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Fragmentary

by Todd Ciolek, Jul 9th 2014

Monster Party is a weird, weird NES game. One of the more gruesome things to inexplicably slide by Nintendo's censors back in the day, it begins with an innocent scene of a baseball-playing kid deciding to save an alien birdman's home dimension. Then they're off to a twisted side-scroller full of bleeding statues, man-faced dogs, and numerous veiled references to horror films. I imagine it scarred kids aplenty.

Stranger yet, Monster Party didn't come out in Japan, where games faced fewer restrictions. Parody World: Monster Party appeared in magazines (showing, among other things, a blood-drenched title screen), but Bandai apparently canceled it not long before its 1989 release date.

Time has rectified that. Someone recently bought a Parody World: Monster Party prototype and dumped it, so everyone can see just what was different about the game's Japanese incarnation.

The biggest differences reveal that the original vision for Monster Party was a lot more obvious in lampooning pop-culture creatures. In the prototype, the first boss is a Little Shop of Horrors plant, complete with mike and speaker, and the above Planet of the Apes boss and background follow close behind. Most of these were changed to less copyright-able figures in the American version: the plant lost the musical gear, and the ape turned into a generic pumpkin ghost in front of an empty background.

Parody World: Monster Party is a little more unsettling than the Monster Party we saw in North America, and not just because the title screen is bloodier. A facehugger-spitting Alien mecha lurks in place of the grim reaper, and one of the fourth-stage bosses, a cat in the U.S. version, was originally a somewhat hideous take on Gizmo. It's less creepy when it turns into an actual ghoulish Gremlin.

Why didn't Bandai release Parody World: Monster Party in Japan? My speculative theory points to bad timing. Police captured serial child-killer Tsutomu Miyazaki in 1989, and much of the ensuing media outcry focused on Miyazaki's collection of anime and horror flicks. Some violent projects (like the classic Angel Cop) were delayed, and it was a bad year for a company to release a video game featuring a kid and a surfeit of gory images. And that horrible hamster-demon Mogwai.

NEWS

NIS ANNOUNCEMENTS GO TO LIKELY, UNLIKELY PLACES
Some veterans of the anime industry may grouse that Anime Expo is no longer the wheeling-and-dealing hotbed it was in the days of overpriced VHS tapes and lousy El Hazard sequels, but it's an ideal place for anime-friendly publishers to announce new localizations. NIS America had three such announcements: htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary, The Awakened Fate Ultimatum, and Criminal Girls: Invite Only.

The Firefly Diary, annoyingly unique pseudo-acronym and all, makes a solid choice for NIS America. It follows a silent girl named Mion through a side-view world of dilapidated security doors and crumbling precipices, with two firefly-like creatures as her guides. It's a novel (if rather hard) puzzle-action game that fits nicely among the other smaller-scale offerings on the Vita, so I can understand why NISA is bringing it here—perhaps even as a physical release. It's digital-only for now, but the company gave one of those “looking into the possibility” responses when asked.

The Awakened Fate Ultimatum also makes sense for NIS America. As a follow-up to the company's The Guided Fate Paradox, it's a strategy-RPG starring yet another teenager granted godlike powers in the midst of a war among deities. The player's decisions guide this hero, one Shin Kamikaze, through strategy-RPG battles and into the company of two angels: the upright blonde Jupiel and the distant, methodical redheaded Arle. The storyline revolves heavily around which angelic woman Shin favors, which one he rooms with, and which one ultimately survives. It's like the ending of The Granstream Saga!

Criminal Girls: Invitation Only is the surprise of the group. The original Criminal Girls was thought unmarketable in the West because it's essentially a dungeon-crawl RPG where the player molests seven sinful girls in old stripey prison outfits. See, they're damned souls in need of redemption, and only by inflicting touch-screen punishments on them can the game's protagonist absolve them. Really. Invitation Only throws two previously unplayable characters, Himekami and Miu, into the same mixture of random battles and off-putting S&M, and NIS America has already mentioned that “certain aspects” will be edited for the U.S. release. The dungeon-diving bits of the game might be more than puffery, since they're the work of Etrian Odyssey director Kazuya Niinou. But Criminal Girls: Invitation Only hardly seems destined to be noticed for its gameplay.

