The X Button
by Todd Ciolek,
Seeing as how I talk about video games for most of these columns, I think I'm allowed to discuss recent anime at least once or twice each year. So I'll going to spend this season's ticket by bringing up Time of Eve, a recently concluded six-episode series from director Yasuhiro Yoshiura.
Yoshiura first got noticed on account of his short films, the half-hour Pale Cocoon and the much briefer Aquatic Language. The latter of these was set entirely in a coffee shop staffed by robots, and Time of Eve uses that same idea, depicting a future Japan where androids look so much like people that they're legally required to project holographic halos. Unsurprisingly, the government even has to run TV ads telling the nation's lonely hordes not to fall in love with robots. In this tumultuous age, a teenage boy tracks his household bot to a sparsely patronized café where humans and androids mingle, never showing who's real and who isn't.
Obviously a fan of old-fashioned science fiction, Yoshiura builds Time of Eve on a theme that was perhaps well-used even when Astro Boy was new. Yet he doesn't make the mistake of drenching his series in angst and existentialism. Time of Eve is relaxed about its humanized robots, toying with viewers' expectations (half the fun lies in guessing who's an android) and letting a subtle melancholy mix with the humor. It's another story about the boundaries between artificial humans and their creators, but rarely is this sort of tale so down to earth.
As an Original Net Animation, Time of Eve sticks to relatively simple appearances, and only one of its first season's six episodes pushes past fifteen minutes. Perhaps that's why it's the only anime series I've made time to watch in full this year. Or maybe it's just a relief to see a short, well-handled story that never poisons its charms by pandering. I can't very well connect Time of Eve to video games (though its music could come from Gunstar Heroes or some other Treasure title), and I have to point out that the somewhat controversial Crunchyroll is streaming and selling the whole series. It's up to you to decide how to support it, but I hope many will. I can't think of another recent anime creation more deserving of a second season.
SHENMUE III IS NOW .005 PERCENT DONE
I'm sure everyone at Sega thought they were being nice to Shenmue fans by putting series hero Ryo Hazuki into Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, due out on the DS, PS3, Wii, and Xbox 360 next year. Yet they weren't, because when those fans see Ryo driving a forklift alongside Sonic and other Sega characters, they're only going to remember that they'll probably never see a Shenmue III.
At least these Shenmue fans will still have Ryo jumping from motorcycles to suspiciously fast construction equipment as he tears around the track. That's a lot more than Sega's thrown Panzer Dragoon fans lately. Just sayin'.
FIST OF THE NORTH STAR TO MARRY DYNASTY WARRIORS
Koei and Tecmo tried to be sly about announcing a Fist of the North Star game. The publisher showed the Tokyo Game Show a teaser video depicting a woman in a wedding dress throwing herself from some great height in a ruined city, following by text dissolving into a star formation that every last Fist of the North Star fan should recognize. And then Famitsu ruined the buildup by unveiling Hokuto Musou, which looks to put Fist of the North Star into Dynasty Warriors gameplay, just like Koei did for Gundam not so long ago. It's set to hit the Xbox 360 and PS3, and early screens show Kenshiro plowing through scads of disposable post-apocalyptic thugs, with boss battles against Fist heavyweights breaking up the large-scale fights.
MIKU HATSUNE'S PROJECT DIVA GOES TO ARCADES
Miku Hatsune will one day appear on every game console, even those out of manufacture since 1988. For now, though, her next outing will be an arcade sequel to the PSP's Project Diva. Clearly mindful of how Miku's fans like to be included, Sega welcomes song entries on NicoNico Douga (which I probably don't need to describe as Japan's YouTube) throughout this month. The game will be a rhythmic dance simulator like the PSP original, though the interface hasn't yet been unveiled. It's also unlikely that the arcade version of Project Diva will include the PSP title's opportunity for players to build a decorate Miku's room, but perhaps that's best kept out of arcades.
AR TONELICO III ANNOUNCED
For another fusion of music and giant-eyed anime women, there's the Ar Tonelico line of RPGs. Gust recently announced the third major one for the PlayStation 3. Just as in Ar Tonelico II, the trio of main characters isn't connected to previous games. Aoto, a human swordsman, is joined by two members of the all-female species known as Reyvateils: the blonde Saki apparently escaped from a lab, while the purple-haired Phinnel is a regular, off-the-shelf sort of Reyvateil. According to magazine spreads, Ar Tonelico III retains the costume changes, psychological diving, and song-based combat system of the last title, but players can now customize music for unique effects during the game's 3-D battles. It's due out in Japan this January, and I wonder if NIS America might localize it, considering the backlash over the deleted voices and occasionally incomprehensible text in their version of Ar Tonelico II.
