The X Button
Score Attacks

by Todd Ciolek,
On tap this week: old games and how their trends died off. This reminds me that I don't discuss the days of Atari and arcades that often. I was too young to really remember them now, so they're just a dim Nintendo-less prehistory where I might've played a Galaga table with my dad (or perhaps he was the one playing). I assume the majority of my readers weren't even alive when Atari ruled the home and Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, and their many derivatives ruled arcades. What's more, most of today's classic reissues and remakes spawn from the Nintendo era onwards. For example, you'll see Nintendo reviving Donkey Kong Country, which was itself a revival of…well, you get the idea.

So this is a good time for me to talk up my favorite game of this alleged golden age of arcades: Pengo. It's a piece of the Pac-Man craze, obvious from the sight of a penguin roaming a maze of ice squares while mouthless but evidently vicious blobs called Sno-Bees prowl. Yet it offers more than imitation. Pengo can shove blocks to crush enemies, changing the playfield and, if you're good enough, linking three diamond blocks for extra advantages. It also has level intermissions with little dancing penguins!

Pengo turned up on home consoles and computers in its day, but it never became a huge smash. Sega revamps it every few years with a cell-phone miniaturization or something, and 2010 even brought along a widescreen multiplayer Pengo for the arcade, with an Xbox 360 port following a few years later (only in Japan, of course). Even so, Pengo wasn't another Pac-Man or Q*Bert. It didn't get lunchboxes or pop songs or even a cartoon that forced Hanna-Barbera to come up with storylines and a world for something as simple as living beanbags chasing a penguin through an ice-cube labyrinth. Pengo deserved that, at the very least.

NEWS

NORN9 JOINS STEADILY SWELLING VISUAL-NOVEL RANKS
Not long ago Aksys Games localized their first of several Hakuoki titles, a visual novel series ostensibly at female players, and many set to wondering what other "otome" offerings the company might release here. Norn9 seemed a good candidate, as its couched a harem of handsome men in a science fiction setting and thus struck a contrast to the mid-1800s stage of Hakuoki or the modern cast of Sweet Fuse. Well, Aksys agrees. They put Norn9: Var Commons on track for the Vita in North America.

Norn9: Var Commons begins, as these things often do, with a schoolkid warped to another world. Sorata Suzuhara strays during a field trip and lands in old Japan. Then he spares the player a mundane historical fantasy by hustling aboard a nearby high-tech hovership. His companions are three women and nine men (there's your title), and they're all working for a mysterious entity, organization, or possibly giant brain-in-a-jar called The World. And so the questions ensue and an odyssey starts.

"Hold on," one might say. "They call these things 'otome' games because they target female players, and they usually have some unassuming young heroine for the game to surround with pretty male companionship!" Well, Norn9 has three of those. If you'd prefer not to see the story from Sorata's perspective, you can play it as the outgoing pyrokinetic Koharu, the silent ninja Nanami Shiranui, or the more mature Mikoto Kuga, who can create force fields. Each of the heroines is joined closely by three of the ship's male passengers, who range from the downright nasty Kakeru Yuiga to the frustrated oracle Sakuya Nijo. This naturally creates a wealth of plotlines and relationships to explore through the game's dialogue and partly animated character art. It won't be long before we can do that in English, because it's due out on the Vita this fall. And it'll have a physical edition, with a case and everything!

GUILTY GEAR APPEARS ON STEAM, SUFFIXES INTACT
The Guilty Gear series, a madhouse hybrid of heavy metal and anime overdrive, goes through odd nomenclature. Here's an easy guide. Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus R is the ultimate version of the old 2-D Guilty Gear. It's the last expansion that Arc System Works made before putting together the new (and technically 3-D in looks) Guilty Gear Xrd. And it's out on Steam right now.

Why play this Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus R nonsense when Xrd is out? Well, this older Guilty Gear has the advantage of numerous gameplay refinements, making it the more balanced choice. More importantly, Guilty Gear XX has a bevy of characters who weren't included in the latest, prettiest Guilty Gear. If you want to play as brassy chef-fighter Kuradoberi Jam, one-eyed samurai Baiken, yo-yo artist Bridget, or suggestively ornamented mecha Justice (and you should, in all cases), you'll have to get Guilty Gear XX. And the Steam version comes with a bonus soundtrack. That's good, because I don't listen to any other video game's music one-tenth as much as I do Guilty Gear's. And I like this trend of major fighting games appearing on Steam. Before long, we'll be down to demanding Steam ports of Tuff E Nuff, Dual Blades, and Windy X Windam.

