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Popular Mecha Nicks

by Todd Ciolek, Jul 23rd 2014

So what happened to The King of Fighters? Rumors and hiring ads suggest that the fourteenth proper installment of the series now percolates somewhere deep within SNK Playmore, but fans are left to dream and argue at present. I just hope they add some all-new characters! And they should step up Leona's ground-dash game so it's as good it as it was in the otherwise lousy The King of Fighters XII! And they should put in a fanboy team of Shingo, Jhun, and Alice Chrysler! And, as elaborated upon in my 57-chapter fan fiction (soon to be self-published), Iori should join up with Adelheid and Rose, while Diana and Foxy are playable and recruit Kula! Oh, and it needs an all-ghost team of Shermie, Mature, and Vice!

Fortunately, King of Fighters fans have more than idle delusions at their disposal. SNK Playmore released The Rhythm of Fighters last month for iOS and Android, and it's actually fun! Yes, it's a cheap smartphone game that uses old character sprites, backgrounds, and music. Yes, it's laden with optional bonus purchases to inflate the initial price of 99 cents. Yet it's a nice little tribute to several SNK legacies, and not just the fighting games.

The Rhythm of Fighters pairs up two combatants, and you must tap at a surrounding circle of beat buttons and sliders to keep your character going. The play mechanics are straight out of Cool Cool Toon, a brief foray that SNK made into rhythm games before the company's 2001 collapse, and the characters all hail from SNK titles like The King of Fighters and Samurai Shodown. Kyo, Athena, and Ryo are available initially, and there's lineup of other names to be unlocked and/or bought outright (including Iori, even though he's a musician and should headline this thing). The music also draws from SNK history, though it's mostly from fighters and Metal Slug titles at the moment. I'm sure they'll add Crystalis, Koudelka, and Ozma Wars before long.

Longtime followers will note that the new game also uses a conventionally proportioned Athena Asamiya instead of the squat moe munchkin she retrogressed into for The King of Fighters XII and XIII. She's still doing the school-outfit thing instead of her earlier pop-idol goddess couture, but I'd call her Rhythm look a slight improvement.

NEWS

FINAL FANTASY TYPE-0 FAN TRANSLATION QUASHED WHILE OTHERS SURVIVE
Fan translators walk a precarious line. They provide a grand service by localizing otherwise un-localized games, but they do so by messing with copyrighted material. So there's no telling when a company might notice this meddling and legally dismantle everything. That happened last week, when Square Enix ordered the architects of a Final Fantasy Type-0 fan translation to remove all of their blog posts and programs pertaining to the game.

It seems a case of bad timing. The fan translation patch emerged on the eve of E3, where Square Enix just happened to announce translated console versions of Final Fantasy Type-0 (but nothing for the Vita, strangely enough). One can't blame the fan translators for taking matters into their own hands; the Japanese version of Type-0 came out on the PSP back in 2011, after all. Yet it's still property of Square Enix, and Square Enix can do whatever they please with it.

The problem is, of course, that Square Enix wants to release Type-0 on these shores. It's rare for companies to stomp out a fan translation if there's no official English version in the works. For example, CAPCOM has yet to put any breed of kibosh on the recent fan localization of Miles Edgeworth: Ace Attorney - Investigations 2. I'm glad they haven't, because it's yet another charming side of the Phoenix Wright series, and the more people who play it, the better. The second game is an amusing chronicle of cases, and it's more cohesive overall than the first Investigations. It's also a great way to revisit Kay Faraday, Dick Gumshoe, and other characters who didn't get much attention (or any attention at all) in last year's Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies.

Another fan translation recently emerged for a much older and more obscure game: the Serial Experiments Lain title for the PlayStation. It's a graphic-adventure game with a lot of grainy animated cutscenes and voiced dialogue, and it sends the player through the complex, fragmented memories of an equally complex, fragmented heroine. Yet a dedicated team has translated it, and their efforts are available in a PDF. That's not the same as a patched, English-filled version of the game, but it's darned useful for anyone who wants to understand Serial Experiments Lain better. And nothing about that series is easily understood.