AKSYS GOES UNDER NIGHT, IN-BIRTH, AND TO TOKYO
Aksys Games had a stable of Anime Expo announcements as well, the most important being Under Night In-Birth Exe Late (alternate title: Sub-Nocturnal Placenta Cmd Delay. It's a 2-D fighter from Ecole Software and French-Bread, developers of the well-received Melty Blood, and it's seen all sorts of updates since its 2012 release. Backed by a bleak little tale of cursed immortals, Under Night In-Birth puts together a motley cast of fighting-game archetypes and some fairly slick animation. The backgrounds look a bit empty, but hey, it's under night.

The Exe Late version of the game throws in two new characters: the sword-wielding Nanase and the spiderweb-laying Byakuya, both shown above. They bring the cast to about 16 fighters, and the PS3 version includes online play, so this won't turn into another Chaos Code. Aksys will have the game out in 2015, though desperate importers can nab the Japanese version later this month.

Aksys also nabbed Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters, a visual novel that looks a little different from the norm. It's not so much in the storyline, which follows a cabal of supernatural (and mostly teenage) detectives in Tokyo. It's more in the way the game looks and plays. The characters animate relatively well during the dialogue exchanges, and the demon-hunts let players deploy traps and direct their allies around maps.

The last bit of Aksys news covers BlazBlue: Battle Cards, an iOS fighter that plays out clashes between sparking, glowing BlazBlue regulars as card games. It'll be out this fall.

PHANTOM BREAKER: EXTRA SHOWS ITS FACE
Those few of us who follow semi-obscure fighting games are aware of what happened with Phantom Breaker, the 5pb. fighting game with a few Steins;Gate and Chaos;HEAd cameos. The Xbox 360 version looked ready to come West through publisher 7sixty, but it never emerged. But unexpected news came at Anime Expo, where PR firm Strangely Compelling mentioned that the expanded and rebalanced Phantom Breaker: Extra is under evaluation for a North American release. No promises yet.

However, Vita owners will get Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds before long. The pixel-styled brawler showed up on XBox Live a while ago, and it'll be portable later this year. I tried it on the Xbox, and I sorta liked it for a while! It's a bit on the repetitive side, but the Vita could use a decent button-mashing brawl these days. At the very least, it's better than the original cut of Phantom Breaker.

HAVE A FREE BOOK ABOUT FIGHTING GAMES
Fighting games are often a bit arcane, no matter how much the casual observer may dismiss them as crudely glorified slapfights. It can be hard to learn how to play them if you weren't raised on Street Fighter cross-ups and Fatal Fury desperation moves, so it's good that Patrick Miller put together a helpful primer about fighting games. You can get it for free at Shoryuken.

The guide is mostly about Street Fighter, but a good deal of its general-purpose advice can work for other fighting games. I hope we'll see more useful tomes like this, and perhaps one of them will bring back the long-dormant BloodStorm fighting community.

PREVIEW: SWORD ART ONLINE: HOLLOW FRAGMENT

A Sword Art Online game may be redundant. In some ways, the Sword Art Online anime and light novels are already games, or at least tales of online multiplayer RPGs where players are trapped within a virtual world. Sword Art Online caters to those who want weighty scope and an unrealistic plethora of easily romanced women players, all without the pesky level grinds and tedious exploration and bouts of online politicking. Fortunately for them, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment isn't an overreaching attempt at taking its source material new places. It's Sword Art Online through and through.

Hollow Fragment lands in the midst of Sword Art Online story arcs, well after the principal characters are massed in the virtual game-within-a-game. It includes the entirely of the first game, Infinity Moment, along with a new storyline and a new heroine for protagonist Kirito to discover. The new storyline concerns a vast undiscovered region called Hollow Area, and the new heroine is Philia, a flame-haired swordswoman bearing the orange cursor of an unlawful player. Philia is cold, self-interested, and possibly a murderer, but Kirito's bland good-naturedness starts to win her over within minutes.

The Hollow Area allows Kirito to warp back to the hub city of Arc Sophia and meet up with the regular cast of Sword Art Online, thus allowing him to explore both the massive tower from Infinity Moment and the sequel's territory. Hollow Fragment arranges its exploration much like the online Phantasy Stars, or perhaps .hack, Final Fantasy XII, Xenoblade Chronicles, and just about any other game that's compacted the large worlds and crowded battles of an online RPG into a more convenient single-player form. Quests unfold with new areas, and there's a considerable amount of ground to cover.

