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The X Button
Details of the Wars

by Todd Ciolek,

This week's edition of The X Button is dedicated to redheads. Not real-life redheads, mind you. Their hair is usually just red-orange or orange-red or auburn or strawberry blonde or some other shameful dilution of the color. No, this column is frequently about the sort of red hair possible only in extreme dye jobs and the worlds explored by games, comics, and animation. It's in these realms that a character can have hair of ridiculously bright crimson and still look relatively normal.

At the front of this redhead cavalcade is Gemini Sunrise, the all-American (well, partly Japanese) samurai cowgirl from Sakura Wars V. I trust you all know why we're talking about that game.


NIS America made many announcements last week, and the most interesting was that Sakura Wars V will be coming to North America for the PlayStation 2 and Wii this fall. It's no great surprise that NIS is bringing it out, as they were the ones who let it slip late last year that an unspecified publisher was localizing the game. Yet it's still big news for anyone who enjoyed Japanese RPGs in the late 1990s, when Sakura Wars was the biggest, grandest RPG-esque franchise that never came to the U.S. Its blend of steampunk fantasy, strategic mecha battles, and anime-harem gameplay made it huge in Japan, but many said it wouldn't sell in the West. They were right back then, but we live in a new era, an era where games like Sakura Wars are translated and served to a waiting North American market. And NIS, the purveyor of many of those games, clearly sees something in Sakura Wars V. Hell, they're even making a Wii port of it.

Renamed Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love for the West, Sakura Wars V is both the most recent and the most self-contained of the franchise's main games. With the original game's overall storyline wrapped up inSakura Wars IV, the fifth stakes out new territory in a 1920s New York City that's less than historically accurate. The player controls a friendly young naval recruit, Shinjiro Taiga, who finds himself managing a theater where the all-female troupe finds time to pilot transforming jet-robots in a secret war against demons. This multi-tasking lineup includes the motorcycle enthusiast Sagitta Weinberg, the Mexican-born gunslinger Rikaritta Aries, the gentle-spirited Diana Caprice, the mysterious Subaru Kujou, and the rather obvious heroine of the piece, the energetic, katana-wielding cowhand Gemini Sunrise. In between directing the cadre in battles, Shinjiro tears tickets at the theater and chats with other characters, strengthening their morale as he flirts with them.

It's a challenging project, to be sure. Sakura Wars games have higher production values and more tasteful “dating” elements than such NIS-released RPGs as Ar Tonelico II, which had voices trimmed and text awkwardly translated for its English edition. I hope they give Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love the treatment that a strategy-RPG merits when it has stage actresses and their steam-powered robots tearing through the streets of roaring-'20s Manhattan.

And NIS? Thanks for not calling it “Cherry Blossom Wars.”

NIS America has more than just Sakura Wars V, of course. The second biggest news from their mass outpouring of press releases dealt with The Last Rebellion, a PlayStation 3 RPG by NIS and Hit Maker. Its two main characters, the swordsman Nine and the sorceress Aisha (or a “blade” and “sealer,” respectively), can target specific parts of enemies and disable them, an idea that's been kicking around various RPGs since Vagrant Story.

The game also sports some impressive scenery and, according to NIS America, “a story of revenge featuring a dark anti-hero.” I assume they mean Nine. Really, just look at him up there.

A Witch's Tale (left) was announced by NIS America last year, and it's now on track for an English release in the fall. A DS action-RPG controlled mostly through the touch-screen, A Witch's Tale promises battles fought by drawing symbols on the screen, with blackjack-based fights on the side. The story concerns some ancient witch uprising supressed by some Glinda-esque savior, and this apparently spawns a new era and a witchy heroine drawn in the same style as the cast of NIS's popular Disgaea series.

Speaking of Disgaea, the PSP version of Disgaea 2 is also headed here this fall. Subtitled Dark Hero Days, it features a separate storyline all about the posturing would-be Dark Hero Axel, plus the magi-change system from Disgaea 3. At this rate, I wouldn't be surprised if Disgaea 2 comes out for the DS as well, but NIS has said nothing on that point.

Lastly, Mana Khemia 2: Fall of Alchemy will come to North America in that conveniently nebulous time known as “the fall.” As the title suggests, it's set during the slow decline of the alchemic academy from the first Mana Khemia, though the game still features item-crafting aplenty. This sequel also has two distinct storylines, which may include some troubling revelations about what happened to characters from the original game.

