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Stale Phantasia

by Todd Ciolek, Jan 29th 2014

I stumbled onto something odd while researching Hyper Crazy Climber. The game seems fairly obscure, at least by YouTube standards. You'll find videos of the original Crazy Climber and other Nichibutsu arcade relics, but there's one notable video that comes up for Hyper Crazy Climber. It's called “Hyper Crazy Climber vore,” and it depicts the game's female character being eating by sharks and carnivorous plants. Over and over.

Such fetish-oriented selections are all too common on YouTube, whether they're obsessed with feet, inflation, or women being eaten by little shark sprites. In fact, there's an entire category of “ryona” footage dedicated to showing video-game heroines being beaten and made miserable. I suggest searching the term only if you think your faith in humanity is a little too high.

What sets this video apart are the moments when the screen goes dark and we see a reflection of the room in which it was recorded. It's empty. The camera stands alone, as though some unseen AI or disembodied spirit has developed a vore fetish and dedicated itself to uploading select footage of Earth Seeker and Final Fantasy 9 to YouTube. I hope MonkeyPaw Games puts up more videos of Hyper Crazy Climber soon, because I don't much like gazing into this void.

NEWS

NINTENDO EYES PORTABLE GAMES, NIKKEI SAYS
It's a common proposal among game-industry pundits and message-board ranters alike: Nintendo, beleaguered by the Wii U's miserable sales, should make games on mobile devices. Now the Nikkei business newspaper reports that Nintendo soon will announce plans to make mini-games for smartphones and tablets. Not complete games, mind you. As the Nikkei has it, these will be small-scale games that'll promote the full-fledged tiles on Nintendo's 3DS and Wii U.

This, of course, is all that some people need to signal the end of Nintendo as we know it. Once Nintendo starts making mobile games, it's only a matter of time until one of those games turns a bigger profit than a 3DS title! And then Nintendo will forsake the ways of conventional consoles and handhelds! They'll return to the days of cheap Game & Watch diversions, and the next Pokémon or Zelda title will be a free-to-play monstrosity where you can shell out real money to catch Butterfrees or skip boring tutorial dungeons. Horrors.

To these people, I recommended moderation. Nintendo has far too much wrapped up in its game systems to abandon them entirely, and there are plenty of publishers that dabble in mobile fare. I don't see Konami and CAPCOM and Sega giving up on full-blown games in favor of iPhone titles…at least not yet.

ACE ATTORNEY COLLECTION HITS 3DS, MAYBE HERE
The other days I thought to myself “You know, I'd like to play the earlier Phoenix Wright games again. It'd be nice if CAPCOM reissued them in one big collection for the 3DS.” Well, CAPCOM's doing that right now. Ace Attorney 123: Wright Selection hits the 3DS in Japan this April, and the special edition includes an art book, drama CD, digital wallpaper, and reflective charms of Phoenix, Franziska, and Godot. Do people still put those charms on their cell phones? I haven't seen one in ages. But you can import the whole package anyway for about sixty bucks.

The anthology offers only the first three games, with no sign of Apollo Justice, but it takes advantage of the system's 3-D feature and even includes the English versions of all three titles. That alone suggests a Western release, but CAPCOM's silent on the subject. Perhaps they're waiting to see just how Nintendo's rollout of Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney fares over here.

UNSUNG STORY LOOKS EVEN BETTER
I hadn't thought to mention Unsung Story: Tale of the Guardians again until it neared the final stretch of its Kickstarter campaign, but one important addition emerged this week: newly freelance artist Akihiko Yoshida. Developer Playdek announced that Yoshida will contribute art to the game, and that his role will be part of the regular funding goal. This is particularly important to fans of past Matsuno games, as Yoshida provided character designs for everything from the semi-realistic Vagrant Story to the noseless cast of Final Fantasy Tactics. He's an essential part of Matsuno's work, along with composer Hitoshi Sakimoto (who'll come aboard Unsung Story with a stretch goal). This may change some minds on the funding front. The higher-level rewards of posters and art books and flash drives didn't appeal to me. But if we're talking about Akihiko Yoshida art…

Playdek also put up an introduction to Unsung Story's backdrop of Rasfalia, and it's complete and total Matsuno material. A conflict called The Seventy-Seven Years War explodes over succession quibbles, dissatisfied nobles, and a little province called Jelamonea. It's more of a history than an opening chapter, as the only characters mentioned are royals with names like Barvetha and Reksar. Unsung Story will dedicate itself more to the smaller, less-appreciated folks.

