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Vita Signs

by Todd Ciolek,
Nintendo recently announced a new partnership with mobile-game company DeNa, bringing us ever closer to a world where Nintendo titles show up on smartphones and tablets. It's a major development for this industry, so there's only one thing to do: talk about old Data East games.

Marvelous Entertainment recently picked up G-Mode, a mobile-game outfit that owned, among other things, a sizeable chunk of the Data East catalog. This gives Marvelous the chance to revive some long-dormant Data East titles in ways that G-Mode didn't. Some games are off the table, though. Robocop, Captain America and the Avengers, and all other licenses have long expired. A company called Paon reportedly acquired Karnov, Atomic Runner Chelnov, and the Neo-Geo classic Windjammers a while ago, so G-Mode never had them. Even if the vast Atomic Runner fan base will be heartbroken, I'm sure any fans could think of many other Data East classics they'd like to see again.

Well, I couldn't. I was at a loss to name any Data East titles I really wanted back. It's true that few of us had childhoods free of Data East. Perhaps we played Bad Dudes and Heavy Barrel on the NES. Perhaps we threw money into Karate Champ and BurgerTime at the arcade. Perhaps we read news stories about Capcom suing Data East because Fighter's History was too close to Street Fighter II. Perhaps we just watched that scene in Robocop 2 where Robocop slams a crooked officer into a Midnight Resistance cabinet. I remember all of those things, but nothing from Data East ever stuck with me. Not even Magical Drop, which seems to be their most enduring title.

Then I remembered a Data East game that deserves more attention: Boogie Wings. Known in Japan as The Great Ragtime Show, it's a side-scrolling shooter in which a biplane pilot takes on airships and tanks and a great many odd things. There's always something to see, with a Christmas-themed downtown with a giant evil Santa boss, a museum where you can blow up everything from Da Vinci's glider to a Stegosaurus skeleton, and a final boss battle that sees the villains drinking toasts atop their hovership. Your biplane has a revolving hook that can snare and toss just about anything, be it an ocean mine or a giant tank.

The best part of the game comes when your biplane's shot down. The pilot leaps out and races along the ground, running and shooting and commandeering other vehicles. He can drive tanks and rocket launcher platforms, jump into old-fashioned robots and springing gun platforms, take over scooters and pogo sticks, or ride giraffes and elephants. And he can toss around whatever he pleases. The game's credit roll even let you play with the game's entire lineup of items, vehicles and enemies. It's almost too complex for the quick pleasures of an arcade title, and it's unfortunate that no one ever ported Boogie Wings to a home console.

So Boogie Wings is my pick from the Data East catalog. G-mode supposedly had the rights to the game, and that would mean that Marvelous has them now. It's not a well-known title (a Data East Classics collection ignored it), but it's well worth digging out of whatever figurative dusty storerooms Marvelous inherited.

NEWS

NINTENDO ANNOUNCES MOBILE-GAME PARTNERSHIP, CACKLES EVILY
Nintendo first mentioned mobile games a while ago, and that didn't sit right with some folks. For them, Nintendo is a sacrosanct emblem of nostalgia. Full-fledged consoles and handhelds defined the company since the days of the NES and GameBoy, and the temptations of mobile games, capricious and exploitive as they are, ought not to sway the keepers of Mario and Zelda and other bastions of youthful escapism. That was the argument, anyway.

Well, Nintendo isn't moved by such entreaties. They have a new partner in DeNa, a prominent mobile game company, and Nintendo hopes the union will create new smartphone and tablet titles based on classic series. This would be minor news if it involved any company but Nintendo; Capcom and Square Enix and Sony and Microsoft already license their games for mobile adaptations, but Nintendo endured as a special exception for a long time. In the corporate lovemaking session that is treasury share exchange, Nintendo acquires 10 percent of DeNa's stock while DeNa gets 1.24 percent of Nintendo's. That's a fairly good deal.

Nintendo is also quick to reassure fans that their Wii Us and 3DSes aren't going anywhere. Any new Nintendo-based mobile games will be original titles instead of ports, and Nintendo President and CEO Satoru Iwata confirmed that the company is working on a “dedicated game platform” code-named NX. He declined to say if it's a handheld or a console, and he alluded to Nintendo not mentioning much more about it until next year.