SNK finally announced two additional characters for the home version of The King of Fighters XII, one of whom everybody saw coming. Not only was Elisabeth Blanctorche (right) the most high-profile addition to the series in The King of Fighters XI, but she was also shown in preliminary artwork for KoF XII. She's appearing in the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game, wearing a big ol' fancy cravat and carrying a riding crop. I think she's supposed to be French.

The other returning character was less expected. Mature (left) started off as a secretary to Rugal, the boss of The King of Fighters '94 and '95, and she and another secretary, Vice, showed up in the 1996 game as the teammates of Iori Yagami. They were quickly killed off, returning only in those all-inclusive The King of Fighters games that don't follow the franchise's loose-knit storyline. Now Mature shows up with a very professional outfit and an eye patch, suggesting that she's either back from the dead or that The King of Fighters XII doesn't care one whit about having a plot.

Overturn, a mech action title by Studio Zan, seems a likely candidate for a North American WiiWare release, since someone's submitted it to the ESRB. It looks like a conventional game full of robots dueling in 3-D arenas straight out of Virtual On, but Overturn lets players either use the WiiFit balance board to control a robot's direction. A standard Wii remote-and-nunchuk mode is available, but that seems boring compared to the game's inventive use of the board.

Anime fans will lament the absence of Eureka Seven robots in the game, but even without any license, Overturn might be worth a look for anyone who wants Virtual On for the Wii.

Perhaps there's some furtive, internally political reason that Konami announced Contra Rebirth for the WiiWare simply by putting up a page about it on their website. At any rate, it's an action game clearly in the style of Contra III from the Super NES days, just as Gradius Rebirth paid tribute to the way that particular series was in the early 1990s. Some of the screens show off traditional Contra obstacles (like the multi-level stockade seen in the original game and Contra III), while other enemies appear to be new, such as the bomb-carrying monster whose eyes are bugging out like a Warner Bros. cartoon star (right). Contra Rebirth should be out in Japan right now, and I'd expect Konami to make more noise about it when it gets a U.S. release date.

Astro Boy revivals are always good excuses for new games, and the 2003 TV series brought us Sega's tossed-off PlayStation 2 game and Treasure's excellent Game Boy Advance game. Well, IMAGI has an Astro Boy CG movie in the works, and it's getting all of the games you'd expect. High Voltage Software, developers of The Conduit and numerous licensed games (including Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law) has an Astro Boy title in the works for the PS2, Wii, and PSP. Meanwhile, Art Co. Ltd, which previously made Coraline and Inuyasha stuff, plans a presumably different Astro Boy game for the DS. It's hard to say which title, if either, will emerge to critical acclaim, though D3 plans to bring both out in the fall.

Finally, here's something to look for if you're at Anime Boston this month, though I suspect it'll be hard to miss if you're wandering the floor. Nintendo plans to set up a castle-like booth based on the recent DS strategy-RPG Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon.

If that looks empty, keep in mind that the booth will have games on display. Stop by, play Shadow Dragon, check out the posters of character art by Masamune Shirow, and realize with cynical satisfaction that major anime conventions will probably never lack huge dealer's-room booths as long as the game industry is doing well.


Developer: Matrix
Publisher: XSEED Games
Platform: DS
MSRP: $29.99

Avalon Code is driven by a great idea: the world will soon come to an end, and you're playing a seemingly normal boy or girl who's given a magical book by spirits and told to keep track of everything worth recreating in the next world. This novel concept is wrapped around a somewhat traditional action-RPG, but it's not the only interesting thing in Avalon Code.

For a tale about a coming apocalypse, Avalon Code seems insidiously cheerful at times. Upon naming an upbeat main character (the unimaginative get "Yumil" for the hero or "Tia" for the heroine), players are introduced to the Book of Prophecy and tasked with capturing memories of people, monsters, flowers, food, and animals. This is done by the amusing method of book-slapping everything from bedridden girls to fragile countryside blooms. Upon recording a subject, the book lists its makeup in terms of fairy-tale “codes” shaped like Tetris blocks: soldiers made of justice and stone, slime-creatures of ice and evil, and ornery merchants composed of cats, lightning, and fate.

