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Portable Power

by Todd Ciolek, Mar 12th 2014

This week brings a look back at the PSP. Yes, I know it's not dead yet. We'll discuss that later. For this opening bit, however, I have a little PSP-centric contest.

I talk about a quite a few PSP games below, but there are plenty I don't mention. And I'd like to hear about them. So this contest asks you, in 100 words or less, to describe your favorite underappreciated PSP game. It doesn't have to be painfully obscure, but try to pick something beyond Final Fantasy and God of War. And while you can wax rhapsodic about Gods Eater Burst or Hammerin' Hero, I'd prefer something I don't discuss in the column this week. Anyone who isn't an industry professional or an ANN employee can send me a writeup (toddciolek at gmail.com), and entries will be judged on humor and novelty.

First prize is a package of three games: Class of Heroes 2, Hakuōki: Warriors of the Shinsengumi, and Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, plus a few not-pictured odds and ends. The two runners-up each get a copy of Tactics Ogre, because I really like that game.

The deadline will be midnight Eastern Standard Time on Thursday, March 20. You have until then to look over your PSP libraries and pick out the undiscovered gems.

NEWS

AZURE STRIKER GUNVOLT REVIVES ANOTHER LITTLE CORNER OF MEGA MAN HISTORY
We like to see to see Keiji Inafune's Mighty No. 9 as a stroke of elaborate revenge against his former compatriots at CAPCOM, since it resembled a Megaman refashioned for the modern era. Yet it's unfair to write that off as mere calculated vengeance. Spiteful or not, Inafune and the developers at Inti Creates are doing what they do best: making a cunningly designed side-scroller with cartoonish and futuristic tones. In fact, they're doing it again with Azure Striker Gunvolt on the 3DS, this time looking to their Megaman Zero games for inspiration.

Azure Striker Gunvolt transpires in a future where psychics are rounded up and brutalized by an unpleasantly powerful corporation, giving rise to a revolutionary outfit called Feather. Among its members is the teenage Gunvolt, and he's sent to kill Lumen, a pop idol whose sonic abilities help capture psychics. She also has no spinal column, judging by the production art.

Lumen's warped anatomy hints at a truth Gunvolt later discovers: the pop sensation is a virtual idol projected by the meek, genetically engineered Joule. Deciding to spare her, Gunvolt leaves his rebel cadre and sets out on his own, armed with a Conductor Gun and an electric forcefield.

Gunvolt's pistol functions like a basic Megaman weapon, but his Lightning sphere is a bit more novel. With a tap of the R button, the player can target up to three enemies and shock them with multiple bursts of current. The Lightning field also lets our hero float around, atop his usual abilities of air-dashing and double jumping.

Azure Striker Gunvolt appears routine in its premise and artwork (a flick of the contrast and it could be CAPCOM's Gaist Crusher), and yet the early footage of the gameplay impresses. The cybernetic environments resemble a prettier Megaman Zero, and both the boss encounters and unique lock-on mechanic suggest one of the sharpest side-scrollers we've seen in a long while. Perhaps that deprivation makes us long too much for 2-D games of old, but it's hard to deny Gunvolt's pull when it throws in bosses with wormhole space attacks.

Such design flair makes it hard to believe that this is an eShop-only game instead of a full 3DS release, though perhaps that'll make it easier to localize. It's due out in Japan this summer, and the ESRB notation suggests that a U.S. release won't be far behind. Carefully aimed anti-CAPCOM missile or not, Gunvolt shouldn't go ignored by any fan of Megaman. Or side-scrolling in general, I think.

TOUCH DETECTIVE RETURNS TO BANANA-RELATED WONDER
There's a moment in Touch Detective 2 ½ where Mackenzie, the inquisitive heroine, spots a small stand on her friend Penelope's table. Penelope explains that it's a banana holder. It's a weird and irrelevant line that somehow fits perfectly in Touch Detective's bizarre world of wide-eyed characters, ominous shadows, corn-headed criminals, and other never-explained oddities. It's an endearing point-and-click adventure series that people just don't talk about that often. Perhaps things will change with Touch Detective 3 and its subtitle, which brings up both Freud and Philip K. Dick: Does Funghi Dream of Bananas?

Motivated largely by the popularity of Mackenzie's pet mushroom Funghi, Touch Detective 3 returns to the same interface that drove prior game. It's on the 3DS now and the characters all look a little sharper, but the half-gloomy, half-cute designs remain, as does the charmingly mundane story. MacKenzie is called upon to find Penelope's missing bananas and contend with two rivals: one is her old friend Chloe, the other is newcomer detective Shiro, who has a banana-like dog.

