The X Button
Exist Tense

by Todd Ciolek,
The X Button starts off 2016 this week, and I think it's time we had another contest. This one is all about art, or at least nonsensical attempts to rationalize it.

How do you enter? I want you to humorously explain in 200 words or less why a classic video game is masterful high art in ways the designers never intended. Is Chubby Cherub a gripping eschatological tale of redemption? Is Iggy's Reckin' Balls all about gentrification? Is Kirby's Adventure a secret commentary on consumerism or the energy crisis of the 1970s?

You can choose just about any title prior to the current generation, but I think that the simpler a game is, the more fun you'll have grafting on ridiculous and elaborate interpretations. Submissions will be judged primarily on how amusing and thoughtfully bizarre they get in their arguments, with extra points for pure academic flourish.

One first-place winner will receive a prize pack with several artbooks, starting with the Capcom smorgasbord of Darkstalkers Graphic File and Super Street Fighter IV Official Complete Works. It also includes PIE International's Character Design Book and Character Design Book 2015, which feature artwork from all sorts of games and anime series, whether it's Wizard Barristers and Bayonetta 2 or Ace Attorney Investigations and Beyond the Future – Fix the Time Arrows. This being a video-game column, I'll toss in some actual games: Nier for the Xbox 360 and Drakengard 3 for the PlayStation 3. I consider Nier to be art because it adeptly subverts game conventions and molds diverse genres into a bleak, powerful edifice. I consider Drakengard 3 to be art because it makes people mad.

Two runners-up will receive Nier for the Xbox 360. And now we turn to the rules.

-Your submission should be an original creation. It's OK to dust off an idea you've had in mind for years, but I'd prefer if you don't rehash something from an old forum gag.

-As mentioned above, an entry should be about 200 words long at most. It's OK to go a little over, but you should avoid writing a term paper.

-Keep things relatively tasteful. True art often goes to disturbing places, but don't get too graphic.

-I normally ask winners of previous contests to avoid entering later competitions, but it's been over a year since the last contest. With the exception of ANN employees and game-industry folks, anyone can have a go this time around.

-Readers are welcome to enter regardless of location, but there's a catch. If you win first place and you're outside of the U.S., you'll have to pay for shipping. Sorry, but these books are heavy.

-Only one entry counts per person. You can send later entries to replace earlier ones, however, and you can enter the general contest and the worst-entry division with separate essays.

Yes, there's a category for the most deliberately terrible submission I receive. To enter, you must put “Worst Entry” in the subject line of your email. All of the above rules still apply, so don't submit your X-rated breakdown of The Krion Conquest.

If yours is the dumbest, most inept, or otherwise awful thing I see in this contest, you get Bullet Witch for the Xbox 360 and Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z for the PlayStation 3. They're generally considered terrible, but you might find them fascinating in their own trashy ways. And if you hate them...well, you might deserve that.

Entries must be sent to me (toddciolek at gmail.com) by midnight EST on Friday, January 29. That gives you a week longer than the usual contest deadline. I know that art takes time.

NEWS

KAGA CREATE SHUTS DOWN, ENDS A LEGACY
Last year couldn't leave without ending just one more Japanese game company. Kaga Create, the video-game division of Kaga Electronics, officially shut down on December 31, 2015. Visual-novel fans may know them as the publisher of the PlayStation 3 and Vita versions of Higurashi, plus a broad range of lesser-known genre examples like Saki Zenkoku-hen. It's true that Kaga Create trafficked primarily in visual novels as far back as 2000 (which seems such an innocent age now), but their history goes much deeper.

Kaga Electronics started its video-game sector in 1988, giving it the name of Naxat Soft. While Naxat seldom developed games in-house, they published titles from many other developers: Sting's Psycho Chaser, Aim's Faussete Amour, and Right Stuff's Terraforming, just to name three. Yet Naxat's best collaborator was Compile, that gifted game studio whose memory now limps on in Compile Heart. Under Naxat's eye, Compile made the awesome PC Engine pinball games Alien Crush and Devil's Crush, and NEC released them for the system's North American cousin, the TurboGrafx-16. Devil's Crush is the better game, but as someone who buys every bad Aliens comic he finds in quarter bins, my heart belongs to Alien Crush.