DOWNLOAD REVIEWS: JANUARY

BANSHEE'S LAST CRY
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platform: iOS Devices
MSRP: $3.99

The title may not be familiar, but Banshee's Last Cry is a terribly important game. It's a seminal work among visual novels, or “sound novels” as developer Spike Chunsoft likes to label their particular vision of the genre. First released in 1994, Banshee's Last Cry helped popularize story-driven, text-heavy games in Japan, and its legacy extends everywhere from a Game Center CX episode to Spike Chunsoft's recent Zero Escape series. It's known in Japan as Kamaitachi no Yoru, or Night of the Sickle Weasel, but that direct translation suggests unused Pokémon designs or Redwall villains. Scythe-toting pine martens and razor-wielding black-footed ferrets are far too cuddly for a murder mystery.

And Banshee's Last Cry remains a murder mystery in the typical Agatha Christie fashion. The player follows a young man and his girlfriend as they vacation at a remote skiing lodge, and killings soon interrupt the tourists staying there. Players direct the storyline through the hero's responses, and it's possible to prevent murders by uncovering secrets in time. Granted, it's not quite the same story as Kamaitachi no Yoru in its setting. Aksys put the game through the Phoenix Wright treatment, shifting characters and backgrounds to North America. The murder-plagued lodge is now in British Columbia instead of Nagano, the protagonists are now college kids Max and Grace instead of Toru and Mari, the brash Osaka businessman is now from Texas, and everything's just a step removed from the original Japanese stage. You can rename the leads if you like, though.

That aside, Banshee's Last Cry follows the original game's path when it's important. It's told through pages of text laid against static photos and accompanied by some stereotypical music. Yet it might just catch up those normally intimidated by visual nov…sorry, sound novels. The storyline moves at a decent pace, and the player's faced with plot-altering decisions fairly often. It may not satisfy those seeking the same Kamaitachi no Yoru that enveloped so many players in Japan, but Banshee's Last Cry remains an interesting sample of a craft that's seen too seldom on these shores.

BROKEN AGE
Developer: Double Fine
Publisher: Double Fine
Platform: PC (Steam)
MSRP: $24.99

Broken Age was a long time coming. For many years, Tim Schafer and the rest of Double Fine couldn't make a game without people asking for another point-and-click adventure. You know, just like The Secret of Monkey Island and Full Throttle and Grim Fandango and other games that Schafer handled while at LucasArts. These request-makers had a point: the old LucasArts adventures amused many, aged well, and enticed even those who normally didn't care about video games. After a wildly successful Kickstarter and almost two years of work, we have our throwback adventure game. Well, half of it, anyway. Part one of Broken Age is available to everyone now, and the remainder of it will be out later. Think of it as the game's second floppy disk that fell behind the desk, where you won't find it until the fall.

Not that Broken Age is mired in the aesthetics of vintage-1991 computer games. Dialogue appears over characters just like it did back in the day, but the rest of Broken Age is quite beautiful in its own manner. Gently colored backdrops and cartoonish details surround the game's two characters. Shay is a bored young man on a spaceship peopled by adorable yarn robots and an overprotective computer, so he's fascinated by the discovery of a more dangerous layer behind his coddled realm. Vella is cautious young woman among the sacrifices her bakery-village offers to the monstrous Mog Chothra, a fate she swiftly rejects in favor of searching the world for a method of slaying the creature.

There are relatively easy puzzles to solve and a neat little secret at the heart of everything, but Broken Age is driven just as much by the characters met along the way: a family of largely unconvinced cloud cultists, a seething AI knife, a disgusted tree, a weaving space navigator, the gossipy worshippers of a slumbering god, or a lineup of sacrificial maidens. Schafer and the game's extensive voice cast give them all endearing tones and amusing conversations, and they do it without resorting to blatant fourth-wall breaches or the well of insufferable whimsy that Tim Burton may never escape. Yet Broken Age isn't all sugary surface. It's about adolescence. It's about privileged upbringings. It's about patriarchal mores. It's about a lot of things, but never so obviously as to swallow up the story.