As Kirito and one chosen ally roam about fields, caverns, and towers, the player controls our hero while his partner joins in with attacks, spells, and frequent yelps of advice. Team-up maneuvers unfold if you follow their commands in time, and it's possible to swap places and let your partner distract the enemy while you run around in support. Kirito's unit also joins up with other parties for battles, whether they're roaming around the overworld or taking part in immense boss encounters.

It's all fairly easy to approach. Attacks are conveniently mapped to face buttons, as are all of the commands for directing Kirito's partner—even if it's just to give a little bit of post-fight praise. Kirito attacks constantly as long as his Burst meter is even partly full, though its recharging is slowed by Risk factors when Kirito strikes at enemies or gets struck in return. Well-timed dodges and blocking lessen the Risk, however, and it's not terribly hard to avoid overpowered foes. It is, however, amusingly strange to see players and starting-point monsters around level 90, a consequence of Hollow Fragment picking up well into the Sword Art Online saga.

Some spacious scenery and detailed character models move Sword Art Online along, but they also highlight a lack of invention in the attractions. This meta-game is supposedly quite popular in Sword Art Online's real world, so it's curious that the standard monsters and architecture aren't so different from just about every other vaguely anime-like online RPG hogging banner ads online. But it wasn't the promise of elaborate gameplay that established Sword Art Online. It was the story and its inherent wish fulfillment.

Hollow Fragment explores its own version of that story, of course. When not out questing, Kirito meets up with the established cast of the anime series: supportive beast-tamer Silica, outgoing blacksmith Lisbeth, goofball swordsman Klein, concerned sylph warrior Leafa, cait-sith archer Sinon, and Kirito's in-game wife Asuna and virtual daughter Yui all appear early on, and all of them (save Yui) can serve as combat companions. Hollow Fragment also includes the previous game's original character, a chipper swordswoman named Strea. She takes a liking to Kirito even quicker than the typical woman in Sword Art Online, and she is not the least bit shy about showing such affection in cliché fashion.

Yes, Sword Art Online indulges in the same dating-sim fantasies as its anime inspiration. Though Kirito is technically married and has a daughter, the player's free to guide him in partnerships with many other women. Beyond the emotional bonds strengthened in combat, Kirito can spend hub-city time with Sinon, Leafa, Strea, Lisbeth, Silica, Klein (comically, anyway), and Philia...and Asuna, who isn't happy upon discovering Kirito's dalliances. Relationships with other characters progress from hand-holding to “bridal carry” requests and, eventually, bedroom conversations in scant clothing. This is apparently even possible with Silicia, who looks like a grade-schooler, and Leafa, who's controlled by Kirito's own cousin/stepsister. Yuck.

Hollow Fragment has a lot inside it, from the sheer space of its inner worlds to the various simulacra of a social life, and yet it seems tailored largely for Sword Art Online fans. Those seeking solid pseudo-online RPG material will find some of that in Hollow Fragment, but they may be put off by the relative simplicity of the game's setting and the creepier undertones of Kirito's harem-in-waiting. Also of note is the game's limited multiplayer. Ad-hoc is available for up to four players, but there's no full online mode, despite rumors of an upgrade allowing it further down the road.

We'll see more of Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment when Bandai Namco Games releases it in North America this August. If you want the game now, however, you can import the Asian version. All of the text is in English when it runs on a U.S. Vita, and there's no regional lock-out. Yet there are typos and awkward phrases. In fact, there are lots of them, as you'll see in the screenshots above. Still, that could appeal to the rare player who wants to relive the confusion of a poorly translated RPG from the Super NES days.

This preview is based on a copy of the game provided by Play-Asia.com.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

There's nothing much in the way of full-fledged games, but you can get some new downloadable missions for Muramasa Rebirth on the Vita. The third bonus storyline, A Spirited Seven Nights' Haunting, features young ninja Arashimaru as the lead, and he's armed with kunai, explosives, and a kusarigama. That sounds like Irem's classic Ninja Spirit to me, but far too many things sound like old arcade games to me. Even a History Channel special reminds me of Time Gal.


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


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