Touch Detective 3: Does Funghi Dream of Bananas? comes out in Japan at the start of May. There's no word yet on a U.S. release, but there really should be, I think. Funghi may not be as popular here as he is in Japan, and yet I suspect that Touch Detective has a bigger occidental fan base than appearances suggest.

SHIFTYLOOK IS GONE, BUT WONDER MOMO ISN'T
Shiftylook lived out every old-school game nerd's fantasy: take ancient and possibly obscure titles and make this modern era care about them. As a side project of Namco Bandai, the company mined Namco's old arcade catalog and turned games into webcomics: Galaga became a satirical space-opera, The Legend of Valkyrie became a serious fantasy comic and then a goofy fantasy comic, and the constantly strange Bravoman, never a good game in the first place, became the site's biggest hit. Shiftylook had nice-looking comics, games, cartoons, and nice big comic-convention booths where you could play Xevious and Dig Dug and even The Legend of Valkyrie.

Unfortunately, Shiftylook didn't have enough support in one way or another, and now it's all shutting down.

Shiftylook's farewell message puts a brave face on it, extolling the success of Bravoman, Wonder Momo, and other Namco relics given new life by the website. Most of their projects will end properly: some comics have already wrapped up, and others, including Hitoshi Ariga and Jim Zub's recently started Klonoa strip, will manage as best they can. Shiftylook's most ambitious project, the dating-sim Namco High, goes offline June 30, and Bravoman: Binja Bash leaves app stores on March 20.

However, the Wonder Momo spin-offs will continue. The anime series will remain online, and WayForward's new Wonder Momo side-scroller is still in the works (and already looks better than the original Wonder Momo). Udon Books will continue to release Bravoman, Wonder Momo, Katamari, and Galaga books. On that note, Udon's Matt Moylan and Shiftylook author Jim Zub shared their thoughts on the project's collapse over at Bleeding Cool. They blame the video games and other projects that overextended the whole idea, which makes a lot more sense than my jackass theory: Shiftylook never made comics based on The Outfoxies, Knuckle Heads, or Mach Breakers.

THE PSP IN RETROSPECT

It's time for a good look at the PSP's career. We do this not because the system is retiring. No, even now it rolls onward with new releases in Japan, and there's a glimmer of life on these shores. In fact, XSEED has The Legend of Heroes: Trails in The Sky: Second Chapter coming this year, and Gaijinworks plans at least one more RPG localization for the system. Yet we're now at the point where the PSP's career is mostly over, and that's as good a chance for an elegy as the stubborn little handheld will afford us. Besides, we'd better get this done before the Vita dies.

The PSP was a daring shot across the bow in 2005. Sony, having usurped Nintendo on the home console front, went after the market titan in its most fortified realm: the handheld scene. In contrast to Nintendo's gimmicky dual-screen DS, the PSP was a sleeker, more obvious repackaging of PlayStation design in portable form. It had a nice wide screen, familiar buttons, and the new disc-based format of the Universal Media Disc. Much like the Sega Genesis back in 1990, the PSP positioned itself as a slick, mature alternative to Nintendo's kid-oriented aesthetics.

It didn't work out. Nintendo's DS suffered through a middling first year, but the system found a solid lineup of titles before long, and its touch-screen presented some new innovations. The PSP had troubles of its own, with some early adopters bemoaning the lack of a second analog stick or a launch lineup that had few notable titles beyond Metal Gear Acid and the utterly amazing music-puzzle delights of Lumines.

The PSP would never quite catch up to the DS, and it stumbled a little even after that rough first year every system endures. The UMD format, consisting of an optical disc in a protective case, worked well enough for video games, but it didn't emerge as a defining format for movies. In fact, Sony launched the PSP Go in 2009, offering a version of the system that didn't even accept UMD games. Instead, it used Sony's PlayStation Store. And there was one innovation where the PSP beat out the DS. While Nintendo lagged behind in releasing digital titles and needed the DSi revision to download games, even the earliest-model PSP eventually could snag titles from the PlayStation store.

If a second-place finish was inevitable, the PSP made the most of things. It garnered a wealth of interesting games, from original titles to older releases made new again.

