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Net Started

by Todd Ciolek,
We had fun last week. Koei Tecmo's Facebook page alluded to Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 not coming to North America or Europe due to potential issues over the game's ribald depictions of women, and arguments exploded. Koei Tecmo remained largely silent on the issue, but this week saw the clarification many of us expected.

Koei Tecmo's official Twitter feed states that the Facebook remarks about “issues happening with regard to how to treat female in video game industry” were the opinions of an individual who doesn't reflect the overall sentiments and decisions of Koei Tecmo. Of course, Xtreme 3 still isn't coming to North America. Is it due to potential outcries over the game's bikini slips and jiggling expanses? Or is it just a spreadsheet decision based on previous Xtreme games—including the PSP spin-off Dead or Alive Paradise?

Either way, fans will have to import Xtreme 3, and everyone can move on in one way or another. I plan to move on by playing Winkysoft games. Here's why.

NEWS

WINKYSOFT'S BANKTRUPCY FINAL, DENJIN MAKAI III NEVER HAPPENING
It's a challenge to assemble a proper eulogy for Winkysoft because…well, they're called Winkysoft. It's like that Mary Tyler Moore episode with the funeral of Chuckles the Clown. But there's more to Winkysoft than an amusing name. Their catalog stretched wide, and it's a shame that things came to an end without much notice. After years of not doing much beyond anime tie-ins, Winkysoft filed for bankruptcy on November 11.

Winkysoft started in 1983, at first dealing in the same sort of computer games that every Japanese developer tried at the time: RPGs like Arks Road and Lost Power, casual sports titles, and the unpretentiously named board-game American Success. There were few standouts among them, and the same went for those Winkysoft titles that came to North America. NES owners might've played Formula One: Built to Win or the grueling Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the latter of which ends with Tom fighting a dinosaur-riding Injun Joe. Both games were published here by Seta, and no one admired their craftsmanship. Seta's most notable NES outing is the unreleased oddity Bio Force Ape, yet there's no evidence that Winkysoft contributed to it.

International success never found Winkysoft, but the developer didn't need it. In 1991, Winkysoft and Banpresto devised a Game Boy game called Super Robot Wars, a strategy-RPG that paired up robots from Gundam, Mazinger, and Getter Robo. It was a simple arrangement: battles dragged on, confrontations were primitive, and there was little to no dialogue shared by these squat war machines. Yet the crossover captured fans all about, and Banpresto expanded the Super Robot Wars series into a huge buffet of mecha-anime matchups. Reaching just about every major system in the decades to come, Super Robot Wars became the best place to see Gundams duel with EVA units, Aestivalis pilots quibble with the Layzner crew, and every skirmish expand into fully animated side-view glory. So large was Super Robot Wars that its original characters and mecha, dolled out at the rate of a few per game, ended up in their own Original Generation series. Much to the chagrin of fans, those OG outings are only the Super Robot Wars games available in North America.

While Winkysoft effectively created the Super Robot Wars series, they weren't its only benefactor. They were its guide up through the PlayStation era, but others developers took up the series as the 1990s ended and those mecha pileups proliferated. Whether due to internal disputes or sheer convenience, Banpresto turned elsewhere for the main trunk of Super Robot Wars once the games turned to the PlayStation 2 and Game Boy Advance. Winkysoft wasn't needed.

Banpresto still kept Winkysoft's on call for the Masou Kishin spin-offs, which saw releases and remakes up until last year's Super Robot Wars OG Saga: Masou Kishin F Coffin of the End. Shunned from Super Robot Wars, Winky even tried an all-new mecha strategy-RPG series with Seireiki Rayblade on the PlayStation and Dreamcast. Developed and published by Winkysoft themselves, Rayblade didn't catch on, and a PlayStation 2 sequel died in development.