The light touch doesn't always serve Broken Age when it comes to the leads. Shay's blandness is key to his side of the tale, but Vella seems strangely low-key for someone fueled by vengeful societal change. In a Game Informer interview, Schafer pointed to Hayao Miyazaki's comparatively subtle take on feminism as inspiration for Vella. Well, even Kiki and Satsuki got angry sometimes.

But I can't get angry at Broken Age. It's modern and pretty, but it's also everything that the LucasArts adventure game was at its peak: a trip a freshly imagined world that's worth revisiting even after you've put together all the puzzles and subplots. Maybe we'll get the second half soon. Maybe not. Even in the first act, Broken Age is something special.

TALES OF PHANTASIA
Developer: Namco Bandai
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Platform: iOS Devices
MSRP: Free (Technically)

Like Banshee's Last Cry, the original Tales of Phantasia was a landmark in its field. Pushing the Super NES (or the Super Famicom, for you sticklers) to rare limits, Phantasia established two major forces in RPGs: Namco's own Tales series and the studio tri-Ace, the latter of which was formed by three major Phantasia staffers. Phantasia saw all the reissues one would expect of an RPG esteemed in Japan, but North America so far received only the downsized Game Boy Advance port. So a free, faithfully attractive iOS version of Tales of Phantasia sounds like a grand deal.

It's not. Tales of Phantasia's looks don't suffer too much from shrinking to a iPhone or iPad screen. It's apparently based on the PSP version, which means an animated intro and larger character when compared to the 1995 original. The problem lies beneath: the game's battles are extremely hard, save points appear less frequently, and everything costs more. Why all the changes? Because this Tales of Phantasia is “free” just like Candy Crush Saga. Everywhere the player can spend real money, not Tales-world gald, to get ahead, whether it's buying experience points or an item that revives the entire party. Oh, and you can't save at all unless you're online.

Even in its better forms, Tales of Phantasia still suffers from excessive battles and a storyline that was fraught with clichés two decades ago, from its time travel antics to hero Cress Albane's abruptly destroyed hometown. And everything's worse here. Cress moves ridiculously fast, whether with the awkward control-pad simulator or simply by tapping a location on screen. The battles are a little easier to control, but they grind out sluggishly on older iOS devices. It's sad that Phantasia is limited to this and the Game Boy Advance version when it comes to official North American releases, and it's pathetic that even the crunched-down, outdated GBA port offers the better experience.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

BRAVELY DEFAULT
Developer: Square Enix/Silicon Studio
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: February 7
Best Job: Valkyrie
MSRP: $39.99/$54.99

“I heard you don't like the new Final Fantasies,” Square Enix says, storming into your office. “Well, maybe you'll like this. Random battles. A job system. Little characters with huge heads and simple motivations. Just like it all was in the old days!” And so Bravely Default lands on your desk.

This isn't the first time Square Enix courted the sensibilities of older Final Fantasies. They've reissued the earliest games many times in the past decade, and they've ventured into old-as-new territory with Final Fantasy Dimensions, 3-D remakes of Final Fantasy III and IV, and 2010's Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light. Such is Bravely Default's heritage. It's a Final Fantasy in spirit, complete with a backdrop of warring kingdoms, crystalline powers, and airship armadas. This is the world of Luxendarc, and its fate lies with four heroes: Wind Vestal Agnes Oblige, reformed Eternian Army officer Edea Lee, memory-wiped playboy Ringabel, and Tiz Arrior, survivor of a demonic sinkhole that ate his entire village (which was doomed one way or another, since this is an old-fashioned RPG). The party contends with fierce empires, ancient evils, and circuitous subsquests, all while changing costumes and jobs.

Bravely Default's title isn't without meaning. On top of the attacks and various battle skills available, characters can open each combat turn by “defaulting” and stocking up a bonus turn, which is activated in later turns by the “brave” command. The various jobs offer many specialties, and it's possible to combine them all in judiciously destructive ways. It's the same trick that made Final Fantasy V (and III, I guess) so darned captivating all those years ago, and that's a big part of Bravely Default's appeal.

