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Super-Connected

by Todd Ciolek,
Most agree that Rare isn't what it used to be. The developer rode merrily through the 1990s thanks to a partnership with Nintendo, one that saw them make hits like Donkey Kong Country, Banjo-Kazooie, and yes, even Killer Instinct. Yet Rare went over to Microsoft in 2002, and nothing done there had the same effect, be it the reasonably well-received Viva Pinata or that Grabbed by the Ghoulies thing remembered only by those people who also own Azurik: Rise of Perathia. Rare still trades on a modest reputation, of course, and the company's creative director, Simon Woodroffe, confirmed that Rare will announce a new game at E3.

Microsoft and Rare executives alike talked up this mystery game as something “uniquely Rare” and “more fun than anything we've ever done." That's enough to inspire speculation. Some predict a new Banjo-Kazooie game or a big Battletoads revamp, based on hints, renewed trademarks, and an amphibian cameo in Shovel Knight trailers. I, however, put my faith in seeing again the first Rare game I ever played: Snake Rattle 'n' Roll.

Snake Rattle 'n' Roll appeared on the NES in 1990, at the height of the Nintendo Empire. Super Mario Bros. 3, Ninja Gaiden II, Super C, Castlevania III, Crystalis, Final Fantasy, Mega Man 3, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game, and a dozen other notable titles gave the NES its best year on the market, even if they overshadowed many smaller games. Snake Rattle 'n' Roll felt simple amid these grander NES offerings, but it offered a capable two-player game about snakes gobbling up pellets in a checkerboard fantasyland. The control is a little odd and so are the abstract enemies; the giant foot, the prancing mushrooms, and the spherical shark make it resemble an early computer-rendered short film turned NES game. It has its confusing points and repetitive sights, but it's a fun oddity—especially for the Marble Madness fan.

Why would Microsoft and Rare bring back Snake Rattle 'n' Roll of all games? Perhaps they want a surprise. Perhaps they're chasing the basic appeal of Flappy Bird and other smartphone hits. Perhaps some abstruse legality commands them to make a sequel, since the original's ending promised Snakes in Space (and the Game Boy follow-up didn't count). Or perhaps they're just sick of Battletoads jokes.

NEWS

TERRA BATTLE SLIDES ONTO CONSOLES, POSSIBLY CHANGES
Mistwalker's Terra Battle is my favorite smartphone attraction, and I suspect it'll stay that way unless I dig up an old flip-phone with that Cartel Wars game I always wanted to try. Why do I like Terra Battle? It could just be the profusion of Kimihiko Fujisaka artwork, but I think the game builds a solid strategy-RPG with a simple grid interface that suits a touch screen just fine. Yet I still miss those ambitious, dangerously big-budget games that Mistwalker founder Hironobu Sakaguchi made in his attempts to recapture the glories of his Final Fantasy series. We might not see another Lost Odyssey or The Last Story (or even ASH: Archaic Sealed Heat) any time soon, but we'll see more Terra Battle.

Terra Battle's website includes a “Download Starter” that promises new features, and a console version sits there at the two-million mark. And since Terra Battle recently passed that many downloads, that's what we're getting. In theory, that is. Mistwalker hasn't started work on the new version, and Sakaguchi recently told Famitsu, half-jokingly, that they don't know what to do for the console version, as he never thought the smartphone game would get that popular. However, he wants to take the console game in “new directions” while keeping it faithful to the smartphone game's style. If that means more Fujisaka art, I approve.

For those who really want more of The Last Story, Terra Battle has an optional side-quest based on the Wii RPG. It picks up after the events of The Last Story, and it lets players recruit hero Zael and heroine (and frequent captive) Calista as high-level characters. The quest is available in the game's arena until May 31, and it's worth a look even if it no one gets to jump off a wall.

TRON BONNE SNEAKS INTO ESRB RECORDS
The three Mega Man Legends games remain absent from the PLAYSTATION Network in North America, and that's a shame on two counts. Not only are they enjoyable 3-D action games that turn Mega Man trappings into adventuresome anime tales, but they're also getting pretty expensive on the collector circuit. So it's a relief to see The Misadventures of Tron Bonne saunter toward the Entertainment Software Rating Board, asking for approval for PlayStation 3, PSP, and Vita editions—in other words, a PLAYSTATION Network reissue. Tron Bonne will cost you about $150 even on a lucky eBay run, and a PSN Classics release should be, at most, ten bucks.