TATSUNOKO VS. CAPCOM REVEALS NEW CHARACTERS, AGAIN
Everyone knew that Gatchaman's Joe and Mega Man's Zero were going to join Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars, but Capcom's official unveiling at least involved videos of them in action. It also answers the question of which version of Zero the game gets: it's the Mega Man X Zero, and not the slightly more alien-looking one from the Mega Man Zero series. Anyway, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom's still coming to the North American Wii early next year, and I'm still bitter about it not having Linn Kurosawa.
REVIEW: CONTRA REBIRTH
Contra's place in history is often overlooked. The Nintendo generation grew up on Mario and Zelda and Metroid, but the original Contra was a highlight of the first NES wave. As an exploding paean to shirtless, side-scrolling, alien-blasting commando excess, it embodied blockbuster 1980s movies like no other game. Jay Leno liked it, Dave Barry mocked it, and, years down the road, Sifl & Olly mentioned the Konami Code and its 30-life benefits. Perhaps Contra lost its hold because, unlike Mario and Zelda, it wasn't consistent. After 1994's Contra Hard Corps, Konami wasted the series on mediocre 3-D games, and it didn't get back on track until eight years later. Contra Rebirth, a recent WiiWare semi-sequel in the vein of Capcom's Mega Man 9, isn't the best of the franchise, but it understands just what makes Contra special.
One can't accuse Contra Rebirth of ignoring the finer points of its legacy: the first scene finds hero Bill Rizer awakening in a cryogenic capsule and asking the same question posed in the Super Contra arcade game decades ago: “What is this place?” Rizer's one of two “Contras” assigned to take down an extraterrestrial menace called Salamander, and from the initial briefing, the game's semblance of plot grows more insane, bringing in time travel, a girlish robot named Brownie (seen as male in Contra Hard Corps), and a lizardman commando, named Plisskin, who joins the Contra duo to pose like they're the stars of a Cho Aniki shooter. None of these things affects the gameplay, though you'll unlock Brownie and Plisskin as playable characters by finishing all five levels.
The first of those levels is perhaps the quickest a Contra game has ever cut to the chase: within seconds, you're thrown into an exploding spaceship, given a spread gun, and faced with a legion of minion soldiers and hatching alien spores. By the end of this introductory level, you've ridden a swarm of meteors down to the earth while facing a giant flying centipede. Surprisingly, the game keeps up the intensity. Subsequent stages run through a destroyed city, a lava-filled pit, and a highway duel between a truck, giant missiles, and galloping ostrich-robots. It's all faithful to the Contra ideal of throwing a new challenge at the player every few seconds, whether it's a fall through a cavern of heat-seeking mines or a showdown with a robotic ninja. Everything's held together nicely by spot-on control, and its easy to drop-and-fire or switch between your two weapons.
For the Contra fan, much of Rebirth will seem quite familiar. Many stages are strung together with tributes to the first four major Contra games, with special attention paid to mimicking Contra III's highlights and enemies. The soundtrack is almost entirely remixes of Contra music, and even the explosions have some nostalgia to them. It's perhaps not faithful to the “rebirth” part of its title, but at least the game borrows just about everything important. It also dresses itself up in fairly decent 2-D graphics, deliberately imitating the limits of a Super NES. It's easy to pretend that you're playing a Contra sequel released in 1993, and that the future holds nothing but prosperity for the series.
Contra Rebirth misses a few points: the arsenal is limited to stock machine guns, spread guns, lasers, and the enemy-seeking Hunter. Gone are the bombs from Contra III, the grappling hook from Contra 4, and the awesome lineup of character-specific weapons from Contra Hard Corps (the Japanese version of which is still the best Contra ever). In terms of firepower, Rebirth recalls the first two Contras, where every other weapon was just a placeholder until you picked up the spread gun. At least Rebirth lets you carry two at once.
Rebirth also doesn't last as long as classic Contra games. While the five stages are all fairly challenging, the typical older Contra has twice as many. Contra Rebirth also offers unlimited checkpoint-based continues, making the game only slightly easier than the best Contra titles. And while WiiWare buyers probably expected limited multiplayer, it's a shame that the game's two-player mode doesn't work online.
