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Top Secret Episodes

by Todd Ciolek, Jan 28th 2009

Before I start to write about games for a few thousand words, I'd like to remind you all that Baccano! comes out on domestic DVD this week. It's a fascinating, intricately plotted little series about gangsters, alchemists, and gangster alchemists killing their way around America's criminal underworld in the waning years of Prohibition. It demands a strong constitution and a high tolerance for gimmicky, non-linear storytelling, but it's likely to be the best anime TV series released in North American this year. Just forget that it comes from the same writer and director who inflicted Koi Kaze on the world.

I'm not about to tell you that buying or renting Baccano! will help bring its related DS game over here. Not only are licensed games a privilege reserved for major anime successes in the West, but Baccano!: Dengeki Bunko ADV is one of those “adventure” games, driven by dialogue and menus, and American publishers wouldn't touch that genre even if it offered Naruto and Afro Samurai fighting a horde of zombie Pokémon. So anyone who wants a Baccano! game will have to struggle through the text-filled import, in which players manipulate the events of the TV show's train heist, meet some new characters, and uncover dozens of endings that series creator Ryohgo Narita never intended. Fortunately, the Baccano! anime series is slightly easier to enjoy.

NEWS

ATLUS LICENSES SUPER ROBOT TAISEN OG SAGA: ENDLESS FRONTIER, DEVIL SURVIVOR AND MORE
The good news: Atlus will bring another Super Robot Wars game to the U.S., if Amazon Canada product listings are any indication. The bad news: it's not one of the SRW games with robots from The Big O and Gundam and dozens of other anime shows blended together in one batshit-crazy storyline. No, Atlus is preparing Super Robot Taisen OG Saga: Endless Frontier for an April release, with the lawsuit-proof Taisen again taking the place of its English equivalent in the title.

The “OG” refers to the Super Robot Wars Original Generation series, which was a spin-off to start with. Endless Frontier takes it even further afield, as only the robots from Original Generation show up in Endless Frontier, an RPG that's focused more on human-sized characters. They're headed by a sarcastic cowboy named Haken Browning and a team consisting primarily of busty women, from the swordswoman princess Kaguya to the android Aschen, whose personality shifts from dour to perky whenever she sheds half of her skin-tight costume. The developers at Monolith built the game's battle system out of their Namco X CAPCOM engine, which means that combo attacks, canceling, and button-jabbing all figure heavily into combat. Monolith also threw in Reiji, Saya, and Xiaomu, the three leads from Namco X CAPCOM, along with KOS-MOS and T-elos from the Xenosaga series. It's a nonstop carnival ride of risqué jokes and even more risqué mid-attack jiggling, but it's the only Super Robot Taisen game we're likely to see over here for a while.

Amazon Canada also gave away other games from the Atlus summer catalog. Dokapon Journey, a DS title tied to the board-game RPG Dokapon Kingdom, comes out in April, while May will see Sting's intriguing action-strategy RPG Knights in the Nightmare as well as Crimson Gem Saga, a Korean RPG that's already appeared on mobile phones.

While it's hardly a surprise to see it here, the most interesting game in the lineup is Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor (left), a DS off-shoot of the biggest Atlus franchise. A diagonal-view RPG in which a player-named hero guides a group of misfits through a quarantined, demon-infested Tokyo, it arrives in June.

GOLGO 13 GETS A NEW GAME WITH LOTS OF TALKING
Despite his decades-long history in manga, international assassin Duke “Golgo 13” Togo is still best remembered in America for his role in Top Secret Episode and The Mafat Conspiracy, two terrible but undeniably unique multi-genre NES games created by the long-gone Vic Tokai. His last game appearance was in a 2001 arcade title that greatly resembled Silent Scope and never left Japan. But now there's a new Golgo 13 TV series, and Marvelous has the DS game Golgo 13: File G13 o Oe to go along with it.

Golgo 13's NES titles were mixes of many types of game: here a side-scrolling level, there a helicopter-piloting shooter stage, or perhaps a first-person sniper simulator. The DS game, judging by its new trailer, has only conversations (punctuated by Golgo's inimitable “…”) and shooting levels that look like a light-gun game played with the DS stylus. Where are the sniping scenes, the driving courses, the gunmen-filled mazes, or the hotel sex marathons that refill Golgo's life meter? Are Last Bullet and its schoolgirl assassin going to steal Golgo's impact before his game arrives in March? Well, at least Golgo 13: File G13 o Oe uses the DS in its sideways, open-book format, so Golgo's salarymen fans can pretend they're reading a manga during their subway commutes.

