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The X Button
Going to Town

by Todd Ciolek,

I'm always eager to see movies and anime embarrass themselves by wringing plots out of fighting games, but I never thought Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li would materialize long enough to do that. I was fairly certain it would just turn into a barely visible mist and settle in whatever patch of Hollywood sky holds such evaporated projects as the live-action Kiki's Delivery Service film and Tim Burton's Mai the Psychic Girl movie. I was wrong, because the movie now exists to the point where it gets publicity photos. None of them shows Michael Clarke Duncan's Balrog or Neal McDonough's M. Bison, as the focus is on Kristin Kreuk apparently playing Chun-Li.

There are many, many unkind remarks I could make about this, but I'll just say that it's a sad shame when a Street Fighter II lead is reduced to taking on thugs so incompetent that they don't even realize they're about to accidentally shoot each other. This is clearly the work of jealous SNK fans.


Tierkreis, the new Suikoden title for the DS, is out to do things differently. It's setting its story in a dimension entirely apart from previous games, it's based around missions instead of a long quest, and it's ditching the duels and strategic army-versus-army battles that occasionally popped in previous Suikodens. Consequently, it's upsetting a lot of the fans who liked all of those things and are a bit tired of waiting for the Suikoden series to get its act together again.

Still, Tierkreis takes a few admirable risks with Suikoden staples, since the game starts with a vision of the 108 Stars of Destiny, the heroic lineup of which changes from game to game, being wiped out. The main storyline then depicts the hero and his standard-issue childhood friends (you know, the silent guy and the over-serious girl) gathering those Stars, perhaps to be slaughtered in a war against a highly evil ruler and his attendant cult. It's also exploring online avenues, a first for the series. Besides, Tierkreis isn't being so bold as to call itself Suikoden VI. It's just a DS spin-off. Tierkreis is also coming out in the U.S. this March 17, right around the same time as another DS RPG, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, which will likely be superior in every way. Not that I am biased.

Few Westerners remember Brandish fondly. The first game started on Japanese PCs and made its way to home consoles, eventually arriving on the Super NES over here. A dungeon hack in an era full of them, the original Brandish dropped a nondescript swordsman named Varik into a vast labyrinth, where he contended with vile monsters, shopkeepers, a really awkward viewpoint, and a vengeful sorceress whose revealing outfit was censored for the sake of 1995's young, impressionable SNES owners. It was a mess of a game, but it caught on in Japan, where Falcom made two direct Brandish sequels and a largely re-invented fourth game.

Falcom's programmers are now remaking the first game as Brandish: The Dark Revenant for the PSP. The 3-D visuals are faithfully drab, and the game once again finds Ares (Varik's original Japanese name) and the spell-hurling Dela Denon (“Alexis” to those of you who played the Super NES version) squabbling as they navigate a maze of traps and vicious creatures. While the camera system may be improved, this is clearly just the first Brandish, so don't expect to see the ninja and the muscled-out martial artist from Brandish 3 or the entirely new cast from Brandish 4. Perhaps Falcom will remake those if The Dark Revenant sells well enough when it arrives in Japan this March. Or maybe Falcom will do the proper thing instead and just make another Popful Mail.


(Tryfirst, DS)
Koisuru Purin, a children's manga by Hiromu Shinozuka, sends the 13-year-old Rina Uchida to live with a family that includes two polar-opposite boys and what appears to be a pudding-shaped creature wearing a dress. It's popular enough for a DS side-scroller, in which Rina and her Purin sidekick traverse mazes. Purin's useful as a trampoline when Rina needs to scale heights (or as a scout when the two are faced with narrow passages), and the basic pudding-head Purin can be switched out for anthropomorphized versions of whipped cream, bean-jam pancakes, and cinnamon rolls. The game's clearly for the young girls who read Shinozuka's manga, and one must doubt that it ever gets more challenging than the second world of Super Mario Bros.. You know, the one with the flying Cheep-Cheeps.
Odds of a Domestic Release: Non-existent, unless Koisuru Purin suddenly becomes a massive success in American, with its own Saturday morning slot, 4Kids dub, and hardcore true fans to complain about said dub.

(M2to, DS)
Music games are popular in Japan. Cooking games are popular (to a point) in Japan. So M2to, showing the sort of innovative genius Japan's game industry is known for, created a cooking game in which players make cakes, pastries, and other simplified dishes while following equally simplified J-pop beats. As the game's heroine gyrates, the musical elements are handled through the directional pad as well as a Simon-like system of colored buttons on the lower DS screen. Not that it's all in the kitchen; scenes of the chef baking are interspersed with moments of her dancing in the backyard, apparently to keep the drudgery of domestic tasks from driving her mad. In between the rhythmic culinary, there's the chance to customize the lead character's outfits and hairstyle, because women need looks just as much as cooking skills, by God.
Odds of a Domestic Release: Not too bad, considering the success of Cooking Mama in Western markets.