So why did CAPCOM submit Tron Bonne to the PSN without the two Mega Man Legends games? CAPCOM's Christian Svensson mentioned in 2011 that Legends had “failed an [intellectual property] sweep and contract check.” For years, the rumor was that CAPCOM didn't want to renegotiate the rights to the English voice acting. Some even theorized that CAPCOM didn't want to use the original dub cast at all, since Teisel Bonne's voice actor served time for child-porn possession. It's odd that The Misadventures of Tron Bonne would past muster while the two mainline Legends games didn't, but perhaps it has something to do with the characters who don't appear in the game. It's largely about Legends ne'er-do-well Tron, her bumbling brothers, her legion of Servbot sidekicks (which the Despicable Me minions totally ripped off, I tells ya), and a pitiably insecure police officer named Denise (above). Mega Man and his partner Roll, stars of the two Legends games, don't show up in The Misadventures of Tron Bonne beyond a minor ending cameo.

PlayStation Classics can take a while to arrive, of course. Suikoden II spent over six months from its ESRB rubber-stamp to its PSN appearance, and it was rumored for much longer than that. It's also possible that some pesky contractual issue will nix Tron Bonne. Yet I would think twice before paying $450 for a sealed PlayStation copy.

Edit: And sometimes, PlayStation Classics show up overnight. The Misadventures of Tron Bonne is already up on the PLAYSTATION Network, and it costs only six bucks. Have at it!

KOJI IGARASHI OFFERS SWORD, WHIP, CRYPTIC COMMENTS
Castlevania fans wondered what might be next for longtime series producer Koji Igarashi after he left Konami last year. Most of them figured he'd do what Mega Man producer Keiji Inafune did: start a crowdfunding campaign for a spiritual sequel to the series that made him famous. And there were hints: a PAX flyer heralding a Kickstarter emerged last year, and more recently some posts by users named “Igavania” and “Quarterwomann” (a reference to the old Electronic Gaming Monthly rumor-monger) suggested a new project. Now we have a website that presents a brooding nobleman who looks like a cross between Igarashi and Castlevania's Dracula, and he presents a choice in weapons.

It all suggests a Castlevania revival in everything but legally bothersome name, right down to Iga-Drac's lines about “What do you do when you find yourself without a castle?” and the old “What is a man?” standby. The complete revelation of this new project appears to be set for May 11, and some rumor-bandying types even claim it'll be called Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night and star a woman who sports magical tattoos in the manner of Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia's Shanoa. As someone who ranks Ecclesia among his favorite Castlevanias, I want to believe that. But I'll advise skepticism. Right now, I'll buy only the rumor that Castlevania composer Michiru Yamane is part of the project. That's a safe bet.

INTERVIEW: CYBERCONNECT2'S HIROSHI MATSUYAMA

Hiroshi Matsuyama often doesn't dress like the president of CyberConnect2. He dresses like characters from the company's titles, from Rohan Kishibe of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure to the eponymous ninja hero of Naruto. His affections for the games run deeper than cosplay, too. From even a brief conversation with him, it's easy to tell that he enjoys what he does and isn't afraid to show it.

CyberConnect2's latest major title is Naruto Shippūden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4, but there's more to the company. Matsuyama and his colleagues created a spread of licensed games as well as cult-favorite originals like Silent Bomber and the Little Tail Bronx series of Tail Concerto, Solatorobo: Red the Hunter, and Little Tail Story. I previously spoke to Matsuyama about CyberConnect2's workings, and for Bandai Namco Entertainment's Global Gamers Day I teamed up with ANN contributor Heidi Kemps to ask about CyberConnect2's origins, their location, and their lesser-seen side projects.

Kemps: What is it that you feel is most important when making a game based on licensed properties?

Matsuyama: For licensed games, I feel like someone who really loves the IP—who loves the IP the most—should be making that game. I believe that I'm the second biggest Naruto fan out there, the first biggest being Kishimoto-sensei, of course. I'm confident in that! Since our team is made of the biggest Naruto fans, it comes naturally that we can make the best Naruto games. When we're doing a game like Naruto or Jojo, we don't work on anything else. We want to concentrate perfectly on that IP to make the best game possible.

It goes without saying that since I'm the second biggest Naruto fan out there, if I make a game that I'm satisfied with, then the worldwide contingent of Naruto fans will be satisfied, too!

Kemps: Since the Naruto manga has wrapped up, do you see this perhaps being the last CyberConnect2 Naruto game?

We're actually not terribly concerned about the future right now, since we're going full-steam-ahead on Storm 4. But even though the manga has ended, we've still got more material to work with, like the Naruto The Last movie and the feature with Naruto's son Boruto. Kishimoto-sensei's still doing some special Naruto episodes, as well. The "New Generation Naruto Project," as it's called, is helping to greatly expand the world of the series, and we want to support it, starting with making this game a masterpiece!

Ciolek: Hanabi Hyuga hasn't been playable in your Naruto fighters since the PlayStation 2's Ultimate Ninja 5. What's her play style like in this game?

Hanabi doesn't have a big role in the manga, but she's very prominent in the movie The Last. She moves so fast! So we're bringing that into the game, and she's able to dodge opponents' attacks and get very close to them.