Some may be upset about Nintendo cracking and putting out mobile games, but I encourage them to look on the bright side. There's nothing inherently wrong with mobile titles, apart from the ease with which they can disappear. What's more, Nintendo might take the opportunity to revive some games that are too obscure for the 3DS or Wii U but worthwhile in the lower-budget realm of mobile titles. Perhaps we'll finally see Balloon Fight II, StarTropics III: Across the Galaxy (that's what my spec script is called, anyway), or another Sin & Punishment. Speaking of which…

IRON COMBAT SLIPS OUT ONTO THE 3DS
Here's one for the Surprise Localization Files: a 3DS shooter called Iron Combat: War in the Air. Well, it was called Phosphorescent Lanze when it came out in Japan over a year ago, but we in the West need more concrete and manful titles for our 3-D flight-action games starring jet-robot girls. I jest, I jest. No matter what it's called, Iron Combat looks like a nice addition to the 3DS eshop.

Iron Combat drops two mechanized heroines, both looking like Senko no Ronde fighters, into 3-D flight combat that allows them to move freely, launch attacks, and change from humanoid to jet-fighter form. It recalls Ace Combat as well as Sin and Punishment or Liberation Maiden with more gauges and targeting reticles, and there aren't very many games inviting those comparisons. It's also selling for $6.99 this Thursday. Even though no game with transforming fighter-heroines ever shall eclipse The Guardian Legend in my heart, I'm glad to see Iron Combat come to these shores.

KAIO: KING OF PIRATES LIVED AND DIED
The signs were there, I'm afraid. Keiji Inafune's Kaio: King of Pirates emerged in 2011 with a cute enough idea behind it: a Romance of the Three Kingdoms retelling with liberal plot overhauls and a cast of animal characters. Early shots of the 3DS title showed a penguin pirate hero and his supporting crew, and it all resembled a modern CG version of old Toei animated films like Alakazam the Great. Yet the gameplay remained a mystery on the whole, and publisher Marvelous seemed to promote it more as a multimedia venture. They promised manga and anime versions of Kaio, all while the game saw one delay after another.

Now Kaio: King of Pirates meets with the longest delay of all. The game is canceled, and Marvelous lost about $3.8 million in the process. That number may include money sunk into the game's manga and anime spin-offs, which Marvelous cited as factors in the game's axing (plus the ever-blamed specter of “market changes”). That's unfortunate. Kaio didn't seek that much new ground in concept, but I never saw enough of the game mechanics to form a solid opinion. And that's often the most vexing thing about a canceled game: you'll never know for sure.

This puts more attention on Mighty No. 9, Inafune's attempt at re-launching the Mega Man games he shepherded in his years at Capcom. The beta came out last year and left fans arguing; it looks and feels a lot like a hybrid of original Mega Man and Mega Man X, but some argued that it didn't break away from that familiar turf. Is a mere re-upholstered Mega Man enough for those who miss the series terribly? We'll find out soon. After seeking another round of funding atop the Kickstarter's $3.8 million, Inafune and Comcept seem ready to launch the game in April.

STATUS CHECK: THE VITA

If you have a PlayStation Vita, you've heard the jokes. You've encountered the casual remarks about the handheld's dim future and limited support. You've seen the release schedules that offer paltry selections for Sony's little system. You probably haven't been happy about that. Don't worry. It's inevitable in our jaundiced view of the game industry, where every release is either an instant classic or leprosy on a disc, where game systems are either lords of the market or abysmal wreckage. It's all in how you look at things.

What's really wrong with the Vita? Technically speaking, it's an excellent handheld. It's powerful and has a nice touchscreen, a rear touch-pad, and two cameras. It fixes several problems inherent to Sony's PSP by adding better battery life, two analog sticks, and a square button that doesn't wear out easily. It even makes it easy to capture screenshots. Sony's only real misstep so far is the Vita's memory card, which uses a proprietary format costing twice what you'd pay for a regular SD card. Surely that can't be why the Vita struggles.

Much of the Vita's problem comes from Sony's frequent attempts to adapt. The market is rapidly drifting toward tablets and smartphones at the expense of handheld systems, and the Vita is poorly defended there. Nintendo's 3DS can survive on the company's first-party lineup and a good share of external titles, but the Vita knows no such security. Support for the system among Western developers is low, and Sony seems distracted by other ventures. The basic Vita was even elbowed aside by PlayStation TV, a little nodule that plugs into your set and runs a lot of Vita titles.

