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The X Button

by Todd Ciolek,

Nintendo's portable systems follow a certain path. As the Game Boy did so long ago, the Game Boy Advance and the Nintendo DS saw slightly improved versions introduced every few years, until it was finally time for a full-fledged replacement. And now the DS is getting its boldest revamp yet: The 3-D DS.

Dubbed the 3DS for the time being, this new version of the DS projects 3-D images without any glasses, headsets, or other peripherals. No games were announced and no one yet knows exactly what the system looks like, as it won't be formally unveiled until E3 in June.

Of course, this means that we have several months to bring back all of the heartless Virtual Boy jokes that people made right after Nintendo announced the original DS. Not that I would mind if the 3DS had a remake of Jack Bros. or Vertical Force.


Square Enix's iPhone games so far consist of routine Final Fantasy ports and the enjoyably simple Crystal Defenders, but there's nothing with that lavish 3-D Square overkill. Well, we'll soon have Chaos Rings, a new RPG that looks and sounds like a vintage Square creation.

The game's stage is Ark Arena, where men and women are paired off and fight deadly matches against similar teams. That's likely just the opening of the game, because the trailer shows a lot more than a simple coliseum: the characters trek through ruined cites and neon forests, all while letting fly with the gaudy moves and tearful melodrama you'd see in a Final Fantasy during the PlayStation era.

The visual quality is excellent for a portable game, and the soundtrack seems straight from a full-blown console RPG. I also suspect that the character portraits are by the same artist who worked on the recent Lufia II remake, but damned if I can remember his or her name.

If Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has taught us nothing else, it's that anime fans don't mind sitting through the same storyline twice. So they probably won't mind when Fullmetal Alchemist: To the Promised Day, a new RPG for the PSP, runs through many of the same plot points as Brotherhood.

At least the game's battle system adds something. Each of the four playable party members is linked to a separate face button during combos, not unlike Valkyrie Profile. Outside of combat, To the Promised Day also involves button-tapping puzzles as Ed and Al Elric navigate 3-D towns and mazes, and bonus quests are unlocked if you punch in the right password, just like the codes in an old NES game. It'll be out in Japan this May, and it probably won't let you just skip to the part where the plot diverges from the original anime show's storyline.

No Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood games are coming to North America as of yet, but Namco Bandai Europe is bringing out the tag-team fighter for the PSP. It arrives in June under the title of, well, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and any U.S. fans will be able to run it on a domestic PSP without problems.

One might need reminding that Gust and NIS are actually separate companies, considering how often they do crossover games. The latest, Trinity Universe, is a PlayStation 3 title that mixes in characters from Disgaea, the Atelier games, and other familiar Gust and NIS titles.

Unlike last year's Cross Edge crossover, Trinity Universe is a 3-D RPG with an emphasis on weapon customization (and, unlike Cross Edge, there are no Capcom characters). In addition to the Prinnies from Disgaea and some other, less memorable characters running around, the game also features two original cast members, Katana and Rizelea, and you probably won't see them again after Trinity Universe ends. Naturally, NIS America will release Trinity Universe in North America, and it's coming in June.

I was worried that Cave Story would never come out for WiiWare. It saw numerous delays, and I could just see the publisher deciding that it wasn't worthwhile to ask people to pay for a game that's been available for free online since 2004. But no, Cave Story is finally out for the Wii.

For those who's never played it, Cave Story is startlingly accomplished for an indie creation. A maze-based action game in the vein of Metroid, it drops an amnesiac robot named Quote into the depths of a floating island full of cute characters and tragic histories. Uncovering the isle's secrets involves plenty of exploration, and the game's layouts and power-ups are all exceptionally inventive (riding the machine gun by firing it into the ground remains a stroke of genius). It's charming in its story and viciously hard in its challenges, and it's well worth trying for anyone who likes side-scrolling games. The WiiWare version has sharper graphics and an arranged soundtrack, plus a boss-rush mode and a survival stage. However, the best addition for fans is a new storyline in which players control Quote's partner Curly Brace.


Front Mission Evolved charts new territory for its franchise. Most of the previous Front Missions were strategy-RPGs, but Evolved is the first action game in the series since 1996's Gun Hazard, and the first such title in 3-D. It's also the first Front Mission game made in North America, a curious move considering how half of the series (including the recent Front Mission 5) wasn't released in English.

Evolved is currently in development at Double Helix Games, the Irvine-based studio behind Silent Hill: Homecoming. With the game headed for a spring release, we sought out Mike Willette, producer at Double Helix, to learn just where the latest Front Mission and its Wanzer mecha are headed.