GUILTY GEAR XX ACCENT CORE PLUS ANNOUNCED FOR U.S.
Aksys is a brave, brave company. They already released Guilty Gear XX Accent Core on the PlayStation 2 and Wii in 2007, but now they've announced that they're bringing out the Plus version of the game for the North American PS2, PSP, and Wii this spring.

Compared to the PlayStation 2 version of Accent Core, not much is new in Plus. Kliff (left) and Justice (right) are part of the cast, though they were also in Guilty Gear XX #Reload back in 2004. Yet Plus has some new team-battle feature as well as an extensive story mode that's sure to draw in the Guilty Gear diehards who went through every branch of #Reload's plotlines. I did, and I've never had more fun playing a fighting game by myself. So that's one copy of Plus that won't go unsold.

WEIRD-ASS IMPORT ROUNDUP: JANUARY

THE COMMOTION OF HARUHI SUZUMIYA
(Kadokawa Shoten, Wii)
Remember when Kadokawa showed off a bunch of mini-games for Haruhi Suzumiya no Gekidou (everyone's translating gekidou as “commotion” and so will I), leading some people, myself included, to assume that they'd cut the dancing game that was pretty much the title's centerpiece? No, you don't remember? Good, because that was all a lie. The Commotion of Haruhi Suzumiya is out for the Wii in Japan, and it has both a dancing simulator and a pack of supporting mini-games. Of course, no one's really importing it for the mini-games; they want the remote-based dance segment and the four new tangentially Haruhi-related songs it offers. Reactions so far have labeled the game's remote-tracking abilities as “tricky,” which may be apologist fan code for “an unplayable piece of shit.” There's something here for Haruhi fanatics, but anyone who's just mildly curious about the game can wait for their next anime convention, where they're sure to see this thing humiliating people in the game room.
Odds of a Domestic Release: Sure, right after the turd-filled shooter Toilet Kids for the PC Engine, and that one fighting game where every character is construction equipment.

FRAGILE
(Namco Bandai, Wii)
It's hard to classify Fragile without turning to the widely inclusive genre of “action-adventure.” More than anything, the game focuses on exploring a world overtaken by post-apocalyptic decay, a world where a curly-haired boy named Seto hunts for any remnants of humanity. The first he finds is Ren, a pale slip of a girl singing beneath a night sky, but she's not the only one subsisting amid the ruins of an apparently modern civilization. Namco pitches the game as an RPG, though it approaches battles with an action-oriented interface, as Seto stabs or shoots ghostlike creatures and various monsters while sifting through dank basements and abandoned hallways. Fragile has earned a lot of attention on account of its hauntingly gentle soundtrack and vibrant nighttime scenery, and there's clearly some distressing story to explain just what happened to the planet. It's hardly a savage nuclear-blasted struggle (read on for one of those), but Fragile is one of the more promising Wii titles for 2009.
Odds of a Domestic Release: Pretty good, considering the lack of RPG-ish Wii games and Namco Bandai's promotion of it among the domestic gaming press. Perhaps the U.S. version will put more clothes on Ren.

HOKUTO NO KEN: RAOH GAIDEN TEN NO HAOH
(Arc System Works, PSP)
It's taken quite a while, but Fist of the North Star fans seem to be realizing that Kenshiro, head-exploding series hero that he is, can be a bit one-note. In recent years, it's been Raoh, the most fearsome of Kenshiro's pseudo-brothers, who's earned movies, a TV show, and even a big fake funeral in his name. Based on the currently running (in Japan, of course) Raoh-centric TV series of the same name, Hokuto no Ken: Raoh Gaiden Ten no Haoh might be the first Fist of the North Star game that doesn't star Kenshiro. He's hidden in there, but Raoh Gaiden is all about Raoh and, to a lesser extent, supporting characters from the series and recurring Fist lore. The lineup features Souga, Reina, Sakuya, Amiba, Uighur, Ryuro, Ryuga, Souther, Juda, and Raoh's three siblings: masked jerk Jagi, nice-guy Toki, and Kenshiro (fans will note that this may mark the most female characters to appear in any Fist of the North Star fighter so far, and no, I'm not counting Juda by mistake). Arc System Works, creators of Guilty Gear, put out a lovingly made 2-D Fist of the North Star fighter in 2006, but this PSP release wraps 3-D visuals around mostly 2-D gameplay. Raoh hogs the story mode, leaving the rest of the characters to slaughter each other in versus battles. Yet this is a fighter and not a side-scroller full of moronic drones, and so you'll have to work to see whatever body-bursting carnage the game has to offer.
Odds of a Domestic Release: If Arc's better-looking 2-D Fist of the North Star fighter didn't make it over here, this won't either.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 2-1

