Totally Unnamed Gaming Column - Surprisingly Big in Japan

by Mutsuki, Oct 20th 2009

Welcome to another edition of our unnamed gaming column, and this time, I hope you're fast on your feet. I mean, after all, who would have expected that Microsoft, the outsider of the gaming industry to gain any sort of foothold in Japan?

So what does the Xbox 360 offer in Japan that actually makes it appealing, dare you ask?

For starters, we have shooters. For various reasons, some of the major players that make various kinds of shooters within gaming have chosen the software giant as their home where you can dodge bullets and lay down the covering fire. Just to have a peek, we'll have a look at two which showed up in the last year, Death Smiles made by Cave, and Otomedius Gorgeous by Konami.

Then of course, there's various quirky and unusual titles, such as simulations and visual novel types, and where else do we start other than starting with trying to make sense of the strange idol industry other than the game series that kicked the Xbox 360 out of a curiousity in Japan into a console worth watching than the two 360 titles, The IDOLM@STER, and The iDOLM@STER: Live For You!?

For the Xbox 360, you'll need a NTSC-J console (namely, one picked up from Japan or Asia) as there's strict region locking for Japanese titles.

I trust you'll be happy to have a look at the selection, and remember, there's still a competition running that gives you the chance help us name the column!

[Mutsuki] Xbox 360: The IDOLM@STER (Bandai-Namco)

Probable Rating M - Sexual references, Partial nudity
Release Date 25/01/07
# of Players 1 - 6
Availability Japan - Rare, unless you pick up the Twins Pack or a digital purchase.
Language Japanese
Fluency/Literacy Level Expert - Kanji/Hiragana/Katakana
Special Notes The game's had a full fledged stage, a 360 faceplate, special DVD and artbook as its collectors edition.

This is THE game which made the Xbox 360 sell in Japan, as before this, Microsoft were struggling to sell 360s before this point. Until recently, it even held the record of the best selling game in its launch period in Japan, and is considered one of Namco's flagship series in Japan.

But that leaves us with the question of what exactly IS it about this game? Why did a part of Japan fall in love with the idea, and never let it go, and more importantly, is it good enough for us to sit up and take notice?

Well, the idom@ster's basic premise is simple. You play the role of a producer at a small talent agency and it is your job to pick from a selection of female candidates (up to three as you play through the game and unlock the options) and train them up. Both from a skills standpoint and emotionally, for when you're out doing promotional activities as well as to score those audition spots to get those fans in order to rank up.

The cast available to choose from is quite wide and varied, and as you interact with them, you'll find that they all have unique personalities. You'll find an innocent, clumsy girl, to the kind if somewhat lost older woman, to a cheeky pair and almost everything inbetween. They all have their own charms, quirks and moments where you might want to smack your head against the desk. They each have their own storylines which means they develop as you play through the game.

Graphically, the amount of work done to make them look alive as they express their opinions and feelings is quite something else, and when you see them perform up on stage with the dress and the accessories you want them to wear, it really does impress you as they feel much more life-like than you'd first expect. The other thing you'd probably notice is how smooth the game is - at its native 720p settings, it'll run consistently at 60 frames per second, and even you force the settings up, it will will still maintain that.

This one fact also help spawn some initial attempts at machimina with the series, using the game's engine to make a new form of AMV.

The selection of songs available for your idols to sing aren't very deep or meaningful (I mean, there's a song about going to school, diving for pearls and eating food), but you'll find yourself singing along to them as they're quite catchy. Various composers including Go Shina were involved in some of the music for the game and voice acting is very well done. It adds a lot to the expression given by the characters.

The quality of the voice acting shows, as just about every major character you interact with in the game will be voiced, and they project what and how they feel very well. It adds to the polish that each character was given graphically, ensuring they come to life.

You'll find yourself playing on a week to week basis, as you meet and greet your star-to-be, picking the song they'll sing that week, and what they'll wear on stage, which will all determine just how they'll present and perform. You'll also be playing minigames during their lessons to make them improve their primary stats. Apart from one game that requires you to move some of a song's lyrics into the right order, the games don't really require any knowledge of Japanese, and if you know how to do it, you don't even need that.

