The X Button - Dream Mismatchby Todd Ciolek,
I want to remind you all that you have one more day left to enter the Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero? contest. Hurry up and send me the tale of the most infuriating experience you ever had with a video game. I've received plenty of great entries so far, but I can always use more. It makes me feel important.
One more thing: I asked professional writers to abstain from entering the contest last week, and, after some thought, I realize that wasn't fair of me. See, I'm a professional writer myself, in that I have been given money for writing things, and I know how tough it can be to afford games when you're begging for freelance work or covering school board meetings for a local paper. So I'll withdraw that request. Even if you earn your living by writing clever things, feel free to throw your entry my way, as long as it arrives by 11:59 p.m. EST on this Wednesday, March 11.
I still reserve the right to disqualify entries from people who've made New York Times best-seller lists. They can buy their own damn penguin games.
FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST GETS WII GAME TO GO WITH NEW SERIES
The new version of Fullmetal Alchemist hasn't even aired in Japan, but Square Enix sees no reason to delay a new Wii game based on this yet-unseen reinterpretation of Hiromu Arakawa's manga. It helps that the new series looks a lot like the old one, and the same goes for the Wii game, Fullmetal Alchemist: The Prince of Dawn. It's set at some point around volume 16 of the manga, with Ed and Al Eric roaming Central City and meeting familiar Fullmetal Alchemist characters.
Most of the screens shown suggest a game heavy on conversations between 3-D anime characters, but there's also the obligatory use of the Wii remote to consider. In The Prince of Dawn, players will apparently wave the controller around to repair Ed's automail and point it at the screen to locate things. More gameplay modes will doubtless come to light before the final package arrives in the summer.
FIRST GAIJINWORKS PROJECT REVEALED: MIAMI LAW
The company known as Gaijinworks may not be a prominent game-industry fixture, but anyone who played console RPGs in the 1990s remembers, fondly or sneeringly, the name of Working Designs. In an age when few publishers translated Japanese RPGs and fewer still did it well, Working Designs and its president, Victor Ireland, gathered a cult following by bringing over RPGs, shooters, and other games that might have been otherwise ignored. Ireland and his cohorts were known as much for their comedic localizations as their game selections, as most Working Designs releases were liberally doused with humor and modern-day references. Some grew to hate Working Designs for their frequent game delays as well as their habit of making jokes about Baywatch and seismic flatulence in the middle of straight-faced RPGs, but the company had plenty of fans. I suspect that anyone who played through Dragon Force, Elemental Gearbolt, Popful Mail, or the first two Lunar games still has a soft spot for Working Designs.
Working Designs couldn't compete with larger, more efficient localizers like Atlus and NIS America in this decade, and Ireland closed up shop in 2005. Less than a year later, he resurfaced with a new project: Gaijinworks. After sparking debate over the wisdom of naming a translation studio Gaijin-anything, Ireland's company went silent for quite some time. Last week, it was revealed that Gaijinworks contributed to Hudson's upcoming Miami Law, a multi-genre police game for the DS. It follows two law enforcement officials: FBI agent Sara Starling carries out investigations not unlike Phoenix Wright tap-and-look sessions, while hard-boiled cop Law Martin gets shooting scenes and wild car chases. Miami Law will be out in June, presumably with lots of references to David Caruso and Euro-Disney.
TOSHINDEN GAME GETS NEW ART
I am now forced to confront the possibility that the new Tōshinden fighter for the Wii might not be completely hideous. For one thing, the new artwork isn't bad, at least not when compared to the garish, pointy-nosed work of the series' last character artist, Tsukasa Kotobuki. What's more, most of the fighters have ridiculous names; the best of the bunch is Goyathlay, which is the sort of spittle-forming moniker you just don't see in video games that much any more.
As for the game itself, the Takara Tomy collective hasn't shown much of it since the first few hideous screens leaked months ago. In fact, the trailer shows a bunch of character art in lieu of any game footage.
IN BRIEF: YS 7, NEW PAC-MAN, ONE MORE CUTESY SHOOTER
Experienced RPG developer Falcom held a special gathering in Akihabara last weekend, announcing both the seventh game in the Ys series and yet another new version of Ys Book I and II. The only piece of Ys Seven shown there consisted of a logo (right) surrounded by artwork from previous Ys games, including even that forgettable sixth Ys with the elves and the island and the North American release. No console has been announced yet, but both Ys Seven and Ys I and II Chronicles will be covered further in a Japanese PlayStation magazine, so draw your own conclusions.
