The X Button - Fine Timeby Todd Ciolek,
This is the last X Button column for 2009, so it's hard to escape one of those best-of-the-decade roundups. I'm going to do my best to avoid it, though, and instead I'll go with some awards that have very little to do with relevance, quality, or taste. Those things are best left to the professionals.
Best Terrible Translation: The Dreamcast version of Bangai-O, which became pure comedy when Conspiracy Entertainment deliberately used a rough first draft of the game's English script.
Most Refreshingly Direct Box Quote: 1up.com's “Face it. You've always wanted this.” on the back cover of Konami's all-female wrestling title Rumble Roses.
Best Han Solo Rip-Off: Final Fantasy XII's Balthier Bunansa, a rogue capable of charming vengeful princesses, stuffy rabbit-women, and even players who otherwise hated the game.
Best Anime-Based Game: Treasure's Astro Boy: The Omega Factor for the Game Boy Advance.
Best Game-Based Anime: Gungrave, I guess.
Worst Game-Based Anime: I don't even know where to start.
Most Promising Anime-Based Game That Never Showed Up: Trigun: The Planet Gunsmoke.
Best Unintentionally Suggestive Cover: Konami's underrated strategy-RPG Ring of Red.
Worst Game That I Couldn't Stop Playing: Treasure's sluggish but well-designed Advance Guardian Heroes.
Worst Anime That I Couldn't Stop Watching: The stupefying train wreck of Code Geass.
And those are all of the honors I care to hand out for this decade. Come back in ten years, and I'll find some way to backhandedly compliment Bayonetta.
ETRIAN ODYSSEY III HAS OCEANS, FARMING
No game represents the modern dungeon-hack renaissance better than Etrian Odyssey, with its blend of savage battles, do-it-yourself mapping, and big-eyed, blank-slate characters. Despite games like Shiren the Wanderer and 7th Dragon stealing some attention, the third Etrian Odyssey is on its way with a new nautical theme. Not unlike The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Etrian Odyssey III shows off wide oceans to explore and coastal towns to visit. Granted, the game still features monster-stocked mazes, but at least they're in open-skied forests instead of the cloistered levels seen in most other dungeon hacks.
Etrian Odyssey III also presents another round of character classes: Prince/Princess, Shinobi, Warrior, Pirate, Monk, Beast King, the mage-like Zodiac, the archer-like Ballista, and the paladin-like Phalanx. Some are new, and some seem to be repackaged versions of previous Etrian Odyssey vocations. Then there's the Farmer class, who looks like a Harvest Moon escapee and apparently helps with navigating seas, even though farmers aren't traditionally known for their ocean-faring skills.
NIS UNVEILS PRINNY 2: THE SEARCH FOR UNDERWEAR
Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero? was a mixture of Disgaea's cutely demonic atmosphere and the sort of player-punishing difficulty rarely seen in today's games. The sequel, Prinny 2: Dawn of the Great Underwear War, makes things a little easier for inexperienced players with a new “baby easy” mode, but the main drag of the game is still a brutal affair. At least the Prinny heroes get new maneuvers, including a whirling cyclone strike and a bouncing hip attack. They'd best have more fluid jumping controls, too, as the first game was fairly stiff in that department.
As for the plot, Prinny 2 has the gaggle of devil-penguins hunting down another item for their cruel overlord, Etna, and this time that item is her stolen underwear. This would be strangely funny if Etna weren't a 10,000-year-old demon who looks about ten and thereby sums up everything wrong with modern anime culture. That aside, Prinny 2 comes out in Japan this March, and you can expect a release from NIS America later in the year.
Meanwhile, NIS's upcoming PSP dungeon-hack Zettai Hero Kaizou Keikaku is doing its best to appeal to anime fans, or at least those fans who like shows based on Dengeki Bunko light novels. Zettai will feature costumes that make characters resemble Taiga from Toradora, Horo from Spice and Wolf, Index from Toaru Majutsu no Index, Yoko from Inukami!, Shana from Shakugan no Shana, Dokuro-chan from Bludgeoning Angel Dokuro-Chan, and, most importantly, Boogiepop from Boogiepop Phantom.
NINTENDO GETS BLOODY IN ZANGEKI NO REGINLEIV
Sandlot's Dynamic Zan was briefly shown as part of the Wii's 2009 lineup, and it attracted some attention simply by being a good deal more bloody than anything else in Nintendo's stable. Months later, and Dynamic Zan has a new name for Japan, where it'll be called Zangeki no Reginleiv. The rampant gore remains, but the game's now expanded into an action-heavy brawler with online multiplayer.
Zangeki's visions of huge foes and battlefield chaos recall Sandlot's Earth Defense Force 2017, though Zangeki goes with a medieval Norse-myth angle. The playable characters are deities Freyr and Freyja, and the trailer is full of melodramatic stage-setting as well as dismemberment and blood-spraying. One wonders how Nintendo will pitch the game to Western audiences after its launch in Japan next year. Maybe it'll be handled better than the under-promoted Conker's Bad Fur Day.