NEW FATAL FRAME COMING TO THE WII U
It made a marginal, unfair kind of sense that Fatal frame IV never came out in English. The Wii library was awash in games back in 2008, many of them cheap twaddle. It was a crowded market, and perhaps Tecmo KOEI and Nintendo were right to think that the fourth Fatal frame (known as Zero: Tsukihami no Kamen in Japan) wouldn't stand out in that climate. Similar unjust yet logical decisions kept Earth Seeker, Captain Rainbow, and other promising Wii games from leaving Japan. Will that happen again now that Tecmo KOEI and Nintendo are teaming up for a new Fatal frame on the Wii U? I doubt it. The Wii U has far fewer low-effort releases to clog the system, and there's a place for Fatal frame in Nintendo's lineup.

The new game is called Rei ~Nuregarasu no Miko~, which translates to “The Black-Haired Shrine Maiden.” Much of the game's terror involves water, downpours, and, I presume, catching one's death of cold. Its heroine is Yuri Kozukata, whose uncanny ability to resurrect the dead leads her to many places…including an ominous mountain village. Like other Fatal frame protagonists before her, she carries a camera that reveals disturbing sights in her surroundings, and that camera's controlled with the Wii U gamepad. It's due out September 27 in Japan, and I hope it'll see an English release with an appropriate subtitle, like Fatal frame: Slippery When Wet or Fatal frame: Dampened Spirits.

GURUMIN LOOKS AT STEAM, GOES FOR FREE
Some of you may remember Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure. Actually, all of you should remember Gurumin because it's a delightful action game for the PSP, but that's not how the world works. While Gurumin never became a staple of Falcom's catalog like Ys or The Legend of Heroes, it shows the company's knack for lighthearted fantasy titles akin to Popful Mail. It begins with a girl named Parin moving to a new town and befriending a pack of local monsters instead of children her own age. Equipped with a magical drill weapon, Parin sets out to protect her new chums and finds all sorts of territory to explore. It's appealing both in the broad, colorful platforming stages and the little details, including accessories that range from Santa hats to sunglasses.

Gurumin won a small cult following when it hit the PSP in 2007, but it first emerged on PCs in 2004. Publisher Mastiff apparently has the rights to the PC original as well as the PSP port, and they've put Gurumin up on Steam Greenlight. They even offer a free copy of the game to those who join the group and vote it up. And that's a hard deal to refuse.

What's different about the PC version? Well, it looks a bit better than the PSP port, and apparently Parin does a Sailor Moon-ish transformation when she heals. According to some fans, the game's “Happy” mode also lets the camera look up Parin's skirt. I hope that's a lie. Mastiff's Steam page mentions that their release won't be censored, but it'd be downright unnerving to find such things in a cute little game like Gurumin.

THE GUNDAM GAME

As long as there's a game industry, there'll be Gundam games. It's a staple of the Japanese market, after all. So far this year we've seen the disappointing Gundam Side Stories, the average Dynasty Warriors Gundam Reborn, and an update for the excellent Mobile Suit Gundam: Extreme Vs. series of arcade arena fighters. We don't see these games in North America and Europe too often, though. This year, we get Dynasty Warriors Gundam Reborn, and that's about it. Really, when you round up all of the localizations, the West receives only a small fraction of the entire Gundam video-game library.

Gundam's influence over games hardly ends with licensed fighters or Haro-themed Puyo Puyo, though. It looms large as that huge RX-78 statue in Odaiba, and it's not hard to find older games that imitate the space-war politics and giant-mecha battles of Mobile Suit Gundam. Throughout the 1980s and for most of the 1990s, Bandai couldn't quite figure out how to bring Gundam to America; an NES release of a Zeta Gundam game was canceled, and the Doozybots pitch video still inspires mockery and disbelief today. Yet if Gundam didn't make it here until the late 1990s, its influence was evident in games long before then.

Gundam's shadow extends over much from the NES days onward. Just about any shooter with fleets of warships, conflicted pilots, and detailed robot grunts owes some small Gundam debt, whether it's Veigues Tactical Gladiator, M.U.S.H.A. (above), or Arrow Flash. Renovation and Telenet's Genesis shooter Final Zone had plenty of Gundam-like mechs and Votoms machines on display, and its TurboGrafx-16 sequel introduced more mobile-suit lookalikes in its top-view jungle combat and unforgettable cutscenes.

