The X Button
by Todd Ciolek,
Everyone has a favorite cliché, a well-worn turn of phrase that's unintentionally amusing each time it's trotted out by lazy writers. I, for one, like “a strong sense of justice.” It's especially common in video games and anime, where countless youthful heroes are so labeled, in case an audience suspects them of possessing vague or malnourished senses of justice. Variations on this cliché even worm their way into otherwise excellent things, the latest translated volume of Hiroko Endo's Eden among them. I always enjoy seeing it.
I mention this here because I first saw a strong justice-sense mentioned in Mega Man 4, which explains why a household android named Rock became Mega Man. I'm sure this witticism was a long-standing staple of hackneyed dialogue well before 1992, but it was an otherwise forgettable Mega Man game that flash-froze it in my mind. This brings us to Mega Man 9, which is anything but forgettable, and I'll explain why later on. It doesn't address the status of Mega Man's sense of justice, so I'll just assume it's as sturdy as it ever was.
KING OF FIGHTERS XII MAKES MORE OLD CHARACTERS LOOK NEW
SNK and Capcom's rivalry was a fascinating circus for most of the '90s. Capcom made Street Fighter II, so SNK made Fatal Fury II. SNK made the Art of Fighting lead look like Ken and Ryu, so Capcom parodied SNK with Street Fighter's mostly useless Dan. Capcom made Marvel vs. Capcom 2, so SNK went out of business for a little while. And so forth. It all died down years ago, when Capcom decided to stop making fighting games. With Street Fighter IV and Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, however, the rivalry has begun anew, and SNK is firing back by overhauling The King of Fighters. Undaunted by Street Fighter IV's 3-D look, SNK set out to give The King of Fighters XII the most detailed hand-drawn animation imaginable.
There is, of course, a price. In compensation for all the work put into drawing the characters, SNK is cutting down the roster from the 40 or so cast members from The King of Fighters XI to about 20 fighters for XII. Nor is it too impressive that the cast consists entirely of returning characters so far, with about nine more slots to be filled. At least Iori and Leona (right) show up and get new outfits. That's all I want out of The King of Fighters at this point.
Elsewhere, Ignition Entertainment announced an early 2009 North American release for The King of Fighters '98 Ultimate Match, a PlayStation 2 remake of what many hold to be the best of the series. This story-free compilation lines up every team from the first four King of Fighters games (yes, even the Sports Hero Team), with a few new characters and gameplay ideally balanced for those who play fighting games “competitively,” whatever that means. Ultimate Match will also hit the XBox Live Arcade in due time, though the PS2 version might be favored by purists just for packing in the original Neo Geo edition of the game.
PHOENIX WRIGHT'S NEMESIS GETS SPIN-OFF, MORE SIDEKICKS
The Phoenix Wright series may be a runaway hit, but its title character owes a certain debt to Miles Edgeworth, the prosecutor who serves as Phoenix's most enduring foil in courtroom dramas, criminal investigations, and mountains of fangirl-made comics. Capcom announced an Edgeworth-based spin-off called Gyakuten Kenji (or “Turnabout Prosecutor,” just as Phoenix Wright was “Turnabout Trial” in Japan) a while ago, but the game recently re-emerged with a spring release date, a website, and a spot in Capcom's Tokyo Game Show lineup.
Edgeworth spends much of the game looking over crime scenes and interviewing witnesses, all in the style of Phoenix Wright. Unlike previous games, however, there's a new perspective or two on Edgeworth's work, with detective Dick Gumshoe tagging along during the prosecutor's cases. Like Phoenix, Edgeworth also gains a sprightly young sidekick: a cat burglar named Mikumo Ichijo (left). An American release is a certainty, possibly with the title Miles Edgeworth: Perfect Prosecutor.
TATSUNOKO VS. CAPCOM JUST WON'T STOP
So, Capcom, you want to announce new details about your Tatsunoko Pro crossover fighting game every week? Well, then I'll just write about it every week, smart guys. Capcom recently outlined the Wii port of Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Cross Generation of Heroes, which will include at least one new character: Daimaou, the genie from Tatsunoko's 1969 Hakushon Daimaō anime series. The show's largely unknown in America, but kids all across Europe got to watch it during the 1990s. This is arguably Capcom's way of telling us that the arcade game's character lineup is finalized. If you're holding out for fighters from Samurai Pizza Cats or The Brave Frog, they'll have to be in the Wii port.