During promotions you'll be given a series of responses which will determine how your idol feels, as well as their access to memories. The memories play a major role in auditioning and the final stage, as well as the minor sequences where you'll be asked to respond to one of your candidates. In these parts of the game you'll need to know your Japanese. If you want the best results and you can't read Japanese, you can save the game before you go and then reload if you screw up. Looking up a walkthrough might not help unless you read it in advance - All responses are timed and you get five seconds to make a decision.

The objective during an audition is to convince the judges that your candidate is the best choice for the upcoming performance. This is determined through a mini-game where you press one of three buttons linked to your idol's attributes in order to appeal to the judges amidst the three sections of the song where you are allowed to appeal.

Each appeal earns you points and appealing at the right time can increase the amount of points given to you and at the end of each section you are given a certain amount of stars depending on how well you performed compared to the other competitors.

Memories you collected throughout the game can be used in auditions to further increase your appeal points if you do it right. Finally, the winner is decided by whoever accumulated the most stars at the end therefore making it in the qualifying conditions – you may just need to be one of the ranked competitors, or you may have to be the best at the audition.

If you're connected to XBox Live while you're playing, online auditions can show up during the game, which almost always attract more fans and give more presitige than a similarly ranked offline one... and you can actually find yourself competiting against other people. Tactics abound online, including making judges leave in order to make them take their points with them or figuring out how your opponents will appeal.

If you place in the audition, you'll then get an opportunity to see them in action, with their stats determining just how well they'll perform live. They'll sometimes forget their lines, forget to move or even trip up, as well as do poses for any good appeals achieved in the audition.

Once you complete the selected activity for the week, you'll get a wrapup of your idol's standing, as well as the opportunity to get new costumes or accessories. The game will then start a new week and it's up to you to figure out what's best for the up and coming idol. Fortunately, you're not forced to do certain types of activities each week, but repeating the same activity for more than a few weeks can be detrimental.

There is a set time limit of 40 weeks before the end of the game, so time is a premium, particularly if you want to make it all the way to the top. At the end of the game, you'll be required to conduct a final concert, which will determine just how the game will end for that idol, as well as provide access to further options.

Once you complete the game, you'll have access to the video mode, where you can take pictures and replay the previously saved successful audition as well as the ability to save more games, and possibly run a team of up to three girls, depending on how you went.

For such a basic premise it's a surprisingly deep game, and if you have any interest in anything of what the game is about, you'll find that you'll get dragged in if you have a friend that can help you play or a guide.

If you're willing to take the plunge, and give it a good go, you'll find yourself wanting to follow these girls on their way to stardom, due to the attention to detail that was given, along with the graphical leap of the 360 allows you to connect with them, both as people, and as idols. If you wanted to play a simulation game with a distinctly Japanese feel, this would be the game for you, language barrier aside.

The downloadable content that can be purchased will allow you to get even more costumes, which all alter game stats just the ones available in game as well as get e-mails and other little bits and pieces which just make the game that little bit more fun.

Just bear in mind that can prove really, really expensive - the points can add up, and unless you have a Japanese credit card, you'll have to import Japanese Xbox 360 live point cards, which can really strain your wallet.

To get a physical disc copy, you'll have to hunt down a copy of The IDOLM@STER Twins, which is both The IDOLM@STER and The iDOLM@STER: Live For You!, or try your luck trying to find a platinum or original edition rerelease, which will mean asking around various online import stores and hoping they still have it in stock.

If you really want the special edition of the game, the only suggestion I have for you is to try your luck at auction, but expect to pay at least a good few hundred dollars for it. It's got an awful lot of stuff though, so you might think it's worth it.

Unfortunately, even though the game was also released digitally on the console as a download, you'll have to be able to pay via credit card that will be accepted by Microsoft Japan, as they don't charge a point value for it - it's for the neat price of 2980 yen.