MY WORLD, MY WAY
(Atlus, DS, $29.99)
Atlus seems to be releasing a new RPG for every week of February, and they're leading with the charmingly solipsistic My World, My Way. In this RPG, a spurned, bratty princess named Elise sets off to become an itinerant hero for entirely selfish reasons, and she accomplishes this by actively re-shaping the countryside she encounters. While dealing with a slime sidekick and a hired antagonist (who resembles Kingdom Hearts II's Axel not a little), Elise creates and changes her environment by shuffling around sections of a grid-mapped world. The game's combat interface isn't too far from a regular, menu-driven Dragon Quest and the dungeons look like a typical 3-D action-RPG deal, but it's all in how the player sets up the stage. My World, My Way would make a fine sleeper hit, so here's hoping it uses its clever premise for enjoyable ends. And that it's not buried by all of the other RPGs that'll follow right behind it.
Get Excited If: You've ever wanted to tear up an RPG dungeon and rebuild it.

TENCHU: SHADOW ASSASSINS
(Ubisoft, Wii, $49.99)
The Tenchu series has somehow lasted ten years without really overexposing itself in the public eye, and Shadow Assassins marks the return of Acquire, the developer that created the first two Tenchus for the PlayStation. Now that their other ninja offering, Shinobido Imashime, will never become a series, Acquire turns to what is technically the fourth proper Tenchu. The storyline revives Rikimaru and his faster, weaker female comrade Ayame in a world of hazardous stealthy missions, which, while not as rigid as the worst Splinter Cells, make things quite lethal for ninja who get spotted by enemies. It's also the first Tenchu for the Wii, raising the question of just how suitable remote-waving motion controls can be for a game where precision is of the essence. It might degenerate into a hacking, slashing, remote-flailing mess, but at least you'll have 17 different weapons to swing around in the game. And there's always the upcoming PSP version.
Get Excited If: You played Tenchu and felt like stealthily waving the controller around.

EXTRA LIVES: MACROSS IN THE ARCADE

In the grand history of anime-based games that never came to America in the 1990s, Macross shooters were perhaps the most puzzling absence. The original series recently foundered amid legal battles, but it's strange that no game publisher was willing to take a chance on Macross in the years before Big West, Harmony Gold, and Tatsunoko Productions started squabbling over it. No one turned the original Famicom Macross game into a Robotech title, no one brought the not-half-bad Macross Scrambled Valkyrie to American Super NES systems, and Bandai's planned U.S. release of Macross VFX-2 was canceled even after the official U.S. Playstation magazine put out a demo of it. In fact, until some Robotech offerings arrived this decade, the game-playing public was most likely to see Macross at an arcade that just happened to import one of Banpresto's three coin-op shooters.

Super Spacefortress Macross
Banpresto wisely based its 1992 Macross arcade game on Do You Remember Love, the TV show's prettier, more compact movie retelling. A vertically scrolling shooter of modest design, Super Spacefortress Macross (the in-game title) gives players a Valkyrie fighter capable of transforming into a F-15ish jet, a robot Battroid, and an amusing plane-with-arms-and-feet Gerwalk mode. Each has a slightly different attack: the jet fighter shoots straight ahead, the Gerwalk fires slim lasers, and the Battroid spews missiles. Unfortunately, Banpresto ignored others Macross games that let players switch forms with the touch of a button. Instead, Super Spacefortress demands that you grab special power-up capsules to change a Valkyrie's configuration. These capsules burst onto the screen every ten seconds, making them just a needless complication. Players can also grab heavy armor that absorbs one direct hit and locks a Valkyrie into Battroid mode, but it hardly makes up for not being able to twirl a jet fighter through a cloud of missiles, morph into a robot, and unload everything into a Zentradi warship.

At least Super Spacefortress Macross has the right atmosphere. Its seven stages cover every major battle from Do You Remember Love, including a final run into Zentradi leader Golg Boddole Zer's vegetable-like battleship. The visuals show a lot of hand-drawn detail, particularly in an opening crawl through the interior cityscape of the SDF-1, where downed fighters tumble to the streets below. Also impressive for a 1992 arcade game are the intermissions, all animated with large sprites and occasional voice samples, which tie into the soundtrack's attempts at aping the movie's music.

