The X Button
Strange Days

by Todd Ciolek, Nov 4th 2009

The next week is a busy one for games, particularly for the Harvest Moon series. It's a drastic change from the days of the first U.S.-released Harvest Moon. The game showed up on the Super NES well after everyone had moved on, and no one really wanted a farming RPG. For example, when someone named Nate Bodine wrote Ultra Game Players about Harvest Moon, this was the magazine's characteristically glib response:

“Aw, quit your whinin', Nate. We are in the age of next generation gaming. If you pick up the latest car magazine at the newsstand, you'll notice they no longer do stories on the covered wagon, either. Besides, Harvest Moon is a freakin' farming simulator! If you'd like to recreate the experience of the game, just hop on out to your front porch and watch the grass grow. Thrilling.”

Today, in the next-next-next generation of gaming, Harvest Moon is a rampant cult success, spanning dozens of games released in America, and the series likely keeps Natsume in good business. So there's a lesson in all of this: don't reflexively ignore games that sound boring. Even if they're about watching grass grow.

NEWS

STRANGE JOURNEY ARRIVES IN THE U.S. IN MARCH
By this point, Atlus has embraced the way Amazon and other retailers leak the release dates of unannounced games, so I expect a humorous Atlus press release about Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey for the DS. The dungeon-crawlingStrange Journey hasn't been confirmed for the U.S., but everyone knew it was coming. Rejecting the typical Shin Megami Tensei stage of a demon-infested Japan, Strange Journey plunges a four-member team of investigators through a dimensional gateway that opened in Antarctica. On the other side, they find a labyrinth crawling with the franchise's typical demons, demons that can be recruited and bonded with human party members. Strange Journey favors dungeon-hackery much more than plot, though the choices made in alliances change the game's flow and the demons that join the explorers.

Speaking of Atlus, they're now owners of Gonzo Rosso Online KK, a former slice of The same GDH empire that includes Gonzo, everyone's favorite anime studio as long as they're watching Gankutsuou. This would be more interesting to us Westerners if Gonzo Rosso Online published notable games, but most of their output consists of online titles largely unknown outside of Asia, though you may have seen ads for the RPG Shaiya –Light and Darkness-. The Tower of Druaga –The Recovery of Babylim- is perhaps the most recognizable of Gonzo Rosso's stable, since it's based on the Namco dungeon-hack and very loosely related to the anime series. All things considered, this changes little. With GDH's recent financial struggles, Gonzo Rosso is perhaps in better hands with Atlus.

TERRY AND MAI APPEAR IN KOF: SKY STAGE
It's perhaps excessive to point out every new character that SNK puts in its The King of Fighters shooter spin-off Sky Stage, but I find it interesting to keep track of just who's in this game, compared to who showed up in The King of Fighters XII. For one thing, Kula Diamond wasn't in XII, but she's in Sky Stage. The same goes for Mai Shiranui, whose absence from XII provoked much complaining and probably resulted in her appearing in Stage.

The second new addition is Terry Bogard, but he's rarely not in a King of Fighters. He and Mai join Kula, Iori Yagami, Kyo Kusanagi, and Athena Asamiya in Sky Stage. It's just about ready to arrive in Japanese arcades, and SNK's bound to add more characters before it hits a home console.

FRONT MISSION EVOLVES INTO MECHWARRIOR
Front Mission Evolved, headed to the Xbox 360 and PS3 next year, might be just what Square Enix's series of strategy-RPGs needed: an action game with no grids or turns or other strategy staples. Instead of commanding and upgrading squads of multiple Wanzer units, players guide one such mecha through streets and other near-future battlefields. Evolved is also breaking type by being the creation of Double Helix, the California-based developer responsible for Silent Hill: Homecoming and, uh, G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra. In newly released videos, Evolved looks a bit like Armored Core and Mechwarrior, and I might not even have pegged it as a Front Mission at first sight. Also curious is the lack of chatter from any Wanzer pilots. If Evolved is really going to get Front Mission's brand of anime-inspired mecha right, it needs some angsty battlefield conversations to go along with the groaning, damaged machines.

