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Machine Music

by Todd Ciolek, Apr 15th 2009

Talk about the state of anime conventions all you want, but this year's Anime Expo is going to be just fine in my book. That's because it's hosting Guilty Gear creator Daisuke Ishiwatari and BlazBlue lead designer Toshimichi Mori as guests. See them discuss fighting games, speed metal, and the true relationship between Sol Badguy and Ky Kiske!

As a fan of Guilty Gear, I'm looking forward to this. I'm also looking forward to some older anime fans complaining about a convention admitting video game talents as guests instead of, say, Go Nagai and Kazuo Koike and other venerated masters of woman-hating. It'll be the anime-con version of senior citizens griping when the local paper drops Nancy or Dick Tracy from the comics page.


Earlier this month, tri-Ace set up a website for a brand-new RPG, promised not to reveal the game until a certain time, and then immediately made liars of themselves by giving Famitsu the full details on End of Eternity for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Though it's being published by Sega instead of tri-Ace's longtime patron Square Enix, End of Eternity brims with modern anime-punk style that strongly resembles Square 's own recent, semi-realistic Final Fantasy Versus XIII. The game restricts itself to the sprawling metropolis of Burzel (or is it Bazel?), where enormous engines creak alongside the ornate cathedrals of an apparently powerful faith. The battles occur randomly and present a real-time approach similar to tri-Ace's usual action-driven combat, with players switching between characters and tracking their movements on a grid of octagons.

The green targeting circles have some recalling Parasite Eve, but I don't really see it. Anyway, let's meet the characters.

Zephyr is End of Eternity's apparent hero, with copiously belt buckles and perfectly behaving bangs that suggest some Final Fantasy take on SNK's Rock Howard. He's 17 years old, and in Burzel/Bazel, that's old enough to work for a local military contractor.

Supplying an older perspective is former solder Vashyron, who's shown whirling through gunfights and not looking happy about anything. Of course, in Japanese RPG terms, “older' means that he's only 26, and he's apparently working for the same mercenary outfit that employs Zephyr.

The third lead is known only as Experiment 20, a 19-year-old girl created by some amoral scientific chicanery and engineered to die before she hits 20. She's freed from a lab by Zephyr and Vashyron, and while the official art shows her in cheerful moods (and dressed in pink and red clothes, like a certain other doomed woman from another gloomy RPG city), the trailer finds her moping over a pocketwatch's obvious symbolism.

End of Eternity clearly has a decent budget, though it also mines familiar veins in RPG storytelling. If nothing else, it suggests an interesting break with Square Enix, which has handled just about every tri-Ace creation this decade. In fact, End of Eternity is set to come out in Japan in the winter, around the same time as Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIII.

Just in case all this talk of End of Eternity makes you want to play Final Fantasy VII again, the original game's "International" version (essentially the improved U.S. edition with Japanese text) just hit the Japanese PlayStation Network. As usual, there's no word of a North American release along the same lines.

I really thought that Konami had forgotten about Vandal Hearts. The original was a decent, if largely forgettable, chaser to Konami's Suikoden in the PlayStation days, and the second Vandal Hearts went mostly unnoticed in both Japan and North America. But Konami has remembered it, at least enough to commission Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment for the Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network.

If it weren't for all of the news writeups and press releases, I wouldn't have figured this was a new Vandal Hearts. It's a prequel to the first Vandal Hearts and has the same kind of turn-based strategy, but it's apparently in development at a Western studio. That would explain the choice of artwork.

I was hesitant to write about Dream C Club in months past, but after putting the Queen's Blade PSP game in last week's column, D3's new Xbox 360 dating simulator seems mild by comparison. Besides, Dream C Club at least has a potentially mocking premise: there's a hostess club full of paint-by-fetish girls waiting to feign interest in lonely men, and you, the player, must fund your club visits by slaving away at demeaning dead-end jobs during the week. Once the weekend arrives, you spend a few hours conversing with your chosen befrilled hostess. Dream C Club has the usual dialogue system for choosing your responses, but there's also a gameplay feature that controls your drinking habits, presumably so you spend less money and possibly get the hostesses inebriated enough to reveal their deepest secrets, ambitions, and insecurities. And then they sing karaoke songs!

