listings, and retracted statements about its North American release, but there's nothing solid so far. If we get it at all, we should be prepared for a digital release.

DRAKENGARD 3'S HEROINE HAS HARROWING HAREM
We knew Drakengard 3 would be a bit controversial. Director Yoko Taro went all over the place to make the first Drakengard horribly shocking, and his much-improved Nier pulled off some creepy surprises. So no one really blinked when Drakengard 3 introduced a bloodthirsty heroine named Zero and gave her a flower where her right eye should be. Early press reports also painted Zero as sexually brazen, and now more details are known. She has at least four assistants, called Apostles, and they satisfy her tactical needs as well as her more carnal demands.

Zero's entourage includes the overconfident swordsman Cent, the sadistic Dito, the strangely masochistic fistfighter Decad, and the romantically gifted ring-blade wielder Octa. Zero can take any two of these men into combat for each stage, where they'll shadow her and help slice through thick weaves of enemy soldiers.

Of course, Zero's most important ally is her dragon, Mikhail. While he's more of a pacifist than other video-game dragons, Mikhail still lets Zero ride him into battle and dispense fiery-breathed destruction all about. With any luck, the game's dragon-mounted scenes will entertain Panzer Dragoon fans until Crimson Dragon finally comes out.

Drakengard 3 emerges later this year on the Japanese PlayStation 3, though many of the screenshots look like something from a particularly impressive PSP title. There's still no word on an English version of Drakengard 3, but we're all calling it that instead of its Japanese title, Drag-on Dragoon 3. This is indeed the sort of game that'll get people talking, but it's hard to predict Square Enix these days.

FEATURE: A DS DIRGE

Looking back at the Wii last month made me realize that I never gave the Nintendo DS a proper sendoff. Sure, we'll see a few more DS releases along the lines of The Croods: Prehistoric Party, but in every way that counts, the DS exited with last October's Pokémon White and Black 2. So this is a good place to stop and look back, no?

We're all familiar with the highlights of the DS. It has the usual first-string Nintendo creations plus the Final Fantasies, the Dragon Quests, the Castlevanias, and, well, the second-string Nintendo creations like Kirby and Fire Emblem. Most could've predicted those successes when the DS first strolled onto the market in 2004, but there were surprises along the way. And many of them didn't get their due.

TALKING A LOT
The first real breakout on the DS came with Shu Takumi's Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. It debuted in Japan as a Game Boy Advance game in 2001, but a marginally improved DS version brought the series and its goofball legal drama to North America. The bizarre characters and able localization made it a strong cult success on these shores, and it helped CAPCOM get behind Takumi's equally excellent Ghost Trick. This lasted up until 2011, when CAPCOM announced that the second Ace Attorney - Investigations spin-off wouldn't arrive here.

Phoenix Wright wasn't the only DS marvel driven largely by dialogue and the DS stylus. The puzzle-focused Professor Layton series soon became a staple of the Nintendo catalog, while Aksys Games hit the mark with 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and continued to the 3DS with Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward. Other titles weren't so lucky. Hudson Soft's Miami Law, Aksys' Jake Hunter, and KOEI's obscure Again didn't catch on, and Junko Kawano's enticing temporal-mystery game Time Hollow couldn't move enough copies to satisfy Konami. Even Nintendo's Hotel Dusk: Room 215 fell short in North America, and the sequel emerged only in Japan and Europe.

Among all of the story-driven DS games that trailed Phoenix Wright, I can't help but think of Killaware's Lux-Pain (above) as a particularly unfortunate failure. The game finds a teenaged investigator tracking small-town murders and the ghostly parasites behind them, and it all resembles Persona 4 without the dungeon crawls and dating (that's unsurprising, as Killaware was founded by Atlus expats Kiyotaka Ueda and Kazuhiro Yamao). Sadly, it didn't work. The languid pace and limited action sequences may have dulled it for Phoenix Wright fans, but it was a woefully inconsistent translation that really killed the game's chances on these shores. Killaware couldn't catch hold after that. Their subsequent games went unlocalized, bouncing from one Japanese publisher to the next until Killaware folded in 2011.

IN THE MARGINS
You know what else I liked about the DS? All of the strange niche RPGs that came to North America. The last generation saw many RPG developers shift their b-list games to handhelds, and both the DS and PSP benefited greatly. Atlus took a number of risks, and the height of the DS reign saw them releasing games like Contact, My World My Way, Summon Night: Twin Age, The Dark Spire, Deep Labyrinth, and Steal Princess, plus the spin-off of a spin-off Super Robot Wars OG Saga Endless Frontier. Most of these didn't take, and Atlus tightened its standards, disappointing anyone who wanted the second Endless Frontier game. Atlus did, however, find hits with Etrian Odyssey and Radiant Historia…and slightly more modest success with Luminous Arc and Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja. Pity it wasn't enough to save Izuna's developer, Ninja Studio.

Atlus was hardly alone in peddling under-appreciated RPGs. Square Enix got plenty of attention with Final Fantasy,Dragon Quest, and their mallpunk action-RPG The World Ends With You. Yet I say that their best original DS offering is tri-Ace's Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume (above), a fantastically downbeat strategy-RPG that went largely unrecognized. Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals met with an even colder reception when it rebooted the Super NES classic Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals into an action title. The game is really quite fun, but everything from its reworked plot to its Yusuke Naora character art seems to anger fans of the original.