THE WII IN 2010

In an effort to look forward and to turn this column's forum threads into bickering hellpits of console rivalry, The X Button will examine just what each of the three home systems has to offer anime fans in 2010. We begin this week with the Wii, because we feel like it.

Game systems sometimes fight long, evenly matched battles for the attentions of anime fans. That didn't happen in the last generation, when the GameCube and Xbox stepped aside and let the PlayStation 2 have most of the RPGs, the dating sims, the anime-based mishmashes, the flashy fighters, and the other genres popular among those who love themselves some Japanese cartoons. This generation, however, is a little different: there are Japanese RPGs on the Xbox 360, Dragon Ball offshoots on the Wii, and a Gundam game in the PlayStation 3's launch lineup (yes, the American launch lineup). It's hard to pick a superior console for the anime-geek, though the Wii has an unexpectedly strong lineup for the coming year. Most of it was delayed from this year.

ARC RISE FANTASIA
Developer: imageepoch
Japanese Publisher: Marvelous
American Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
Coming: Summer

Arc Rise Fantasia stands as the first major Wii RPG that's not part of some established franchise, and it's also the first high-budget console game from imageepoch, a developer that previously worked on portable titles like Sands of Destruction and the Luminous Arc series. It's also the first video game to use character designs by Kenichi Yoshida of Eureka Seven fame, and you can actually tell it by looking at the game.

That said, Arc Rise Fantasia doesn't sound terribly different from many other RPGs. While the lead starts off as a grunt-level mercenary instead of a Kid With A Mysterious Past And/or Power, he meets a cheerful yet naïve foreign girl, and the two of them discover a cast of stereotyped allies and the magical creatures that power much of civilization. Arc still looks impressive, and its battle system shows that the game's director, Hiroyuki Kanemaru, is a veteran of Namco's Tales series. The combat is more measured compared to the frantic messes of Tales battles, but Kanemaru spikes it with combos and team-up attacks aplenty.
Early Word: Arc Rise Fantasia came out last June in Japan, though the game's American debut was briefly overshadowed by Ignition Entertainment grabbing it away from XSEED Games.

FRAGILE: FAREWELL, RUINS OF THE MOON
Developer: tri-Crescendo
Japanese Publisher: Namco Bandai
American Publisher: XSEED Games
Coming: Summer

There's something uncommonly striking about Fragile's premise: one boy awakens in a decaying, abandoned world and searches for any other survivors. It's a haunting image, brought to life by the game's vistas of moonlit towns and sunsets over rotting buildings. It's the sort of game that makes us critics want to pull out pretentious words like “elegiac.” Then again, it's not all measured, subtle effects in Fragile, where the lead character, Seto, is a wide-eyed anime hero, and the first person he encounters in this desolate world is a white-haired girl wearing very little.

That said, Fragile builds on its unique premise by shunning the structure of a traditional action-oriented, survival-horror game. Seto starts off with only a stick in his inventory, and a flashlight, directed by the Wii remote, proves one of his most valuable accessories. Other remote-mimicking devices include a microphone, a metal detector, and various blunt/sharp objects for pounding the unpleasant things that lie in wait. That probably won't make Fragile palatable to the Devil May Cry audience, but there's little question that the game, created by the normally derivative tri-Crescendo, is unique.
Early Word: Fragile did good business in Japan, though some were disappointed that the game wasn't Resident Evil with artier stages.

SAKURA WARS: SO LONG, MY LOVE
Developer: Sega/Red
Japanese Publisher: Sega
American Publisher: NIS America
Coming: January

Ah, Sakura Wars, the great unrealized dream of the 1990s' American game/anime nerd nexus. Sure, you could've conceivably imported and played any of the Sakura Wars games, but you couldn't really enjoy them without in-depth knowledge of Japanese. Some U.S. publishers released Sakura Wars manga and anime, though most of those just made things worse in several ways. Now, years after the last major Sakura Wars, NIS America lands the rights to Sakura Wars V and repackages it as Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love.