Of all the familiar series that landed on the PSP, Metal Gear was the most prolific. The early Metal Gear Acid games were compellingly odd twists on the strategy-RPG, and Konami later supplied the system with more traditional entries in Portable Ops and Peace Walker, the later of which even saw a PlayStation 3 port. Final Fantasy was plentiful as well. Several remakes appeared for older games, but the star attraction remains Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. Perhaps the best-received part of Square's flawed Final Fantasy VII revival, it foreshadows many events in Final Fantasy VII and builds up an inventive single-soldier battle system.

No chronicle of the PSP could avoid Monster Hunter. More than any other series, CAPCOM's multiplayer action games made the system a hit in Japan, and they didn't fare badly in America. Imitators followed, and the best of them is Namco Bandai's God Eater, or Gods Eater Burst as it was known in North America. A faster, darker, and more cartoonish Monster Hunter, it's one of the more notable original creations on the PSP.

Among Sony's own originals, the three Patapon games stood proudest. A new twist on the rhythm game, each Patapon title sends a pack of Seussian silhouettes marching, attacking, and cavorting to a beat kept up by the player. Sony adopted a similarly cute style for Loco Roco, where players tilt smiling blobs through mazes, and published Level-5's underrated strategy-RPG Jeanne D'Arc. Yet Patapon had the most sequels.

The PSP also abounded with slightly improved ports of older games and scaled-down versions of PlayStation 2 titles, but some developers went a little further. When not bringing over games like Street Fighter Alpha 3 and Power Stone, CAPCOM decided to remake two early Megaman games with 3-D visuals. The original became Megaman: Powered Up, an adorable recreation with huge-headed characters, a level editor, and the chance to play as the bosses (including the borderline-racist Oil Man). Megaman X became Maverick Hunter, with a spare mode starring the bounty hunter Vile. Word was that other Megaman titles might get similar revamps, but nothing came of it.

Elsewhere, Konami refashioned the best of its Castlevania series into The Dracula X Chronicles. Along with a re-dubbed Symphony of the Night and a never-before-localized Rondo of Blood, the collection featured a full polygon remake of Rondo, long a favorite among the old-fashioned Castlevanias. Such overhauls weren't just for popular series, either. Irem revived its Gen-San games with Hammerin' Hero, a basic side-scroller jammed with secrets and in-jokes. And it wasn't bad at all!

My personal favorite PSP revival is Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. It extensively reworks the Super Famicom and PlayStation versions of Yasumi Matsuno's masterful tactical RPG, giving the game new artwork, new characters, a revised job system, and a sharp translation to make the cruelties of its medieval-fantasy world pierce even more. It packs in surprisingly complex moral questions (in other words, depressing ones), and it's great that the PSP gave such remarkable despair another shot at a worldwide audience. Other sterling RPGs reappeared on the system, with Matsuno's own Final Fantasy Tactics getting a smooth new localization and some cinema scenes (and, uh, some slowdown). Even a blurred PSP port of Valkyrie Profile put a classic within reach for a fraction of the original game's exorbitant eBay prices.

The PSP also attracted plenty of support from visual novels. Perhaps it was the combination of a relatively large screen and the innate book-like intimacy afforded by a handheld. Whatever the cause, the PSP saw all manner of dating sims and visual novels visiting it. Some even emerged on these shores, where Aksys Games snapped up Hakuōki and Sweet Fuse. And there's always the chance that more imports will find their way over.

And when it comes to imports, the PSP still inspires some of the most plaintive requests for localization. Chief among fan demands is Sega's Valkyria Chronicles 3, which has only poked its head up here through artbooks and guest roles in Project X Zone. And then there's Final Fantasy Type-0, a shocking case of a major Final Fantasy game not getting a worldwide release. Its bleak wartime tone and large cast of student-soldiers garnered plenty of attention over here, but Square Enix has yet to release it, and there's slim chance they'll change their minds now. The odds are even worse for last-round translations of CAPCOM's Last Ranker, Imageepoch's Sol Trigger, or either of Sega's 7th Dragon RPGs.

Yet the PSP can't be counted out on the whole. While the Vita abandoned the UMD format, it can run digital releases of many PSP games, making the older system's library still viable for plucking. The PSP lives on through the Vita, though it doesn't necessarily have to keep going at this point. Even if PSP titles stopped tomorrow, Sony's bold little handheld has a superb catalog to its name.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

FINAL FANTASY X AND X-2 HD REMASTER
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PlayStation 3/Vita
Release Date: March 18
Machina: Forbidden
MSRP: $39.99

Every Final Fantasy leads a few of its long-time fans to jump ship, to say that they've had it with the series and don't care where it goes in the future. Those who abandoned things with Final Fantasy X point to a few common complaints: a linear flow devoid of an explorable world map, some downright ridiculous designs and storytelling, or that one mock-laughing scene that was supposed to be awkward anyway.