If you're wondering about the rating, yes, it is actually possible to harass the girls during certain sequences, although the game will penalise you heavily for it.

[Mutsuki] Xbox 360: Otomedius Gorgeous (Konami)

Probable Rating PG - Mild partial nudity
Release Date 20/11/08
# of Players 1, 1-3 via network or XBox Live
Availability Japan - Common
Language Japanese
Fluency/Literacy Level Advanced
Special Notes A special edition of a joystick made just for this game was released... if you were willing to pay the cost of another Japanese 360 to get it. It even had a LED screen which provided data from the game.

Cruising around in the galaxy in a portable flying ship, dressed up a bit strangely all the while wondering if penguins will take over the world is all in a day's work in Otomedius Gorgeous, Konami's latest Gradius style shooter. Can you prove to be the maiden of the Gradius genre?

Although the game features quite a number of gratitous shots, the rest of the game is quite tame, thankfully. But if you have any objections about seeing a lot of cleavage, you'd probably want to look elsewhere.

Though if you insist on playing it, you can also pick a guy and a fully dressed schoolgirl among other pilots, and if you have sphenisciphobia (a fear of pengiuns) you'll either relish in the idea of blowing them sky high or would be advised to stay well away from the game. As you can tell by now, the game's very comical.

You'll find yourself going through a series of stages in either the arcade (original) mode, or in the remixed Gorgeous mode. Either version will have you going up against penguins in mecha, or swimming, or charging at you with a hammer, or operating doomsday machines...

Yes, there are lots of other enemies which will make you scratch your head like traffic cones launched menacingly, icecube blocks, sarcophaguses and even a huge clam that happens to house a walrus that shoots back. So don't think it's entirely a penguin-based war.

... although you do get to charge into Antartica at one point... no, I'm really not kidding.

Although the game does look gorgeous with its three dimensional models and backgrounds and the beautiful stills, sometimes you'll find youself having trouble identifying what can actually hurt you, and what's just part of the background scenery. It's an important point, since touching walls will damage you or kill depending if you have a forcefield up or not. Considering how wacky the game can get, sometimes you can be left wondering...

The game doesn't subject you to huge amounts of bullet swarm - you're more likely to find yourself facing fire or enemies in tight quarters. Fortunately, the controls are very responsive, and the game doesn't ever change pace.

You'll get a selection of powerups, in the typical shmup fashion, which are bought after collecting a number of the powerup tokens which can make your ship go faster, make it fire missiles, change your main gun's firing, gain a forcefield, and even the options which are present in every Gradius based title. Keep in mind that you'll have to do this in real time - Meaning you'll have to decide if picking up an option is worth the wait or if a laser and some extra speed would pay off now.

Also, you can only purchase a power up if you have the exact amount of tokens needed. If you accidently pick up too many, the only way to get back to the powerup you want is to collect enough of them to force the meter to become full so it resets allowing you to recollect the number you need.

Initially, you'll only get the basic power ups, but as you play through the story mode, you'll find yourself unlocking more varied versions of the standard weapons ranging from ripples, to three way shots or even a backward firing gun. You'll also unlock the ability to enable super versions of an upgraded weapon which will allow limited use of the super weapon, reverting it back to its basic level once it is all used up.

As you play through the game, you'll also unlock various artwork that the game has, which can be a bit heavy on the fanservice at times.

The sounds are always what you'd expect, with crazy girls laughing, explosions sounding clear and the BGM is wacky, but it fits the whole game well.

The multiplayer modes are a bit odd, because strangely enough, the game offers both a competitive mode AND a co-op mode, but to play ANY of them, you'll need to either happen to have two or three Xbox 360s for networking (And enough TVs to go around), or play it over XBox Live. The game doesn't support co-op over a single console, which was an odd design decision, so remember that if you want to play with a friend or two.

That aside, the multiplayer modes are quite fun, as you can go head to head in a race against other players to destroy the most in the space of ten minutes, or you can try your luck going in co-op where everyone has to make it to the end of a stage, or none of you will.

