The X Button
by Todd Ciolek,
Like a lot of game nerds, I spent far too much of my childhood waiting for stuff to come out. In the years before one could look up release dates on websites, I had the habit of frequently checking with stores, and I'm convinced that several Software Etc. clerks still hate the kid who'd call several times a week to see if Breath of Fire was in yet (though they could've saved me forty uneventful hours by telling me it had been canceled). I'll probably need a few more years before I can talk about what the now-defunct publisher Working Designs and its release schedule did to my stress levels.
I've left those days behind me, but I still appreciate it when developers and publishers play it safe with their release dates, like Grasshopper is doing with No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle. It's looking at a 2010 debut for North America, which is presumably our reward for buying twenty copies of the first game, five times what it sold in Japan. That'll ensure few delays, and, more importantly, it'll give us plenty of time to wonder if the trailer's mechanical insect-woman will end up in the actual game.
TOSHINDEN RETURNS TRIUMPHANT
Some maintain that the Toshinden series was at its best when the original game, vapid as it was, amazed new PlayStation owners with its polygon visuals back in 1995. I, on the other hand, believe that the franchise peaked with the climax of the terrible two-part Battle Arena Toshinden anime series, in which the heroes, facing a villain who can imitate their attacks, realize that they can win by doing other people's moves. I love those moments when even a movie's script just gives up and doesn't care anymore.
There's at least one developer who believes that Toshinden's best days are still to come, since Tomy recently announced a new entry in the series, and on the Wii, no less. The game aims for simplified, one-button attacks, and the roster appears to be made of entirely unfamiliar fighters such as Touji (above, left) and Silvia (above, right). It's no surprise that the cast is all-new, as the most recent game in the line, Toshinden Subaru, ditched every recurring character expect for Eiji and his evil brother. So low was Toshinden's profile that Subaru skipped an American release entirely, though the lucky European market got it. The franchise's star hasn't exactly risen in the years since Subaru, but Tomy might just bring the game to the West. Perhaps Sylvia will become the Wii's mascot for all of two months, just like Toshinden's Sofia did for the PlayStation back in 1995.
PROPE ANNOUNCES LET'S TAP, PENGUINS
It may seem a letdown that Prope, the new developer founded by Sonic co-creator Yuji Naka, made its first Wii title yet another collection of mini-games, but the real hook lies in the way they're played. Players lay their Wii remotes on a flat surface and control their on-screen motions by tapping near the controller, a system that's led Prope to extoll Let's Tap as a game that even a penguin could play, if penguins were at all interested in playing video games. The mini-games range from races to rhythm games to challenges that recall the old NES game Stack-Up, all with the visual simplicity we've come to expect from compilations like this (and all of the screens seen so far are notably lacking in penguins). Let's Tap arrives in Japan this December, with an American release very likely in 2009.
DAN AND SOME OTHER GUY FINALLY IN STREET FIGHTER IV
I mentioned Dan and Fei Long's supposed inclusion in Street Fighter IV last week, and I wasn't planning to do it again this week. However, Capcom not only confirmed them, but the company also released new art of Fei Long and an illustration that perfectly sums up Dan and everything he stands for.
So there you go, Dan fanbase. He's arguably surpassed the SNK characters he was originally supposed to parody.
REVIEW: NARUTO: PATH OF THE NINJA 2
Naruto seems an odd fit for an RPG. Masashi Kishimoto's world of garishly colored ninja and showy attacks makes great material for fighting games, the simple mechanics of which can appreciated even by those who hate Naruto with their every existential fiber. An RPG, however, is a slower confluence of many details, and it's tougher to bring Naruto to the genre while pleasing both the fans and the uninitiated. Path of the Ninja 2 at least puts together something for the Naruto faithful.
For one thing, Path of the Ninja 2 makes the most of its cast. The game begins with only Naruto and Sakura, but there's a lineup of 30 characters to eventually recruit, and Sasuke's among them (despite the game taking place in that filler-friendly wasteland set after he left Leaf Village). Each character comes with distinct attacks faithfully recreated from the manga and anime, and players are free to swap party members in and out of three battle slots and one backup spot.
The plot driving all of these battles is, of course, irrelevant to the Naruto canon. A village is destroyed when the game's lead villain revives an ancient evil, and the village chief's granddaughter (who Naruto initially estimates as being “almost cuter than Sakura”) turns to the Leaf Village for help. For younger and more devoted Naruto fans, it'll be enough that the TV show's regulars strut their gimmicks in battle, but there's no appeal for the casual player who barely knows which one is Naruto. While a derivative story never dissuaded newcomers from enjoying a Naruto fighter or action game, plot and setting matter slightly more in an RPG, and Path of the Ninja 2 offers a strictly pedestrian tale.
Not that the game is shallow at its core. The basic, menu-driven RPG gameplay is enhanced by carefully moving characters into offensive or defensive spots (something that, fortunately, doesn't take up an entire turn). A generous amount of jutsu attacks, powered by stylus motions, are dumped on the player at the start, and the Ninja Tag system is a convenient method for customizing characters with special abilities.