IMPORT ROUNDUP: DECEMBER
Here's a secret of mine: I like shooters, but I've never liked Darius games. I find the weapons boring, and the series' motif of gigantic mechanized fish bosses just strikes me as repetitive and bland. Darius Burst is targeted at the Darius fan, in particular the one who holds the PlayStation's G-Darius as the apex of the series. Burst also has lots of huge marine-life robots to gun down, and its weapons offer the chance to counter enemy fire by pushing back with lasers or destroying oncoming bullets with the right attack. It has few overt modern concessions (aside from an anime-girl pilot named Ti2), but the game's pretty 3-D visuals are well-suited to the PSP's wide screen, and the soundtrack is a racing mass of tunes from Zuntata, the Taito-backed composing team with its own little cult following. Maybe it'll win me over in time, just like Gradius V made me like Konami's theretofore awful old-school shooter series.
QUEEN'S BLADE: SPIRAL CHAOS|
Developer: Bandai Namco
Publisher: Bandai Namco
It should surprise no one that Queen's Blade finally became a video game, since the Queen's Blade franchise has already invaded (and, some say, ruined) many of Japan's geek venues. The surprising thing is that it's a somewhat mainstream title built on Bandai Namco's Super Robot Wars series. Like that compilation of giant-robot superstars, Queen's Blade: Spiral Chaos is a strategy-RPG where tiny characters position themselves on grids and leap into flashily animated side-view battle scenes. Since this is Queen's Blade, those battle scenes find the characters bursting out their armor, jiggling all over the place, squirting acid from demonic breasts, or suggestively spilling milk all over themselves and getting horribly ashamed about their table manners. That's the essence of Queen's Blade: Spiral Chaos, though Namco Bandai went through the trouble of building multiple plotlines into the game, plotlines that players must explore in full to see all of those things for which words like “risqué” seem inadequate. There's also a new character driving the storyline. Her name is Cute, she's a knife fighter, and a figure of her comes with the game's special edition. Both editions feature a special pause screen, just in case your parents walk in.
Developer: Dream Factory
Among fighting series that no one expected to see again, Toshinden rated somewhere down around Bloody Roar and Killer Instinct. Yet Tomy brought it back, and this new game has few connections with those older Toshindens that initially dazzled and later disappointed many on the PlayStation. The Wii game introduces an entirely cast of characters, including a book-wielding woman, a cat-maid girl who changes into grown-up form during combat, a blade-lugging schoolgirl, a freckled superheroine in a bodysuit, two futuristic swordsmen, and other standard anime warriors that are nonetheless the best designs the Toshinden series has ever seen. The game's mechanics play it simple, with plenty of aerial combos and exaggerated anime attacks. Balancing the characters was probably not a priority for developer Dream Factory, which hasn't made an evenly matched fighter since Tobal 2 back in 1997. Still, Toshinden has a mess of anime style, and Tomy clearly hopes that the game and its attendant manga series will prove a multimedia hit with the fighting-game fans who don't care about structure or competition.
RELEASES FOR THE WEEK OF 1-3
Developer: Platinum Games
Platform: Xbox 360/PlayStation 3
Bayonetta may be the industry's next major action game and an amazing spectacle from the creator of Devil May Cry, but I can't help but think of all the ways in which it could fail. Perhaps the game's many attack methods, from Bayonetta's shoe-mounted pistols to her hair-formed dragon, will prove confusing. Perhaps the God of War crowd won't take to an action game starring a woman, not even a woman with bizarre sex appeal and one-liners too awful to be unintentional. And it would be unfortunate indeed if Bayonetta didn't do well, because Hideki Kamiya has filled it with the most lovingly unhinged carnage ever seen in an action title. Somewhere there's a plot about ancient witch grudges, demons, and annoying sidekicks, but Bayonetta's best points lie in slicing through angelic foes, picking up all sorts of weapons, and facing bosses in shockingly inventive duels. It all looks impressive, Bayonetta's strangely small head notwithstanding, and it tests just how insane action games can get on modern systems.
Developer: Vigil Games
Platform: Xbox 360/PlayStation 3
Darksiders has tenuous links to anime and Japan's game industry, but it exhibits the work of Joe Madureira, the artist who brought manga-inspired style to mainstream superhero comics back in the 1990s. He also created a comic called Battle Chasersby mixing Final Fantasy with Capcom fighters, yet Madureira's heart always seemed to belong to video games. After working on the canceled action-RPG Dragonkind and contributing to other games here and there, he's showing off in Darksiders. A gory action title, it follows the horseman War in a search for the powers behind a premature apocalypse, and that's a fine excuse for all sorts of graphic bloodshed and towering creatures straight out of '90s comics. War's horse plays a major role in combat, and that might set the game apart from the usual on-foot violence. Darksiders also runs into puzzle-filled labyrinths, though one hopes they're not cut from the tedious, item-throwing school of puzzle-filled labyrinths.
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