The X Button
See the Future

by Todd Ciolek,
The X Button has next week off, so you'll get even more free time to enter the ongoing contest. It's all about explaining why video games are high-minded art…especially when they're not.

I want your best pseudo-intellectual argument about why an old video game is art. Think of every time you've had to bullshit your way through a paper for school, and apply it to a games-as-art treatise. Tell us why The Adventures of Dino-Riki contains brilliant insights into humankind's primal nature, why the Variable Geo games are deeply feminist, or why Puyo Puyo is all about class struggle.

Find deeper meaning where there probably isn't any, and have fun with it! You can write about any game prior to the current console generation, but I think the simpler your subject is, the more amusing it is to overthink it. Entries will be judged on how humorous they are, with extra credit for clever thematic links and verbosity.

One first-place winner gets four artbooks: Darkstalkers Graphic File, Super Street Fighter IV Official Complete Works, and PIE International's Character Design Book and Character Design Book 2015. You'll also get Nier for the Xbox 360 and Drakengard 3 for the PlayStation 3, because we can't leave actual games out of this.

Two second-place winners get Nier for the Xbox 360, and the worst entry I receive gets Bullet Witch for the Xbox 360 and Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z for the PlayStation 3. If your entry is the most deliberately awful, lazy, or tasteless (and marked “Worst Entry” in the subject line), you'll be rewarded.

All entries, even the bad ones, must follow 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.

-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.

Sound good? You have until the end of Friday, January 28 to send me (toddciolek at gmail.com) your entries. So pretend it's 1 a.m. and you've just started a paper that's due tomorrow and has to explain why El Viento is about CIA intervention in South American governments. Or something that makes just as little sense.

NEWS

STORY OF SEASONS RETURNS WITH CHERISHED FRIENDS, MUTANT TOMATOES
Natsume and XSEED remain bitterly at war over the Harvest Moon series, at least as far as my imagination is concerned. For all I know, there's a secret agreement between the two companies to divide and conquer the market for cute simulation games that recreate farming and country life. Whatever the motivations, it boils down to Natsume bringing their next Harvest Moon title, Seeds of Memories, to Wii U, Windows, iOS, and Android next year. Not to be outdone, XSEED and Marvelous still have the Bokujo Monogatari series that is, of course, the Japanese name for the long-running Harvest Moon series. Natsume now uses the Harvest Moon name for its original games, while the series formerly known as Harvest Moon is now Story of Seasons. And the next game in line is Cherished Friends of Three Towns for the 3DS.

Well, Cherished Friends of Three Towns is one way to translate the subtitle for the new Story of Seasons game. XSEED will probably go with something more succinct for the official North American name, like Story of Seasons: Tri-Town Tribulations or Story of Seasons: This is the Real Harvest Moon And Don't You Forget It. The new game keeps with series traditions of farming and socializing as either a male or female student of the soil, and the quest for profitable crops, friends, and spouses stretches across three villages: Wes Town, Lulucoco Town, and Tsuyukusa Town. Each has its own culture and social circles, and I'd bet that Tsuyukusa has a lot of traditional Japanese flair, judging by the footbridge and cherry blossoms. Of course, a good many fans want to know just what the bachelors and bachelorettes are like, and I imagine they'll be revealed shortly.

Story of Seasons: Cherished Friends of Three Towns is reportedly 80 percent complete and headed for a Japan debut this year. XSEED will likely bring it West, though probably not before Natsume springs Seeds of Memories on us. And so the battle lines are drawn in my mind.

MINI MARIO & FRIENDS: AMIIBO CHALLENGE EXPLOITS TOYS FURTHER
Among low-key Nintendo series, the Mario vs. Donkey Kong games endure with their cute mixture of puzzles, side-scrolling action, and little windup characters. The latest loops around double: it's a game about virtual toy effigies of Nintendo characters, and it works in conjunction with Nintendo's actual amiibo character toys. Mini Mario & Friends: amiibo Challenge for the Wii U and 3DS lets players use Mario amiibo in side-view levels where players indirectly guide a hero by rearranging levels full of belts, spites, stairs, and other hazards.

The game technically works with all amiibo trinkets, but only those from the Mario and Donkey Kong lines will appear as corresponding characters in the game—like Toad, Rosalina, Yoshi, and Bowser, for example. If you put Mega Man, Shulk, or any figure unrelated to Mario on your Wii U pad or 3DS, you'll control a boxy little windup robot called Mini-Spec. He's a cute little guy, like a square Bob-omb! I suspect I'll choose him deliberately, just like I always connived to race as Shy Guy in Mario Kart DS.

Mini Mario & Friends: amiibo Challenge is due out in Japan this January 28, and I see nothing wrong with it coming to North America. Then again, maybe Mini-Spec will be ruled too controversial for these shores.