Starting off with a quick-tempered fire spirit, the Book of Prophecy guides its user to other elementals, all while exploring the local kingdom's ongoing war with a rival nation (which just so happens to be connected to the spirits' mortal enemy). Conflict aside, it's a gentle fantasy setting of friendly villagers, ghostly children, clumsy inventors, underhanded magicians, detached elves, and other routine fantasy denizens. The storyline is occasionally clipped by the main character's habit of never visibly speaking, which makes it odd when he or she is thrust into situations that beg for some response. Of course, that doesn't dissuade the game's Harvest Moon-like stable of love interests. The male lead can court a pushy princess, a scheming witch, a curious elf-girl, and a frail seamstress (who, in a ham-fisted attempt at eliciting player sympathy, makes toys for orphans); the female lead gets an overbearing best friend, a merrily craven adventurer, a gloomy warrior, and a possessed prince.

Regardless of which path you take, every character and enemy in Avalon Code presents a new opportunity to whip out the Book of Prophecy and take down some constituent codes. Once you've got a flower or goblin or princess recorded on a page, you can use those codes to make items, heal characters, or render enemies vulnerable to certain veins of magic. Avalon Code truly shines here, as you're constantly finding new combinations of elements and new ways to use them.

When you're not whacking townspeople with a book or building armor out of forests and freedom, you're seeking out spirits and trying to stop the world from ending too soon. It's a quest that frequently drops you in dungeons laid out room-by-room, which each segment posing a different challenge: hit switches, defeat enemies, and so forth. The touchy hit detection makes these challenges occasionally tough, but a lenient continue system lets you restart in the same room where you met your end.

The game engine itself is initially basic, and the dungeons often play like beginner-level The Legend of Zelda fare. It'd be dull if it weren't for two things. First off, there's a great variety of weapons to create and tweak, whether it's fusing bombs with ice magic or whirling a hammer around to let its momentum carry you across the screen. More importantly, there's the Judgment Link move that launches enemies into the air, with each tap of the attack button sending them higher and higher. Jab that button enough, and your foe will eventually fly up through the stratosphere and burst into light high above the planet. It takes quite a while for that sight to get old.

Beyond the dungeon-hacking parts of the game, Avalon Code excels in exploration. The kingdom itself isn't all that open at first, but there's no lack of things to do. Fresh item recipes pop up constantly, and seeking out their base ingredients is almost more interesting than the main quest. Creating new items also results in gifts for the lead's potential romances (bizarrely enough, even the book's spirits can fall for the hero or heroine), and giving presents creates even more new codes.

For its part, Avalon Code's story has a certain rote charm, not unlike Threads of Fate or the better parts of Radiata Stories. The many optional significant others present some amusing decisions, and the characters look shockingly good for a DS game, showing off 3-D work better than the big-headed models Matrix used in its remakes of Final Fantasy III and IV. While the soundtrack varies from pleasantly forgettable themes to bland repetition, the voice acting hits the proper melodramatic airs most of the time.

The only thing truly dragging down Avalon Code is the Book of Prophecy itself. Paging through it is awkward, as the chapters are divided into broad categories, forcing you to look for things page by page. It gets even more tedious when you're swapping out codes to create or repair items and people. You can only fit four codes in your storage section at one time, meaning that you have to manage extra codes by dumping them into other characters or objects. Placing codes often eats away at your magic points, adding another unpleasant step to the whole process.

It's a compliment that Avalon Code is worth such frustration. For those willing to navigate unwieldy menus, the game proves compellingly unique, mixing lightweight fantasy with creative aspects rarely seen in this genre. There are better RPGs out there, but there's nothing quite like Avalon Code, and that's reason enough to give it a shot.


Developer: GRIN
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: PS3/Xbox 360
MSRP: $59.99

Yes, it's the game they said couldn't be made. Or rather, they said it wouldn't be made because Capcom spent most of the last 20 years pretending that Bionic Commando never existed. That changed with the downloadable Bionic Commando Rearmed last year, and now we've arrived at the main event: a reimagined 3-D sequel to the classic game about a secret agent with a telescoping grappling arm. Some things have, of course, changed. The game has large environments, the grappling arm can throw objects and enemies around, and the hero has dreadlocks. Like most modern action games that aim for any sort of mainstream success, this new Bionic Commando has an extensive multiplayer feature, one that you can try in an XBox Live demo right now. Trailers don't depict any revived Nazi movements or a swearing Hitler clone whose head bursts apart, but GRIN likely knows better than to skimp on those essential pieces of Bionic Commando canon.
Get Excited If: You remember exactly how to defeat the Hitler clone from the original game.