Winkysoft occasionally branched out, but licensed games dominated their catalog. Prince of Tennis titles, a Transformers game, and even a Yu-Gi-Oh! offering didn't take off the same way a certain Gundam-Mazinger-Getter meetup had done many years ago. Neither did Villgust, a Super Famicom RPG that inspired a short anime OVA series. There were few games that Winkysoft could call their own.

Those seeking Winkysoft's best work will edge toward something from Super Robot Wars, but I'd also suggest Macross Scrambled Valkyrie. A side-view shooter for the Super Famicom, it captures the appeal of a transforming jetfighter and pop-star space battles surprisingly well for its era.

If you want the best glimpse of Winkysoft's potentional, though, look for little series called Denjin Makai. Arcade brawlers were fading when Denjin Makai came around in the 1990s. Winkysoft apparently knew this, and they took on the genre by packing it with every possible stereotype and indulgent vision. The original Denjin Makai sports six playable characters with many varied moves, and there's a lot to see as they trudge through a futuristic fantasyland.

All of this is a prelude to the even more accomplished Denjin Makai II—or Guardians, as it's known internationally. The character roster expands to eight, covering everything from brutish wrestlers and robots to a winged woman who's actually the evolved form of the first game's resident monster. The stages mix futuristic vistas and shopping malls with gooey alien lairs, and it's all dotted with great details, from the background citizens to the two thugs caught making outside a store display. The first stage ends with the player cruelly toppling some goons' card castle and battling a twisty musclebound mutant while henchman transmit the whole fight to a background TV. Guardians ranks alongside Alien vs. Predator and Battle Circuit as one of the best arcade brawlers never ported to a home system. It's all the more frustrating to play it now and wonder what else Winkysoft might've done if licensed games hadn't eaten up so much of their time.

Winkysoft didn't have another Guardians, but some of their more recent games merit a look. Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars is a decent strategy-RPG, and Dr. Lautrec and the Forgotten Knights, while tedious in gameplay, strikes an amusingly sarcastic counterpart to the gentler heroes of Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton. Winkysoft had promise, if not consistent quality.

So Winkysoft joins the lamentably growing list of small game studios forced under by the industry's ebbs and the occasional bad decision. They never grew a cult following, but there's solid craft behind their games and real invention in Guardians. And it's enough to miss them for that.

DARIUS BURST CHRONICLE SAVIORS GOES FISHING AGAIN
No games hate fish like the Darius series. Its earliest installments were known for their double-wide screens, their catchy Zuntata soundtracks, and their frequent robo-fish enemies. It wasn't just fish, either! All forms of aquatic life, from crabs to seahorses, could be mechanized and subsequently destroyed by the Darius series, and the on-board computer in Darius II even begged for tuna sashimi in the first stage. It sounded funny, but in light of the gameplay it's practically a call to genocide.

That persistent ichthyophobia kept Darius an enduring series of shooters, and its traditions now continue in Darius Burst Chronicle Saviours (yes, everyone's spelling it all Britishy), available this week for the PlayStation 4, PS Vita, and PC.

Darius Burst Chronicle Saviours crafts a fairly intense horizontal 2-D shooter. The player's ship speeds through waves of metal foes and gathers power-ups in traditional manner, but the playfield stretches wider than the typical shooter, the ship can switch direction, and the levels branch out to offer different routes through the game. Darius Burst originally appeared as a PSP title in 2009, but it's been extensively remixed here. The game offers nine different ships, and there's a more story-intensive Chronicle Saviours mode alongside the Arcade Mode and its various forms.

Two things bother me, though. I never got into Darius shooters all that much, though I'm not sure if I can blame their quality as much as their habit of letting more interesting shooters eclipse them. I didn't spare much thought for Darius Twin on the Super NES when Axelay and Gaiares and Trouble Shooter beckoned elsewhere, and when some claimed G-Darius was the best shooter on the PlayStation, I was content with Einhander and Thunder Force V.