Ranking's done both to the match, and a global leaderboard, so if you're just wanting to see who's the best out of your small group, it can be done, as well as seeing if you can beat the masters of the game.

There's also downloadable content available, ranging from the different BGM packs to new pilots to play with.

Otemedous Gorgeous will leave you scratching your head - It combines a strange world complete with penguin obssession with some solid mechanics and a lot of fanservice into one neat, well designed, sidescrolling shooter. But you're left to wonder why they treated multiplayer like they did and it might not be the sort of game you would feel comfortable playing in front of your grandmother though.

Most online import stores will stock copies of them but if you want to get the joystick that was also released with it, you're going to have to fish around at auction, as it's been out of print for a year. It was a very expensive joystick as well, being the price of some Japanese 360 models at the time, so don't expect to find it cheap.

[Mutsuki] Xbox 360: The iDOLM@STER: Live For You! (Bandai-Namco Games)

Probable Rating G
Release Date 28/02/09
# of Players 1
Availability Rare - Unless you pick up the Twins pack or the digital download.
Language Japanese
Fluency/Literacy Level Basic for gameplay, Advanced if you want to try the Downloadable Content
Special Notes Limited Edition came out with a Katamari AMV (Unity) made with the game as well as a single anime episode. The game has a LOT of downloadable content.

The iDOLM@STER: Live For You! seized on the runaway success which was The IDOLM@STER, and made a spinoff sequel of sorts, which focused exclusively on the performance side of the original game. You get up on stage and either lead them through a rhythm game, or you get the camera and start shooting the video that you have always dreamed of.

The producer from The IDOLM@STER has gone missing, and you've been invited as a guest producer to help the team perform on stage. They're all perfectly trained this time around, so it is a case of getting out there and performing, after a short intro where you'll be introduced to the lead of the group.

After you select your song of choice, and the stage, and deciding if you want to play the rhythm game or go into picture mode you can go to the costume setup, which is almost identical to the original idolm@ster game in its initial state. After you pick your costume, you can choose to set up accessories, then you'll be taken to a screen where you can tell certain idols to sing lines, and to adjust the camera.

After that, depending on which mode you picked, you either get briefed on the rhythm game, or on the camera controls, and after a short introduction by the lead of the group to the crowd, you are placed right into the middle of it.

For the rhythm game, you need to hit one of the six buttons (4 buttons on the pad, as well as left or right on the d-pad) as the icon comes up on the sidescrolling screen to score points and to build up voltage. What that button will do is determined by the difficulty level - on Easy, it'll actually be the crowd cheering on, and on other difficulty levels, it'll be various instruments. It's surprisingly amusing the first time you give the game a shot to hear the crowd go 'Hai!' or clap when you hit a button.

As you successfully chain combos, for every multiple of fifty they'll do a special pose, which adds extra voltage and a point total to your final score. As well, the point value increases for every subsequent hit, meaning if you pull off a full combo, your score will be very, very high. To add to the scoring, the accuracy of each hit will determine exactly what you get - if you only just made it in, you'll score just a single point before a combo multiplier, and a perfect means you'll score the full total.

Of course, letting notes slide or hitting notes when you're not supposed to will decrease the voltage meter, and if you get it too low, you'll fail the song. Hitting the wrong note at the right time means you break the combo, but at least it won't count against you, which helps if you're struggling with a hard song.

You'll be then taken aside where the company secretary will then comment on your performance, and if you do well, a call from the lead idol. All interactions are voiced, and as always, they're done very well.

If you've switched it to picture mode, the various buttons and the directional pad will allow you to adjust the camera, who you focus on, at what range, if you want to pose and if you want to take pictures during the video.

At the end of either, you'll be asked if you want to save the video so you can replay it at a later point.

It doesn't sound like much, although as you play through the game, you'll unlock further costumes as well as a remix of the initial sixteen songs, all which came from the first game. You'll find some of the remixes are surprising and leave you wondering why they made the remix, but they actually work with the lyrics. Full versions of the remixes were also released with some of the many music CDs The IDOLM@STER has released, which elaborates on those remixes.

