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Cavalry Call

by Todd Ciolek, Apr 23rd 2014

Japanese RPGs once again figure into the news this week, what with Child of Light's inspirations, Hot-Blooded Magic Story's new focus, and the news that Suikoden II might finally arrive on the PLAYSTATION Network over here (according to copyrights, anyway). It's left me pondering something. When and why did we start calling them Japanese RPGs, or J-RPGs for short?

During the 1990s, neither critics nor fans made all that much of an RPG's country of origin. At most, they grouped Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest and their Japan-made kin among “console RPGs,” while the likes of Baldur's Gate and Might & Magic were “computer RPGs” or “PC RPGs.” It was well-known that most console RPGs were made in Japan, but calling one a “Japanese RPG” was just as likely to conjure up images of an RPG that was actually in Japanese.

This nomenclature continued into the next decade, and I remember it holding throughout message-board fights between console and computer adherents. Somewhere in the mid-2000s, however, the divisions were remodeled into Japanese and Western RPGs.

What was the cause? One could point to an increase in Western-developed RPGs that were multi-platform and, in some cases, console exclusives. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic arrived first on the Xbox, thus making it inaccurate for the press to dub it a “PC RPG” no matter the commonalities with developer BioWare's past PC games. In the previous era, most Western RPGs started on computers and were ported to consoles (and Japan-born RPGs sometimes traveled in reverse), but the PlayStation 2 and Xbox spread the genre all over the industry. It was a new world that needed new terms.

Or perhaps there was a deeper, dorkier element at work. The term “J-RPG” came to the fore just as anime fandom grew more noticeable and more annoying online, and many nerds who weren't into “big-eye Sailor Gundam Ball” often came to resent anime, its fans, and, by strange extension, Japan itself. Rather than label the nation's role-playing games “console RPGs” or “anime RPGs,” they were called Japanese RPGs, and an unfortunate precedent emerged. To this day, you'll see nerds use “Japanese storytelling” as shorthand for the clichés and melodrama of video games, as though the nation's literary methods go no further than Atelier Iris 3.

So what's the reason? An innocuous shift in game-industry preferences or a nastier reservoir of geek bitterness? I'm not sure, but I try to avoid the “JRPG” label nowadays. I'll stick to the simpler designation of “RPG.” That way, we can focus on arguing about just what “role-playing” means in the context of a video game.

NEWS

THE NEW ACE ATTORNEY IS HISTORIC
Phoenix Wright creator Shu Takumi promised that the next game in the series would be “completely different” from what we've seen so far. He was right…in a way. The next Phoenix Wright is still a legal-action game (and not, say, a 3-D fighter), but it's set in the Meiji era. The protagonist is one Ryuunosuke Naruhodo, presumably an ancestor of Ryuichi Naruhodo…or Phoenix Wright as we know him in the West.

That's pretty much the limit of what we know about Dai Gyakuten Saiban, or The Great Ace Attorney, at this writing. It's a way for Takumi to start fresh with the Ace Attorney series while simultaneous keeping fans sated. The first images of Ryuunosuke look an awful lot like a young Phoenix in a school outfit, though it's hard to tell if the other revealed character, a woman named Mikotoba Susato. The story unfolds in the late 19th century, right in the midst of Japan's imperial ambitions, and there's plenty of potential for in-jokes and historical references. I also wonder how the localization will handle it, seeing as how prior games transplanted the modern-Japan setting to North America…and there will be a localization. Right, CAPCOM?

KUNIO-KUN'S LATEST GAME IS A MAGICAL RPG OF WHIMSY AND WONDER
Million takes a similar route with its latest revival of the Kunio-kun series, which we Americans invariably recall through River City Ransom and Super Dodge Ball for the NES. Hot-Blooded Magic Story sends Kunio into an RPG alongside mages and warriors. There are palaces to wander and villagers to question, but a lot of the game revolves around side-view battles and the numerous items they grant the player.