EVEN VIDEO GAMES REMEMBER DAVID BOWIE
I normally don't remark on celebrity deaths unless they somehow relate to my personal life or to video games. Even if David Bowie had nothing to do with the medium, however, I'd still find a way to mention him. His career touched such a wide spectrum of music, movies, and other artforms that it'd be hard for something as traditionally derivative as video games to avoid it. And Bowie was involved with several games.

No game featured David Bowie more prominently than Quantic Dream's Omikron: The Nomad Soul. It's a rabidly ambitious Dreamcast and PC creation about an interdimensional detective chasing a serial killer in the segmented city of Omikron. Bowie not only contributed to the game's soundtrack and storyline; he also appears as a revolutionary leader and an equally defiant underground singer. Omikron is a strange and elaborate game, and if it suffers from the awkward 3-D graphics and multi-genre oddity endemic to many games of the late 1990s and early 2000s (you'll go from questioning suspects in a strip club to pulling dragon punches on mutant lizards), it's also an intriguing experiment. I actually like Omikron's science-fiction excesses better than the plainer, more controlled cinematic games that David Cage and Quantic Dream went on to create. I'll always take a weird gamble over a coherent bore.

Of course, you can see David Bowie in games based on his other appearances. Labyrinth inspired both an adventure game and a Famicom game in the mid-1980s. Labyrinth: The Computer Game was the first graphic-adventure title from LucasArts, and its creators developed many ideas (with help from sci-fi satirist Douglas Adams) that fueled Maniac Mansion and some of the other wonderful LucasArts adventure game that followed.

The Famicom adaptation of Labyrinth isn't praised as often as the LucasArts take on the movie, but it's notable on several fronts. Tokuma Shoten and Activision released it in 1986 but never brought it to the NES in North America—possibly because it would've interfered with the computer game's overall impact. While the LucasArts game merely sets itself in the same world as the movie, the Famicom outing follows the film closer, sending heroine Sarah through mazes with her friends Hoggle, Ludo, and Sir Didymus. It's an overhead action game where enemies deplete time instead of health when they strike, and the game imitates some fixtures of the movie (you'll pass the first stage by walking straight into a wall) while being really tough about it. It's also amusing to see David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly in NES sprite form, and even the title screen is impressive. Labryinth isn't great, but it's amusing enough to raise a question: if we got lousy adaptations of Mad Max and Total Recall on the NES, why deny us this?

And there's more, of course. David Bowie's chameleonlike fashion sense brought him countless new looks over the years, and you'll see many of them paired with video-game characters at this long-running site. Some of them are humorous coincidence, but others are a little too close to deny. In an industry that went from swiping Michael Biehn for Metal Gear covers to putting Ellen Page in virtual starring roles, why wouldn't you steal from David Bowie?

PREDICTIONS FOR 2016

This hasn't been a very good year so far, and I'll try to counter that by making largely positive predictions for the rest of it. Doomsaying is popular and reliable, but I think we need to stay upbeat even when it comes to the fortunes of a big plastic polyhedron that plays smaller plastic shapes.

KONAMI SERIES LIVE ON, CAPCOM GETS A BOOST
Everyone can think of a popular series that's fallen on hard times. It could be Silent Hill or Contra or Gradius or Castlevania or Suikoden or Zone of the Enders. Yes, those are all Konami titles, and that's because their recent controversies put their neglected series foremost in mind. Konami spent 2015 abandoning most of its video game properties. It still maintains Yu-Gi-Oh! and Metal Gear and some of its more reliable sellers, though Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima already left and took some notable talent with him. Konami doesn't care so much about video games when there's more money to be made with health clubs and gambling halls, so what'll become of their properties?

Someone will care, I think. Castlevania already saw new life when series producer Koji Igarashi launched a successful Kickstarter for Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, and the game looks to be making progress no matter how ridiculous heroine Miriam dresses. There's nothing stopping former Konami staffers from attempting their own spiritual sequels. And there's the possibility that another company might snatch up a series or two. Konami actually licensed out the Momotaro Densetsu name to Nintendo for another installment of the series. Sure, it's a Hudson property that Konami acquired when it snatched up the remnants of the company, and it was never near to Konami's public image. But it's a start. Would Nintendo really buy and back another Contra or Silent Hill? The Wii U saw Nintendo supporting violent games in ways both good (Bayonetta 2) and bad (Devil's Third), so there's hope.

And what about CAPCOM? They're a pillar comparable with Konami, and they're still making games. Naturally, any CAPCOM fan could spew a list of the ways the company went wrong and the games they've ignored, but 2016 looks brighter. CAPCOM has Street Fighter V, a new Ace Attorney (maybe two), and the promising dungeon crawler Deep Down ahead, and another year brings more chances for Mega Man and Resident Evil to improve. CAPCOM ignores series but never seems to forget them entirely, and they're known for surprising fans with things like the new Strider. There'll be happier times for CAPCOM ahead, I think.