Yet there's no denying that this is Final Fantasy in its goofy, overbearing appeal. There's melodrama to spare as the garishly dressed Blitzball forward Tidus (star player for the Zanarkand Abes!) is hurled from his home city to a remote archipelago that might be in the future, joining a sensitive summoner named Yuna and her companions. On the surface it's an energetic tale with bright looks and cartoony voice work (with John DiMaggio and Tara Strong stealing the show in their supporting roles), and it relies on menu-driven battles that occur at random and let players swap out party members. But there's a bit more to it. The game's blunt religious allegories mask a more interesting existential crisis, Tidus shows surprising self-awareness for a dorky RPG hero, and his tale is the rare Final Fantasy that doesn't butter up the player with a happy ending. There's a nice sense of melancholy and fatalism underneath all the day-glo lederhosen and tropical puffery.

Final Fantasy X-2 cemented two modern traditions for the series. One tradition is Square granting sequels to every big Final Fantasy, whether it needs them or not. Another tradition: fans forgive pointless follow-ups just as long as the gameplay impresses. Final Fantasy X-2 is even more ridiculous in tone, all pop numbers and silly sidequests as it follows Yuna, now a go-getting adventurer, hunting through her homeland. It's a better game in battles, however. Yuna and her party members cycle through dress-spheres to change skills, and combat flows along at a pleasantly challenging clip. Truth be told, I dislike what Final Fantasy X-2 did to the whole series, but I can't hate the game all that much.

The remastered versions of Final Fantasy X and X-2 upgrade the character models and soundtrack, though it's still a very early PS2 game beneath that. The best part of the package is Last Mission, a dungeon-hack bonus from the International version of Final Fantasy X-2. This is the first time it's seen an English release, and it underscores how X-2 is best valued for its gameplay.

METAL GEAR SOLID V: GROUND ZEROES
Developer: Kojima Productions
Publisher: Konami
Platform: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360/PlayStation 4/Xbox One/Playdia
Release Date: March 18
Metal Gear: Metal Gear?
MSRP: $29.99 (PS3, Xbox 360) $39.99 (PS4, Xbox One)

Before getting into Ground Zeroes, make sure you're up on your Metal Gear studies. Ground Zeroes is part of the past-tense Metal Gear Solids, and thus it follows Metal Gear Solid 3, Portable Ops, and Peace Walker in charting the career of Big Boss, who ended up a villain in the later Metal Gears. Ground Zeroes is also the first chunk of Metal Gear Solid V, and director Hideo Kojima described it as a “tutorial,” a fixed playground where you can run rampant and mess around with the various ideas that the upcoming Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain will use in a much larger game.

Of course, Ground Zeroes still has a plot. It's a Kojima game. Big Boss lands just outside of Camp Omega, a U.S. military prison site in Cuba. He's there to rescue a child soldier named Chico and an undercover agent named Pacifica Ocean (who's actually Paz from Peace Walker), and it's all up to the player to decide how Big Boss will extract his targets. He can do it by calling in helicopters to airlift him around or distract the guards. He can do it by tagging soldiers, tracking them with X-ray goggles, and sneaking about accordingly. He can do it by zipping through everything and going full Rambo when he can get away with it, as some players prefer their Metal Gear Solid. Camp Omega is a spacious grounds for those who prefer to savor details, and Kojima clearly hopes that players will go through again and again to sharpen their scores or toy around with stealth strategies, instead of just blazing through the game in a few hours. Perhaps it'll stir fond memories of the original Metal Gear Solid demo that came on an Official PlayStation Magazine disc. I went through that thing about a dozen times.

Ground Zeroes also shows off the new Fox Engine graphics, a revised stat interface, and actor Keifer Sutherland, who replaces David Hayter in voicing gruff Metal Gear Solid protagonists. But it's really about the elaborate action-figure battlefield and what it suggests for the actual meat of Metal Gear Solid V. Kojima promises it'll be about 200 times bigger. In cutscenes as well as territory, I imagine.