As a shooter, Super Spacefortress Macross pushes few boundaries. It's certainly challenging, with thick fleets of Zentran and Meltran forces firing all sorts of missiles and bullets and drone fighters, but there's a noticeable lack of interesting patterns in them. Only the later bosses throw out any remotely creative attacks, and the ending is merely a short recreation of the movie's closing credits. The years have changed little about Super Spacefortress Macross; it was purely average fan-bait then, and it's purely average fan-bait now.

Super Spacefortress Macross II
Someone at Banpresto clearly picked up on criticisms that the company's first Macross arcade game was too staid a shooter, because 1993's Super Spacefortress Macross II aims for something different. Many arcade shooters reward high scores, but Macross II focuses an entire game around them. It presents three different paths through various anime locales (including a space armada hilariously filled with pop-star holograms), and players get about two minutes to reach a pre-set score. Instead of evading bullets and snatching power-ups, the game emphasizes shooting down enemies and grabbing the Macross symbols that pop out. It's a novel idea among the rampantly unimaginative shooters of the early 1990s, but Macross II never makes it work. The levels are barren and unsatisfying, and both competitive two-player modes seem dull.

Perhaps realizing that no one actually liked Macross II, Banpresto pays little attention to its storyline. Players control either Silvie Gena or Major Nexx, but there's nothing in the way of plot sequences or endings. The game mimics the mecha designs of Macross II and occasionally shows a full-screen centerfold illustration of alien singer Ishtar, yet the whole thing could just as easily be some generic 1990s shooter, right down to the forgettable music. Macross II was an unambitious mound of clichés later banished from the series canon, but Banpresto's arcade game is a different sort of failure, one that takes new ideas and goes nowhere with them.

Macross Plus
Macross Plus is inarguably the best part of Macross, but it's not particularly strong in shooter material. After all, the conflicts in three-fourths of the OVA series involve reunited high-school rivals Isamu Dyson and Guld Bowman beating the shit out of each other over any matter more important than the last purple jellybean. Banpresto didn't care about that, though, because Macross Plus has a stunning climax full of explosions and mecha battles, and it could be expanded into a seven-level shooter. Since a story didn't matter much in an arcade game, the designers were also free to add another selectable Valkyrie fighter. Along with Isamu's VF-19 and Guld's VF-21, there's a yellow VF-11 piloted by a blue-haired woman who's never properly identified in the game. Prevailing fan theory has it that she's Komillia Jenius.

As a 1996 shooter, Macross Plus returns to the vertical gameplay of Super Spacefortress Macross. Switching Valkyrie forms is still a matter of snagging the right power-up at the right time, though those power-ups are now frustratingly rare sights. There's also a new targeting system: hold down the fire button, and the Valkyrie fighter can launch up to eight smoke-trailing missiles at enemies. It's a simpler version of the lock-on lasers from Taito's Layer Section (a.k.a. RayForce and Galactic Attack), but it adds a lot to the otherwise simple assortments of bombs and machine-gun fire.

Like Banpresto's first Macross arcade outing, Macross Plus provides a fairly good challenge for the player who doesn't want to merely shove credits in the game (believe me, it's tempting). Enemy fire comes fierce and quick, and the three Valkyrie fighters make rather large and easy targets. The game does a less competent job of evoking Macross Plus' visual style. There's an occasionally faithful beat in the soundtrack, but the levels prove unremarkable, as do most of the enemies. A descent through a heavily guarded orbital defense system isn't half as exciting as it is in the anime, and psychotic AI pop diva Sharon Apple, who's presumably controlling most of the opposition with her magical hacking powers, doesn't even show her face until the sixth stage.

Worse yet, Macross Plus uses a bland mixture of traditional hand-drawn graphics and the sort of ugly, computer-rendered stuff that game designers loved for no reason in the mid-'90s. Finishing the game nets you some heavily letterboxed frames from the anime's ending or a shower scene of the blue-haired mystery woman. It's not surprising that Banpresto's take on Macross Plus was received better among shooter freaks than Macross followers, as it's more of a quick, fiendishly hard challenge than a compelling showcase for anime fans.

All of the above Macross games share the unfortunate fate of many arcade releases: they were never ported to a home system. Playing them is either a matter of tracking down arcade boards or firing up MAME, though the latter runs the first Super Spacefortress Macross without sound. If you're intent on finding one in the wild, I just so happened to see a Super Spacefortress Macross machine at a Brunswick Zone in Carol Stream, Illinois.


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