Compile and Naxat also combined forces on one of history's best 2-D shooters, Seirei Senshi Spriggan for the PC Engine. I'd like to say that Spriggan came west to save the TurboGrafx-16 and its TurboDuo successor, but it remains a Japan-only release even today. Shooters were Naxat's lifeblood for a good while, and they even backed Summer Carnival amateur creations like the Famicom's Recca and the PC Engine's unfortunately named Alzadick.

Most of Naxat's console releases came on the PC Engine and occasionally filtered out to the TurboGrafx-16, but I'd bet that any Nintendo-obsessed kid of the late 1980s knew Kaga's video games in another form. As the NES gobbled up the game industry, Kaga started up a North American branch using its older Taxan subsidiary (see, "Naxat" is Taxan backwards, just like Nilbog and Goblin) and released titles for the NES and Game Boy. They varied from dross like Fist of the North Star to the surprisingly decent G.I. Joe, and Ken Lobb, later a big wheel at Nintendo and then Microsoft, got his start on Taxan-published fare like Burai Fighter and Low G Man. Taxan left the game-publishing racket in 1991, but they still exist as Kaga's North American electronics arm and apparently maintain an office in San Jose. Go down there and ask for a sequel to 8 Eyes if you're in the neighborhood!

Kaga Electronics kept Naxat Soft going well into the PlayStation era, renaming the label Kaga Tech in 1998. From there the former Naxat went through numerous company mergers, becoming Digital Gain before arriving at the name of Kaga Create in 2007. By then they favored visual novels, though one couldn't blame them for sticking with lower-budget titles. Kaga Create had no long-term series, and even the publisher's final message paints a grim portrait: they couldn't make money in an industry that leans on the crowded mobile-game field more and more.

And that's it for Naxat Soft in name and spirit. The central Kaga Electronics branch and Taxan still exist, and I doubt they'll touch video games again. A shame, but we'll always have Alien Crush.

SQUARE TAKES DOWN SHINRA, AND THAT'S NOT GOOD
Kaga Create isn't the only video-game venture that faded recently. Square Enix established Shinra Technologies in 2014, billing the subsidiary as a “cloud-based” game company that would offer “new types of game experiences." The studio had offices in both New York and Tokyo, with former Square Enix CEO Yoichi Wada in charge. Yet it failed to attract investors, and Square Enix shut it down this month. The New York location officially folds at the end of March while the Tokyo spot will hang on through June.

Square Enix also announced an incoming loss of two billion yen (roughly $16 million) for the end of the fiscal year, and that's discouraging. It would be one thing if Shinra Technologies was an elaborate attempt to put Wada out to pasture, as Japanese companies often do instead of firing executives (his division even bore the name of Final Fantasy VII's malfeasant corporation), but it's clearly cost the company more than Wada's salary. I only hope it won't cost us interesting, risky games like Nier Automata in the future.

MARVELOUS: ANOTHER TREASURE ISLAND FAN-TRANSLATED IN FULL
Nintendo's old catalog has many small and fascinating projects lurking in between the Marios and Zeldas that even abstemious elders recognize by cultural osmosis. Some of these lesser-knowns seem ideal for the international scene. I can understand why Nintendo ruled Fire Emblem too unwieldy for localization during the NES and Super NES days, but it's strange that the company never translated For the Frog the Bell Tolls in the Game Boy era…or the action-RPG Marvelous: Another Treasure Island for the Super Nintendo's waning years.

Marvelous: Another Treasure Island even appears to be crafted with overseas audiences in mind. It's roughly based on Stevenson's old adventure classic, and it follows three kids through a Zelda-like overhead quest for pirate treasure. It's relatively lightweight in its story and puzzle design, but it has plenty to interest with its multi-character gameplay and varied tools. Its Japan-only fate likely stems more from timing than any cultural provisos; it came along in 1996 just as the Super NES gave way to Nintendo's promotional Nintendo 64 storm, and even among those last few Super NES releases, Super Mario RPG played better on the worldwide stage.