(Tryfirst, PS2)
The Wrestle Angels series may sound like a product of modern Japanese game-geek tastes, since it takes place in a wrestling league where the members all happen to be anime girls. Yet this franchise dates back to 1992, when developers realized that there was money to be made from those anime fans who loved to watch attractive women putting each other in suplexes and Boston crab holds. Like Konami's dormant Rumble Roses games, Wrestle Angels pits two or more revealingly dressed female grapplers in a ring, with the cast of over 120 characters ranging from wide-eyed innocents to sneering vixens. Instead of using fully 3-D visuals or video clips, Wrestle Angels plays out its matches through a dull parade of static images. Moves are chosen by playing cards, and the results are shown by close-up art, all while voice actresses pant and taunt and occasionally gasp with pain. Yes, it's that sort of game, and its aims are further explored in the non-wrestling modes, wherein the player manages a chosen wrestler's training regimen, swimsuit photo shoots, and vacations that involve her losing her bikini top in the ocean. It's all rather stilted, but Wrestle Angels hasn't lasted 16 years on account of its gameplay.
Odds of a Domestic Release: AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA


(UFO Interactive, PSP, $29.99)
Global-A's first Dungeon Maker caused little fanfare here in the West, and that may be why XSeed Games passed on releasing the second. In their stead, UFO Interactive, the same outfit that brought us such off-the-radar titles as Raiden III and Heavenly Guardian, is publishing The Hidden War. Like Atlus' Master of the Monster Lair, the game is a do-it-yourself dungeon hack. The hand-on dungeon design promises 90 different types of structures and 26 design themes, with around 150 monster breeds. It's all part of a bucolic village's role in some ancient war between vengeful gods and demons, a war which I'm sure will come into play once again as the player's dungeons reach deeper into the earth. By the way, UFO's releases often have spotty distribution, so don't be surprised if Dungeon Maker 2 requires some hunting.
Get Excited If: You've ever spent more time with a game's level editor than its main attraction.

(Atlus, PS2, $39.99)
Persona 3 came out of nowhere last year, proving such a cult success as to rob Persona 4 of the same forgivingly low profile. Not that Persona 4 really needs it. Like each of the Persona games from the second one on, the fourth is an unorthodox RPG that makes rewarding strides outside of its genre's conventions. Persona 3's relationship system returns, along with another round of teenage friends and allies, including girls for the player's self-named male lead to pursue. The urban school and randomly arranged tower of Persona 3 are replaced by Persona 4's rural town and its stand-alone dungeons, many of them based around characters' personal issues. There's also the looming specter of a new, competition-squashing department store, and one must admire the verve of an RPG where the villain might be an insidious Japanese Wal-Mart. The battle setup also sees a few revisions in its enhanced character interactions and a system that deactivates the computer's control over party members. Not bad for what will likely be the PlayStation 2's last major title.
Get Excited If: You replayed Persona 3 just so your character could end up with a different girlfriend.

(Tecmo, Wii, $39.99)
The Battle of Argus has waited patiently on the sidelines for over a year, a long delay considering it's just an enhanced Wii port of Rygar: The Legendary Adventure, which came and went on the PS2 six years ago. Like Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden revamp, The Legendary Adventure turned Rygar into a 3-D action game, using the original's semi-doric background architecture to inspire a loosely Grecian fantasy title. The Wii version can link the hero's bladed yo-yo, or “Diskarmor,” to swings of the remote, with his foot movement handled by the nun-chuck's analog joystick. The game's design is also slightly altered from the PS2 game, as it now has more enemy encounters, a boss-rush mode, somewhat better visuals, and a new white hairstyle for the hero. There's probably a plot in there someplace, but I admit that I stopped paying attention to the original game's story after Rygar and his princess-to-be-saved confessed to each other that'd they had the same portentous dream.
Get Excited If: You resent my calling the Diskarmor a yo-yo.

(Sega, PS3, $59.99)
Sonic Unleashed hit the Xbox 360, Wii, and PlayStation 2 last month, and the fan reaction is pretty much what you'd expect from a game where Sonic turns into a were-hog in the glow of the moon. Most agree that the non-werehog gameplay is faithful to the kinetic style of the best 2-D Sonic games, yet there's much contention over whether the nighttime were-hog stages are merely a stupid idea handled well or yet another reason for Sonic fans to hide in their closets and play Sonic Rush. In other words, it's at least better than 2006's Sonic the Hedgehog. The PS3 version is much the same as the others; same 2-D Sonic levels, same were-hog sections, same centralized city hub, same potentially boring item-collecting, same new animal sidekick named Chip.
Get Excited If:You're holding out for slightly better visuals in the PS3 edition.