But I'm not going to hope for a new Darkstalkers game. That'd be silly.

NINTENDO MIXES HANDHELDS AND CONSOLES, WHICH UPSETS ME
Rumors about Nintendo's new NX console run amok, and the most plausible of them posit that the system will be a combined successor to the Wii U and the Nintendo 3DS. It makes sense: Nintendo now stands far stronger in the handheld market than the home console division, where the Wii U struggles to sell as well as the GameCube did. Considering how the Wii U advocates semi-portable play with its touch-screen controller, it would fit if the NX had a regular console component and a controller that doubled as a fully functional and independent handheld system. And if it launched with an enchanting new 3-D Mario game like Super Mario Galaxy 3, so much the better.

Making the NX a fusion of home unit and handheld would strengthen Nintendo's sales across the board, even if it had the minor side effect of disintegrating the whole novelty of a handheld. That may not matter to anyone but me, of course. I've always dug the toylike, self-contained feel of a handheld, the sense that a 3DS or PSP is its own world thriving just inches away from you. An autonomous NX handheld might be just as portable, but it wouldn't be quite the same for me. But then, I'd be happy if Nintendo just bought the molds to the Neo Geo Pocket Color and used that for a controller.

Yep, that's handheld perfection right there.

Of course, handhelds will wane regardless of the NX's true form. Sony probably won't try another portable system once the Vita sees its last Neptunia spin-off or indie platformer, and any other company will take a look at the market and put their money somewhere more profitable, like jellyfish embryo sculptures. Handhelds always were a Nintendo-led scene, and as smartphones chew away more and more of it, there's room only for whatever Nintendo decides to put there. Even if it's just a piece of the NX.

TREASURE MAKES A COMEBACK
Stay strong, Treasure fans. We've seen our favored game studio trudge through lean years. We've heard nothing major from them since they made Gaist Crusher and its sequel for CAPCOM, and those were multimedia toy-floggers instead of original games like Ikaruga and Gunstar Heroes. We've even endured some people telling us that Advance Guardian Heroes isn't very good, the wretched churls. But this year will change things.

Treasure always stayed small, and that gave their creations a unique charm. It also inspired the novel design of classics like Bangai-O, Radiant Silvergun, and the two Sin and Punishment games. Yes the second Sin and Punishment, Star Successor, now can be called a classic even though it came out in 2009. How the years fly. Yet Treasure's best games are timeless, with that ideal balance between manic enemy onslaughts and cohesive navigation. Even when a Treasure boss brings down a hail of bullets or a web of lasers that fills 99 percent of the screen, it's fair enough to let you dodge and appreciate just how well-thought out it is.

Cult success was all Treasure really enjoyed, however. Their games sold modestly, and no one besides me really wanted to see the characters and storylines of Guardian Heroes or Gunstar Heroes expanded into anime series or breakfast cereals or Burger King Kids' Meal toys. Treasure hasn't made an all-new game since 2011's Bangai-O HD: Missile Fury, and their talent's popped up elsewhere on Code of Princess and Kokuga. Reports of a new Treasure shooter persisted for the last two years, but nothing came to light.

I refuse to believe that Treasure will go quietly into the same night that overtook Westone, Neverland, and other developers with decades of history. M2's recent and amazing Sega Classics treatment of Gunstar Heroes might not have much new material, but I hope it'll spark renewed interest in Treasure. Nintendo might back another Treasure action game or put them to work on a fresh Metroid or Kid Icarus. SNK could hire them for the next Metal Slug. Perhaps Sega, Treasure's oldest ally, might put them to work on a Sonic game, like they probably should have years ago. And then we'll have Treasure back and primed for something all new.

WAS I RIGHT LAST YEAR?
I can't ignore my predictions from last year, embarrassing as they can be. I normally manage at least one correct guess in my wild speculation, but this year…

FINAL FANTASY TYPE-0 KISSES, MAKES UP WITH FANS: MOSTLY WRONG
I hoped that the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One releases of Final Fantasy Type-0 would mark a turnaround for the series, washing away the taint of Final Fantasy XIII and driving most Final Fantasy nerds to enjoy a new game and argue over which character is the coolest. That didn't happen. Critics didn't hate it, but Type-0 just didn't seem to excite great hordes of fans. Was it the game's oversized cast of student-soldiers? Or names like “Vermillion Peristylium”? Or the fact that it was a prettied-up version of a PSP game that Square Enix should've localized back in 2011?