Seemingly driven by small-scale quests, Hot-Blooded Magic Story offers a hundred such diversions. Arc System Works aims to have it out for the 3DS eShop in Japan next week. There's no word of a translated version just yet, and the game seems a touch wordier than the usual Kunio-Kun brawler. But hey, what localizer could resist the chance to sneak a “smiles are free” line into an RPG shopkeeper's dialogue?

NES REMIX 2 PULLS ITS SWITCHEROO THIS WEEK
NES Remix had an amusing idea a bit behind the times: put characters from classic NES games into other NES games, just like fans have done with ROM hacks for years! Of course, Nintendo gave it a professional sheen with specific challenges and high scores, devoid of any crude parodies where Mario enjoys carnal unions with Octoroks. It was strange to see it on the Wii U instead of the 3DS, but Nintendo has to think of its console these days.

The same thing goes on throughout NES Remix 2. You get mashed-up challenges for Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario Bros. 3, Kirby's Adventure, Dr. Mario, and Wario's Woods. Metroid, Kid Icarus, Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels, and other NES highlights await deeper in, and everything is just a bit skewed: Samus Aran grabs coins in a Mario sewerway, Kirby faces down ghostly Boos, and Princess Peach can rescue herself. Or her own clone, I guess. It's out this Friday, and once again its only for the Wii U. At least it fits on the controller's little iPad-ish screen.

INTERVIEW: SABER RIDER REVIVED

Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs had its time in the sun. As they had done with Voltron, World Events Productions expanded and repackaged version an anime series called Sei Jushi Bismark, emphasizing the show's space-cowboy overtones and towering robot. Saber Rider never had the wide reach of Voltron, however, and the show seemed bound to fade alongside Macron-1, Ninja The Wonderboy, and other Americanized anime of the 1980s.

Yet World Events Productions never forgot about Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs, and neither did Chris Strauss and the rest of Firehazard Studio. Inspired by the TV show's re-emergence on DVD, the German developer set to work planning a Saber Rider video game in 2005. The project hit several delays, moved on from obsolete systems, had a small Pling fundraiser for a demo, and saw Firehazard disband and rename itself the Saber Rider Game Team. Now a 3-D rail shooter in the vein of Sin and Punishment and Star Fox, Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs is headed for the PC first, with console ports and a 3DS version to follow if all goes well.

With the game now appearing on the Indie Database, Strauss found time to answer a few questions about Saber Rider's past incarnations, its current state, and why the show became a cult favorite in his native Germany.

Why did you decide to make a Saber Rider game? How easy was it to acquire the license from WEP?

Well, as children we always watched Saber Rider after school on TV. Back then almost everybody had seen it and the next day in school we talked about the latest episode. My first video game system was the Super Nintendo. I always hoped for a Saber Rider game for it, but that never happened.

The show was not on free TV for a long time, but in 2003 the German publisher Anime House released the series on DVDs. And I was first in line to get them. After watching them, I decided to look into making a game. At that time, I was still working for Nintendo.

I contacted Anime House and spoke with them about the game idea. It turned out that they just had the license for making DVDs back then. You know, games are always a different business.

However, they liked the idea and connected me with World Events Productions in the US. WEP was very open to my idea and they liked it. However, making a game costs a lot of money and there is a license involved, so a few things had to be taken care of first.

First of all, back then the game was supposed to be a Gameboy Advance or DS Game, and the gameplay was supposed to be like Contra from Konami. WEP said that if I could find a publisher who would finance the development, we could have a contract and the game could be made.

Back in 2005, the games business was quite different from today. There were no app stores yet and indie development was not a big thing like today. Most games were financed and made by publishers and if you wanted to have them publish your game, you needed a demo or, better yet, the final game already. That was a problem, because at this point there was no demo possible, and I had to put the idea on hold for a while.

Time was passing and I had some changes in my personal life. I left Nintendo and founded my own little studio making some DS Games. That was the time when there was this Casual Game Bubble on the DS. No publisher was interested in anything other than the next Brain Trainer and such stuff. The conclusion was that my game idea was on hold again. The hunt for a publisher was always hindering us as we tried to bring the game to life.