Some Sega Genesis owners picked up a side-scrolling shooter called Target Earth. Known as Assault Suits Leynos in Japan, it follows a robot-centric war waged between the Earth and invading race of cyborgs (later revealed to be the remnants of a space expedition). It wasn't the most advanced game on the Genesis, but its tiny mechasuits and semi-realistic weapons all seem quite Gundam. The resemblance only grew as Masaya's Assault Suits series continued.

The series returned on the Super Nintendo with Cybernator, or Assault Suits Valken as it's known in Japan. Leaps beyond the basic look of Target Earth, Cybernator shows off exceptional style: casings fly from your machine's pistol, craters dot any metallic surfaces you shoot, and the backgrounds show everything from orbital dives to snowswept mountains. The Gundam tributes also grow. In the midst of a war between the Federation and the Axis, a pilot named Jake endures dangerous missions and picks up a rival in the form of Axis commander Beldark, who's nothing at all like Char or Gato or Paptimus Scirocco. Cybernator even borrows Mobile Suit Gundam's scene of Amuro and some doomed Zaku pilot falling through Earth's atmosphere—though this time, the hero rescues his poor low-level foe. The game's last stage finds Beldark at the controls of an enormous assault suit, in a showdown straight from any Gundam installment. Cybernator was censored a bit for America, removing an Axis dictator's suicide and all of the character portraits, and yet it was the most Gundam-ish thing Americans would see at Babbage's and TOYS R US back in 1993.

Cybernator also remains the high point of the Assault Suits series, though Masaya tried against with Assault Suits Leynos 2 on the Saturn and Assault Suits Valken 2 on the PlayStation. Neither came West, but North America got another excellent mecha tribute with the domestically developed Metal Warriors in 1995. LucasArts designers Mike Ebert and Dean Sharpe devised the game as a more serious follow-up to their hit Zombies Ate My Neighbors, and so Metal Warriors was a Cybernator-like tale of mecha warfare between the Earth and the Dark Axis. It shows as much influence from Battletech as it does Gundam, and Harrison Fong's mecha designs include typical bipedal machines as well as spider-bots and transforming ball-shaped gunners. The player can exit them at any time to commander new mecha or slip into small spaces, a technique that figures prominently into the game's excellent split-screen multiplayer mode.

Elsewhere, CAPCOM mixed together its own tributes to Gundam. The first was Armored Warriors, a 1994 brawler fashioned in the belt-scrolling vein of Final Fight and Streets of Rage. It sent up to three mecha into battle against the Raian Kingdom, and the robots correspond to the usual lineup of The Balanced One, The Fast One, The Slow One, and The Wild Card. Yet Armored Warriors rises above tradition. Players can swap out robot arms and legs with pieces from their downed opponents, and shooter mini-games break up the regular brawlsome stages. It's even possible to combine three robots into one, provided enough players are aboard.

Armored Warriors didn't stay around for too long, but its mecha returned in my favorite Gundam ripoff: a 1995 fighter called Cyberbots. A dozen different robot designs could be piloted by the game's characters, a lineup of military officers, smugglers, escaped experiments, and vengeful youths caught up in an orbital conspiracy between Earth Corps and its colonies. Artist Kinu Nishimura drew on JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Leiji Matsumoto's art, and even Apocalypse Fucking Zero for the pilot designs, but the mecha and their surroundings are purest Gundam and packed with details. Giant elevators ascend through the neighborhoods and freeways of a tubular colony, an orbital battleship rises from a forest runway, and a Guldin's claw or a Blodia's dash might shear off the side of a skyscraper. Like Armored Warriors, Cyberbots had an all-too-brief run in arcades, but it's not hard to find. A first-rate Saturn port and a respectable PlayStation version arrived in Japan, and the latter now sits on the domestic PLAYSTATION Network.

CAPCOM's third Gundam love-letter had to share some space. The 3-D fighter Tech Romancer is an all-encompassing missive to robot anime, from the goofier Mazinger looks of G-Kaiser and Diana 17 to the magical-girl monstrosity of Bolon. And Gundam's a part of that, as you'll see in the designs and story scenes for the Pulsion and the half-Macross Wise Duck. Tech Romancer rushed through arcades but found better footing on the Dreamcast, and I dare say that a modern reissue would be a good idea.