Path of the Ninja 2 also deserves some credit for not rolling over easily, as even the first boss battle is reasonably tough. Yet the game also resorts to a more frustrating challenge: random combat. The concept is an outdated one, but some games can still pull off sudden, unseen enemy attacks with good pacing. Path of the Ninja 2 isn't one of them. The battle rate is too high, even if some characters can make it easier to escape quickly.
While the in-battle graphics show some detail, Path of the Ninja 2's overhead, world-map visuals are on par with a Game Boy Advance game (though the elongated character sprites could pass for Suikoden extras), and the soundtrack is disposable and upbeat. It's also annoying to hear the characters repeat the same set of battle cries in every fight, though I imagine the game's target audience will find it charming.
And just who is the target audience? Path of the Ninja 2 isn't for the casual player or anyone in search of DS RPG that stands on its own. It's for the enthusiastic young Naruto fans, the ones who will delight in forming a party of their favorite characters, pit them against other players online, and trade for those elusive Kakashi and Tsunade cards. The rest of you should just stick to the Naruto fighters.
RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 10-26
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD'S ZOMBIE BBQ|
(Destineer/Gammick, DS, $19.99)
One could argue that the art of turning cute fairy-tale staples into gore-fests is a tired idea and has been such since The Nightmare Before Christmas. However, Little Red Riding Hood's Zombie BBQ at least has some fun with it, pitting a grown-up and underdressed Little Red Riding Hood and a ninja prince named Momotaro against shambling, undead versions of Santa Claus, Sleeping Beauty, and even Red's own grandmother. The backstory is nearly a parody of modern gaming, evidenced by Momotaro toting a grenade launcher and Red using a “sexy dodge” move to evade zombies. The gameplay uses the DS stylus to guide the two hunters on a vertically scrolling path, and it clearly strives for the same hectic, gruesome pleasures as the action games of decades past. Hell, the official artwork wouldn't look out of place on an old Capcom arcade cabinet, which may be Gammick's way of acknowledging that Capcom's Darkstalkers series gave Little Red Riding Hood a machine gun back in 1997.
Get Excited If: You know what Darkstalkers character I'm talking about, and you played as her in Cannon Spike.
THE KING OF FIGHTERS OROCHI SAGA|
(Crave/SNK, PS2/PSP, $19.99/$29.99)
To the untrained eye, The King of Fighters series may seem a monolith of largely identical fighting games, but …well, that's sort of true. Yet each yearly update brings many small changes, from the choices in the games' huge casts to the balance of their fighting systems. And there's also a storyline, minor as it is, running through the series. The King of Fighters '95, '96, and '97 all form the Orochi arc, centering on the mysterious power that flows through the half-crazy Iori Yagami, the reticent Leona, and, of course, the final boss in the '97 game. They're all complex, well-made fighting games, even if they've been outdone by later entries in the series. SNK also throws in the franchise-starting The King of Fighters '94 and the plot-free (but carefully balanced) The King of Fighters '98. For twenty bucks, you can be completely caught up on the first third of The King of Fighters, and all of your KoF-loving friends will be none the wiser.
Get Excited If: You still shed tears over Mature and Vice.
NEVERLAND CARD BATTLES|
(Yuke's, PSP, $29.99)
Idea Factory's Neverland series has slowly crawled into North America through Generations of Chaos, Spectral Souls, and a few other games in the loosely linked franchise. Neverland Card Battles is the first U.S. game to proclaim its lineage in the title, however, as it's a side-story about ancient deities of the Neverland universe fighting a war that boils down to cards. The game uses a strategic grid and RPG-like options, but all combat's carried out through player-built card decks. There's also the matter of staking out portions of the battlefield, as grid space gives characters more fuel for attacking. It's been a lean year for the PSP, so Card Battles might just find a wider audience than the rest of its Neverland siblings.
Get Excited If: You wanted more card-trading in Spectral Souls.
EXTRA LIVES: CYBERBOTS
Capcom forged a critically acclaimed streak of licensed games in the 1980s and early 1990s, starting with a Duck Tales NES game and continuing through arcade releases like X-Men, The Punisher, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, and the best Alien vs. Predator game ever. Yet someone at Capcom wanted to make a Mobile Suit Gundam game, or at least a tribute to the sprawling, mech-filled anime space-opera that continues to dominate Japan's geek culture. It wasn't until the next decade that Capcom laid hand on the rights to Gundam, but that didn't stop the company from marshalling its creative forces in the mid-'90s and making Cyberbots, a fantastically detailed display of mecha-fan pandering. And almost no one noticed.
Cyberbots technically began with Powered Gear, a 1994 arcade release very much in the vein of Final Fight, Streets of Rage, and other games that we're still calling “beat-'em-ups” even today. Like most of its breed, Powered Gear was repetitive, but it had a part-mixing system that let players swap out the arms and legs of their robots, or Variant Armor Suits. It also had some rather striking mecha designs, and Capcom clearly didn't want to waste them on just one game. The next year saw them reuse Powered Gear's robots in the largely new surroundings of Cyberbots.