Nintendo never ported Marvelous to a later system or translated it for the Virtual Console, so it was up to fan groups to fill that void. A partial localization by someone named Tashi made the rounds, and now DackR finished up the job last month. It's not an official Nintendo deal, but it's close to what the company would have (and should have) released twenty years ago.

IMPORT ROUNDUP: DECEMBER

ASSAULT SUIT LEYNOS
Developer: Dracue
Publisher: Dracue
Platform: PlayStation 4

Some things are better served up in side-scrollers than modern venues, and anime mecha warfare might be one of them. Developers valiantly create 3-D action games to capture the essence of classics like Gundam 0080 and Macross Plus and Ehrgeiz. Yet if you want a video game that embodies the hectic melodrama of orbital robot battles, I think there's nothing finer than a 2-D action-shooter rife with explosions, radio chatter, and elaborate mecha that probably wouldn't work half as well as actual spaceships or tanks in real life. That pretty much describes the Assault Suits series (also labeled as the singular variant of Assault Suit), which seems to submerge for many years at a time and rise anew with a remake or sequel to the classic games. This time around, it's the original Assault Suit Leynos up for a recast.

Assault Suit Leynos was a Sega Genesis offering (known here as Target Earth) with tiny robots and brutal challenges, but Dracue Software has much more space in their remake. Everything is larger and richer in detail, from the player's own mecha to the hovering airships and cratered Jupiter moon colonies. One's assault suit hops and jets across lunar surfaces and through military outposts, swapping between three different weapons (including a shield) at a time. Enemies still throng around and disgorge missiles and lasers and bullets, and it's easy to get lost in the whirl of exploding mecha and stray gunfire. Stages also vary in their goals and even their physics. One might send your assault suit stomping through the verdant hills of a colony. Another might have you floating freely around an immense orbital battleship.

Two versions of Assault Suit Leynos appear here. A Classic mode imitates the level layouts and soundtrack of the original, with minimal storytelling and more vicious enemies. The Arcade mode changes some level design, adds more bosses, and supplies voice-acting for the more copious dialogue and cutscenes. These run through the usual mecha-war staples of tragic sacrifice and Pyrrhic victories, complete with little portraits. My favorite is the game's rendition of bridge operator Leena, who looks completely, disdainfully bored even in the thick of horrifying battlefield chaos.

Import Barrier: A domestic PlayStation 4 runs Japanese games just fine, and the gameplay isn't all that hard to grasp. Some of the level objectives in the Arcade mode need a little translation, though

Domestic Release: No one's stepped up yet, but I imagine some companies are interested. Damascus Gear: Operation Tokyo made it over here, and that had less cachet than Assault Suits.

Optimistic Prediction: This Leynos remake will spread far and wide, giving Dracue the go-ahead for a Cybernator/Assault Suits Valken revisiting far superior to the one we saw on the PlayStation 2.

EXIST ARCHIVE: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE SKY
Developer: tri-Ace
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
Platform: PlayStation 4 / PS Vita

Valkyrie Profile fans don't have it so bad. True, they may never see Valkyrie Profile 3: Hrist, not even as a smartphone puzzle-game trifle where a Valkyrie launches mortal warriors like Bust-A-Move bubbles (which, on second thought, would be great), but they'll see plenty of spiritual cousins. LabZero Games has the lovingly animated Indivisible in development, and tri-Ace themselves recast the gameplay of Valkyrie Profile into Exist Archive.

Exist Archive may not have the medieval Norse stylings of Valkyrie Profile, but it's still very much about the afterlife. Kanata and Ranze are facing a marriage arranged by their well-to-do families, but things chance when they're the victims of an explosion. They land in the realm of Protolexa, where all sorts of possibly deceased souls are gathered to fight for the sake of warring gods. Kanata and Ranze's fellow ethereal soldiers range from street punk Todoroki Namero and wealthy scion Ren Ogami to Yui Mitosagi, who dresses like something from a risque Power Rangers series. Or perhaps Namco's Burning Force.