A FAR EAST OF EDEN GAME STAYED THAT WAY
The X Button is forever a friend to canceled games, even when we may be better off without them. And The X Button is forever a friend to Far East of Eden, also known as Tengai Makyou or The Biggest Japanese RPG Series That Never Came to America And No The Neo Geo Fighting Game Doesn't Count. These two worlds meet in the English version of Far East of Eden: Ziria, an Xbox 360 remake of the original PC Engine game. It hit Japan in 2006, and Gaijinworks, the studio founded by Working Designs bigshot Victor Ireland, had a localization in the pipeline. It never happened, but Ireland shared some screens on the Gaijinworks forums.

The English treatment of Far East of Eden: Ziria died largely unseen, and Ireland cites Microsoft's required print-runs and a consequent publisher backout as the reasons it never emerged. He also adds that the Xbox 360 remake is “a weak port” and therefore not a great loss, but he'd like to do Far East of Eden: The Apocalypse IV someday. That's the RPG set in a historically incorrect 19th century America where cowboys battle demons and giant apes battle huge robotic geisha. And yet it remains unlocalized.

BOKOSUKA WARS 2 IS NOT A JOKE OR AN EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS TEST
The name of Bokosuka Wars often emerges when those of experience discuss the most notorious old Nintendo games, here or in Japan. That's because Bokosuka Wars, unlike many other terrible games, is at least interesting in a way. It's a very early attempt at a strategy-RPG, and it sends an armored king pacing across fields, guiding troops, and fighting short, primitive battles over which the player has no direct control. It's complex for a game originally designed in 1983, but the average player's experience with Bokosuka Wars is this: march around tediously, bump into enemies, and see this before long.

Surprise and horror mingled this week when the new issue of Dengeki PlayStation revealed that Bokosuka Wars 2 will appear on the PlayStation 4. Pygmy Studio is the developer, and the game will explore nations beyond the original game's Suren Kingdom and Basamu Empire. The sequel will adopt the same underlying gameplay, though it'll offer semi-automated conquests as well as environmental effects. It sounds like a smartphone title or some RPG revival from 1994, but the news seems real. Pygmy Studio is an actual company with a small history of mobile games and the Vita port of La Mulana behind them, and another Bokosuka Wars seems oddly fitting.

THE NUMBERS GAME

Pac-Man had his 35th birthday last week. Namco, or rather Bandai Namco Entertainment, celebrated in many ways, including a special event at Level 257. It's a Chicago restaurant with a strong Pac-Man theme, and for this occasion it hosted Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani, Pac-Man high-score champion Billy Mitchell, and various other Pac-Man things. My friend was there, and he got Mitchell's autograph.

Naturally, Billy Mitchell signed both his name and his Pac-Man score, so no one will confuse it with the signature of, say, New Zealand rugby player Billy Mitchell or influential U.S. Army officer William “Billy” Mitchell. Known for his American-flag tie and his unflattering portrayal in the documentary King of Kong, Billy Mitchell is the most famous record-holder in video games. Of course, he's not the only one pursuing high scores. Twin Galaxies maintains listings for hundreds, perhaps thousands of games from Galaga to Progear no Arashi. You'll see just a few of the most prominent players in Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade and King of Kong, and both films are absorbing gazes into an era when high scores mattered more than anything else in a video game.

If someone cites a golden age of arcade games, it usually falls from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s. A billion-dollar industry emerged as arcades blossomed everywhere and attracted young adults by the truckload. New titles rolled out weekly, and a game lived and died by how well it got a passing player's attention. The standouts of the arcade often were easy to grasp and difficult to master, and they turned endearing characters like Pac-Man into cultural icons.

In nearly ever game from this era, the true measure of a player is the score. It's the transaction promised by an arcade game: pay your money, last as long as you can, and you might have a high score to show for it. You can rescue Pauline from Donkey Kong by the fourth level, but the game continues, and you can't stop there. Scale that mountain as high as it goes. Sometimes there's no ending. Sometimes, if you're good enough, the game crashes and gives up before you do.

Arcades had to slide eventually. The market began to sag by 1983, coinciding with an all-out crash of the home console market and the end of Atari's reign there. The games remained popular, of course. One or two neighborhood arcades might close, but you'd still see plenty of coin-op cabinets in malls, convenience stores, bowling alleys, and any other places where kids could demand quarters and parents could shake their heads. Evolution waited, however.

In 1985, Nintendo released their first North American game console in test markets, and by 1986 it was a success. The Nintendo Entertainment System, whose boxy design and bland name deliberately eschewed video-game labels, reignited the home console market and made Nintendo almost fearsomely popular with children. Nintendo games were saviors of tired afternoons, Nintendo Power was holy writ, and Mario was pontiff of this new video-game hierarchy. And within Nintendo's new empire, high scores mattered less.