Because it's a Wii game, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom needs mini-games, and lots of them. A new round of screens shows off some multiplayer diversions on par with Mario Party or Power Stone. Stranger yet is the game's simplified Wii control system, which will reportedly adapt the game for the two or three buttons of a basic Wii remote. It sounds disappointing, but Wii owners will also have the option of recreating the arcade's controls with a classic controller or joystick.
CASTLEVANIA JUDGMENT STRIVES FOR BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT
I almost feel sorry for Castlevania Judgment, Konami's upcoming Wii fighter. Castlevania fans think it's a cheap spin-off. Fighting game enthusiasts reject it as shallow. Rumor has it that even the development staff didn't want to make it. But Castlevania Judgment is still coming out, and it's still an arena-based 3-D fighter full of skeletons and ghouls and other creatures that get in the way of one-on-one sparring matches. Konami at least got Takeshi Obata (Death Note, Hikaru no Go) to redesign Castlevania icons for the game, even though many fans have balked at such frilly interpretations. The official website now has six Obata-drawn profiles of the game's cast, which includes Alucard, Simon Belmont, Maria Renard the Younger, a kid version of Castlevania: Bloodlines' Eric LeCarde, and a new fighter named Aeon. It could be worse, Castlevania fans; Konami could have hired Masami Obari for the art.
SPOTLIGHT: NINE GOOD THINGS ABOUT MEGA MAN 9
Mega Man 9 is now upon us, and it's safe to assume that anyone interested has paid their money and taken their chances with it. Yet there's more to Mega Man 9 than a quick, ten-dollar nostalgia jaunt. Capcom and Inti Creates took a long, exacting look at the most beloved of the Mega Man games (that'd be Mega Man 2 with a dash of 3) and set out to make the best possible Mega Man. Their creation is easily among the best that the vast Mega Man empire can offer. This is not a claim to be made carelessly, and that's why I'm forgoing a boring old review and exploring the nine things that make Mega Man 9 great.
1. THE CHALLENGE
Mega Man games steadily grew easier after the NES original, but Mega Man 9 draws upon the bygone days of cunningly placed enemies, quick deaths, and profane frustration. The eight initial levels allow little room for mistakes, whether it's a fall through a spike-filled canyon or a phalanx of little hard-hat sentries. Don't expect to beat (or even see) any of the robot masters on your first attempt. Well, except for Galaxy Man. He's a complete pushover.
And this is all a good thing. By getting just a little tougher than normal, Mega Man 9 casts us back to those inexperienced days of stumbling through our first Mega Man game, when every level demanded its own strategy and beating each robot master was a minor triumph. Mega Man 9 won't let you through until you've learned to play it right.
2. THE UNIQUE LEVELS
It's a lot easier to accept Mega Man 9's brutal difficulty when every test is a new one. Each of the eight robot masters presents some new gimmick in his (or her) level. Jewel Man's has swinging platforms controlled by the inertia of a running Mega Man. Hornet Man's has snail-shaped platforms that uncoil when shot. Galaxy Man's bounces Mega Man from one teleporting, neon-colored trampoline to another. Tornado Man's is a gauntlet of wind, ice-covered ledges, and twirling platforms that constantly flip Mega Man up and down. Some of the levels re-use ides from older Mega Man games, with varying success. Splash Woman's borrows Mega Man 5's somewhat tedious bubble-riding, but Plug Man's has the most punishing series of disappearing blocks ever seen.
3. THE LOOK AND SOUND
Much has been made of Mega Man 9 deliberately imitating the second game in the series, but the visual appeal of this ninth installment is almost closer to the slightly more polished look of Mega Man 4 or 5. Compared to that gradual descent into horrible bosses and bland levels, Mega Man 9 is far more interesting to look at. The enemies are seldom repeated, and Inti Creates made an effort to set the scenery apart from previous games. If I had to be critical, I'd point out that the levels are rarely as striking as the backdrops from Mega Man 2 and 3, but they're a hard act to match. The same goes for the soundtrack. While it's never as catchy as the Mega Man scores of our youth, the stage themes are still pulsing, memorable, NES-style beats. It's best Mega Man music in a long, long time.