When Nintendo introduced the 3DS at E3 I was very impressed. I liked the system and as a DS developer I wanted to make games for it directly. My Saber Rider idea was back in no time. I thought “THIS is the right system.”

I contacted WEP to see if they were still interested in a game. They were still interested, but the conditions were the same, bring a publisher and then we can proceed. But as you can guess, we had no luck with publishers again and the game market was changing a lot. I made a drastic decision. I scrapped the idea of getting a publisher because that brings you nowhere, it just brings headaches. It gets really tiring hearing the same excuses over and over again as to why your game doesn't get published.

I just wanted to see the game happen, so I took my last money and made a deal with WEP myself. Now we are doing the game as indie developer with all the benefits and disadvantages that comes with it. All my money is stuck in that project. This puts me under big pressure now because I don't know if my efforts will pay off some day or if I will pay for living a dream.

I know I'm not the only Saber Rider Fan out there, but I know I took a great risk and that's frightening sometimes. Other people would probably call me crazy or so. But hey, I just want to see that game happen. It is a cool story and has enough potential to be a good game, even for people who don't know the TV show at all.

In short, in this case it was not a big problem to get the license from WEP, but it is a big problem to get the ball rolling, especially if it depends on other circumstances like money and a publisher.

You've mentioned that the storyline will be set within the TV series. Will it be an original story or an adaptation of certain episodes?

While we say "by fans for fans" it is important to point out that the game will be made so that everybody can play it and understand the story, even if they don't know the TV show at all. Therefore we will adjust the story so that it fits into one game. We will also use certain settings from some episodes. That's why we call it a "reboot," but I'm careful with that word because if we think about some movie reboots, it sounds like everything will be different…like the faces of the Turtles in that upcoming movie.

But don't worry. The story will get reworked by talented Saber Rider fans. We joined forces with the guys behind the very successful Saber Rider radio plays to ensure that all fans of Saber Rider will feel immediately "at home" and everybody who doesn't know the TV Show at all will experience a cool game with an interesting space-western story.

In 2012 you mentioned that Saber Rider, Fireball, and Colt would be playable characters. Your new IndieDB page mentions "four heroes" now. Does that mean April Eagle will be playable, or are you counting Ramrod as the fourth character?

Well April is a hero in the series and in the game. Even if she would not be playable like the other main heroes she is still very important, and that's why I count her as the fourth character. However, I don't want to disclose too much about April for now.

Ramrod will be playable in the game, but since he is controlled by the four heroes I don't call him a "hero" per se. But you see, without April he would not even work.

The IndieDB page also describes the game as an on-rails shooter in the style of Sin and Punishment. Will your character be able to fly around the screen like the leads of Sin and Punishment: Star Successor, or will you stay grounded?

Our characters will mostly walk like in Sin and Punishment on the N64 but like in the show they also will use jetpacks from time to time. This is what we call Mode One or Hero Mode.

How will the vehicles change the gameplay?

Like in the show, some missions will require the use of vehicles instead heroes walking. This is what we call Mode Two or Vehicle Mode. There will be three vehicles: Saber Rider's Robot Horse for ground and air and space operations, Fireball's Turbo Racer for ground operations only, and Colt's Glider for air and space operations only. It will depend on the story and mission as to what vehicle and hero will be used. The gameplay itself won't change that much in Mode One and Two. The handling of the vehicles will be slightly different from using the heroes.

However, there will be also Mode Three or the "Challenge Phase." This is when Ramrod is in action. This mode will be very different from the other two and will have different controls. The Challenge Phase transforms the ship to the robot. The robot is controlled by our four heroes who are sitting in the head of Ramrod. We have a nice concept to reflect that in the game.

What sort of cutscenes will the game have? Will they be traditional animation or in-game cutscenes?

The cutscenes will be in-game cutscenes.

You've said that the game will have the original show's German cast. How will you handle the game for other territories?

We are working hard on this. We know that a lot of people want to have the original English voicecast back, but we don't know yet if this is possible. One important actor would be Peter Cullen. We are already in contact with his agent and he would probably do it, but that would be kind of expensive.