In a stroke familiar to any Gundam fan, Capcom set Cyberbots in a future of space colonies unjustly dominated by a terrestrial military known simply as the Earth Forces (or Earth Corps, depending on whose story mode you're exploring). The playable characters are similarly routine: Burning-blooded Jin Saotome (whose design was inspired by Apocalypse Zero) wants to find out the truth behind his father's death; straight-laced Earth Forces Captain Mary Miyabi is slowly discovering the ugly side of her superiors; caveman-like siblings Bao and Mao are seeking refuge in their auto-piloted VA; the mercenary Santana Laurence is trying to instigate a revolution; the naked-but-for-a-collar Arieta just escaped from an Earth Forces laboratory; and the elderly Gaiwaine Murdock knows a lot more about all of this than he's saying. The cast also runs afoul of the cyborg Shade, the rebels Chiyomaru and Tessan, and a bratty young princess named Devilotte De Deathsatan IX. Oh, and there's a fearsome brain-in-a-jar end boss called Ganglions of Omniscient Disrupter, or G.O.D. for short. Subtlety is not something you'll find often in Cyberbots.
Modern fighting games invariably make some attempt at a story, but in 1995, narratives were so rare in the genre that Cyberbots stood out. Every character's plot arc sees a number of pivotal battles, each bookended by conversations that explore some scrap of backstory or, at the very least, set up a fight. The storylines range from the grim to the purely comical, including Jin's angry-young-hero tale and Devilotte's pursuit of her crush on Gawaine, no matter the shame it brings to the De Deathsatan clan. Cyberbots will never impress today's critics with its simple drama; instead, the babbling adds another layer of atmosphere, giving an ounce of gravitas to the act of two giant robots pounding each other into explosions.
And Cyberbots nails that atmosphere perfectly. The game's 16 mecha are well-designed, jointed sprites classified into four major groups: the standard Blodia model, the heavy Guldin, the thin Reptos, and the ball-shaped Fordy. The designs are even more creative in the special robots, which include an octopus that launches rocket-tentacles, a machine that transforms into a helicopter whenever it's the air, and, in the PlayStation and Saturn ports of the game, a huge robot version of Street Fighter's Akuma.
All of the fights in Cyberbots are animated with the sort of detail that makes you pause the game just to watch the readouts that surround overheated weapons or the life-raft cushion that pops out of a Fordy unit's head whenever it blocks. The backgrounds are just as impressive. Most of Capcom's 2-D fighters have excellent scenery, but I'm not sure if anything from Street Fighter or Darkstalkers bettered Cyberbots' stunning descent into an orbital colony (with crisscrossing highways and tiny vehicles) or the underwater stage where a cliff breaks away and drops the two battling machines to the ocean depths, revealing a panorama of Atlantean ruins. Even Kinu Nishimura's artwork of the pilots is striking and full of references to everything from Final Fantasy VI to Galaxy Express 999.
The score, by frequent Capcom contributor Takayuki Iwai, fits the futuristic scope of the piece, with a host of memorable tracks that shift between lighter tones and pounding, metallic beats. Capcom also hired voice actors for all of the cutscenes, including Tohru Furuya, the voice of Amuro Ray, as Jin Saotome. A shame they're not in the game's English version.
As a fighter, Cyberbots has everything except detailed gameplay. Its combat mechanics are certainly well-programmed, but they're not very deep. In contrast to the six-button play of Capcom's other fighters, the mecha have two attack buttons, along with a button that fires a VA Suit's signature weapon and a boost button that lets a robot jet across the screen. It's a solid enough game that covers all the basics, including special moves, combos, dashes, and super attacks linked to a chargeable meter. Robots can even lose their arms in the thick of battle, and it's possible to trade limbs with your opponent if you're both so injured. Yet it's an uncomplicated thing, with little of the fine maneuvers and strategies that turn ordinary fighters into heated contests to prove your self-worth.
Without that competitive edge, Cyberbots didn't make it. Fighting-game fans just weren't interested in something that couldn't lend itself to long-term versus play, and the casual arcade-goer wasn't into mecha as much as Mortal Kombat and Primal Rage. The arcade version faded quickly in Japan, and the English version barely made it past location testing in North American arcades. Cyberbots got a second chance in 1997, when a near-perfect port arrived on Saturn, complete with a special edition package (bundled with an artbook and pop-up display), playable boss characters and the above-mentioned Cyber Akuma. A less-perfect version hit the PlayStation later that year, but neither one came to the U.S.
Cyberbots had no official sequel, and it lived on only through other Capcom games. Devilotte showed up in Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, and Jin later appeared in the Marvel vs. Capcom series, leaving many to wonder just where they came from. Even among mecha fans, Cyberbots is often ignored in favor of Capcom's own Tech Romancer, a 3-D fighter that paid even more loving tribute to the whole of giant-robot culture. We'll get to that in another column. For now, it's well worth hunting down Cyberbots to take in the mecha homage as well as the enjoyable fighting game that frames it.
Either home version of Cyberbots can be found for about $15 online, with the Saturn edition being the more common. Double the price if you want its special edition. Of course, you could just fire it up at GameTap, which is the only place to (legally) play the English version short of buying your own arcade kit.
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