4. THE SURPRISES
Even the most ardent Mega Man fans stopped caring about plotlines by the third or fourth time Dr. Wily tried to take over the world, so the game design itself shouldered the task of shocking players. Mega Man 2 let a giant dragon ambush and chase them across tiny platforms. Mega Man 3 dropped in a screen-filling robot for its finale. Mega Man 9's sudden twists are more likely to come in the middle of a level. It's especially sneaky in Dr. Wily's skull-faced castle, where a 1-up shaped like Mega Man's head might start firing bullets at you. Or the entire stage might give way to a floating, reverse-gravity interlude, forcing Mega Man to steer around spikes by firing. Sadly, this leads to the game's biggest disappointment: the final boss battle, which plays out far too much like the climaxes of lesser Mega Man sequels. Mega Man 9 will be remembered, but not for its climax.
5. SPLASH WOMAN
The robot masters of Mega Man 9 are all fun, from the somewhat routine designs of Concrete Man and Magma Man to the gimmicks of the honeycomb-chested Hornet Man and Plug Man. It's Splash Woman who stands out the most, and not just because she's the first female robot boss in a Mega Man game. She's also memorable in her attacks, which involve raining laser trident bolts down from above while singing to summon swarms of mechanized fish. Her design doesn't play to any nonsensical sexism, either, though one might detect some in the game's credits (which show her embarking on a modeling career) and the fact that Hornet Man's weapon does her the most damage. If kindergarten taught me nothing else, it's that girls are scared of bees.
6. THE LITTLE THINGS
Story rarely mattered in old NES games, and Mega Man 9 treats its plot as cute background flavor. It doesn't invent some grand epic; instead, it just serves up a handful of narrative scenes, playing out Dr. Wily's elaborate framing of Mega Man's creator, Dr. Light. Mega Man, Roll, and Auto uncover the secrets of Wily's revolution, including a plot twist about robot self-preservation that's straight from the yellowed pages of Astro Boy. It's all lightweight anime material, served with a subtle wink for longtime fans, and it brings just the right touch of personality to the game. Mega Man 9 even drops a few other references: Chun-Li shows up as an TV news anchor, and I still cling to my theory that Galaxy's Man weapon is named after the Black Hole Bomb from Gunbuster. Don't take that away from me.
7. HORNET CHASER
For the first three Mega Man games, the fun lay in collecting weapons from defeated bosses and experimenting with them. However, building an arsenal grew less and less important as the games continued and Mega Man's chargeable Mega Buster dwarfed them in power and versatility. Mega Man 9 solves this by reducing its hero to regular shots and, more importantly, making every weapon useful. Black Hole Bombs and screen-wiping Tornado Blows come in handy throughout the game, and the Concrete Shot even makes blocks and freezes huge beams of lava. The best of them, however, is the Hornet Chaser. A homing missile is standard issue in Mega Man games, but the Hornet Chaser goes beyond its call by letting Mega Man fire three robot bees that seek out enemies and also carry power-ups back to him. Yes, they're helper bees. It's priceless.
8. THE SHOP
If Mega Man 9 is unflinchingly tough, it's balanced out by a shop full of life-refilling energy tanks, 1-ups, helper robots, and weirder things. Anyone struggling through the game can trudge around a level and come away with armfuls of screws, the legal tender that buys all sorts of bonuses. Some are essential (don't bother tackling Wily's castle without nine e-tanks) and others are just for show. Be warned, though: the most expensive item just changes Roll's outfit.
9. THE REPLAY VALUE
Mega Man games are never very long affairs. The high-score boards for Mega Man 9 suggest that it can be finished in 35 minutes, though the arduous design will see most players spend four or five hours learning everything. When all of that's done, however, there's an exhaustive list of tasks for players to attempt. Some will be accomplished with no real effort, but I really wonder if anyone can beat the game without ever missing a shot. Frankly, Mega Man 9 is compelling enough without these demands; it's worth returning to it just so you can play around with the special weapons and figure out each enemy's weakness.