The whole setup might suggest some vicious, magnificently depressing satire of hostess clubs (sort of a fictional companion to The Great Happiness Space), but the screens and the official website classify Dream C Club as yet more fantasy-fulfilling twaddle, like The Idolmaster with alcoholism and maid outfits, or Yakuza with less drama. Still, it raises a pertinent question: is playing a game about a hostess club more or less pathetic than routinely going to a real one? An answer may emerge when Dream C Club arrives in Japan this summer.


Naruto: Ultimate Ninja 4 may have been the first Naruto game to feature Shippuden characters in North America, but it clearly won't be the last. Tomy recently announced that Naruto Shippuden: Ninja Council 4 will arrive on the DS next month. Like past Ninja Council titles, the fourth is a side-scrolling action game, one where players form three-ninja teams for both a story mode and multiplayer battles. The game's cast of 17 playable characters seems anemic next to the vast lineups of Naruto fighting games, but 2-D action titles sometimes have to play it conservatively.

Some fans of the all-girl fighter Arcana Heart are waiting for Atlus to announce a North American release for the sequel, Sugoi! Arcana Heart 2, but there's a problem. The PlayStation 2 version of the moe-intensive fighting game is apparently stricken with loading times and mid-match slowdown, and this has upset many in the fighter community. Of course, this only makes them want an English version that fixes these problems. That happened with Aksys and Guilty Gear XX Accent Core, but then, Accent Core didn't have “sugoi!” in its title.


Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platform: PS2/PSP/Wii
MSRP: $29.99

Guilty Gear's tenth anniversary finds it in a fight for relevance. The series has been through a recent spate of failed spin-offs, followed by a sequel that was no sequel. Even its solid, dependable fighting-game bedrock has been recycled many times; for example, Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus is still using animation and play mechanics from the eight-year-old Guilty Gear X. Arc System Works recently threw its weight behind BlazBlue, which falls near Guilty Gear in looks, style, and target audience. Accent Core Plus might well be the last traditional Guilty Gear XX installment, but at least it's one hell of a closing number for fans and latecomers alike.

Of course, Accent Core Plus wouldn't be Guilty Gear if it weren't horribly complicated for new followers. Fighting-genre champions like Street Fighter and Tekken make their gameplay approachable for casual fans to grasp even when they haven't learned it completely. Guilty Gear is a bit different. If you truly want to be a good, competitive player, you'll have to understand Dust Attacks, Psych Bursts, Air Recoveries, Faultless Defenses, Roman Cancels, and, yes, even Force Roman Cancels. And you'll have to pull off all of these on Guilty Gear's stage of rapid-fire matches and searingly hi-res artwork. It's enough to send some newcomers back to the comfort zones of Primal Rage and Ballz.

Yet there's another side to Guilty Gear, and it's the reason people noticed the original game back in 1998: it was fucking crazy. The likes of Street Fighter and Samurai Shodown drank often from a pond of anime influences, but Guilty Gear stripped naked, jumped in, and emerged smeared with gaudy, colorful style. Landing somewhere between the bizarre fashions of an action manga and the overkill of heavy-metal album covers, Guilty Gear's world is a future of technology and allegedly scientific magic, peopled by all sorts of misfit toys: a bandage-clad zombie woman lugs a giant key into battle, a pirate girl swings an anchor twice her size, a man reels around in the mid-battle throes of ghostly possession, an assassin smacks pool balls of pure energy around with his cue, a yoyo-wielding boy convinces some players that he's a female nun, and a roguish wanderer named Sol Badguy sparks a vaguely suggestive rivalry with a straight-laced church knight named after former members of German speed-metal band Helloween. This is the Guilty Gear that fans have embraced, and Accent Core Plus has it in all its clashing, reckless beauty.

Indeed, it's possible to thoroughly enjoy Guilty Gear without ever mastering it. The game's astoundingly diverse cast is a big part of the appeal, as there isn't a boring character among them. True, you have the basic (and perhaps still overpowered) attacks of Sol Badguy and Ky Kiske, but it's a far leap from the agile Millia Rage, who can double-dash in the air and shape her blonde tresses into all sorts of weapons, to the cross-dressing Bridget, whose yoyo often doesn't hit anyone until he yanks it back with a variety of attacks. Things go even further from tradition when you get into A.B.A., the key-swinging artificial woman who can switch to a powered-up mode that actually damages her when she connects with her opponent. And then there's Zappa, whose arsenals of demon-summoning attacks is devastating if you're willing to learn it.