Of course, many of us in the press paid special attention to the fan uproar over Bravely Default's costumes, several of which are less suggestive (and a speedo is gone entirely) in the North American version. Perhaps this is a good place to put the issue to rest and take in Bravely Default as a whole. Then we can find new minutiae to complain about.

GIGANTIC ARMY
Developer: Astro Port
Publisher: Nyu Media
Platform: PC
Release Date: February 5
Assault Suits Gideon: Doesn't Exist
MSRP: $5.99

Masaya's Assault Suits series is yet another pitiable casualty of an evolving game industry. During the 1990s it provided some of the best side-scrolling action games ever to star a mecha, both in official titles like Cybernator and spin-offs like Metal Warriors and Front Mission: Gun Hazard. Yet the series faded into middling re-releases in the PlayStation 2 era, and no one took up the torch. Well, no one in the mainstream, that is. With the fringe shooter Gigantic Army, Astro Port put together a shameless tribute to the legacy of Assault Suits.

Those who've played Assault Suits games, Cybernator in particular, will recognize Gigantic Army's sources instantly. It's a game made of detailed mecha, demolished city outlines, and a lead robot that handles with deliberate weight. Whether the machine is boosting through the air, rushing across the ground, or adjusting its multi-angle aim, there's a strangely authentic hint of sluggishness to everything. There's also an arsenal of six weapons, a shield, and a convincing variety of enemies; Cybernator isn't the only inspiration at play here, and Gigantic Army's walking weapon platforms and Macross-style missile dances pluck from the broader vein of anime-influenced robot games.

Nyu Media's release of Gigantic Army balances out the gameplay, apparently making things a tad more fair to your frequently outnumbered mecha. It all seems like the most compelling Assault Suits tribute since Metal Warriors…wait, did I never write about Metal Warriors here? That simply won't do.

HYPER CRAZY CLIMBER
Developer: Nichibutsu
Publisher: Nichibutsu/MonkeyPaw Games
Platform: PLAYSTATION Network
Release Date: February 4
Please Remake: Oh! Pyepee
MSRP: $5.99

Here we find another casualty of game-industry progress: Nichibutsu. A semi-prominent name of the burgeoning 1980s arcade scene, Nichibutsu made bank with shooters like Moon Cresta and Terra Cresta and oddly named action titles like Frisky Tom, Tube Panic, Soldier Girl Amazon, Wiping, and Booby Kids. Yet their biggest hit was 1980's Crazy Climber. It finds a lone figure scaling a building, dodging open windows and the projectiles dropped by angry denizens. Exclamations of “Ouch!” and “Go For It!” crop up, even though many arcades of the era drowned out such details. In fact, the entirely of Crazy Climber is underappreciated today. Its appropriation of a certain cinematic building-wrecking ape predates Donkey Kong, and it's easy to draw lines between Nichibutsu's creation and Disney's Wreck-It Ralph.

Sadly, Nichibutsu couldn't adapt to new eras. Super Mario Bros., Dragon Quest, and Street Fighter II all brought their own crazes to the market, yet Nichibutsu only pursued mahjong titles with any real verve. In the late 1990s, the company tried to overhaul some classics for modern systems, giving the Saturn the mediocre Terra Cresta 3-D and the PlayStation the more notable Hyper Crazy Climber.

The underlying premise is unchanged, but this Hyper remake adds many new selectable levels, obstacles, and useable items. Three characters present varying mixes of speed and grip strength, and there's even an optional setup that uses two controllers. Hyper Crazy Climber also sports nice 2-D backgrounds and enemies—in retrospect, a much better choice than the drab polygons of Terra Cresta 3-D.

Nichibutsu still exists under their proper corporate name of Nihon Bussan Co. Ltd, but they've long stopped pursing anything new—and for greater insult, a bunch of games from their best years aren't even emulated in MAME. In that light, Hyper Crazy Climber isn't a bad memento.


Todd Ciolek occasionally updates his website, and you can follow him on Twitter if you want.

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