The most popular creations of the NES era didn't care so much about scores. Points drifted like steam from every coin grabbed and each goomba trounced in Super Mario Bros. , and some players actually cared about that. Far more players cared about saving the princess, finding the warp zones, and breaking into that weird minus-one world where Mario swam forever in Sisyphean misery. Other Nintendo highlights didn't even keep score. The Legend of Zelda and Metroid offered quests without tracking points, and player didn't need to worry about the numbers that might emerge when they defeated Ganon or Mother Brain.

Some games abandoned their scores as they became series. The original Mega Man tallied the player's record and even offered bonus spheres upon defeating enemies, but the widely superior Mega Man 2 didn't bother. Other action games kept track without it mattering to the game. Players found that their scores in Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania, or Contra had no effect on the ending. Most strategies run in Nintendo Power dealt with threading mazes and surviving boss battles instead of boosting point totals, and even the magazine's scoreboards section usually had a third of its entries marked “Finished” in place of a point total. The more complex computer games already were branching out along the same lines, and the quests of Wizardry, The Bard's Tale, and any given text adventure gave players defined goals and clear endings. Without a need for siphoning quarters from passersby, games had to offer more elaborate attractions for more expensive home titles.

Arcade games followed suit in some ways. The breakout hit Double Dragon ended when the player rescued Billy Lee's girlfriend Marian, not when the game hit a kill screen or looped too long. Points couldn't have mattered less in the fighting-game craze that Street Fighter II kicked off in 1991. You'd see a tally somewhere on the screen, but no one paid attention. Fighting games brought a competitive new focus, and there was no acclaim in beating someone's score when the two of you could fight head-to-head at Mortal Kombat or Asura Buster (below) and decide who was better.

A video game's priorities had changed, perhaps for more hopeful themes. Scores reflected only an abstract achievement, a number attached to a player's presumed mastery of rules and repetitions. It might instill kids with some pride in the real world, but it didn't leave much sense of accomplishment in the game itself. Galaga saw no end to the space-bug invasion; it merely looped around. Entwining with the ethos of '80s opulence, all that mattered was how high the numbers went.

This exodus from arcades and their score-driven gameplay proved to be the first steps video games took toward the domain of movies, books, and anything else with narrative tones. Many games aped the ideals of cinema in the decades to come, whether it was the grainy, ill-aged, barely interactive gameplay of full-motion video titles or the precise polygon movie sets of Metal Gear Solid. Yet it was here, at the end of the arcade's richest era, that the major chunk of games looked for something more than points. The rise of Nintendo and home computers encouraged plotlines, no matter how simple or hackneyed, that left the player with closure. And every story, even a wordless tale of a yellow dot chomping through a warren of smaller dots, should know when it's time to end.

Something was lost in the change. Scores may be mere digits, but they allow players to stake claims like nothing else a video game holds. No matter how many characters you customize or how many branching plotlines you direct with your dialogue choices, there's no substitute for holding a high score. It's an individual mark, as opposed to the collective triumph of saving a world or sundering an overlord that thousands of other players have saved or sundered before.

For many years, high scores weren't important to the game industry. They were the province of experts who mastered older arcade titles, or the pursuits of shooter nuts who'd import pricey arcade boards of the latest Cave or Psikyo offerings and stubbornly play until they could complete the game's thirty-minute length on a single credit. Yet the rise of online gaming communities saw a resurgence. Xbox Live gamerscores, PlayStation Network Trophies, and assorted Steam rankings drive players to vaguer achievements, and netplay makes it easier than ever to compete against the world when it comes to older games.

Video games always have a place for scores. This weekend will see hopeful masses at a select few Best Buy stores across America, all of them competing for the highest point total in the Nintendo World Championships and the E3 trip it brings. It'll be a straightforward test of Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, and Dr. Mario, but it'll be very, very important to a lot of people. It's proof that a score matters as much as the world says it does.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

D4: DARK DREAMS DON'T DIE
Developer: Access Games
Publisher: Microsoft/Playism
Platform: PC (Steam)
Release Date: June 5
Insane Catgirl: Realistic
MSRP: $14.99

It's too bad that some of the Xbox One's most interesting titles are digital-only, and therefore more likely to fall into obscurity so thick that not even the used racks at GameStop will remember them. That seems the fate of Crimson Dragon, a would-be Panzer Dragoon successor that no one seemed to like. But that won't happen to D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die. Instead of sinking from sight on the Xbox One, it will…sink from sight in the vast and crowded jungles of Steam. Or perhaps it won't.

D4 is the work of Hidetaka “Swery65” Suehiro, who made a name for himself with the adventure Deadly Premonition and its endearingly bizarre take on horror games—and, indeed, video games in general. D4's protagonist is, like Deadly Preminition's hero, a troubled investigator. He's detective David Young, and he's struggling to solve the murder of his wife. She fell victim to the common malady of being a blonde woman in a Swery65 game. While David can't recall the details of her demise, he can leap around in time like a shaggy-haired Billy Pilgrim. His odyssey includes a bizarre prologue on cracking ice, a scuffle with a housemate who thinks she's a cat and tosses a rat from her mouth to his, and a plane ride that sees him taking down a criminal with a megaphone and a department-store mannequin.