I would like to have as many of the original English voice actors as possible in the game, but that depends on the fan support. With the help of the fans we probably can get Mr. Cullen and the rest of the cast back like we did with the German version. For now, just English and German spoken dialogue is planned.

Why do you think Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs has a large following in Germany?

[Laughs] That is a good question. There are probably different reasons for that. The story was cool, it had a nice style, it featured cool heroes and a kick-ass robot. It had an awesome soundtrack and so on, but the German voice acting was one of the important reasons for the show's success in Germany, I think.

Back then, the voice actors didn't follow the text they were supposed to say and improvised a lot. They built in a lot of cool jokes. To make it clear, they didn't make a comedy out of it and the storyline is much the same as the original US version, but they did the dialogue so that it felt natural and easygoing. The flow was just very good and fitting. Voice acting in anime is not always that cool today.

Most of the voice actors are kind of stars here now, but they still like to come back to Saber Rider. Christian Tramitz, who was the voice of Colt, is a comedy and film star today, but a lot of fans still ask him for Colt…which surprises him every time.

So it's true that the game doesn't have a publisher yet? Are you considering a crowdfunding campaign?

No, there is still no publisher. I think there won't be any publisher at all, which is a shame. Right now, we are considering several options. One is Kickstarter. Another is Steam Greenlight. If we have any news on this we will post it on our pages.

How large of a staff do you have for the project?

Right now we have four people on the team. Since we do all that unpaid, we need to keep the team small. The bad thing is that this is slowing us down quite a bit.

At present, how complete is the game?

Well, code-wise a lot of stuff is done, but the biggest part is the 3-D content and here we're still missing a lot. This is a matter of budget. The same goes for the spoken dialogue. That can only be done if we get enough of a budget for it, so I hope we will find a good way to raise enough.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

CHILD OF LIGHT
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC, Wii U, Xbox One, Xbox 360
Release Date: April 30
See a Little Light: I Know You Will
MSRP: $14.99

Child of Light doesn't look like RPG bric-a-brac. It has the side-scrolling approach of a platformer and the gorgeous, multi-plane backgrounds one might expect to see if a recent Rayman game turned into a slightly heavier fairy tale. Yet many influences power Child of Light, and most of them are the right ones. Grandia II inspired the battle pacing. Super Mario Galaxy inspired the easily implemented cooperative play, where the second participant controls a glowing sprite named Igniculus. And Valkyrie Profile inspired the 2-D exploration, the visible enemies, and the timing-dependent attacks. The last of these is enough to put Child of Light on my list.

The flame-haired Princess Aurora hails from Austria in the late 19th century, but a deathly illness somehow warps her to the strange (and, I presume, highly symbolic) land of Lemuria. She explores a landscape of shadowed forests, waterfall-worn ruins, sunlit hills, jagged cities, churning clockwork, and other impressively layered scenery. Aurora floats around side-view stages with her luminous blob companion, and encountering an enemy brings up a separate battle screen where the characters square off against foes in a more static duel. Like many RPGs, there's an item-crafting system and a skill tree, and the developers aim for a speedy game compared to other turn-based titles. Crafted with help from Yoshitaka Amano and Cirque du Soleil, there's little question that Child of Light will look good. Will it satisfy beyond that? Denied a new Valkyrie Profile for four years, I'm not sure I care.

JOJO'S BIZARRE ADVENTURE: ALL-STAR BATTLE
Developer: CyberConnect2
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Platform: PlayStation 3
Release Date: April 29
Not Featured: The Qur'an
MSRP: $49.99

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: All-Star Battle may be the most unimaginative fighting game I've ever seen. First of all, we have this high-haired Polnareff fellow, who's a blatant rip-off of Benimaru from The King of Fighters. Elsewhere, a woman called Jolyne looks a little too much like Juri from Super Street Fighter IV, and you'll see an equally obvious resemblance between Lisa Lisa and Street Fighter's Rose. And what about the older version of All-Star Battle's Joseph Joestar? He's just Dandy J from Waku Waku 7! I don't know who this Hirohiko Araki thinks he is, but he could stand to learn a thing or two about originality!