Gundam tributes were everywhere by the middle of the 1990s. Square, still years away from merging with Enix, marshaled realistic mecha in 1995's Front Mission. Cybernator producer Toshiro Tsuchida left Masaya in 1993 to found G-Craft, and his new studio's first work was a strategy-RPG thick with mecha warfare. Unfolding on a Pacific isle divided between two world powers, the original Front Mission soon gives way to jungle warfare and city-street combat, all waged with customizable robots called Wanderung Panzers (or Wanzers). It's easy to see Gundam tributes in the various components that make up Front Mission's machines. The series didn't come to American until it reached its third game on the PlayStation, and it was technically the fifth Front Mission (we'd get the original on the DS, though). The name managed to survive as recently as 2010, when Double Helix's Front Mission Evolved action game endured middling reviews.

Sega's testament to Gundam wasn't quite so obvious. The Virtual On games didn't rely on elaborate war backdrops or breast-beating cutscenes, instead dropping their robots into wide arenas without much fanfare. Yet the designs of the VR mechs came from Hajime Katoki, and he left plenty of callbacks to his Gundam creations. Further down the road, Gundam would make good on its loan. The Gundam Vs. series of head-to-head fighters took quite a bit from Virtual On.

American-made games borrow from Gundam far less frequently than do Japanese titles, but 1998 brought an unmistakable paean with Shogo: Mobile Armor Division for the PC. It turns mecha loose in a first-person shooter strewn with anime callbacks, and Gundam's just one of the series referenced. Yet it seems to be the most obvious one in the game's tale of military conspiracies and friends divided. Like Metal Warriors, Shogo offers both on-foot and mecha-piloting gameplay, and it's all presented in typical FPS fashion. It's also easy to come by—Good Old Games has it for about six bucks.

As the 1990s ended, Gundam staked its claim on America with VHS releases from Anime Village, Cartoon Network airings of Gundam Wing, and a plethora of toys and model kits. Not long after Gundam Battle Assault became the first Gundam game released herehere, another tribute emerged with Konami's Zone of the Enders. Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima branched out by producing an action game set amid orbital colonies, and his Zone of the Enders followed the old cliché of a kid stumbling into a hyper-powerful robot. The original game was short and forgettable aside from the Metal Gear Solid 2 demo disc enclosed with it, yet Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner improved on just about every piece of it. Zone of the Enders also showed a strange commonality with Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino's contemporary shows: the crotchpit. Tomino's bizarre, incoherent Brain Powerd sees humans pilot semi-sentient mecha by entering through their crotches, and 1999's Turn A Gundam features a lead robot with a similarly positioned cockpit. Zone of the Enders went even more extreme, as the robots housed their pilots in enormous mechanical phalluses. This wasn't an intentional reference, though. In interviews, designer Yoji Shinkawa linked his Zone of the Enders symbolism to his old student illustrations.

The above covers only a handful of the games inspired by Gundam's vast and influential force of war stories and robot toys. Westone's Blood Gear and Tonkin House's Cyber Knight drew heavily on Gundam, though neither came to the West. From Software's Armored Core certainly did, though, and it went from a single PlayStation game to a full-blown cult series. Then there's the delirious experiment of CAPCOM's Steel Battalion, which birthed one of the most amazingly elaborate game controllers ever in its homage to realistic robot combat. Take a good look, and you'll find Gundam in your video games all the time. Feel free to share your favorite discoveries and tell me why Cyberbots isn't the best!

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

There aren't many new games out next week, but there's at least one important re-release. The first chapter of the best-unabbreviated The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky should be out on PC through Steam and Good Old Games. The PSP version arrived back in 2011, and it's regarded as an excellent RPG by many. It's also a rather long game, even by its genre standards. But don't worry. If you start it up next week, you'll probably have it finished by the time XSEED and Carpe Fulgur bring out The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter later this year. Or possibly next year. It has about twice the word count of the first game, so give them time.

Wii Sports Club is a remake of the Wii game's inescapable pack-in. The Club version revamps the original's golf, boxing, tennis, and bowling portions for the Wii U, adding tighter control, new techniques, and a player-chat ability that involves drawing on the Wii U's controller screen. And then there's The Last of Us Remastered, a PlayStation 4 version of last year's critical darling. It now looks sharper, runs steadier, and includes its Left Behind DLC and developer commentary. For those wanting to upgrade from the original PlayStation 3 release, GameStop's pulling a half-off deal for folks who trade in the old game. If only they did the same thing for, say, Street Fighter.


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

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