This brings us to the game's most controversial feature: Capcom charging for bonus content. In order to get a playable Proto Man (with a shield, a sliding move, and a charging shot), a new time-attack level, and all of the other extra features, you'll need to spend another eight bucks over the coming weeks. Whatever the public sentiment on this, it'd shouldn't keep anyone from picking up the main package. Mega Man 9 can stand on its own perfectly well, without extra nonsense or the legacy of its predecessors. And that might be its greatest achievement.
RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 9-28
HARVEST MOON: TREE OF TRANQUILITY
(Natsume/Cave, DS, $29.99)
I could make some curt remark about Princess Debut and what it says about the youth of today, but that cover art completely demolishes my cynicism. I mean, look at her. She's just so goddamn happy about becoming a princess. As the player's your-name-here avatar, Princess Debut's cover girl is whisked off to a fairy-tale land and put through a month-long boot camp for royalty. There she'll learn the basics of etiquette, dining, and ballroom dancing with a rabbit-headed instructor. She'll also get to know six different princes, each a mixture of stunning good looks and deep-running emotional issues. The game promises 20 outfits and 14 endings (one of which involves a cold, spinsterly future of cat-raising, I'm sure), plus lots of dancing. The lessons are reportedly motion-captured from professional ballroom dancers, and players make rhythmic sweeps with the DS stylus to keep the would-be princess in step. It sounds like wholesome fun for those young girls who still have Disney posters on their walls, though I wouldn't be surprised if Princess Debut wins over well-adjusted adults who just want a change from the usual DS offerings.
Get Excited If: You've ever read a romance manga series aimed at 10-year-old girls and felt all the better for it.
SAMBA DE AMIGO|
(Sega, Wii, $39.99)
Samba De Amigo actually comes out this week, a discrepancy I profusely apologize for. The important thing, however, is that the game's maracas controllers probably won't filter out to stores until next week. Sure, you can play the game with the Wii remote and nunchuk (or even two remotes), but it won't be the same as shaking a pair of day-glo maracas to match the on-screen beat of A-Ha's “Take on Me.” Those maracas helped make Samba De Amigo a hit among rhythm games during the Dreamcast days, and the Wii port adds in a bunch of extras. New to this version are over 20 additional songs, iconic Sega levels, a “career” mode, and the option to download even more tracks. Sega's also throwing in the Samba 2K music that North American audiences never saw in the Dreamcast era.
Get Excited If: You sense a distinct and overpowering lack of maraca-based games in your life.
SONIC CHRONICLES: DARK BROTHERHOOD|
(Sega/BioWare, DS, $34.99)
I get the impression that Sega really, really wants people to take Sonic seriously. Of course, Sega is disappointed that Sonic-related storylines are laughingstocks, followed only by children and obsessively broken older fans. That may be why Sega hired BioWare to create a new Sonic RPG on the DS. It's Sega way of showing all of those snickering YouTube punks. They laughed at a totally human princess kissing a big cartoonish Sonic, but let's see them laugh at a Sonic RPG from the makers of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect! Desperate motivations aside, Dark Brotherhood goes back to the original Sonic the Hedgehog's storyline about missing Chaos Emeralds, though also it throws in a race of alien conquerors. Most of the recurring characters from modern Sonic canon (including Shadow the Hedgehog) are playable here, and the battles introduce timing-based attacks and character-specific powers to a familiar RPG framework. There's no question that the faithful will flock to this, but can it win over the Sonic fans who've long since strayed? I'm probably the wrong person to ask (I lost interest in Sonic when Tails came along), though I should note that Dark Brotherhood's gotten unexpectedly high praise so far.
Get Excited If: You know what the Iblis Trigger is.