Yes, All-Star Battle is the latest and most impressive fighting game based on JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, a manga series that started in 1986 and influenced video games everywhere from Cyberbots to Guilty Gear to…well, just about anything where you can drop a steamroller on someone. And you can do that in All-Star Battle. In fact, you can do just about any attack employed by the heavy-hitters of Araki's manga. Counting the DLC, the game stacks up 41 characters from eight parts of the manga (plus the star of Araki's earlier work, BAOH), all of them rendered with impeccably detailed manga-like shading and effects. It's the work of CyberConnect2, which showed exceptional fan devotion in crafting very pretty Naruto fighters. Judging by All-Star Battle, CyberConnect2 is even more fond of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure.

All-Star Battle sets up a typical fighting game array with three attack buttons and a dodge command, plus the highly important “style” button that corresponds to a character's particular talent. Stand users summon their Persona-like alter egos (yes, I know Jojo's came first), Pillar Men boost their attack power, Mounted characters call upon their steeds, and Hamon martial-artists can refill their special-move gauges or increase their strength. Meanwhile, Dio Brando gets unique vampire abilities befitting one of the most loathsome villains in anime or manga, and BAOH has his personal Armed Phenomenon attacks. I would've preferred Walken, the last surviving member of the Skurm tribe, but he wasn't the star of BAOH.

KIRBY TRIPLE DELUXE
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: May 2
A New Lolo Game: Nope
MSRP: $34.99

Are you dismayed over Nintendo pushing Bayonetta 2 back from its admittedly nebulous early-May release date? Well, you still get Kirby! And he's angry! Now, angry Kirby is normally an embellishment to attract the North American consumers who prefer fury and vengeance in their games, but Kirby looks exactly the same on the Japanese and European covers. In fact, the American cover is less aggressive this time around, as it removes a Shotzo enemy and a cannonball flying out at the viewer.

Yet Kirby is still an adorable living pink pillow creature no matter what the cover implies. He still trundles through bright-colored stages, and he still gains powers by swallowing his foes. Triple Deluxe is a side-scroller in the Kirby tradition, and among the hero's 20-plus abilities are new powers like the beetle helmet, the bow and arrow, the bell, and the circus juggler. Kirby uses them all as he solves puzzles, defeats a spidery monster named Taranza, and generally cavorts and frolics and appeals to children of all ages.

Kirby's central quest is only one part of the game, however. King Dedede is playable in the game's Extra Mode, and his hammer-based attacks present an alternative to Kirby's blobbish gluttony. Other bonus attractions appear: Kirby Fighters is a four-player brouhaha starring various versions of Kirby, Dedede's Drum Dash is a rhythmic mini-game, The Arena is a boss rush, and the True Arena has all of the extra-challenging bosses from Dedede's version of the main game. You'll have to provide your own motivational rage.

Also Available:
UFO Interactive has Raiden IV: Overkill for the PlayStation 3 next week—digital-only, of course. It's much the same as the Xbox 360 version, but with extra power-ups and a level-building “overkill” mode. It's still Raiden IV in the central game, and the selectable arsenal features two typical jet fighters and an unclothed fairy. Between this and last year's Raiden Legacy android debut, this is the busiest Raiden's been since 1993.

Gardening Mama 2: Forest Friends also arrives on April 29, though Majesco seems to have shipped it a week early. It's a bit like a small-scale Harvest Moon, as Mama grows 50 different vegetables and sells them to a variety of animal merchants. Thus she becomes the ringleader of the local produce mob.

Mario Golf World Tour accompanies Kirby Triple Deluxe on February 2, offering an array of Mario characters and courses—including some underwater terrain. The roster has 13 characters at first, but four more can be unlocked and another four (including newcomers Nabbit and Rosalina) purchased with additional courses. It's a nice setup for the fifth Mario Golf game, or the ninth if you count all of Nintendo's old generic “golf” games that had Mario cameos.


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

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