Perhaps Sakura Wars V was chosen for release here because it's set in the U.S. and requires little introduction to the broader ideas of the series: it's the 1920s, and only squadrons of young actresses (and young player-identification Japanese men) and their steam-powered mechs can beat back an invasion of demons. The New York City contingent is led by ensign Shinjiro Taiga, and he's joined cowgirl Gemini Sunrise and other mash-ups of Americanized culture with names like “Michael Sunnyside” and “Rikaritta Aries.” It's a strategy-RPG in its battles, with the story sequences conveyed through lengthy, player-directed conversations. NIS America is also doing something unthinkable by the standards of the late 1990s: re-recording the game's lengthy dialogue in English, with the North American edition shipping with two versions of the game. One disc has English voices, the other has the original Japanese ones.
Early Word: Released in Japan back in 2005, Sakura Wars V never caught on as much as the original, Japan-centric Sakura Wars did, and the Wii version might not be all that different from NIS America's release of the original PlayStation 2 title.

SIN AND PUNISHMENT 2: SUCCESSORS OF THE SKY
Developer: Treasure
Japanese Publisher: Nintendo
American Publisher: Nintendo
Coming: Spring

For those who complained about the Wii lacking “serious” games, a Sin and Punishment is the most obvious gift Nintendo could give its dedicated older fans, short of actually translating Mother 3. That's because both Sin and Punishments are creations of Treasure, a small developer that has an excellent reputation and actually deserves some of it. The original Sin and Punishment, a late Nintendo 64 release in Japan, was a 3-D gallery shooter with a character running back and forth in the foreground, all while using a targeting cursor to pick off enemies ahead. It worked surprisingly well with the Nintendo 64's normally unpleasant controller, and Sin and Punishment 2 revives that play mechanic with the Wii's more intuitive remote.

Sin and Punishment 2 also revives the original's deliriously convoluted mess of a world, one where androgynous teenagers ride broken pieces of battleship through the sky or turn into cyborg monsters in an ocean of blood. In addition to driving another batshit-crazy storyline, the two new characters in Sin and Punishment 2 present slightly different gameplay options: Isa (son of the first game's main characters) has a jetpack and a free-firing target cursor, while Kachi has a hoverboard and an auto-targeting cursor. Both of them are dressed in glowing neon 1980s sportswear. Sometimes Treasure's too weird for its own good.
Early Word: Sin and Punishment 2 arrived in Japan recently, and most of the devoted Treasure fans love it to death. Of course, said fans also include the people who like every Treasure game down to Tiny Toon Adventures: Buster's Bad Dream and Stretch Panic.

THE SKY CRAWLERS: INNOCENT ACES
Developer: Namco Bandai
Japanese Publisher: Namco Bandai
American Publisher: XSEED Games
Coming: January

Mamoru Oshii's The Sky Crawlers raised some troubling questions as a film, and so does the game. For example, is making The Sky Crawlers into a Wii flight-combat simulator a betrayal of the movie's stupefying aerial battles? Those battles were intentionally extravagant symbols of the meaningless bloodshed endured by the movie's young pilots, and in order for a game to retain that theme, it'd have to be confusing and shallow. It'd also need scenes of characters just staring at each other.

Namco apparently isn't going for that, as Innocent Aces was developed by the same team behind the Ace Combat series. The game's aerial combat is coherently played with the Wii's remote and nunchuk, making it relatively easy to maneuver through dogfights and pull off stunts for better targeting positions. The storyline also follows a group of pilots similar to those in the anime film, and what seems like a cop-out makes perfect sense in the bleak little world of The Sky Crawlers.
Early Word: For a game based on an anime property without any Shonen Jump connections, Innocent Aces didn't do bad in Japan, where it earned a manga spin-off in Monthly Comic Blade.

TATSUNOKO VS. CAPCOM: ULTIMATE ALL-STARS
Developer: CAPCOM
Japanese Publisher: CAPCOM
American Publisher: CAPCOM
Coming: January

Some might say that Tatsunoko vs. CAPCOM is too mired in old-school fandom to truly interest modern anime geeks. Tatsunoko Productions had its most enduring anime hits decades ago with series like Gatchaman and Casshern, so it's not surprising that the Tatsunoko side of this fighter is full of tights-clad superheroes and the Yatterman cast, with Karas' title hero being the only representative from this decade. Will today's fans, with their Fullmetal Death Notes and Lucky Haruhis, care enough to pick up the American version of the game, for which CAPCOM has carefully worked around various legal issues?