The other problem: Darius Burst Chronicle Saviours has a full retail price even though it's digital-only. The game is $60 on the PlayStation 4, $50 on the PC, and $40 on the Vita. Will Darius Burst Chronicle Saviours stand out now, when Steam is swarming with cheap shooters old and new?

IMPORT ROUNDUP: NOVEMBER

BLADE ARCUS FROM SHINING EX
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Platform: PlayStation 4 / PlayStation 3

Some will argue that we're not really caught in a resurgence of the 2-D fighting game, but I'll say this much: even in the crazed mid-1990s, when everyone from Namco to Saurus latched onto the genre, Sega never made a fighter based on the Shining series of RPGs. Of course, the Shining games of that era were strategic fantasy sagas with power struggles and colorful fairy-tale aesthetics. Today's Shining creations are usually crammed with artist Tony Taka's curvaceous heroines, and that fits into a typical fighting game better than canine priestesses and unbearable arctic blasts.

Blade Arcus From Shining EX rallies together characters from two recent Shining games and throws in two new entrants: the clawed, shadowy Ryuga and the electric Bai-Long. From Shining Hearts, the game borrows Rick, Xiao-Mei, Dylan, Roruna, Isaac, Misty, and Melty. From Shining Blade, we get Yukihime, Rage, Altina, Sakuya, Roselinde, and Fenrir. And if you buy the game soon enough, you'll get Sonia from Shining Resonance. The gameplay is largely unchanged from the arcade version of Blade Arcus: the moves keep it relatively simple compared to BlazBlue or The King of Fighters, with three attack buttons and a fourth that allows tag-team swaps. Blade Arcus also shuns sprite-based graphics in favor of 3-D models in two-dimensional play, and it's certainly not as sharp as Guilty Gear Xrd. And for one final nick, there's no online play at the moment. For a fighting game, that's a trip down a long, empty elevator shaft into obscurity. Say hello to Chaos Code when you get to the bottom, Blade Arcus.

It's also a little disappointing that a Shining series fighter swipes only from two or three games. This is a line that stretches back to Shining in the Darkness on the Sega Genesis, and while it's not known for exceptionally strong characterizations, it's stocked with the sort of fanciful creatures rarely adapted for fighting games. Blade Arcus has no turtle warriors, no dragon-men, no bird-people, and no valiant centaurs. Outside of Mortal Kombat, there aren't many centaurs in fighting games.

Import Barrier: Between the region-free release and the universal language of fighting-game brutality, there's not much impediment to Blade Arcus.

Domestic Release: Sega hasn't released Shining Hearts, Shining Blade, or Shining Resonance here, so the odds don't favor a fighting game based on all three. Still, Sega localized Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax, so pleas for a North American version (with online play) might not be wasted.

What We Need: A 2-D fighter starring Mr. Bones, Astal, Chakan, Bug!, the Last Bronx cast, and other Sega superstars!

GRAND KINGDOM
Developer: MonoChro
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
Platform: PlayStation 4 / PS Vita

One glance at Grand Kingdom will suggest a Vanillaware game. It has the detailed backgrounds and polished characters that recall Vanillaware's Odin Sphere or Dragon's Crown, and the game's vision of warring nations and medieval-fantasy battles seems straight out of Grand Knights History,a Vanillaware gig that never came to North America. Yet Grand Kingdom is the work of MonoChro, a studio founded by Tomohiko Deguchi…who just so happens to be the director of Grand Knights History. So there's your connection.

Grand Kingdompicks up where other games are content to end: a proud empire fell a century ago, and now four kingdoms (well, two kingdoms and two queedoms) are grabbing the imperial pieces. The player commands a group of mercenaries at the heart of the struggle, and the ranks expand with various character types: gunners, shamans, lancers, archers, monsters, warriors, mages, and the explosives experts called “challengers.” Battles take place in a side-view diorama where characters arrange themselves along three planes, hopping between them to attack and defend. It's not as hectic as Guardian Heroes, but it makes for an interesting hybrid of RPG mechanics and strategic positioning.