Developer: Next Level Games
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Wii
MSRP: $49.99

Punch-Out!! makes me all the more glad that Nintendo didn't adopt some cloying nomenclature for its Wii games. The Punch-Out!! game for the Super NES was Super Punch-Out!!, and the Nintendo 64 title that was always rumored (but never announced) would have been Punch-Out!! 64. The Wii game is just Punch-Out!!, reflecting its rather blatant efforts to attract anyone nostalgic for the older parts of the series. For starters, it's bringing in the most memorable characters from previous Punch-Out!! lineups, including Glass Joe, Von Kaiser, and Captain N: The Game Master flunky King Hippo (Mike Tyson is, of course, absent and has been since his Nintendo contract ran out in 1990). The boxing gameplay builds on the frame of Wii Boxing, adding all sorts of punches and dodging maneuvers accomplished with the Wii remote and nunchuk. It also preserves the cartoony look of past Punch-Out!! titles and even surpasses it with weird new voices and personalized effects: pineapples orbit a dazed King Hippo, while Glass Joe hallucinates baguettes and croissants. I think he's supposed to be French.
Get Excited If: You ever spent an afternoon putting in the password to reach Mike Tyson over and over.

Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Platform: DS and Wii
MSRP: $29.99 (DS) and $39.99 (Wii)

Forgive me for lumping these two together, but I find it hard to believe that any of you still care that much about Yu-Gi-Oh! games. For those who do, Wheelie Breakers is a Wii racing game that seizes upon the motorcycle element of the recent Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D's TV series. While zooming around sleek racing tracks, characters use summoned card-creatures as attacks, with rapid battles between these monsters deciding which racer slows or wipes out completely. It's not a half-bad idea, and Konami might pull in some players who can't stand Yu-Gi-Oh!, provided that the motion-based Wii controls aren't a mess. Stardust Accelerator World Championship, on the other hand, is for the card-carrying (yeah, I know) Yu-Gi-Oh! enthusiast, as the DS game is the tale of an amnesiac young man who can only reclaim his memories by calling upon magic beasts through Yu-Gi-Oh! merchandise. Motorcycle races also figure into things, even if most fans will be far more interested in the game's online ranked matches, the 2,800 in-game cards, and the chance to take part in a national Yu-Gi-Oh! tournament by registering at Konami's website.
Get Excited If: You're upset that I didn't give these games the individual write-ups they so clearly deserve.

Also shipping next week: The oft-delayed DS puzzle game Puchi Puchi Virus. Possibly.


It's hard to believe that Sakura Wars was ever so powerful a franchise in Japan. After all, Sakura Wars wasn't the first RPG to blend traditional gameplay with casts of anime heroines and the option for the player to romance them all, so why did it succeed when games like Blue Breaker didn't? The original Sakura Wars wasn't just a decent game. It was the right game at the perfect time.

It was 1996, and the Sega Saturn was lacking a major RPG name, with Phantasy Star lying dormant and Final Fantasy loyal to the Sony PlayStation. Red Company, creators of the Bonk games as well as the Tengai Makyo RPGs (another huge-in-Japan/unknown-in-the-States property), came to the system's rescue with a new project: a strategy-RPG with dating-sim elements set in a steam-tech Tokyo of 1919. Tengai Makyo producer Hiroi Ohji devised the setting, Satoru Akahori wrote the script, Oh My Goddess! manga author Kousuke Fujishima designed the characters, Sega promoted it, and their efforts made Sakura Wars the second most-wanted game in Japan as it neared its late-1996 release. Naturally, Final Fantasy VII ranked above it. There was no catching that.

In that year, Sakura Wars didn't let Saturn owners down. Simulating an entire season of an anime series, the game uses copious voice acting and then-impressive cutscenes to follow Ichiro Ogami, an eager naval ensign with slightly more personality than the usual player-identification RPG lead. He's transferred to the Tokyo-based Imperial Assault Force's Flower Division, which initially seems to be one big theater. Before long, he learns that it's really a cover for an experimental unit of steam-engine mecha and their pilots, who just happen to be the stereotyped women of the stage. Sumire Kanzaki is the haughty, cackling rich girl. Iris Chateaubriand is the precocious, selfish French psychic. Kanna Kirishima is the towering karate expert who can apparently kill bulls with her bare hands. Maria Tachibana is the blonde, reticent Russian/Ukrainian ex-soldier. Ri Kouran is the bookworm inventor from China. Ogami's first encounter in Tokyo, however, puts him opposite the friendly swordswoman Sakura Shinguji, and it's with her that he builds the deepest relationship of the game.

