The X Button
Children of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus

by Todd Ciolek,
I will make the broad assumption that everyone reading this has tried or at least heard about Pokemon Go. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I suspect that anyone curious about video games on an anime website cares enough about their collision to check out the latest attempt at installing cute animals as the world's virtual overlords.

Pokemon Go, now available on iOS and Android mobile devices, turns a player's surroundings into a GPS-fed simulation of a Pokemon safari, with real-world locations corresponding to Pokemon gyms and replenishment centers. It doesn't let players trade little creatures just yet, but it lets them catch all varieties of Pidgeys and Caterpies and other beasties by overlaying them onto your phone or tablet's camera view of actual life.

Pokemon Go, already a more popular app than Tinder, has turned modern life into one giant grade-school playground from 1999. Everyone's talking about it, from thirty-year-olds who stopped playing Pokemon games long ago to newscasters relaying stories about muggers who use the game to lure victims to dark alleys.

And me? I never played Pokemon much in its late-1990s prime; I just bought a Flareon figure, deciding that it was easier to get a toy of my favorite Poke-critter than to spend hours cultivating one in-game. And from there I just viewed Pokemon as another cultural curiosity, something I could enjoy with the same detached, barely-even-casual concern that I showed Harry Potter or Facebook. Of course, I tried Pokemon Go. I now have almost twenty different breeds, I've walked the length of a mini-mall just to get a reload of Pokeballs, and I'm worried that my prize Eevee won't turn into a Flareon just because I picked Bulbasaur as my starter Pokemon.

Maybe it'll help if I stand next to a fire.

NEWS

NARUTO ONLINE COMES WEST NEXT WEEK
You might think that Naruto Online is already available here in the west, considering what comes up on Google. Yet I have been told that such website-shilled games as Unlimited Ninja and Anime Ninja are not actually licensed Naruto endeavors, though they have Naruto illustrations seemingly copied by a reasonably practiced middle-schooler's hand. Naruto Online, however, is an officially recognized title from Oasis Games, and it's out July 20.

Naruto Online follows the major nine story arcs of the original anime and manga, complete with some pretty animated cutscenes. It's an MMORPG, however, so the battles find party members arranged on grids and attacking the enemies in turns. The cast includes dozens of Naruto characters, and the game adds five new ones corresponding to fire, water, wind, earth, and a Captain Planet joke lightning.

The trailer makes plain that the gameplay of Naruto Online won't have the gorgeous sheen and frantic action of CyberConnect2's Naruto offerings, but hey, it's an MMORPG designed for easy access. And Naruto fans know much better fortune than followers some other long-running anime and manga. If you're still waiting for Bastard!! Online to come out, I have some bad news…

MAI SHIRANUI DIVES INTO DEAD OR ALIVE
Like it or not, Mai Shiranui is the most popular character from The King of Fighters. Yes, Kyo Kusanagi and Iori Yagami are the ostensible mainstays, and Terry Bogard was the hero of the precursor Fatal Fury titles, but it's Mai that everyone remembers for one reason or another. And it's Mai who gets the most merchandise, Mai whose absence from The King of Fighters XII set off a minor fan chorus of “No Mai, no buy,” and Mai who crosses over to other series, the latest being Dead or Alive 5.

Mai's guest spot in Dead or Alive 5 Last Round came to light during the annual Dead or Alive Festival in Japan earlier this week. It's part of a promotion that adds King of Fighters costumes to the game, but Mai will be there in full, as an actual character with a spot on the roster. And it makes perfect sense. The Dead or Alive series popularized the idea of generously endowed women jiggling through a fighting game, but Mai's original appearance in 1993's Fatal Fury 2 marked the genre's first blatant bid for such titillation. No, it wasn't Chun-Li in Street Fighter II. She had an unobtrusive dignity.

Of course, I am more interested in the actual King of Fighters costumes that dress existing Dead or Alive cast members like Hinako Shijou, Yuri Sakazaki, or the terribly underrated Kasumi Todoh. Hinako and Kasumi haven't appeared in The King of Fighters XIV (though Kasumi most likely will be a downloadable bonus), so Dead or Alive is technically beating The King of Fighters at its own game.