YAIBA: NINJA GAIDEN Z
Developer: Comcept/Team Ninja/Spark Unlimited
Publisher: Tecmo KOEI
Platform: PC/PlayStation 3/Xbox 360
Release Date: March 18
MIA: Jungle Rat Rob
MSRP: $59.99

These Ninja Gaidens today, I tell you. In the time of the ol' NES, we didn't need some jerk shinobi snarling one-liners as he pried out a two-faced mutant's shoulder blade and used it to fillet legions of zombies. This Yaiba Kamikaze fellow is a bad egg, pure and simple! And what's with his scientist overseer, Miss Monday? Irene Lew didn't need hipster glasses and a revealing labcoat to do her job, you know!

Yes, Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z perches on the edge of modern comic-book trashiness, complete with a heavily shadowed palette, ample bloodsprays, and a selection of Deadpool-ish quips from our hero Yaiba. And yes, he's a jerk. Upon slaughtering a dozen or so of his fellow ninja, Yaiba loses big to Ninja Gaiden's own Ryu Hayabusa, and our antihero is rebuilt as a cyborg. Guided by his benefactor Miss Monday, Yaiba creatively dices up zombies of all varieties: electric zombies, toxic zombies, boxer zombies, ignited-religious-fanatic zombies, and so forth. His sword and cyborg arm provide most of his attacks, though Yaiba is perfectly capable of using bones and other zombie detritus as weapons. A side-scrolling mode even pops up as a bonus for those fans who still fondly hearken to the tones of older Ninja Gaidens.

With Team Ninja hurting a bit from Ninja Gaiden 3's icy reception, the developer turned to Keiji Inafune, who's riding high on the success of his Mighty No. 9 kickstarter. It's not surprising that Inafune went straight for zombie bloodshed with Yaiba (or that the game will have a bonus Mighty No. 9 costume), but it's hard to say if that'll make the latest Ninja Gaiden stand out. After a round of Killer is Dead, Lollipop Chainsaw, Anarchy Reigns, and an actual Deadpool game, is the industry a bit weary of gruesome mutant-zombie slaughters and quasi-satirical banter?

YUMI'S ODD ODYSSEY
Developer: Agatsuma Entertainment
Publisher: Natsume
Platform: Nintendo 3DS (eShop)
Release Date: March 20
Best Video-Game Grappling Hook: The Relic Arm
MSRP: $29.99

I list Yumi's Odd Odyssey here with a shred of trepidation. Natsume says it's coming out next week, but something could go wrong at the last minute. In fact, something did go wrong with the last attempt at bringing an Umihara Kawase game over here under the name Yumi's Odd Odyssey. Back in 2008, Natsume planned to put that very title on the PSP version of Umihara Kawase Portable and release it in North America, but the game never emerged. It's particularly sad when you consider that, flawed as that PSP outing was, it would've been the first Umihara Kawase game on North American shelves.

But now the 3DS revival looks all but certain to introduce the domestic populace to the simple artistry of Umihara Kawase. The series grew into a cult legend from its Super Famicom debut, which saw a young woman sorting out levels with her trusty elastic fishing line and some touchy physics. Built by the original game's staff, Yumi's Odd Odyssey preserves this idea. The game may use 3-D graphics, but Yumi still traverses much of the journey in side-scrolling fashion. She casts her line out, swings and hangs as much as the tether allows, and contends with any hostile marine life she finds in the way. It's more of an elaborate puzzle game than a Bionic Commando foray, as the stretching of Yumi's fishhook line defines everything. There are boss battles to be had, but it's the swinging that makes the Umihara Kawase games difficult. And the slightly bizarre fish theme and Duplo-block backdrops make them charming.

Yumi's Odd Odyssey also shows a little mercy to those struggling with a rubbery grappling cord. The starring-role Yumi is 20 years old (ancient by game-heroine measure), but her younger self is on hand to make the game a little easier, and the same goes for her grade-school friend Emiko. Meanwhile, a time-traveling teenage police officer called Noko Yokoyama lets players slow down the game for more precise exploration. Perhaps some will balk at seeing a thirty-dollar price tag on a digital release, but just remember that Umihara Kawase has waited a long while for this.

Also Available:
Infamous: Second Son arrives on the PlayStation 4, gives a somewhat jerkass hero ample superpowers, and sets him loose in a fascist-run version of Seattle. While the storyline has him combating anti-superhero forces, he can roam all about the city and use his various elemental abilities, including a smoke dash that passes through certain objects. No, this doesn't make him a vampire.


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

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