Even if Tatsunoko vs. CAPCOM flops in the anime sector, it's one to watch for anyone into fighting games, or at least the looser, flashier, amusing fighting games that defined CAPCOM's Vs. series (that'd be X-Men vs. Street Fighter, Marvel vs. CAPCOM, etc.). Most of the fighting-game crowd will grab it to see CAPCOM characters like Dead Rising's Frank West and the obscure Saki Omokane from Quiz Nanairo Dreams in a fighter next to Ryu, Chun-Li, and Morrigan. Ultimate All-Stars is even an expanded edition of the Tatsunoko vs. CAPCOM that Japan saw this year, as it drops only the genie hero of Hakushon Daimaō and adds four new fighters: the above-mentioned Frank West, Megaman X's Zero, Gatchaman's Joe, and Tekkaman Blade's title hero.
Early Word: Fighting-game enthusiasts like Tatsunoko vs CAPCOM well enough, even in a year that's seen Street Fighter IV and BlazBlue.

ALSO AHEAD
Monado: Beginning of the World is a grim action-RPG from Monolith Soft, the developer revered by some for Xenosaga (and hated by others for Xenosaga). It's art direction is fairly realistic for an anime-infused RPG, though it's too early to tell how the game will fare in Japan, or if it'll even come to the U.S.

Nintendo has its own lineup of Wii titles for 2010, of course, and most of them will be too high-profile for anyone, anime fan or otherwise, to miss. The biggest risk of them is Metroid: Other M, a third-person Metroid action game that adds copious amounts of backstory to the series. The problem is that Metroid often thrives on limited details, particularly when it comes to heroine Samus Aran. Nintendo also has a potential 2010 sleeper in Another Code R, sequel to the DS puzzle-adventure Trace Memory. It's sat in Japan since early this year and skipped America on its way to Europe, so don't get your hopes up.

Then there's Tōshinden, which merits mention here only for the sake of charity, or perhaps the vague rumor that Takara will release it in the West. The new Tōshinden may have little to do with the series of increasingly mediocre 3-D fighters from the 1990s, but it looks to have the same level of clumsy fighting and ridiculously generic characters. Well, the artwork isn't so bad. Technically speaking, that is.

RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 11-8

DRAGON BALL: RAGING BLAST
Developer: Spike
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Platform: Xbox 360/PlayStation 3
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $59.99

Dragon Ball Z's 3-D fighting games perhaps deserve their own random subtitle generator, with Raging Limit Burst Spark Battle Generations arising somewhere in there. The important thing, to hear the PR tell it, is that Raging Burst has over 70 characters from Akira Toriyama's lengthy fighting series, and that all of them can throw each other through mountains, blast each other with glowing palm lasers, and generally look and fight almost exactly like they do in the better-animated moments of the anime series. Raging Blast also promises character customization and item-collecting, much like last year's Dragon Ball Z: Burst Limit.
Get Excited If: You trade in your Dragon Ball Z fighters like sports games.

DRAGON BALL Z: ATTACK OF THE SAIYANS
Developer: Monolith Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Platform: Nintendo DS
Players: 1
MSRP: $29.99

The title is Attack of the Saiyans, but it may as well be called Dragon Ball Z: Super Robot Taisen OG Saga Endless Frontier. Like the absurdly long-named Endless Frontier, Attack of the Saiyans is a Monolith Soft RPG where slickly animated three-character parties take down enemies with flashy team-up attacks. Of course, Attack of the Saiyans replaces Endless Frontier's robots and giant-breasted anime women with the cast of Dragon Ball Z and follows them through the series' first big multi-character brawl against invading Saiyans Vegeta and Nappa. It's not just that particular drawn-out fight, however, as Monolith threw in a bunch of side-stories to broaden the world of Dragon Ball Z (or the Dragon Ball Kai revamp, which lent its title to this game in Japan). Perhaps they've also made the combat a little less repetitive than it was in Endless Frontier, though I doubt many Dragon Ball Z fans will mind frequent anime overkill.
Get Excited If: You've been waiting for a RPG that doesn't make Dragon Ball Z completely boring.