NINTENDO 64DD APPEARS, SATURN OPENS UP
Nintendo's 64DD never worked out as well as the company planned. Originally announced as an expansion disk drive for the Nintendo 64, the peripheral emerged only in Japan and saw under a dozen games (including the odd standout Doshin the Giant). Nintendo did not rule out a U.S. release, however, and proof of that survives in a 64DD unit recently documented by a collecter.

Jason Lindsey, who worked on numerous Sierra titles, uploaded photos of a Nintendo 64DD at the Assembler Games forums, and the unit appears to be a working U.S. retail version of the obscure add-on. Ars Technica spoke with former Nintendo employee Mark Deloura, who believes that it's a prototype for what would have ended up on shelves at Electronics Boutiques and Wal-Marts across the nation, had Nintendo decided to release the 64DD over here. And what if Nintendo had taken that risk? Would the 64DD have a broader library? Would the original 64DD version of Mother 3 have come to completion instead of getting canceled? We now have one more vehicle for speculation.

In other news notable only to those devoted to old and largely unloved systems, someone managed to crack the Sega Saturn's copy protection routines. The system, a troubled mid-1990s console that continued Sega's downward spiral, resisted attempts at in-depth hacking for decades, but a talent soul figured out the first step in running Saturn games through a USB method. You can watch the video explanation here, but the short of it is that Saturn games may soon be much easier to play and cheaper to enjoy.

Why is this important? I've long felt that the Saturn is an underrated gem. Even when you discard its surprisingly faithful arcade ports, it's home to some fantastic and intriguingly strange original games: Dragon Force, Guardian Heroes, the first three Panzer Dragoons, Burning Rangers, the multi-part Shining Force III, Nanatsu Kaze No Shima Monogatari, Radiant Silvergun (I know it was an arcade game first, but it ran on Saturn hardware), Wachenroder, Bulk Slash, and the notorious Death Crimson. Most of those games never saw ports to other systems, and any discovery that makes them easier to play is good news to me.

IN THE SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS

Ico and Shadow of the Colossus were slow risers. Neither game emerged with great fanfare on the PlayStation 2, but it wasn't long before people talked about Ico's stunning, restrained tale of a boy and girl escaping a castle. They talked even more about Shadow of the Colossus and its spectacular series of giant-boss battles with despondent overtones. And they talked about director Fumito Ueda's naturalistic and arresting style, where realistic scenery and subtle storytelling cast the sort of hypnotic spell rarely within a video game's grasp.

It took a while before Ico and Shadow of the Colossus saw the same imitations that every beloved game stirs, but they've emerged. Dozens of titles, from Castlevania: Lords of Shadow to Dragon's Dogma, owe small pieces of themselves to Ueda's vision, and more sprang up as Ueda's next game, The Last Guardian, saw delay after delay.

Prey for the Gods makes no secret of its ancestry. It follows a warrior tracking the cause of an endless winter, and the quest leads to enormous titans that lumber around and regard this human interloper as a petty and devour-able nit to be picked. The hero (or heroine) can climb the behemoth bosses just like in Shadow of the Colossus, and fights can turn ugly if the player's isn't careful about breakable weapons and limited arrows. Traveling around the snowy wastes of the world is realistically harsh, and the game looks to build its backstory through its surroundings and imagery.

Developer No Matter Studios debuted Prey for the Gods with a trailer last year, and the game launched a Kickstarter this week. It makes a strong impression, even if much of what's shown could well come from a Shadow of the Colossus sequel rather than a more detached spiritual successor.

Far less is known about Vane. First shown at the Tokyo Game Show in 2014, the initial trailer depicts a child roaming a desert wasteland of arcane ruins and strange forces—and then transforming into a bird just before the trailer closes. Reportedly an action-adventure game, Vane promises a setting laden with mysteries and puzzles, and just about everything is straight from the Ico and Shadow of the Colossus repertoire.

There's a good reason for that, of course: Vane developer Friend and Foe Games reportedly includes former members of The Last Guardian's development staff. During the years that The Last Guardian spent in development and went oddly under-promoted by Sony, several staffers started up Vane, apparently preferring to make a game about a shapeshifting bird-child to a game about a boy and his huge pet griffin.