Look closely, and you'll note that Grand Kingdom isn't as sharp as a dedicated Vanillaware title. The characters don't have the same detail and exaggeration as George Kamitani's lovingly rendered artwork—though they don't show his predilection for garish physiques, either. If it not as attractive, though, it seems solid in its gameplay.

Import Barrier: Both the plotline and the battles require some command of Japanese, so non-fluent players might be best holding out for a…

Domestic Release: Not too bad. Grand Knights History wasn't localized due to the developer lacking the time and personnel for it (and perhaps the PSP market steadily shrinking), but a semi-prominent RPG like Grand Kingdom stands a better chance today.

What We Need: A remake of Princess Crown, an action-RPG that Vanillaware's founders made for Atlus back in the Sega Saturn days.

NET HIGH
Developer: Marvelous
Publisher: Marvelous
Platform: PS Vita
A.K.A.: Twitter Fighter II

Net High is a game all about winning Internet arguments. That's potentially the dullest thing imaginable, but the game's vision goes well beyond people hunched over keyboards and smartphone, frowning indignantly at someone's curt opinions about Buckaroo Banzai or labor reform. Net High sees the Japan of 20XX as a nation of people pressured toward good, satisfying lifestyles by the Neo Communications Act. The government tracks its citizens by giving them free smartphones and gauging their accomplishments on a service called Tweeter. Those who lead rich social lives and amass followers are rewarded, while the unpopular sit around wondering why no one faves their blurry photos of half-eaten bagels.

Naturally, this society leads to a virtual-reality dictatorship where pretty, well-groomed, high-follower “riajuu” control just about everything, leaving the have-nots disenchanted and barely employed. Net High's hero is one of these losers, with little to live for beyond his vague hope of meeting a mysterious girl he once saw on Tweeter. Yet his life changes when he discovers a Mega-Nexus device that…well, it looks like the super-powered red glasses from Gurren Lagann. More to the point, the Mega-Nexus shows him coded OBEY messages in a black-and-white world turns him into the renegade hero of Tweeter and gives him an A.I. sidekick named Cil. And so he sets forth to dispense justice to the tyrant tastemakers of the Internet, including a strange woman who hijacked Tweeter and held an entire city hostage.

When not posturing like Kamina, Net High's protagonist tracks down online superstars, investigating their proclivities and weaknesses. By filtering keywords and posting replies, the player pieces together a battle plan and brings down a riajuu threat, whether it's a vain hipster or an annoying socialite. Marvelous puts a thick layer of anime style on the game, courting the fantasies of anyone who's sneered over self-absorbed Facebook posts and Twitter feeds. And if the player's adept at Internet dueling, the game's female characters might take a liking to him. That's another fantasy fulfilled.

Of course, you could skip Net High and just annoy real people on Twitter, but that'd be mean and not as stylish.

Import Barrier: With a lot of the gameplay conveyed through dialogue, Japanese skills are a necessity.

Domestic Release: Darned good, since someone already spotted Net High trophies translated into English. The likeliest suspect is XSEED Games, though they haven't announced anything yet.

What We Need: A mode where the player's avatar steadily evolves into whatever they pretend to be online. Spend too much time posting like Twitter superstar Dril, and your character becomes a diapered, rat-kissing worshiper of sacred jeans.

Also Available:
Hyperdimension Neptunia vs. Sega Hard Girls brings together two common lures of hardcore game nerds: the super-cutesy Neptunia heroines who represent game systems and companies, plus the more amusing Sega Hard Girls who represent Sega-specific consoles. The two lineups meet in a Vita RPG, though the lead roles go to Idea Factory's IF-chan and the original Sega heroine called Sega Hatsumi. Given the frequency with which Neptunia games jump over here, the crossover might well emerge in North America. That'll make it easier for people to complain that it doesn't give enough screen time to Sega Saturn.