What will scare you though is that if you're willing to open up your wallet and purchase enough MS points, you'll be able to get all sorts of weird, funky and cutesy costumes and accessories, as well as a second remix of all the original sixteen songs, as well as another sixteen songs including one of the songs performed at the Eminence's A Night in Fantasia 2009 and additional scenarios where you interact with the cast just like the original idolm@ster.

As well, if you look closely at the screenshots above, the game also allows via a secret to perform on a coloured screen of your choice as opposed to a normal stage. This added feature caused an explosion of MADs to come out from Japan, as people found they could do even more with with the game, and is still a driving force for MADs at NicoNicoDouga (User Registration Required).

The iDOLM@STER: Live For You! does everything it promises it would be - a good rhythm game with stunning visuals, catchy tunes, and the ability to take pictures and shoot the video of any of the songs available. The fact the game also allows for a lot of video work is a really nice bonus, and for fans returning from the original game, the interaction when you play and the extra downloadable scenarios would be appreciated. The one big gripe would be that there's so much that can be picked up and paid for via the marketplace, although thankfully it's a lot of it is extras not on the disc already.

If you're wanting more of the original idolm@ster with more of the interaction and working on making your idol the most popular, you'd be best to try either the DS or PSP renditions. There is extensive downloadable content which will let you play preset scenarios allowing you to interact with your idols off stage though.

For those who want to experiment with video making work this is a must get - since the community support is nothing but amazing. If you want to see an idea of a place that tracks MADs in English, try looking for The IDOLM@STER MAD World Service, and be prepared to browse for hours as you see the potential.

The game can be picked up digitally for just 2980 yen, just like its older sister, or you can find it with the twin pack via a online import store. The limited edition, which included an official MAD made by Namco themselves, a live concert and a promotional anime episode on the DVD, is a lot harder to get your hands on though - you could scout around, but more likely you'll have to try an auction.

Regardless of which edition you settle on, I do have some advice - getting at least a couple of Xbox 360 Japanese points cards would be advised for this game.

If you're wondering the sort of bill you'd be looking at if you're wanting to pick up all the game related stuff, you'd be only looking at about 55000 Microsoft points. For a rough idea, a 3500 point card would cost about $70-80 AU depending on the exchange rate.

[[Mutsuki] Xbox 360: DeathSmiles (Cave)

Probable Rating PG - Mild Supernatural Themes, Animated Violence
Release Date 23/04/09
# of Players 1-2
Availability Japan - Common
Language Japanese
Fluency/Literacy Level Advanced
Special Notes This is a improved port of the arcade game.

DeathSmiles brings what is almost undoubtably one of the most interesting premises to the 360 as well as incredibly entertaining as long as you try your best. You have a choice of picking a witch, as you blast your way through a series of stages in true dark fantasy and somewhat gothic fashion.

It's a side scrolling shooter, where you also have some indirect control over shooting above you or below you by use of your familiar as well as the ability to shoot behind you. Each witch has different firing patterns, as well as alternate firing patterns depending on if you tap or hold your fire button, and even different methods of moving your familiar.

It sounds simple enough, although if you looked at the screenshots, you probably would have noticed just how much the game can throw at you in short order, if you put the difficulty up high enough.

Fortunately, it's not quite as hard as it first sounds - Since your familiar can block certain bullets that can come out of defeated enemies, if you can get it to the right place to block the shot. You'll also get to see your hit box, which is presented as the heart of the character, meaning you know how much wiggle room you have when you find yourself ducking and weaving.

As well, as your familiar blocks shots and you collect skulls and other shiny objects, you'll be able to power up your attack mode, making you do a huge amount of damage, with a full screen clearing on activating, and again if you managed to stay powered up for the full duration without getting hit. During the period, all items which would normally power up this skill will add to the game's points multiplier, meaning you can (if you don't get hit) score absurdly high if you're good enough.