As in Valkyrie Profile, Exist Archive covers its dungeons and otherworldly reaches in a side-scrolling fashion. Characters can jump as they explore, and enemies are visible well before battles start. Once in combat, players control four characters, each with a corresponding attack button. Jab them deftly enough, and the cast will pull off overpowered special attacks. This brings up the game's biggest visible shortcoming. It has nice backgrounds, but characters are awkwardly proportioned things with huge heads atop comparatively ordinary bodies, and they look absurd in the midst of elaborate, hyper-powered special moves. It's far from the appealing character sprites and gorgeous artwork seen in the Valkyrie Profile games.

Import Barrier: It's an RPG, so there's plenty of dialogue and plot (with multiple endings) to work through. At least nothing technical stands between this game and an American Vita or PS4.

Domestic Release: Things are curiously quiet there. Tri-Ace usually has an inside angle with Square Enix, but Exist Archive falls under Spike Chunsoft and Square Enix has tri-Ace's next Star Ocean to worry over. Perhaps Exist Archive will land at Aksys or NIS America, since they've handled Spike Chunsoft's material before.

Optimistic Prediction: Exist Archive will stoke new interest in Valkyrie Profile, which in turn will inspire Valkyrie Profile sequels, remakes, toys, party favors, theme parks, animated movies with miscast celebrity voices, and, of course, smartphone puzzle games.

MONSTER STRIKE
Developer: Mixi
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo 3DS

Monster Strike's runaway success on smartphones is a good sign. The game deserves it, since it's an enjoyable fusion of Pokemon-ish monster collecting and RPG-battle billiards. More importantly, it's done well for creator Yoshiki Okamoto, who had everyone a little worried when his Game Republic studio shut down in 2011. Well, we don't need to worry any longer. Monster Strike routinely jockeys for position with Puzzle & Dragons and other smartphone top-sellers in Japan, and now it gets what Puzzle & Dragons already got: an expanded 3DS version.

In its trip beyond smartphone games, Monster Strike joins the tradition of Pokemon, Yokai Watch, Digimon, and countless other tales where seemingly average kids befriend strange monsters and team up to explore the wonders of a new multimedia property. Really, the Monster Strike anime series has its bewildered teenage hero literally discovering a world of monster duels through the Monster Strike smartphone app. The 3DS game adopts many of the same characters in its story. Ren Homura is back in his hometown but lacking concrete recollections of his childhood, and only with the help of Monster Strike duels and a little red beastie named Oragon does he regain memories of his childhood friend Aoi and less important matters.

The 3DS version of Monster Strike retains the gameplay of the smartphone title. Ren now roams town and duels strangers, but the battle mechanics remain much the same. Monsters sit in spheres of varying size, and players pull back and launch them around an arena, where they'll ricochet off walls and deal out damage. There's a vast array of special abilities to wield and new monsters to discover and hatch out, and the billiard-ball combat can get surprisingly complex. Naturally, the 3DS title allows for multiplayer battles and monster trades, even if you're still more likely to encounter people who have Monster Strike on smartphones than on the 3DS. At the rate the 3DS version is selling, though, that might not hold true for long.

Import Barrier: The game mechanics are easily grasped if you've had a few spins on the Monster Strike mobile app, though the 3DS version's dialogue and text is mostly in Japanese. And the 3DS is region-locked.

Domestic Release: No sign of one yet, but it's very likely. Nintendo brought over Puzzle & Dragons, even if it needed a Mario crossover.

Optimistic Prediction: Monster Strike will grow so profitable that Okamoto will return to console game development (even though he retired from it) and make Folklore 2.

Also Available
For those who like the pneumatic ninja heroines of Senran Kagura but also find them too restrained, Marvelous delves further into those exploitative depths with Valkyrie Drive for the Vita. It's a brawler that stars numerous young swordswomen and gunners of generous proportions, and their power-up sequences and other antics grow so explicit that YouTube apparently banned the official Marvelous account for a short while. The game's near-constant titillation might keep some Western publishers away, but the discovery of English-language trophies suggests that someone's interested in localizing it.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

It's a dry week ahead for major releases, though you can check out some smaller projects like the harrowing semi-autobiographical That Dragon, Cancer and the strategy-RPG Echoes of Aetheria. And you also might catch up on some older games that you've put off for too long. Did you ever finish The Guardian Legend for the NES? Now isn't a bad time for that.


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


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