Ciolek: How did CyberConnect2 come to be? Was it your first job in game development?
After I graduated from university, I got a job in construction, working at the Osaka Dome. But I was tired. One of the my friends from college called and asked me if I wanted to help established a new game company. The company was called CyberConnect, and I was an artist and coordinator there. We made Tail Concerto and Silent Bomber, and a few years later my friend, the president, left the company. So I became president and tried to renew that company name. That's why it became CyberConnect 2. And from there we went on to make the .hack series and more.

We founded CyberConnect in 1996 with ten people, most of them from Taito. Now it employs almost two hundred!

Kemps: CyberConnect2 is based in Fukuoka, which is a bit far away from the main game development hubs in Tokyo and Osaka. Why did you decide to set up a business there?

For a while we tried to find out why there are so many game developers in Tokyo and Osaka. And we found out there's no reason! We're a development company, so we need our developers to work in the best conditions possible. So after researching, we decided on Hakata in Fukuoka. It's very peaceful and appropriate for our work.

And of course, it's cheaper! Also, the transportation is different. Many of the people who work in Tokyo have to commute, and it can take two to three hours to get to the office and home again. But I live about five minutes from my office. So I can use that time more efficiently. And the same goes for our developers.

Ciolek: You're making at least three more games for the new generation of systems. Will all of these games be original? And if you make another Little Tail Bronx game, will it be for consoles or smartphones, since Little Tail Story was for the latter?

I can't say very much regarding the Little Tail Bronx series right now, but CyberConnect2 is shifting toward console games. That's not to say we won't do smartphone games. In fact, we're looking to hire about forty to fifty New People to work on original games. And we're not just hiring Japanese people. We're hiring foreigners as well. So if any of you are interested in working with us at Hakata, please let us know!

Ciolek: On top of developing games, CyberConnect2 also publishes the “Kemono Books” series, which feature various illustrations of animal-people. It's a lot like Tail Concerto and Solatorobo. Why do you like that theme?

It's just because we love kemono stuff! For example, I really like the Klonoa games!

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

ATTACK ON TITAN: HUMANITY IN CHAINS
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: Nintendo 3DS (eShop)
Release Date: May 12
Best Potatoes: Red
MSRP: $39.99

Not so fast there, Attack on Titan. You may be a rising star of pop-culture, with a hit manga, an anime series with a nice Adult Swim slot, a throng of inspired cosplayers, an upcoming live-action movie, and some quasi-fascist subtext for fans to debate. But there are protocols here. You can have a video game, but like most up-and-coming action manga, you'll get a 3DS title instead of a lavish PlayStation 4 outing. And in North America, you'll get a digital release only instead of a box set with a leering Titan figure and a soundtrack of thunderous German pop-overtures.

For those reading an anime website and somehow remaining unaware of Attack on Titan, it may seem a well-masked zombie series at first. In a distant future, most of the human race cowers inside cities supported by largely medieval technology and surrounded by immense walls. It's all because of Titans. Towering, naked, and unnervingly humanoid, these giants seemingly exist to hunt and devour humans, and a brief lull in Titan activity is soon shattered. The tragedy inspires orphans Eren and Mikasa to join the military and learn the most effective way of killing a Titan: zipping around on motorized grappling hooks and striking the back of the creature's neck. Impractical as that may be, it lets creator Hajime Isayama have precisely what he wanted, as steam-tech fantasy ninja clash with hideous predatory giants in glorious, bloody, breakneck-fast battles.

And that's what the 3DS game attempts, too. Humanity in Chains sends its heroes ripping around scenery with omni-directional mobility gear, which lets them skip across rooftops, fling themselves across the sky, or circle their titan targets. Players have to monitor their allies, blade stability, and fuel levels (those grappling lines run on gas) during combat, and battles unfold in cities, forests, and the countryside. The game's story mode features Eren, Mikasa, Arim, Levi, and the sympathetic glutton Sasha in a recreation of the anime/manga arcs, while a “world mode” lets players create their own characters and customize them with outfits, new equipment, and even firearms (which aren't as efficient as a knife to the upper trapezius). It's visually impressive for a 3DS game, though the Titans lack the presence of, say, the beasts from Shadow of the Colossus. But every manga megahit has to start somewhere in its video-game adaptations.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD makes its way to the PlayStation 4, and Square Enix even offers it in a limited edition with a Yoshitaka Amano desktop calendar. It sharpens up the PlayStation 2 titles, presumably more so on the PlayStation 4, and I do think they're worth revisiting. Both of them. In some ways I find Final Fantasy X-2 unnecessary, and I suspect it began the erosion of my Final Fantasy fan affections. Even so, I'll admit it's an excellent RPG in its battle system and many little options.


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