Young goes about this not with the somewhat clumsy survival-horror interface of Deadly Premonition, but with the point-and-grab controls and button-mashy quick-time events of an adventure game. The Xbox One original used the Kinect, which Microsoft has yet to kill off entirely, but the new PC port opts for mouse controls. So you won't flail around quite as much when David strangles a thug with an airplane's oxygen-mask cable or mouth-tosses that rat back toward his crazy housemate. Most importantly, more people will play one of the Xbox One's most interesting first-round games.

LORD OF MAGNA: MAIDEN HEAVEN
Developer: Marvelous
Publisher: XSEED Games
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: June 2
Rune Factory: 4.5, I guess
MSRP: $39.99

Yes, Marvelous technically developed Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven internally, but I don't care. This is the closest we'll come to a new game from the recently disbanded Neverland Company, makers of the Lufia and Rune Factory series. Marvelous kept a bunch of Neverland staffers, including director Masahide Miyata and composer Tomoko Morita, so that they could make Lord of Magna.

Neither Marvelous nor Neverland's remnant is fooling around. From its opening animation to its slightly cloying subtitle (get it?), Lord of Magna guns directly for modern anime-girlfriend RPGs. The Rune Factory series took a gentle approach to surrounding the player with potential spouses, but Lord of Magna wanders into more suggestive ground. Its hero is an innkeeper named Luchs, and he stumbles into something grander than making beds and supplying continental breakfasts when he frees an amnesiac fairy from her crystal prison. He helps her recover her memories by questing through the countryside, and before long other women join him in their searches for lost RPG clichés. The party invites pink-clad swordswoman Charlotte, refined bowgunner Beatrix, immature box-wielder (as in Pandora) Gabriele, forthright spearfighter Diana, hand-to-hand brawler Francesca, ominous shield-lugger Adelheid, and the distractible inventor Elfriede and her customized machine gun. Call it pandering, but you can't say that Rune Factory ever gave players a belt-fed fantasy firearm.

When not getting to know each other better at the inn, the hero and the various elf-eared heroines head off into dungeons and fields. Represented in big-headed form, they dash into battle and unleash their unique attacks in semi-strategic form. Players position the characters and decide their moves, and the underlying goal is to knock foes into each other and unleash a cascade of damage. The innkeeper portion of the game doesn't go too far beyond keeping the fairy-warriors on as hired help (one assumes they're paid in leaves and blossoms), but conversations unfold about the women's slowly recovering memories and, I'm sure, how much they're coming to like the hero.

THIS STARRY MIDNIGHT WE MAKE
Developer: Cavyhouse
Publisher: Carpe Fulgur LLC
Platform: PC (Steam)
Release Date: June 1
Best Constellation: Taurus
MSRP: $10.00

This Starry Midnight We Make is a game about playing God. It's not a deity simulator in the same sense as Populous, Actraiser, or SimAnt. No, no, no. Yet it's really about influencing the destinies of friends and neighbors, and heaven knows that isn't just as compelling a fantasy as raising an entire civilization and smiting it with asteroids.

It's Japan in the 1910s, and Hamomoru Tachibana is changing careers. She came to Kyoto as a tourist and a woman of the cloth, but she's staying as something else. A meeting with student Chuuya Shingoh introduces her to the art of onmyodo and a device called the Star-seeing Basin. Within its confines, players can plant stars and create clusters, constellations, and perhaps a map of the future. It spawns a webwork of fortunes and directions, all with the potential to influence the people Hamomoru meets in her daily life.

Hamomoru's newfound and possibly tractable friends include a Chinese restaurateur, a troubled young student, a cheerful kid, and a guarded millionaire who wears what looks like a Steampunk monocle (no one ever said this was historically accurate 1910s Japan, after all). Their destinies entwine through visual-novel conversations as Hamomoru crafts her stars, and it turns This Starry Midnight We Make into something rarely seen. The bargain rack at Target isn't overflowing with games about astrological divination, after all.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
Double Fine's Massive Chalice arrives on Steam, months after those who backed the Kickstarter first experienced it. It's a strategy title laced with medieval fantasy, and it plays the long game: characters are born, train, fight, marry, and sire children that you can raise in similar fashion (including same-sex couples, who'll adopt). Massive Chalice doesn't coddle players, either, as characters are permanently gone when they fall in battle. It's a bit like Fire Emblem in concept and XCOM: Enemy Unknown in execution, and it's an intriguing addition to Double Fine's normally more upbeat catalog.


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


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