All of this looks impressive despite the basic game's age. Guilty Gear never could match the fluid animation of Street Fighter III (and don't even think of putting it next to BlazBlue or The King of Fighters XII), but it holds up in pure visual punch. The resolution is crisp, the characters are large, and the backgrounds are weirdly varied. One match might transpire in a shoreline graveyard glowing bright enough to fry your vision, while the next might be in a sylvan glen with red-eyed creatures peering out from trees. The characters all have bizarrely endearing mannerisms and attacks, from the man-in-the-moon face in Millia's diving hair-crescent to the pre-match exchange where the come-ons of vivacious martial-arts chef Kuradoberi Jam fly straight over altar-boy Ky Kiske's head. It's a crazed mixture that strains any definition of cohesion, though the soundtrack is at least consistent. With rare exceptions, the tracks are full-bore butt rock, full of excellent hooks and, homages to series creator Daisuke Ishiwatari's favorite bands.

Compared to 2007's Accent Core version of Guilty Gear, Plus has the advantage of a story mode. Inconsequential as stories are to the genre, Guilty Gear claims some intriguing settings and character lineups, and they're all on display in a rambling, branching plotline for each fighter. Not that it'll force Roger Ebert to admit that games can be art. After all, about half of the conversations play out like this:

Character 1: Hey, tell me what I want to know about this organization and/or individual who figures prominently into my goals.

Character 2: No! Make me! I'm violent!

Character 1: Alright then! (Fights)

And yet it's the most enjoyable story mode I've seen in a fighting game. For the devoted fan who really wants to explore Guilty Gear's weird mash-up of worlds, there's no lack of amusing details: Sol Badguy fighting a past version of himself, the bag-masked Faust researching Millia's hair, the Western wannabe ninja Chipp running for president and berating Jam for not stocking Japanese food in her restaurant, and so on. It's stitched together with air and spittle, but it's a great extra.

For those of you who instinctively sneer at the suggestion of fighting games having “plots,” other additions await, including a frequently arduous Mission Mode and a three-on-three battle option that turns the game into The King of Fighters. Plus also has every Guilty Gear character from previous fighters (minus Fanny from the Wonderswan games), as it features A.B.A. from the ill-received Guilty Gear Isuka and Order Sol, while adding the formerly excluded Kliff and Justice. Aksys also threw a bonus disc of character themes in with the PlayStation 2 version. Nice of them, considering that Guilty Gear soundtracks never see proper Western releases.

As its title suggests, Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus is a ridiculous expansion of a game that's long overdue for a true successor. Yet there's no question that this is the best package Guilty Gear has ever offered, with refined, character-rich gameplay for the serious competitor and winning sideshow diversions for the player who's just after pretty fights. If Guilty Gear is soon to be retired or reinvented, we'll still have Plus to remind us why the series stood out in the first place.


Developer: Omega Force
Publisher: Koei
Platform: PS2/Xbox 360/PS3
MSRP: $29.99/$59.99/$59.99

Dynasty Warriors: Gundam 2 gives us yet another opportunity to feel sorry for the Zaku, that one-eyed, vaguely porcine robot foot soldier for the less heroic side of Gundam's main conflict. They're destroyed by the truckload in Gundam 2, as the player's mecha guns them down and carves them up in a variety of battlefields. Of course, no one buys these games for the new Zaku meat; they buy them for the major Gundam mecha and the stress relief of tearing through dozens of enemies at a time. In that department, Gundam 2 adds a bunch of playable robots, including Char's Z-Gok, the Strike Freedom Gundam, the Destiny Gundam, the Infinite Justice Gundam, the Dom, Turn A Gundam's Turn X, two Victory Gundam suits, the Gundam Formula 91, the Guncannon, the ever-adorable Ball, and just about every major robot model from Char's Counterattack. The game also features some rather huge bosses, which, sadly, don't appear to be playable. Stomping Federation forces in a Big Zam would be fun, but that'll probably have to wait for the next sequel. Also, note that the PS2 version, while cheaper than the other two, won't have access to any downloadable content.
Get Excited If: You contend that the Acguy is, in fact, more adorable than the Ball among Gundam robots.