As though influenced a little too much by The Last Guardian, Vane dropped out of sight. It's gone without new publicity since a promotional video in December, and the Friend and Foe Games website lists the title without a specific platform and with a “When it's done” release date. The company's Twitter feed assures followers that the game's still in the works, though it's being made alongside another project, Dangerous Men.

Rime drew plenty of Ueda comparisons when it first appeared years ago. It follows a child trapped on a strange isle, and only by solving puzzles in ruins and seaside vistas can this small hero progress. Compared to the subdued palettes of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, however, Rime is a colorful fantasyland, with a cel-shaded cast to the characters and vibrant effects all around.

Early trailers for Rime looked like a promising PlayStation 4 title, and Sony itself gave it good backing. Yet recent developments don't flatter the game: amid rumors of Sony's dissatisfaction with the whole project, developer Tequila Works recently announced that they reacquired Rime's rights, and that Sony will no longer publish it themselves. Rime is no longer set in stone as a Playstation 4 exclusive, and it doesn't have a release date.

Some games aren't so far away. The Girl and the Robot, an action title by Flying Carpets Games, presents a child and a tottering clockwork creature in their journey to escape a fortress. It summons comparisons to Ico in its premise and cooperative gameplay, though with a brighter tone to the surroundings and characters. It's due out on Steam this summer, with PlayStation 4 and Wii U versions following.

Other games are already out. Ori and the Blind Forest stood proud last year with a branching side-scroller design that recalled Metroid foremost, but there's a distinct touch of Shadow of the Colossus in its beautiful style and more insidious moments. Toren, released in 2015, finds a woman scaling an ancient tower built by a lost civilization's hubris, and it shows hints of the Ueda aesthetic in its crumbling scenery and dark ruins.

These won't be the last games to draw upon Shadow of the Colossus and Ico…or The Last Guardian, which may well inspire yet more creations under the same rubric. I can't call that a bad trend. The game industry, like any entertainment sector, seeps with imitation, and yet Ueda's pared-down approach lends itself ably to other visions. It limits exposition, trims cumbersome interfaces, and brings out a subtle beauty. If there existed one more blatantly Ico-inspired game for every gore-streaked shooter or chatterbox cinematic RPG, this industry would be better off.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

I AM SETSUNA
Developer: Tokyo RPG Factory
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PlayStation 4 / PC
Release Date: July 19
Working Title: Endir's Shame
MSRP: $39.99

Tokyo RPG Factory may possess a mundane and mechanical title, but they have a noble aim at heart: crafting RPGs that recall the classics of 20 years ago and evoke the same straightforward and grand sense of adventure as Chrono Trigger, the 16-bit Final Fantasies, and other games that just so happened to come from Square Enix. I Am Setsuna is their first attempt, and it doesn't wear its influences as obviously as one might expect.

The Setsuna of the title is a young woman burdened by tradition: her frigid home of Nive Village periodically offers a maiden to a placate a local monster, and this year the creature's demand comes early. So Setsuna journeys out to meet her death, accompanied by the young mercenary Endir, the enigmatic warrior Aeterna, the veteran swordsman Nidr, and single-minded knight Julienne. They're stalked by a scythe-wielding man known only as The Reaper, and he's out to kill Setsuna…before she's properly put to death, that is.

I Am Setsuna doesn't go for the sprite artwork of a Super NES game; it uses polygon graphics for the characters and scenery. Yet it echoes the classics in other ways. Enemies are visible in dungeons, and battles take place within the same scene, much like Chrono Trigger. That's not the only link, as characters' positions on the field of play are important, and two of them can combine their moves into combinations strikes. It's all sealed up with a wintry patina and a gentle soundtrack. No, it will not magically transform you into a ten-year-old who's playing Final Fantasy II for the first time, unware that games can even have stories, but it's an honest effort at learning from the past.

And what about the Vita edition of I Am Setsuna? It's not coming to North America at the moment, but hope remains. Square Enix localized the Vita version of Adventures of Mana due to fan requests, so a similarly vociferous campaign could bring Setsuna here.


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


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