Countless other interesting RPGs swell the DS library. Sega's Sands of Destruction evokes PlayStation-era standouts like Xenogears more than a little, while Infinite Space is a ridiculously extensive science-fiction simulation. Matrix's Avalon Code is a charming action-RPG that graced the DS, though Marvelous now prefers to explore Rune Factory and Harvest Moon sequels instead. Lesser games slipped through the cracks swiftly; some deserved it, and some didn't. What of the two Blue Dragon titles, both with different battle systems? Or how about Nintendo bringing the Glory of Heracles remake out in America instead of, say, another Fire Emblem? And will anyone praise Matrix's Nostalgia, Gust's Atelier Annie, NISA's A Witch's Tale, or GungHo's Laevatein Tactics: Hero's Saga?

Beyond the RPGs, other fine genre specimens were buried in the fray. Treasure's Bangai-O Spirits is still an excellent shooter on its own, and creating stages only improves it (even if it's a hassle to share them through sound recordings). Meteos proved an early DS triumph in puzzle games, and both Electroplankton and Soul Bubbles were kept in the shadows by limited distribution. Many also ignored Cave and Natsume's Princess Debut just because of the lightweight subject matter. At least more people paid attention when XSEED Games released Solatorobo, a happy little action game from CyberConnect2.

XSEED also released a creative gem that, in retrospect, we were quite lucky to get. Retro Game Challenge (above) is based on the Game Center CX TV series, but it's not a mere recreation of comedian Shinya Arino charismatically fumbling through old games. Instead, it's a collection of original titles fashioned after NES-era classics, so the player and a young Arino navigate these new-old wonders with the help of game magazines and cartridge resuscitation. XSEED's localization went remarkably in-depth, working the fictionalized 1980s Japanese game industry into a slightly more familiar American one, and the results are amusing well beyond the in-jokes. The second Game Center CX game stayed in Japan; due to the many companies involved and the difficult logistics, XSEED couldn't justify a second trip. But at least there's one Retro Game Challenge for the West.

IMPORTATION
On that note, it's time to complain about all of the games we didn't get in North America. As usual, the RPGs top many fans' lists, including such Square Enix oversights as the time-travel mystery Sigma Harmonics and a 3-D remake of Saga II. Most intriguing are Nanashi no Game and its sequel. Both involve “cursed” old-school games, and players must navigate a realistic world as well as the more primitive RPGs and platformers that are somehow murdering anyone who can't finish them. The sluggish controls and heavy amount of text might've denied it a localization, but it's hard to deny the strength of the idea.

Some RPG aficionados mourn the loss of a translated 7th Dragon, the first in Sega's dungeon-hack series. Others cry foul over Tales of Innocence and Tales of Hearts never heading westward, though that's a common practice for the Tales franchise. For me, the oddest RPG absence was Monolith Soft's Soma Bringer (above), a Nintendo-published action-RPG with a heavy emphasis on customized characters and button-mashy battles. Nintendo also denied these shores Freshly Picked Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland, an adventure game starring the impish supporting character from The Legend of Zelda series. He was apparently too much for North America, but European markets got him.

Better reasons were behind Level 5's decision to keep the DS version of Ni no Kuni in Japan. It relies heavily on its packed-in book, which the player consults for spells and other clues many times throughout the game. Creating a similar book for North America was too much trouble, so only the PlayStation 3 incarnation of Ni no Kuni was localized. Rumor has it that Namco Bandai might put the game on the 3DS in North America, but don't hold your breath.

Other intriguing games lurked in the shadows—and sometimes on American store shelves. Anime fans relished the crossover fighters Jump Super Stars and Jump Ultimate Stars, and the Japanese versions of the games were even stocked at Best Buy for a time (thanks to the lack of DS region-coding). Most titles weren't so fortunate, and anyone who wanted Taiko no Tatsujin DS or Ketsui Death Label had to import. Neither game is impaired much by the language barrier, but many Japanese titles are. One is Furyu's Last Bullet (above), which follows a young woman in her new carrier of espionage and assassination. It plays out through dialogue and sniping scenes, making it rather close to a Golgo 13 game…and hey, the Japanese DS has one of those, too!

This brings us to the curious tale of Elite Beat Agents and Ouendan. The original Osu! Tatakae! Ouedan! got noticed all over in 2005. A rhythm game about cheerleaders who aid everyday people in their struggles, all to the beats of pop music sound-alikes? It was hard to resist, and many imported it under the assumption that it wouldn't come out here. They were partly right. Instead of translating Ouendan, Nintendo and developer iNiS created an entirely new game with the same idea. Elite Beat Agents has new stories, secret agents instead of cheerleaders, and a soundtrack that imitated pop songs from David Bowie's “Let's Dance” to Avril Lavigne's odious “Sk8er Boi.” The game sold in decent numbers, but it didn't satisfy Nintendo's hopes. While a second Ouendan emerged in Japan, there would be no Elite Beat Agents 2.

What went wrong? Did Nintendo expect too much from a game with an unfamiliar premise and characters? Were fans of Ouendan actually right when they complained that much of the Elite Beat Agents soundtrack didn't really fit the gameplay? Whatever the reason, Elite Beat Agents didn't have the impact it really deserved.

The DS library has many undiscovered marvels, and it makes me wonder if the 3DS will boast the same variety. Publishers seem a little more cautious this time around, both in what they'll localize and what they'll make in the first place. Already we've seen CAPCOM's EX Troopers and Square Enix's Slime MoriMori Dragon Quest 3 left in Japan, alongside B-list curiosities like Beyond the Labyrinth. At least there's a mound of underrated, backward-compatible DS games to discover.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

CAPCOM brings Resident Evil Revelations from the 3DS to the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, and PC. All of the new ports look better than the original, and the Wii U version uses the Miiverse to leave post-demise messages for other players. Meanwhile, Nintendo fits Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D into the 3DS. It pretties up the original Wii version of the game, adding an easier mode and some all-new stages.


Todd Ciolek occasionally updates his website, and you can follow him on Twitter. Ask him about Ruin Explorers.


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