Over half of Sakura Wars is spent in story-intensive conversations as Ogami prowls the theater, either gaining the respect of troupe members or pissing them off. It's handled with timed responses as well as simplistic mini-games, most of which involve menial cooking, cleaning, and memorization. The game's anime-show structure provides plenty of diverse episodes, each with a preview, a self-contained plot, and rankings for how well the six heroines like Ogami. Perhaps due to the game's mainstream bent, the dating-simulator side of it stays largely innocuous, and what little risqué scenes there are wouldn't raise an eyebrow by modern standards. In fact, playing the game without favoring any of Ogami's teammates makes it plain that Sakura's the only one with a serious crush on him.

In between these vaguely romantic moments, there's a war to fight against demon hordes. The game's strategic battles use the same isometric-grid look that Front Mission and Tactics Ogre had established in 1995, and they play out with similar features. Ogami and his fellow soldiers each build up a special-move meter when they take damage, releasing powerful attacks, healing bursts, or some enemy-befuddling status change. It would all make for a compelling interlude if the battles weren't so damn easy. Not only are the enemies pushovers, but Ogami has the option of protecting one troupe member from all damage at any point during combat. It's a convenient way for him to score points with a particular woman, but it sucks a lot of challenge out of the game.

In the late 1990s, Sakura Wars was amazing, as it distilled anime appeal and steampunk world-building into a genre hybrid that stood above anything else on the market. Today, it borders on the archaic. The game's conversation scenes and strategy-RPG breaks still look pretty good, but the letterboxed cartoon clips suffer at the hands of the Saturn's Cinepak video-compressing program no matter how well they're animated. The storyline, while really impressive for an age when RPGs were making tense baby-steps into narrative depth, is a patchwork of hackneyed anime standards, with a last-act twist that takes angelic video-game symbolism to ridiculous new heights. The soundtrack also feels repetitive, though the opening clip's theatrical chorus makes for a really catchy theme song. There's no impugning the voice work, which features all sorts of established anime actresses from the 1990s. Kumiko Nishihara's Iris still annoys, but that's outweighed by Chisa Yokoyama's excellent performance as Sakura. The story grants her far more emotional range than the rest of the cast, and Yokoyama nails every part of it, making even Sakura's spikes of jealousy strangely endearing.

The Sakura Wars sequels pushed the quality further, and yet there's something in the first game that its descendants didn't quite grasp. They outpaced it in visual splendor and technical complexity, but the original has a certain self-contained confidence and finality about it. It's the sort of a thing created only when someone's not sure about getting another chance.

They had nothing to worry about, of course. There was a second Sakura Wars by 1998, with its own commercial showing a live-action Sakura cuddling with manly Saturn spokes-icon Segata Sanshiro in a glade full of showering cherry blossoms. Sakura Wars had three more sequels, two Columns-based spin-offs, a dungeon-hack for the Nintendo DS, a “Pocket Sakura” pedometer, and remakes of the original game for the Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, GameBoy Color, and PSP. It also had scads of merchandise, its own café, and a series of musicals that only recently wrapped up.

Of course, there were Sakura Wars anime series, manga lines, and an expensively animated film. Most of them turned out to be only slightly less abominable than the usual anime and manga based on video games. For years, these off-shoots were the only ways for Westerners to approach Sakura Wars in English, though some Saturn fans imported the original game and made do with online translations. I was one of them. It's not an endeavor I'll ever repeat, working through a 20-hour RPG while constantly cross-referencing it with huge printouts of text, but it was somehow fun back in the 1990s, when Sakura Wars seemed so compelling.

Things are different now, and just as the Sakura Wars fandom is dying out or moving on in Japan, NIS America is bringing the fifth game over here. I don't know how well it'll do; the RPG market is far more crowded, and fans are no longer grateful for every scrap of anime-evoking gameplay they get. I'd like to see it excel, and not just for nostalgia's sake. If there's one dating-RPG hybrid capable of reaching those who normally (and justly) ignore the genre, it's going to come from Sakura Wars.

Beyond some gripping affection for the Saturn, there's no reason to get the original version of Sakura Wars (still identified in many parts as Sakura Taisen). Sega released improved versions of the original on the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2, while the first two games were packed together in a region-free PSP title. Then again, you could just save your money and buy Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love this fall, in the hopes that it'll sell well enough to make NIS America bring out the original game.

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