Are you a Shantae fan? Good. Are you a Shantae fan disappointed that all of the genie heroine's recent games are only available digitally? Well, you can import the Japanese version of Shantae and the Pirate's Curse (or Shantae: Kaizoku no Noroi) for the 3DS. Of course there's a regional lockout, but you could always leave it unopened. The last Shantae game to get a physical release was the original 2002 Game Boy Color outing. It sold for twenty bucks new, and sealed copies are now worth over a thousand dollars.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

DEVIL'S THIRD
Developer: Valhalla Game Studios
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Wii U
Release Date: December 11
No More Heroes: Nope
MSRP: $59.99

I get the impression that Nintendo really doesn't want to release Devil's Third. True, Nintendo fished it out of development purgatory after the game switched engines, bounced from the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and spent years in development. Yet it's taken a critical pounding, and Nintendo's pushed it with the reluctant shrug normally reserved for contractual embarrassments. Far too much time and money went into Devil's Third to cancel it now, and it's not as though the Wii U can afford to ditch exclusives…or even limited-time exclusives, since there's a PC version of Devil's Third in the future.

Devil's Third is a comeback attempt from Tomunobu Itagaki, who spent years at Tecmo making solid and unapologetically chauvinist games like Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden. His creations, straightforward opinions, and sunglasses made him an industry standout, but he's drifted out of the spotlight since leaving Tecmo. Devil's Third finds him dealing in the same hyper-macho ethos. Set in a world where a collapsed satellite network sparked international warfare, the game follows a former terrorist named Ivan (other characters even call him "the Terrible") through a roaring procession of bloodbaths and shootouts. He'll slash apart ninja, gun down enemies from a first-person perspective, and piss off terrorist vixens and stuffy government types with his silent cocksure attitude. And when we first meet him, he's playing the drums in his prison cell.

It's hard to tell where parody ends and Itagaki's potentially serious take on a “terrorist shooter' might begin in Devil's Third, though the game at least borrows from a few good places. Ivan carries a variety of weapons and pulls off a sliding move right out of Platinum's Vanquish. Devil's Third also sports a multiplayer mode with a level editor and three-sided matches. That's hardly unique among modern games, however.

Devil's Third seems headed for mediocrity, though I wonder if it'll turn out unintentionally special. It almost seems like the sort of thing that acquires a weird, half-ironic fan base years after its release, so perhaps Nintendo's banking on the video-game version of The Room.

EARTH DEFENSE FORCE 2: INVADERS FROM PLANET SPACE, EARTH DEFENSE FORCE 4.1: THE SHADOW OF DESPAIR
Developer: Sandlot
Publisher: XSEED Games
Platform: PlayStation 4 / PS Vita
Release Date: December 8
Only Good Bug: A Dead Bug
MSRP: $39.99 / $29.99

In all fairness to Devil's Third, a game can be fun as long as it does one thing well. Look at the Earth Defense Force series, which started off as a budget release successful in a single way: pitting human soldiers against giant, city-wrecking insects. From there it grew into vastly improved sequels, and now we have two upgrades hitting this month to bring us a holiday season of horrific monster invasions.

Earth Defense Force 2: Invaders From Planet Space remakes one of the better games in the series, letting players control foot soldiers, flying Pale Wing commandos, and Air Raiders who place traps and automated weapons. The vehicle lineup is also much larger, and the game sports multiplayer for four people at a time. It also received new voicework for the Vita port, and appropriate voiceovers are more important to an EDF game than some might realize.

Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despairbuilds on a more recent piece of the franchise, one that we knew here as Earth Defense Force 2025. It still has the glorious cornball appeal of scrappy human soldiers fending off an enormous bug invasion, and it adds even more weapons, missions, mutant foes, and a new dragonlike giant—and the best way to fight it is by piloting an equally huge mecha. The game also runs smoother on a PlayStation 4, further enabling the spectacle of a city devoured by giant dragon-bugs.


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


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