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Wii
MSRP: $39.99/$49.99 (with wheel)

Excitebots really came out of nowhere, showing up mere months ago and jumping to the fore among Nintendo's Spring lineup. It's technically a sequel to Excite Truck, and Excitebots doesn't stop at merely adding humanoid mecha: there's a lineup of robotic mice, frogs, turtles, birds, bats, and many different insects. The tracks feature plenty of power-ups (including one that turns your mechanical creature into a two-legged robot) and challenges, including bowling games and soccer-ball shoots that suddenly pop up before you. Poker even comes into play in a mode where vehicles get dealt hands, discard what they don't want, and pick up new cards on the track. The game also uses the Wii steering wheel, and the slightly more expensive edition includes one, just in case you didn't pick the casing up with Mario Kart Wii.
Get Excited If: You want a mecha racing game that isn't painfully realistic or just plain terrible.


The cynical may find it hard to believe that Kazushi Hagiwara's Bastard!! isn't more popular in the West, as it's loaded with what some manga readers and comics fans like too much and too often: swords-and-sorcery trappings, frequently naked women, ridiculously grand-scale fights, and a sybaritic warlock hero (also frequently naked) who has his way with just about every female character. If nothing else, I'm surprised that Bastard!! isn't championed by the same aren't-we-ironic contingent that extols the virtues of Fist of the North Star and lights votive candles to patron saint Koichi Ohata. Perhaps the problem is a lack of decent Bastard!! games.

The first Bastard!! game arrived on the Super Famicom in 1994, adapting the initial stretch of the manga and the six-part OVA series. Developed by Cobra Team, it's only an introduction to a lengthy storyline and a medieval-fantasy realm where demons roam freely, humanity cowers in perpetual terror, and even the most dignified women wear suspender bikinis. A limited fighting game, Bastard!! features only six playable characters: would-be overlord Dark Schneider, Ninja Master Gara, dark-elf Thunder Empress Arshes Nei, priggish sorcerer Kall-Su, necromancer Abigail, and vampire nobleman Di-Amon. Other characters can be spotted in the story mode, but you won't find, say, ineffectual guardsman Bon Jovina or second-string warrior-sorceress Kai Harn hidden anywhere. And yes, those are mostly musical references. Before Guilty Gear rolled around, Bastard!! had a lock on the most barely hidden heavy-metal allusions in an anime, manga, or video game.

Instead of stocking itself with lots of familiar Bastard!! heroes and villains, the game tries to impress by creating a 3-D fighter like nothing else then on the market. The characters float in a playfield created through Mode 7 effects, with one sorcerer in the fore and the other hovering in the background. Characters can dash into the screen, effectively switching places with their opponents, while throwing various spells and the occasional melee strike.

It's a decent concept for a fighting game from 1994, but there's nothing else interesting about Bastard!! as envisioned by Cobra Team. Attacks are handled in unorthodox style, with the four face buttons on the SNES controller each throwing a magical fireball (or lighting bolt or ninja star) in a different direction. One shoulder button controls dashing, and the other controls special attacks with hold-and-release inputs. It's a little awkward, but it'd be no trouble if the game had compelling design. It really doesn't. Hitting an enemy is harder than it should be, and there's little to no variety in the characters. Di-Amon is perhaps the only standout, since he tosses enormous, puckering lips at foes and pounces upon them to inflict suggestive vampiric damage.

Even with some visual tricks and anime-derived story scenes, Bastard!! is overpoweringly tedious. Every opponent is a challenge, and that doesn't inspire you to keep trying so much as it gives you a reason to shun the whole game. On top of that, the soundtrack is a repetitive, clanging mess. If you're going to name spells and cities after Metallica and Whitesnake, at least have some remotely tuneful music to accompany your tributes.

I imagine some people imported Bastard!! just for the title back in 1994, even though the manga and anime weren't particularly big in Western fan circles. Most critics disliked it, and even Gamefan, then a bastion of praise for just about any import, slammed the game. A translated version was slated for Europe but never released, and Cobra Team disintegrated shortly after that. The game's director, Shinji Hashimoto, went on to much bigger things at Square Enix, serving as producer on titles from Front Mission up through The Worlds Ends With You.

In theory, the overblown fantasy nonsense of Bastard!! would fit right into a video game, though few have tried to capture it. There's a largely ignored RPG for the PlayStation (which at least got some pretty animated scenes), while a Bastard!! Online RPG has been lingering in development for several years. If it ever makes it out, it stands a good chance of being the most interesting Bastard!! game by near-default.

Among Super Famicom games, Bastard!! isn't hard to come by, whether by a large print run or the fact that no one wants it. The PlayStation game is similarly cheap, like a lot of import RPGs with little to no followings.

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