HARVEST MOON: ANIMAL PARADE
Developer: Marvelous
Publisher: Natsume
Platform: Wii
Players: 1
MSRP: $49.99

Animal Parade's title suggests a Harvest Moon heavy on raising, tending, and exhibiting livestock, but this sequel to Harvest Moon: Tree of Tranquility puts a lot of emphasis on another major part of any Harvest Moon: marrying and having children. As usual, players can either control a male lead wooing ten local women or direct a female lead dating ten local men. Eventually, you'll choose one and have kids. In Animal Parade, however, the generations continue, as the men and women the player doesn't marry sometimes pair up and have kids of their own, with those kids becoming rivals to the players' own offspring. There's also the usual array of Harvest Moon attractions, from farming crops to taking those crops to the market! It's always much more fun than it sounds.
Get Excited If: You wonder what happened to the women and men you spurned in past Harvest Moons.

HARVEST MOON: SUNSHINE ISLANDS
Developer: Marvelous
Publisher: Natsume
Platform: Nintendo DS
Players: 1
MSRP: $29.99
Bonus Stuff: A stuffed pig comes with pre-orders

Just as Animal Parade is a sequel to an earlier Harvest Moon on the Wii, Sunshine Islands picks up after Island of Happiness!, finding an archipelago buried beneath the sea by an earthquake. In addition to the usual Harvest Moon tasks of agriculture and marriage, Sunshine Islands requires players to wield godlike powers as they raise isles up from the ocean and turn them into habitable farmland. Players also gather up animals, plant crops, till soil, romance locals (as either a male or female farmer), and generally go about the cute, innocent life of the typical Harvest Moon game. And hey, there's a stuffed pig. Perhaps Natsume already gave one away with a previous Harvest Moon, but I'm sure this one is different.
Get Excited If: You prefer tropical Harvest Moons to the countryside ones.

KENKA BANCHO: BADASS RUMBLE
Developer: Spike
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: PSP
Players: 1
MSRP: $39.99

I thoroughly love the subtitle Badass Rumble. It's the sort of Americanized name you'd seen on old 1980s Nintendo games if Nintendo had allowed even mild profanity. But Kenka Bancho is a modern creation, so it retains its Japanese title above its brutishly succinct American one. Effectively a pared-down Japanese version of Rockstar's Bully, Kenka Bancho follows a high-school thug on a class trip, one in which every major teenage brawler just happens to be visiting the same city. In between pursuing romances with several girls, our hero honorably climbs through the ranks of tough guys. Fights play out with somewhat slow 3-D controls, though they're the only video-game brawls where you can transfix opponents with a laser-like stare while picking out proper comebacks to their insults. And that alone should make Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble worth a look.
Get Excited If: You try to stare down opponents in fighting games all the time, though it never works.

PHANTASY STAR ZERO
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Nintendo DS
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $34.99

My sympathies go out to the Sega programmers behind the modern Phantasy Stars. No matter how good their games are, there will always be a sizeable crowd of older fans who refuse to play any Phantasy Star that's not in the exact style of the original four games (of which only the last one holds up well, but hey). Phantasy Star Zero is very much a modern Phantasy Star, with the neon anime stylings and space elves we've seen since Phantasy Star Online. It's also a hybrid of online RPG and single-player quest, with players taking on action-oriented battles in groups or in solitary online level grinds. There's also an offline story to put player-created characters through, and said plot changes depending on what race the lead is. Will Phantasy Star Zero be a solid RPG with valuable lessons about racism? Too bad some Phantasy Star fans will never find out one way or the other.
Get Excited If: You loved both Phantasy Star Online and Phantasy Star Universe.

PO>P'N MUSIC
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Platform: Wii
Players: 1
MSRP: $29.99

At this point, Konami must feel pretty dumb for not bringing over Guitar Freaks and Beatmania before Guitar Hero and Rock Band stormed the game industry. But Konami's not going to let some ugly American company beat them to exploiting the Po>p'n Music series, even if this new Wii version of Po>p'n Music doesn't have the special controller that's accompanied most of the fourteen or so Po>p'n Music games. The game instead uses the remote and nunchuk to simulate the traditional nine buttons that Po>p'n Music players tap to maintain whatever beat the game throws at them. The Wii Po>p'n Music also allows you to incorporate Miis into the game's flashing techno-club stages. At least it doesn't look quite as hideous as the much-despised Beat'n Groovy adaptation from last year.
Get Excited If: You've bought too many Po>p'n Music imports to back away now.