VALHALLA KNIGHTS 2|
(XSEED, PSP, $29.99)
The first Valhalla Knights was a rare example of a Japanese RPG that didn't overflow with anime theatrics and spiky-haired teenagers. All of the cast members, ranging from archers to samurai, were named and customized by the player, and the gameplay involved more dungeon-hack exploration than the usual story-driven fantasy. Valhalla Knights 2 follows the same path, with two new races in the character-creation mix and over 80 separate quests. The battle system graciously avoids random combat, and touching an enemy brings up an action-filled melee battle that can support a dozen characters at once. Beyond all of this, there's also an overriding plot about mortals warring with a fallen goddess, and it's penned by Miwa Shoda, one of the two writers who took up the story's slack after Final Fantasy XII's director quit.
Get Excited If: You want RPG with more grimy caves and fewer blue-haired girl healers.
EXTRA LIVES: METAL JACK: ARMORED POLICE
Armored Police Metal Jack belongs to that generic mass of mecha-filled anime series that Sunrise cranked out all too regularly from 1985 until 1994 or so. Like most of its kin, Metal Jack's 37 episodes stuck around just long enough to sell a few toys and inspire a few video games. One of those games was a Super Famicom title by Atlus, and it came exceptionally close to an America release as the cleverly renamed Metal Jack: Armored Police. Atlus created box art, wrote promotional copy, and even made a prototype of the translated English version to launch in 1992, but the final product never arrived.
Granted, Atlus had very little to translate. Metal Jack's story goes no further than an opening spin through the streets of 2015's Edo, where elite peacekeeping duties fall to three officers: Ken “Red Jack” Kanzaki, Ryo “Silver Jack” Aguri, and Gou “Blue Jack” Gouda. Each of them gets an armored suit that can combine with a mechanized car and form a slightly larger robot coating. The box copy suggests that Atlus switched the setting from Japan to Los Angeles, evidently reasoning that kids would relate better to pastel-colored cyborg cops in a Southern California cityscape of the future.
The game's six side-scrolling levels find the Metal Jack members jumping and punching their way through robot enemies, human thugs, and the occasional mutant. Each officer gets slightly different attacks and limited-supply weapons: Ken is balanced and carries a laser gun; Ryo is quick and uses a short-range sword; and Gou is the obligatory slow-and-strong guy armed with wrestling moves. Near the end of every level, the player's chosen Metal Jack warrior leaps atop his personal robotic jet-car and shouts “JACK ON!” He's then transformed into a larger, clumsier mecha capable of taking on the stage boss.
There's no official line explaining why Atlus canceled Metal Jack in the U.S., but I favor the theory that someone sat down, played the game, and realized what a cheap and thoroughly unremarkable thing it is. The basic play mechanics grow dull when you're faced with a repetitive supply of foes, and the special weapons are unimpressive. Surprisingly, the game gets even worse during boss battles. Those powered-up Metal Jack robots are huge targets, and their only useful attack involves charging up a special move over and over. Metal Jack is tiresome even in its challenges, with a final stage that pukes up all of the previous bosses for a grueling, draining, utterly tepid chore. And, for a final insult, there's no real ending. Instead you get a shot of our three heroes and a list of the programmers responsible.
Metal Jack isn't even a good recreation of its anime source. Sunrise's TV show was full of flashy robo-superhero schlock and the sort of warbling theme songs found only in the Japan that spent 1991 thinking it was still 1986, but the Super NES game has only brief, savagely boxed-in scenes of the Metal Jack team changing into toys. The scenery is nondescript and the soundtrack tinny, with only the aforementioned “JACK ON!” sample livening things up. Vocals of any kind were rare in early Super NES games, so that's one minor point for Metal Jack.
Perhaps Atlus improved Metal Jack for its American launch, but only a massive overhaul of the entire engine could make it interesting. Unreleased games often evoke a certain fascination, as few things are more enticing than something never brought to the light of public scorn. Yet this is unworthy of anyone's curiosity. A run through the Japanese version makes it bluntly obvious that Atlus did every Super NES owner in North America a huge favor by denying them Metal Jack all those years ago.
The Super Famicom version of Metal Jack is easy to find for about $20, just in case you're a ravenous Metal Jack fan who must own everything. As for the North American version, there's at least one prototype cartridge out there in the hands of a collector. If it ever goes up for sale, don't expect it to be cheap, as even a terrible game gets expensive when it's one of a kind.
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