Contra Rebirth isn't the crowning achievement of the Contra legacy, but it expertly captures the essential aura, that edge of action-game exhilaration that's hard to turn down. Even if it's short, Rebirth still pushes all of the right buttons. It's Contra in its purest form, and that's well worth playing through time and time again.
RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 10-18
ASTRO BOY: THE VIDEO GAME
I have no idea what to make of the new Astro Boy movie, but at least there's no confusing it and The Video Game, which is plainly labeled. Inspired by Treasure's Astro Boy: The Omega Factor and other side-scrollers, Astro Boy's a traditional sort of game, where flashy polygon graphics coat the same sort of play mechanics we saw back in 1992. That's not a bad thing, since developer High Voltage Software looked to all sorts of classic titles, and the resulting gameplay includes both shooting levels and running-jumping platform stages. It all appears more solid than the usual slapdash 3-D action game patterned after a film, so perhaps this'll succeed if the movie doesn't. And if the movie succeeds in spite of bitter anime-fan predictions, perhaps kids will want the game just for its minor additions to the film's storyline.
BAKUGAN BATTLE BRAWLERS
Don't worry, ailing domestic anime industry! Behold your savior: Bakugan Battle Brawlers. Perhaps I'm not even joking. Bakugan's the only new anime series to stand firm on Cartoon Network, and it's popular enough to stake out pieces of toy aisles even in the face of Transformers/G.I. Joe/Star Wars revivals. In fact, I was surprised to find that next week's multi-system blitzkrieg features the first Bakugan games in North America, and that all of them recreate the toy and cartoon's mix of cards, magnetized marble-throwing, and nonsensical anime backstories. In combat, the games display the physical Bakugan fields where players throw out elementally coded monsters to wage Pokemon-like battles. Players also create their own avatars, who serve as the main characters in a story mode that apparently follows the latest New Vestoria season of the anime series. And that's all I ever want to write about Bakugan Battle Brawlers.
DRAGON BALL: REVENGE OF KING PICCOLO
Somewhere between Astro Boy and Bakugan lies the still-profitable Dragon Ball name, and its latest game offering is a cel-shaded action title for the Wii. Remember when “cel-shaded” was a major buzzwords in the game industry, even though it's just shorthand for a 3-D game that looks like a cartoon? Well, that's entirely appropriate for this title, which covers the Dragon Ball story from the Red Ribbon war to the whole business with King Piccolo. The game offers simple brawling using the Wii remote, with kid Goku using his transporter cloud, extending combat pole and glowing energy attacks named after Hawaiian monarchs. It's likely just for the kids who still prefer Dragon Ball to Naruto, and the “E” rating suggests that this game, unlike last year's Dragon Ball Origins, will avoid recreating the anime's plot points about Bulma's underwear.
With the DS now the prime host for this generation's Japanese RPGs, the competition might make a game like Nostalgia seem bland, with its kid hero, airships, and turn-based battles. However, Nostalgia is the creation of Matrix, the developer of impressive DS RPGs like Avalon Code and the Final Fantasy IV remake, and Nostalgia has more going for it. The title isn't just for effect, since the game's world is our own just before the 20th century kicked in, though it's a 20th century where London and Cairo and other cities are steam-fueled fortresses and everyone wants an airship. Those airships are customizable, diverse machines that carry out battles entirely separate from the on-foot combat, a distinction similar to that of Skies of Arcadia. The plot still seems routine, with adventurer Eddie seeking his absent father with the help of a thief, a witch, and a seemingly boring girl who has both healing magic and amnesia. Despite the clichés, there's potential both here and in Matrix's history of original projects.
SPACE INVADERS EXTREME 2
As someone who saw the word “Extreme” painfully applied to everything from G.I. Joe to sandals as a kid, I involuntarily cringe when the word modifies video game titles. But Space Invaders Extreme 2 is less an obnoxious, hollow marketing gimmick and more a useful expansion of the ideas the first Extreme threw around. The basic Space Invaders formula is broadened with bosses, power-ups, and a color-matching bingo mode. Plus there's a multiplayer feature that works a little like a block-dumping puzzle game. It's also dressed up in all the flash you'd expect in a Dance Dance Revolution game, and if that may put it too close to the worst of “Extreme” for some, it's still Space Invaders deep down.
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