Also This Week: Square Enix's Final Fantasy XI Ultimate Collection, a re-packaging of just about every scrap of Final Fantasy XI content for the PC and Xbox 360.

EXTRA LIVES: COVER ART ODDITIES

Go down to your local GameStop or TOYS R US or even that mom-and-p>op store where there's never anyone beyond a few teenagers playing Team Fortress 2 in a corner. You'll see a lot of anime art on game covers. It doesn't dominate the walls quite yet, but it's a drastic change from the way it was in the early 1990s.

In this age long gone by, anime was poison to the American game industry's marketing core. Kids didn't watch Pokémon yet and Robotech was a distant memory, so companies often commissioned new artwork to hide the fact that their games had anime influences. Even when the game itself boasted big-eyed characters and glossy blue hairstyles in its cutscenes, the cover art would likely be some airbrushed image straight from an U.S. comic book. It was a world where even Ranma ½ games had their box art redrawn. Few games made it through this strict Americanization unscathed, and we're going to salute three lesser-known ones that did.

KEIO FLYING SQUADRON
Anime artwork was more common on game covers by the time Keio Flying Squadron arrived on the Sega CD, where Lunar: The Silver Star had proven a success despite its distinctly Japanese-cartoon box art. However, Lunar is a straightforward RPG with dragons and swordsmen and other sights found in Western fantasy. Keio Flying Squadron is a shooter where a teenage girl in a Playboy bunny outfit hops on a dragon and guns down a race of evil raccoons trying to revive the unspeakable powers of Noah's Ark. And, believe it or not, the cover shows that.

Keio Flying Squadron's U.S. cover art comes straight from its Japanese cousin, perhaps because JVC saw no point in redesigning something so ridiculous. The game's ads even play up the absurdity, telling the player to “Go ahead and laugh, funny boy” and "Strap on your bunny ears and save this world" before extolling the game's blistering challenge. Some did laugh at Keio Flying Squadron, but more customers ignored the game during the furious holiday rush of 1994. If any of the unimpressed now collect games, the joke's on them: Keio Flying Squadron is among the rarest and most expensive Sega CD titles.

LUFIA AND THE FORTRESS OF DOOM
One could call Lufia and the Fortress of Doom an average RPG: it has far too many boring, randomly generated battles, and its story, such as it is, goes into hiding for long stretches of the game's 40-hour runtime. But it was the right game at the right time in the dark, bleak, RPG-deprived middle of 1993. Fans who'd bought the Super NES for Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda had little but mediocrity before them, even after they bought still-overpriced Sega CDs to play Lunar. And then they had Lufia and its anime-like cover art.

That's “anime-like” in the sense that it resembles something from a lesser-known anime OVA laserdisc from 1993. Perhaps it wouldn't be a particularly good OVA, but this art of Lufia's main characters (and similar illustrations on the official strategy guide) had many players wondering if there was some anime production based on or derived from Lufia. There isn't one, and even the game's Japanese TV commercial is disappointingly lacking in animation. The second Lufia used more stylish art both here and in Japan. If it looked much better, but it didn't quite trick anyone into writing Animerica about a “Lufia anime.”

STARSHIP HECTOR
Hudson Soft's Star Soldier series was never one-tenth as popular in the West as it was in Japan, and its largely ignored off-shoot Starship Hector is even lower in profile. Most don't even remember that it came out in North America, or that someone at Hudon's U.S. branch had a novel idea for its cover. The game's box art in Japan (where it was called Hector '87) consisted of an empty stretch of some rocky, far-off planet's surface. It was boring. So why not take the main character from the Japanese release of Star Soldier and stick him on Starship Hector's box.?

The idea gave Starship Hector a unique look among other American NES boxes, and perhaps someone might have mistaken it for a Fist of the North Star title. Still, most people forgot about the game a few months after it hit. That's not the fault of the box, though. It's the fault of the game killing most players within the first minute and never giving them a chance to see the neat level design and varying perspectives of Starship Hector.


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