When it came to making Sonic the Hedgehog a success in the 1990s, Hirokazu Yasuhara was perhaps more responsible for the mascot's rise than any other member of Sega. He directed the first four Sonic games on the Genesis, and many still rank them among the era's best platformers. Yasuhara stopped making Sonic games after those misguided Saturn days, and he's since worked on the Jak series and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. Now he's preparing an all-new Pac-Man game to be released when Pac-Man turns 30 years old in 2010. Will it be something unique and groundbreaking, like the underrated Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures, or just another maze-based 3-D Pac-Man?
Lastly, the low-level arcade shooter Mamonoro is headed to the Xbox 360 in Japan. Developed by G. Rev (Border Down) and Gulti, it's a overhead action game similar to Pocky and Rocky (and the recent Heavenly Guardian), and it stars a schoolboy who fires specialized magical shots in eight directions, neutralizing enemy fire and racking up higher scores by making enemies more powerful. Well, I assume the lead is male at least, though the rest of the game is full of super-cute fairies and priestesses and schoolgirls, just like the majority of modern Japanese arcade shooters. Mamonoro will be out in June, with little chance of a Western release. Hey, it's easier to import $70 Xbox 360 games than expensive arcade boards.
REVIEW: THE KING OF FIGHTERS '98: ULTIMATE MATCH
The King of Fighters was an excellent idea back in 1994: take the most interesting characters from SNK's library and put them all in a fighting game, with a bunch of three-member teams representing Fatal Fury, Ikari Warriors, Art of Fighting, Athena, and other SNK games. It worked so well that yearly editions of The King of Fighters eventually dominated SNK's library, forcing older fighting series to the sidelines. However, the 1998 update was a little different. Instead of introducing a handful of new characters, it brought back most of the old ones and refined the gameplay. Among those who take fighting games seriously, The King of Fighters '98 has a reputation as a marvel of competitive balance. That's why SNK revisited it with this Ultimate Match edition, adding in just about everything the original game forgot.
In the years before every fighting game had a story mode and some flailing attempt at drama, The King of Fighters made a great show of how each game added new cast members and plot devices, such as the mysterious Orochi power that drove the events of The King of Fighters 1995 to 1997. For its 1998 all-stars compilation, the series dispensed with any storyline, aside from short endings that really just nod at the fans. Instead, The King of Fighters '98: Ultimate Match has characters. Lots and lots of characters. The package boasts 64 of them, an impressive number even after you consider that it's counting EX versions of existing combatants. All of the names ignored by the original The King of Fighters '98 are added: straight-laced Kasumi Todo, often overlooked ninja Eiji Kisaragi, and each of the ridiculously tough bosses from previous games.
It's the characters who make the series, and not just in terms of gameplay. Ultimate Match may not look half as sharp as any modern 2-D fighter, but SNK cared enough to put in lots of little details, especially in pre-match introductions and oddly translated win quotes. The game is rife with fan-bait: Shingo showing off his Kyo-wannabe gloves when he meets his idol, Kensou mooning over his embarrassed co-star Athena, reticent soldier Leona saluting her squadmates (and, inexplicably, the franchise's resident fat guy, Chang), kickboxer Joe Higashi being a jackass to everyone, and, of course, leading rivals Kyo Kusanagi and Iori Yagami going about their usual bickering.
Any game with over 50 playable characters is going to have an oversight or two, and yet I'm amazed at how tight Ultimate Match seems. Going up against a boss or the Orochi version of Iori or Leona doesn't make for the most even of matches, but there's remarkable balance among most of the fighters, whether you're playing a heavyweight who favors throws or a lithe warrior who bounces around the screen. The EX versions of characters are quite welcome additions, particularly for cast members like King, who seems to alter her move set with every game.
Ultimate Match touts an interesting customization system. The original The King of Fighters '98 offered the choice between “Advanced” and “Extra” modes to govern a character's dashing, evasion, and power-meter buildup. Ultimate Match lets players cherry-pick their favorite method for each category, resulting in even more new ways to play fighters. Your choices apply to your entire team, however, so there's no mixing, say, a Benimaru who rolls to avoid hits with a Ralf who adopts the lean-into-the-background method of dodging. There's also an extensive character-editing mode that lets you change even the color of a fighter's energy attacks, and, just in case you hate every alteration made here, you'll find the original The King of Fighters '98 on the disc, in all its Neo Geo glory.