The Vita also falls into the gulf of homogenous releases. A glance over the system's release schedule finds many multiplatform games for which the Vita version remains low in priority. Sony's most recent bundle for the Vita included Borderlands 2—a high-profile game, yes, but one that was available on consoles and Steam almost two years before it came to the Vita. Last year, only Freedom Wars stood out as a major release for the system. A great, attention-grabbing Vita exclusive is a rare sight.

For all of the unpleasant fumes it exudes, the Vita has plenty to offer. It succeeded the PSP in Japan's game industry, and several companies favor it with cult successes. Last year's biggest Vita hit may be Danganronpa, a stylish murder-mystery series that mixes Saw-style mastermind deathmatches with wordplay mini-games and some admittedly daring twists. The first Danganronpa began as a PSP title and appeared on iOS devices in Japan, but only the Vita edition came out in English. The sequel rapidly followed it to these shores, and NIS America plans to release a spin-off entitled Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls (above) later this year.

Indeed, most Vita exclusives come from Japanese developers. Among them, the system's most devoted customer is the Neptunia series. Envisioning game consoles as cutesy anime techno-heroines, the line includes a strategy-RPG, a pop-idol sim, a full-blown action game, and remakes of the earlier RPGs…all for the Vita. Neptunia's protagonist is based on an unreleased Sega system, so perhaps the games have some inbuilt sympathy for underdogs.

The Persona games, with slightly more mainstream appeal, don't neglect the Vita either. Persona 4 Golden remains the definitive version of one of the best titles in the series, and the upcoming Persona 4: Dancing All Night (above) crafts a rhythm-game exclusive. Sony itself provided a lesser-known RPG this month with Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines, in which players guide a cursed clan through rapid reproduction and various quests. Other anime-flavored RPGs stick to the Vita, including the Persona-esque Mind Zero, the inevitable ports of Gust's Atelier games, Namco's Tales of Hearts R, Falcom's visually impressive Ys IV: Memories of Celceta, and dungeon hacks like Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy and Demon Gaze. Hardly every one of them is a masterwork, but the Vita rarely wants for RPGs from Japan.

Sony's handheld also excels in hosting another genre popular in Japan. Capcom's Monster Hunter helped out the PSP with a series of multiplayer action games centered around giant boss creatures. Capcom took years to bring a Monster Hunter to the Vita (and still hasn't released it outside of Japan), but other companies leaped into the void. Game Arts, Marvelous, and XSEED released Ragnarok Odyssey and its Ace expansion, Sony localized both versions of Soul Sacrifice and the above-mentioned Freedom Wars), and Tecmo Koei is set to follow suit with Toukiden and Toukiden Kiwami (above). The only major absence among Monster Hunter challengers is Namco Bandai's God Eater 2: Burst Rage, but even that appears in North American and European trademarks.

Another strong side of the Vita emerges in smaller games. The system lacks big-budget highlights, but it hosts all sorts of less exposed attractions. Next week's Damascus Gear presents a solid mecha action game, and the recent htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary is an imaginative (if sometimes tedious) take on side-scrolling puzzle games. That's to say nothing of the Vita games that are available elsewhere but simply feel better on a high-quality handheld. Sound Shapes seems more personal with a touch-screen and a close-up view, and familiar titles like Spelunky, Dragon's Crown, and the Pixeljunk series fit capably into the Vita. Handhelds have always offered a comfortable, toylike intimacy to the player, and the Vita is the nicest-looking handheld around.

What's the best Vita game? I'll say it's Gravity Rush, and then I'll refuse to admit that my choice is entirely personal. Gravity Rush remains one of the few well-budgeted Vita exclusives that introduces a novel play mechanic and does it justice. Its heroine builds up creative gravity-bending powers, its world of floating cities is open but never carelessly spread, and it's remarkably fun to play despite snags in the player's viewpoint. Yet it brings us back to the Vita's big problem. Gravity Rush came out in 2012, not long after the Vita's launch. A sequel awaits somewhere, but it's one of the few Vita spectaculars in the future.

As for the companies curiously lax in Vita support, Square Enix is notable. They offered one of the handheld's earliest exclusives with Army Corps of Hell, but later releases were ports of previous titles or multi-platform affairs like Chaos Rings III and Final Fantasy Agito. It's a curious change from Square Enix's PSP output, which embraced exclusives like Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, The 3rd Birthday, and Final Fantasy Type-0. The last of these inspired a dramatic snub in the West; Square localized Type-0 ports for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, but skipped the Vita. In some ways, however, this isn't Square's problem alone. As the Vita shows, many publishers are ignoring the middle ground between mobile games and blockbuster console releases.