Takao Saito will go down in manga history chiefly as the creator of Golgo 13, the grim, efficiently macho assassin with a 40-year history of shooting people in the head and not caring much about it. Yet a glance through the Saito Productions catalog reveals that its founder also devised a massive amount of lesser-known comic series, most of them involving copious grimness and macho efficiency. Master Thief Sugar is a good example. Cut from the same pulp as Golgo 13, Sugar had dozens of manga adventures in the mid-1970s, but he never became a fixture of salarymen commutes like Golgo 13 did. Nor did he ever come to North America. In fact, the closest he got to international stardom was a never-released NES game called Secret Ties.

Having once found financial success with Golgo 13 games on the NES, Vic Tokai decided to do the same with Sugar, who, despite sharing Duke Togo's barber and eyebrow stylist, leads a life more in line with Lupin III's picaresque tales of accidental world-saving. Sugar, renamed “Silk” in the English version of Secret Ties, is not above selling his talents, of course. At the start of Secret Ties, a security-company magnate named Vince Brazen hires Silk to rob a potential client, while Silk's apparently steady girlfriend, Reiko, sits at home and pouts. Within the first stage, however, Vince abducts Reiko and offers to release her if Silk can steal for him a possibly mythic “stone of ages” capable of destroying the world.

At this point, Golgo 13 would casually shoot Vince in the forehead and leave the freed Reiko to fend for herself, but Silk is a nicer sort of anti-hero, and so he sets off to collect the stone of ages and the two other relics that empower it. Surprisingly, the wealthy, mysterious types who hold these artifacts greet Silk as a messiah, claiming that it was once prophesized that he would save the world. Wisecracking all the way, a reluctant Silk hops around the globe, taking on ninja gunmen, robot sentries, dog-faced mummies, and a Reiko impersonator named Feiko who, in Golgo 13 fashion, gets a little too excited about Silk defeating her.

Both of Vic Tokai's Golgo 13 games spanned several genres, mixing first-person sniping, driving, maze exploration, and side-scrolling levels with often shoddy results. Secret Ties plays by more traditional rules, sticking Silk in action-platform stages traversed one screen at a time. Aptly nimble, Silk can climb walls and slide through narrow gaps, and his punches, jump-kicks, and ducking attacks prove effective. Enemies also drop ammo for his basic pistol and, on rare occasions, leave behind a shield that'll protect him temporarily.

In between the palaver about ancient weapons and Silk's messianic ways, Secret Ties is very much a routine NES action game, not that far removed from Ninja Gaiden or the frequently underrated Vice: Project Doom. It never attains the greatness of either, but Vic Tokai puts Silk through solid challenges. There are floating platforms to leapfrog, keys to find, simple mazes to navigate, and floating enemies to kick just right. The control has a slightly loose feel, but it rarely serves to punish the player. Perhaps the only breakdown is in boss-felling strategy; nearly all of them are vulnerable to repeated gunfire.

As an NES game from 1992, Secret Ties has that busy visual palette that developers often used toward the end of the system's market life. It generally works, but some stages make it hard to pick ledges and platforms out from the non-interactive background. The game's story scenes show little cinematic push, confined to talking heads or chattering in-game sprites, though Silk pulls off a wide range of expressions. The soundtrack's decent in a tinny 8-bit way, with a memorable title theme and a number of beats seemingly remixed from Castlevania's score.

Secret Ties is a short game as NES action-platformers go, and the designers apparently forgot to include a huge, intimidating final boss. At the climax, Silk merely fights a pyramid-moving giant in wrestling trunks, Reiko shoves Vince off a ledge, and the master thief and his girlfriend escape to take a vacation and reflect upon mankind's irresponsible stewardship of the environment. No, really. This must be why Golgo 13 usually keeps his mouth shut.

On that note, most of the conversations in Secret Ties are drawn out and peppered with terrible jokes about travel agents and air conditioning, much like Vic Tokai's localization of the Genesis game Trouble Shooter. Still, the translators knew what they were doing, and the results are at least genuine English instead of “the truck have started to move.” There's even a reference to Silk visiting his friend Duke in Japan.

So why was Secret Ties canceled when it was apparently finished? There's no official answer, and theories range from Saito's possible obstinate nit-picking to worries about the dialogue giving offense by calling Silk “the messiah” in no unclear terms. Perhaps the real answer is in the game's scheduled released date. By 1992, the NES was on its way out, with both the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo taking over its once-vast market. Perhaps Vic Tokai didn't think a quip-spouting thief named Silk would sell in the West, though that doesn't explain why Secret Ties never even came out in Japan.

Many unreleased games were kept from the public simply because they were terrible. Secret Ties is a rare exception. While it's certainly no masterpiece of NES action games, Silk's adventure is a brief, unrepentantly cornball delight in spite of its generic ambitions. Silk may not get Golgo 13's name recognition, but at least he got the better NES game.

Secret Ties went unplayed by just about everyone until 2005, when Lost Levels dug up a pre-release version of the game and unveiled it to the world. Unless you feel like tracking down that rare prototype cartridge, emulation is the only way to play this one.

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