So what isn't in Ultimate Match? Well, any character introduced to The King of Fighters after 1997. That includes K', Vanessa, Kula, Ash, and other faces that have since become common sights in the series. It's also fair to say that the backgrounds in 98 were never the line's best, and they aren't any more striking in Ultimate Match. Neither is the in-game art, which still looks weirdly jagged, like a bad Photoshop pasting. At least the soundtrack is fine, with a hilarious, half-rapped opening number that would be perfect for a King of Fighters Saturday morning cartoon.
The game's multiplayer choices are unfortunately lacking, due mostly to its choice of platform. Fighting-game enthusiasts thrive on facing human opponents, and even though every major fighter for the Xbox 360 or PS3 has online play, no new PlayStation 2 game can enjoy that luxury. You'll just have to go about it the old-fashioned way, with your opponent in the same room when you play. There's also the rumor that Ultimate Match will show up on XBox Live next year, and the presumed online competition would make it a more valuable purchase for diehards. Still, Ignition can't be faulted for their Ultimate Match package here and now: you get the game, a fold-out poster, and an extra DVD with plenty of wallpapers and trailers for The King of Fighters XII.
In fact, The King of Fighters '98: Ultimate Match holds up nicely in light of the newest installment. The King of Fighters XII has a stunning, hand-drawn look, but its cast includes only 20 characters, all them familiar. Ultimate Match is the opposite: a dependable fighter where the huge roster and extensive options make up for a dated appearance. When it comes to gameplay and sheer volume, Ultimate Match has everything that made The King of Fighters last this long.
RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 3-15
RUNE FACTORY FRONTIER
Did the Rune Factory series break up with Harvest Moon? Apparently so. Unlike the first two Rune Factory games, Frontier doesn't carry the subtitle of “A Fantasy Harvest Moon,” though it's still close to the farm-running, wife-finding aims of the Harvest Moon series. The lead from the first Rune Factory returns for Frontier, once again exploring a medieval-level town and its surrounding dungeons. In between the action-oriented cave scouring, players maintain a farm and discover creatures encoded with certain elemental powers, which influence both the agriculture and the more violent gameplay. The other half of the game involves the local dating scene, where the protagonist will find dozen single women, some of whom return from earlier games. They include a samurai, a hot-springs enthusiast, a mail-carrier, a book nut, a rich girl, a nun, an obvious default-love-interest heroine, and heterochromatically eyed twins who commune with spirits. Can't say Frontier lacks in variety there, though there's apparently no option to play as a woman.
Suikoden fans have been through a lot since the generally amazing second game in the series arrived back in 1999. Suikodens III and IV were deeply flawed in different ways, and Suikoden V fixed most of their problems while adding new ones, including a sluggish pace and far too many repetitive battles. Now we're at Suikoden Tierkreis, a DS spin-off set in a new dimension apart from the other Suikoden games. Still, it opens with a decent hook: a band of 108 legendary heroes, which the player would presumably spend the game collecting, is massacred in battle with an imposing villain. From there we go to a village where a your-name-here boy serves in the local militia alongside his friends, a serious girl named Marica and an even-more-serious guy named Jale. Strange events soon occur, among them the arrival of girl who could be Marica's twin. Tierkreis uses big-headed characters similar to those of Square's Final Fantasy IV DS remake, and the battle system remains as fast-paced as previous Suikodens. Also unique is the game's mission-based approach to exploring dungeons and gaining levels, though this design choice has some Suikoden fans calling for boycotts of Tierkreis. Don't give up just yet, as there's still some chance of a dimension-straddling crossover with previous Suikodens.