THE WII U AND VITA SEE BETTER SALES, MORE CHEAP CRAP: WRONG
My nicest prediction for 2015 promised the Wii U and Vita more success and the accompanying inevitable drove of low-budget trash. Neither really came to be. The Wii U is doing better, of course, and the Vita deserves credit for hanging in there with new releases even after Sony all but shoved it in a grave and wrote “legacy platform” on the headstone. Yet the systems didn't spike in sales enough to bring aboard those unscrupulous publishers who swamp successful consoles with the likes of Duck Dynasty Luv Shack and Power Piggs of the Dark Age HD. Well, maybe that's a good thing.

CONTROVERSY ERUPTS AND UNITES ALL NERDS, FOR A CHANGE: WRONG
I wanted something to come along in 2015 and rally disparate game geek factions together. Maybe some senator would seek to outlaw any video game more violent than Muppet Adventure: Chaos at the Carnival. Maybe some Fox News pundit would declare war on Senran Kagura, and even I would defend it. Well, 2015 held little of that. The biggest video-game controversy might've been Tecmo KOEI nixing a Western release of Dead or Alive Xtreme 3, and that just had game nerds at each other's throats as usual.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

MARIO & LUIGI: PAPER JAM
Developer: Alpha Dream
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: January 22
Best Jam: Kuradoberi
MSRP: $39.99

The Mario and Luigi and Paper Mario games are the unsung heroes of Nintendo's catalog, if any Nintendo game is low-profile enough to be unsung. It's the big-budget adventures like Super Mario 3-D World and Super Mario Galaxy that push Nintendo consoles and redefine genres, but it's the smaller, goofier Mario and Luigi tales and Paper Mario outings that put the characters in humorous scenes and bizarre situations that a more restrained mainline Mario wouldn't allow. So a fusion of the two should be perfect, right?

Paper Jam begins in the Mario and Luigi realm, where a book leads Mario and Luigi, they of the RPG series, into the realm of Paper Mario. There they battle Bowser and Paper Bowser with the aid of their own Paper counterparts, embarking on a whimsical journey across such sights as Mount Brr and Neo Bowser Castle. The gameplay combines the two series similarly, as players control Mario, Luigi, and Paper Mario all at once. In the field, each character has his jumps and hammer attacks mapped to a different 3DS button. In battle, Mario and Luigi work in tandem while Paper Mario creates copies of himself and multiplies his attacks. Combat also runs on a system of Battle Cards, dealing out different stat boosts and effects as a player expends Star Points to use them. And like most Mario adventures these days, Paper Jam uses amiibo figures.

It sounds entertaining, particularly if it's accompanied by the same charming sense of humor that drives both series. Even so, Paper Mario: Sticker Star disappointed some with its rote backtracking and lack of motivation. The Mario and Luigi games haven't faltered to a similar extent, but crossovers aren't always for the best. Ask anyone suckered into buying an issue of Deathmate or sitting through The Simpsons Guy.

RESIDENT EVIL ORIGINS COLLECTION
Developer: CAPCOM
Publisher: CAPCOM
Platform: PlayStation 4 / Xbox One (retail and digital) PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360 / Windows (digital)
Release Date: January 19
Next Remake: Gaiden, I hope
MSRP: $39.99

Resident Evil Zero's been around the block. It began as a Nintendo 64 game, which CAPCOM canceled and restarted for the GameCube. Then it came to the Wii with better controls and a prettier coat of paint. Now CAPCOM's intent on revisiting every corner of Resident Evil, possibly to make us forget Resident Evil 6, and their latest stop is an HD version of Zero for most of today's systems.

This new version of Zero is a sharpened edition of the Wii release, which still tracks ditzy medic Rebecca Chambers and escaped prisoner Billy Coen as they're trapped on a train swarming with zombies. Their journey leads through numerous action setpieces and battles with gooey monsters, and it all serves as prelude to the original Resident Evil. It broadens the backstory a fair amount, even if Resident Evil already established that Rebecca survived for some reason. Series creator Shinji Mikami didn't even like her in the first game, but I'm sure she has fans.

The HD Remaster is mostly cosmetic in nature, and Resident Evil Zero retains the puzzles and general flow of the GameCube and Wii versions. The controls offer both the Wii release's more agile interface and the original's tanklike maneuvers that, in my opinion, always enhanced a Resident Evil experience. The most notable new addition is a mode that drops in long-running series antagonist Albert Wesker as Rebecca's partner in zombie-hunting. Just pretend you don't know he's a villain yet. Rebecca doesn't.

CAPCOM has Resident Evil Zero HD Remaster available on two fronts: it's on the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and Windows as a digital release, while PS4 and Xbox One owners can get a Resident Evil Origins bundle that includes both the pretty new Zero and that handsome Resident Evil HD Remastered release from last year. It'd be nice if they threw in a playable build of the Nintendo 64 original, but let's not be too optimistic here.


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


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