The Vita seems lacking in its mainstream appeal, yet it's fallen into just the right niche for fans of certain games. If nothing else, Vita owners shouldn't let anyone call their handheld a failure. The Virtual Boy? The Game.com? The Gizmondo? Those were failures: rushed, short-lived, and granted meager libraries. The Vita has lasted three years and gathered at least a dozen good titles. If that's a flop, it's an enjoyable one.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

BLOODBORNE
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 4
Release Date: March 24
Best Pathogenic Title Since: Rex Ronan
MSRP: $59.99

Players may love a game that makes them feel happy, but they'll respect one that makes them feel terrible. That's half the appeal of Dark Souls, Demon's Souls, and other From Software RPGs. They unfold in gray, vicious realms where monsters and curses lurk in the shadows and a quick demise is never hard to come by. That's a fair description for Yharnam, the huge, city-shaped mass of filth that provides the stage for Bloodborne, From's new creation.

The player's avatar is a stranger to this hideous gothic maze of quasi-Victorian ruin, but it's easy to get the lay of the place. Yharman holds a possibly mythic cure-all at its heart, but the city around it is dominated by a plague that turns its citizens monstrous and murderous. The few reasonable inhabitants there encourage theit new visitor to go out and slay the creatures, which range from angry, warped passersby and demonic hounds to towering, skeletal horrors that scream like dying hogs. Befitting the game's slightly more advanced setting, the player's arsenal improves. The typical Bloodborne street-hunter carries firearms and bladed weapons, and it's not uncommon to see them slashing at enemies with a transforming cleaver-claw before spraying them with a blunderbuss.

And that's the other half of the appeal one finds in the Dark Souls family. They're studied, intense creations with plenty to discover. Yharman's more ornate scenery looks to hide just as many secrets as the haunted citadels and streets of Dark Souls, and those depths need not be plumbed alone. Players can cooperate to clear levels, invade each other's games, and see the lingering messages and ghosts left by other players. I'm sure some prankster will put the Goulston Street graffito on a rotting Yharman wall, but I hope that most players will be more helpful in their communications.

DAMASCUS GEAR: OPERATION TOKYO
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Arc System Works
Platform: PS Vita
Release Date: March 24
Robot Rebellion: Always coming
MSRP: $14.99

The word “gear” has a long and distinguished history among the fictional robots of video games. We have the excavated mecha of Xenogears, the varied artificial lifeforms of Guilty Gear, the war machines of Heavy Gear, and the nuclear-capable tanks of Metal Gear. So when Damascus Gear introduces a world dominated by giant war-bots called Gears, it's merely following a tradition. Besides, “Gear” has a nicely complicated air to it, one you don't get by calling robots “Walker Machines” or “Metal Vehicles.”

Gears are both the problem and solution in Damascus Gear: Operation Tokyo. The advanced bipedal robots rebel against humanity, kill off four-fifths of the world's population, and style themselves as RAGE (that being an anagram of GEAR). The player controls an uncorrupted Gear and jets through well-ruined city streets, taking on the machines that hope to eradicate mankind's last traces. The action is viewed from a diagonal tilt, sorta like a PC hack-and-slasher with heavily accessorized battle mecha. Or the original Front Mission, for that matter.

Damascus Gear also tends to the most important aspect of a robot: interchangeable parts. The player's various gears, resembling the Front Mission Wanzers an awful lot, can swap out their limbs and weapons for new varieties. The armaments include missile launchers, swords, miniguns, rifles, shotguns, pilebunkers, lasers, chainsaws, and other weap…wait, chainsaws? That's enough to make Damascus Gear a promising find for devoted mecha-game fans, though it risks being overlooked in this terribly crowded month. At least it's easy to find an obscure title in this digital era. Back in 1995, I called at least two dozen stores in my search for a copy of Metal Warriors.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
You know that Vita thing I just talked about? Well, it gets a retail edition of Child of Light next week. It's a little late, but the Vita seems a pretty good fit for the game. It's a storybook-styled RPG side-scroller that follows a princess warrior on a quest to restore luminescence to the fantasy realm of Lemuria. Though I doubt Ubisoft rewrote the dialogue to allow more lyrical verses just for this release, Child of Light shouldn't be overlooked in any form.


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


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