VALKYRIE PROFILE: COVENANT OF THE PLUME|
Publisher: Square Enix
Regular readers of this column may notice that I have a slight, barely detectable fondness for Valkyrie Profile games. That may be why I played through the Japanese version of Covenant of the Plume, but I'd like to think it had more to do with the game's strengths. For one thing, it neglects the frequently flat tone of Valkyrie Profile 2 in favor of the original game's mixture of grim stories and frantic, timing-based combat. Covenant of the Plume adapts typical Valkyrie Profile button-mashing into a strategy-RPG, one that revolves around careful character positioning, since up to four characters can team up and strike an enemy. There's also the eerie matter of a feather, given to a dense young man named Wylfred in his quest for revenge on Lenneth, the first game's valkyrie. The feather lets the player turn any ally into a near-invincible killing machine, but said ally will be dragged off to Norse hell at the end of the battle. It's a novel idea that creates difficult choices both moral and tactical; sacrifice a party member and you won't just be a soulless, manipulative piece of human filth. You'll also lose an advantage in the battles to come. Throughout its different paths and three separate endings, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume is rarely kind. It loves slapping you into cruelly challenging battles and ripping interesting, potentially playable characters out of your grip. In this age of forgiving strategy-RPGs, it's a sadistic piece of work. That's why it impresses. One thing bothers me, though: clips from the translated version of Covenant of the Plume suggest that Square Enix is cutting the voice acting from a bunch of story scenes. It seems a cheap measure for an RPG that's retailing at forty bucks, and while a lot of obsessive Valkyrie Profile fans would've complained about the acting regardless of quality, I know that many other players prefer their games with voices whenever possible.
Also this week: The DS-based Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, Atlus' Trackmania racer, and Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure.
EXTRA LIVES: SPELLCASTER
Just as Sega adapted Zillion into a maze-based Master System game, the company also turned Kujaku-Oh into a side-scrolling action title with some graphic-adventure elements. Unlike Zillion, Kujaku-Oh didn't keep its title, since Spellcaster rolls off the tongue a little smoother, and Sega couldn't take chances when Nintendo was crushing them in every corner of the market (except England). Kujaku, the heroic young mystic at the center of a war against resurrected monsters, was renamed Kane in Spellcaster, and the rest of the characters get a variety of oddly translated names and new, Americanized ones. The story itself is translated clearly enough: Kane wanders from one shrine to another, fighting off creatures and eventually learning just how deep a demon-hunting conspiracy can go.
If there's one impressive part of Spellcaster, it's the wide range of attacks that Kane gets. His magic spews lasers, launches fireballs, calls down thunder, allows him to levitate, refills his health, and grants him a briefly impenetrable shield. These powers aren't dealt out over the course of the game, either; Kane begins with just about all of them. While they require energy points to use, Kane also has a basic fireball-throwing move that shoots small energy bullets when the attack button is tapped and unleashes a charged-up larger blast after the button is held down.
Kane's abilities go well beyond most games from Spellcaster's day, but the side-scrolling action lags behind them. The graphics are adequate for Master System stuff, but the scenery gets repetitive and the soundtrack is rudimentary. To make the whole affair grate even more, Kane has limited controls. He can't walk or duck while firing or charging a shot, leaving the player to improvise some awkward system of leaping forward while readying a powerful energy burst. Kane is also a big, slow-jumping target for enemies, and battles with equally large bosses leave him with little room to dodge.
Fortunately, Spellcaster isn't just an action game. In between clearing out demon infestations, Kane examines towns and temples through an interface full of adventure-game options: Look, Talk, Take, Magic, Use, and so on. It's similar to Shadowgate, Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom, and other 8-Bit puzzle-based games. Naturally, Spellcaster's challenges don't really approach LucasArts-level complexity, as it's usually just a matter of poking around for an item, re-visiting locations, and talking to everyone you meet. At least there's a huge, detailed portrait of Kane, who changes expressions with each plot twist and indoctrinates children of the late 1980s with that wicked anime magic.
Sega re-visited Peacock King with a Sega Genesis sequel in 1989, releasing it in the U.S. with the title of Mystic Defender and another round of altered names (plus some curiously uncensored nudity). It's arguably a better game than Spellcaster. The spell-firing Kujaku, known as Joe Yamato on the Genesis, can move and stoop while charging shots, and the game brims with that arcade-graphics look that won over so many early Genesis owners. Yet Spellcaster is the deeper of the two games, being an mild investigative challenge as well as an action game. Both halves of Spellcaster have aged less than enviably, but there are few games like it even today.
As Kujaku-Oh has yet to spawn ranks of crazed and wealthy fans, getting Spellcaster, with a box and everything, shouldn't require more than $15 on the auction scene. You'll note that the artwork is slightly better than the usual horrid, sparsely illustrated Master System box cover, as Spellcaster was released later in the console's life.
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