The game will also encourage you to try some unorthodox tactics, as on the game's default settings, you will take more damage if you get shot at by something, which gives rise to escaping a hail of bullets by charging through an enemy instead of taking a bullet to the face.

For those who believe in last resorts, you'll also get access to spell books which act as the game's bomb clearing weapon. Cave did something interesting which may discourage you using them though - if you're powered up, using a bomb will cause the remaining time on the power up period to rapidly deplete. This becomes more important in multiplayer as one person may be powered up and a misplaced bomb could drain things awfully fast.

Death Smiles also added in a game mode known as 1.1, where the mechanics were completely overhauled including game controls, providing a different style of play. It's lot of fun, as the changes make it focused towards mass scoring and not necessarily survival. This mode is only available in single player though.

Graphically, each detail of the game has been worked on, leaving a very deep and detailed world, although sometimes you probably won't get a chance to notice as you would find yourself more interested in dodging.

You can tell they had a sense of humour at times as you see some of the most absurd things thrown your way including a mad cow by the name of Mary, and the storylines which unfold will have them laugh, cringe or be downright angry during the few cutscenes of the game. It can prove downright pretty too.

Some people find themselves wondering if the game slows down due to the graphics, but for most part, you'll find that you'll need the game to slow down to give you half a chance to get out of the way of the hail of bullets.

The music is something to definitely hear, since it goes for the dark epic feel as you blast your way through the stages. Hearing the organ start up usually brings you to attention, and what follows on makes you pay attention, although you'll find you don't need extra incentive to pay attention. Sound effects are crisp, and the voice acting is quite interesting to listen to as they laugh manically, get hurt or power up.

As for the difficulty? Well, depending if you pick up the downloadable pack for the game (Magic Black Label) which will cost MS points, you'll have the choice of three difficulty levels (And the infamously hard level 999 for the last) where you can pick the stages in whatever order you like. Each time you complete a stage and manage to finish it without continuing, you'll make the next stages in sequence harder. Fortunately, you're allowed to use a limited number of level 1s and 2s, if you think the going is getting a bit too hard.

You can also adjust the settings like an arcade such as giving more life to start, taking less damage per hit and the like, but any games set like this won't qualify for achievements or for score attack.

If you have XBox Live, you can even take the fun over the net, although I find that it's best to play with a friend in the same room on a large TV. You'll also have access to recordings where people will post their absurdly good or bad plays. If nothing else, watching them can prove to be quite educational as you learn new tactics and hone your skills, or at least amaze you.

If there's any one failing on DeathSmiles, it's actually the controller the 360 comes with - It's not precise enough, and if you're really serious about your arcade shooting and want to be a real master, it's highly recommended you find and get a good joystick.

Either way, DeathSmiles will make you dodge and weave and bring that heart pumping moment where you swear you just pulled off the impossible. If you have any pride in being able to find your way through an impossible maze and scoring dizzily high scores, it's a must grab, and for those who aren't nearly skilled and need to adjust it to make it easier, you'll appreciate the humour and the character designs which leave one stylish and fun game.

The game also came in a collector's edition, which comes with the beautiful game soundtrack. Most online import places will stock at least the regular, and if you're lucky you might be able to get a collector's edition.

Just a thought

As for the last regular column for the competition, we're going to shifting gears, literally as we start driving. Be prepared to swerve, curve and drift our way across the landscape, to see what's out there as DW hits the accelerator. Just remember that you probably want to put on your seatbelt before we go.

With just two weeks to go, now would be a good time to race in with an entry, because we'd really, really wouldn't want to be disappointed with a bad name do we?

That, and considering that apparently one of our copies of The IDOLM@STER ended up getting signed at the Enimence concert by Gō Shiina, it'd be such a waste if we'd have to keep it on our shelves.

Goes to show that the games get out more than some of us...

Just remember to [email protected] (jon at animenewsnetwork.com.au?subject=Name%20the%20Column%20Competition) with your entry to be in the running!


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