How did Double Helix come to develop Front Mission Evolved?

Shinji Hashimoto, the father of the Kingdom Hearts series, was in the Orange County area and decided to visit our studio. We had just wrapped up production of Silent Hill: Homecoming and showed him the final product during his tour. He was very pleased with how we treated the license and later asked us how we would envision a franchise like Front Mission as an action title. The prospect of piloting Armored Humanoid Tanks sent us into frenzy.

Why was it decided to make Front Mission, which is primarily a strategy-RPG series, into an action game?

Square Enix came to Double Helix with the idea of creating an all new action-packed vision of Front Mission to expand the universe to its many fans. The Front Mission universe is so robust that it would be a shame to constrict it to just one genre. This doesn't mean there will never be another strategy-RPG Front Mission. It just means that now you can expect to see action, adventure, and RPG games that exist within this great universe.

How is Double Helix keeping Evolved faithful to the style of the Front Mission series? What do you think are the defining traits of the franchise?

At Double Helix, our mission was to remain true to the franchise's roots by delivering a strong and compelling story, and giving players tons of customization options with their Wanzers. Wanzers are the most awesome thing in the universe and being able to shape them to your own play style and strategy was essential. We have provided players with thousands of combinations of Wanzer parts, weapons, decals, and paint styles.

Tell us a little about the scenes were you can explore on foot. Can you get out of your Wanzer at any time, or is there a pre-scripted division between the robot-piloting sections and the on-foot stages?

We wanted our visuals to maintain a higher fidelity than any of the other mecha games on the market. In order to do so, we separated the times when a player would be on foot or in the Wanzer. They are very distinct moments that remind you just how fragile humans are in this universe.

Did Double Helix handle all of the game's aspects, including the storyline, robot design, and so on?

Double Helix worked in tandem with Square Enix on many aspects of the game including the story and Wanzer designs. Their feedback and insight is immeasurable. Double Helix has traditionally specialized in action games, while Square Enix has a massive RPG pedigree. Working so closely allowed us to generate the type of content our fans expect: high quality cinematics and story, tightly designed controls and interactions, and high quality character and environment art.

How does the storyline of Evolved tie into the other Front Mission games?

Evolved isn't directly linked to any of the previous story lines, but shares the same themes and conflicts that exist within the Front Mission universe. Front Mission Evolved exists in a time very similar to the cold war during the 1980s. The U.C.S. and the O.C.U are vying for universal control. When expansion on earth reaches a stalemate, these two superpowers start looking to the heavens. Massive orbital elevators and satellite systems litter the earth's atmosphere, and raise tensions between these two groups to higher levels as they begin to spy and run covert missions against one another.

Was there any previous Front Mission game that influenced Evolved more than the others? What about the action-oriented Front Mission: Gun Hazard?

Front Mission 4 was a direct inspiration as we developed the feel of a Wanzer; how it moves and how we perceive these motions as a pilot. We reviewed the cinematics often to help us construct that feeling of piloting a several-ton machine of war.

Were you inspired by any other games, anime series, or robot-related media? Armored Core, Metal Warriors, or Virtual On?

Whether it's in anime, (Voltron, Mazinger Z, Macross, and Gundam) or in games (Armored Core, Chromehounds, Mech Assault, and Lost Planet), we have drawn inspiration. There is something fascinating about giant robots. We diligently explore and evaluate how other creative minds have tackled the subject so we too can make a meaningful offering to the genre.

Of the robots in the game, which is your personal favorite?

That's so hard to decide! One of my favorite Wanzers is the Kahei. I think it's got an awesome silhouette and just looks outright mean. It's a Wanzer with more speed than armor, and is best suited for flanking and using cover.


Developer: Cing
Publisher: Tecmo
Platform: Nintendo DS
Players: 1
MSRP: $29.99

Hotel Dusk: Room 215 was an interesting creation: a graphic adventure game that wasn't kid-friendly, utterly filthy, or littered with horror-movie freakouts. Yet it apparently wasn't a huge success in North America; at least that's what I assume from the fact that Nintendo, which published Hotel Dusk, passed on developer Cing's thematically similar Again. Like Hotel Dusk, Again is a relatively realistic investigation guided by conversations and clue-hunting. The DS is held like a book, and the stylus is used to poke around various crime scenes, all in search of the truth behind a series of murders apparently connected to similar killings 19 years before. Oh, and you're controlling the FBI agent who was the only survivor of said murder spree. The DS is home to plenty of detective-adventure games already, but Cing (which also made Little King's Story) has a knack for giving conventional games strange twists.
Get Excited If: You actually replayed Hotel Dusk.

Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Platform: PSP
Players: 1
MSRP: $29.99

You know what? I didn't mind the original Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball. It was simple, relaxing, and really not all that embarrassing if you didn't want it to be. Then Xtreme 2 came out and introduced pole-dancing to the first game's mixture of tropical vacationing, gambling, and volleyball. Paradise is really in the Xtreme 2 camp, so much so that the game's official press barely mentions volleyball. Instead it plays up mini-games featuring all of Dead of Alive's female characters, who hop around swimming pools, whirl around poles, and pose a lot while the unseen player's avatar snaps photos. Making friends with the other characters is each woman's ultimate goal, and they go about that by giving each other presents, just as all women do in real life. The cast is also joined by Rio Natsume, star of many fine pachinko-related products and ad campaigns in Japan.
Get Excited If: You're going to play this thing on the subway and you don't care who sees you.

Developer: Kogado Studios/GungHo
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platform: PSP
Players: 1
MSRP: $39.99

Aksys got some attention by packing the Xbox 360 version of Record of Agarest War with a boobs-rest mousepad and other salacious extras, but Mimana: Iyar Chronicle also has some risqué touches. On the surface, it's a standard RPG with side-view battles that incorporate some lightweight action elements, not too far from the Tales series. The storyline finds the antisocial mercenary Crais Sewell hired as a bodyguard by a young girl named Sophie, who's apparently at the center of one of those RPG conspiracies involving magic gems and the destruction of the world. Mimana: Iyar Chronicle also lets Crais suggestively build relationships with the game's four female leads, who include the crazed witch Melrose, the self-sacrificing Patty, the pushy spearfighter Tinon, and the aforementioned Sophie, whose age was actually increased in the localization to make the game less creepy.
Get Excited If: You were always disappointed that Cloud ended up with Tifa instead of Aeris, Yuffie, Jessie, or Elena.

Developer: RED/Sega
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PlayStation 2, Wii
Players: 1
MSRP: $39.99 (PS2), $29.99 (Wii)
Notes: PS2 version includes artbook, poster, and a second disc with Japanese voices.

Yes, it's the event that countless RPG fans would've cherished back in 2001: a Sakura Wars game in English. Of course, many of those fans have likely moved on by now, but Sakura Wars is still an engaging mixture of strategic battles and ridiculous anime storytelling. Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is the fifth major game in the series, and it's also the first set in America: New York, to be precise. It's there that Japanese naval ensign Shinichio Taiga joins a special combat team of women who pilot steam-driven mecha and put on theatrical plays. When not defending New York from otherworldly demons, Taiga interacts with the (mostly female) cast of Sakura Wars: Goodbye, Baby, including samurai cowgirl Gemini Sunrise, big-city lawyer Cheiron Archer, and the wheelchair-bound Diana Caprice. It's structured a lot like one of those “dating simulators” people joke about, but Sakura Wars: Beat it, Sweetheart is all relatively tasteful. Not that it isn't crammed with preposterously wrong historical events and anime-grade melodrama, but those form a big part of what makes Sakura Wars: I Was Just Using You, Darling so enjoyable.
Get Excited If: You want a strategy-RPG, an anime-show simulation, and a hysterically romanticized version of 1920s New York City.

Developer: SNK
Publisher: XSEED GAMES
Platform: Xbox 360
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $49.99

Samurai Shodown's glory days are long behind it. Back around 1994, the first two Samurai Shodowns stood as SNK's best fighting games, and their influence could be seen everywhere from EGM's envelope-art gallery to the anime shelves at Suncoast, where some poor saps probably bought the Samurai Shodown OVA. Now, after years of mediocre 3-D sequels and largely ignored hand-drawn 2-D sequels, Samurai Shodown Sen merely bounces between North American publishers and sneaks out in a busy month. Sen also looks distressingly similar to previous failed attempts at doing Samurai Shodown justice as a 3-D fighter: half of the characters are new, and the 3-D visuals seem oddly stiff in comparison to the older games' cartoonish style. On the other hand, Sen really boosts the gory element of Samurai Shodown. Older games had bloody strikes and grim death moves (plus a win pose where Basara held the decomposing ghost of his lover), but Sen features all manner of severed heads and dismemberment, as though SNK's riding Mortal Kombat's train fourteen years after everyone stopped caring. Yes, the odds are against Sen in many ways, but it's still Samurai Shodown, and it still has potential.
Get Excited If: You're disappointed that there's no English version of the Nakoruru OVA, one of the few fighting-game anime that publishers didn't force on North America.

Developer: Nintendo SPD Group 1
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo DS
Players: 1
MSRP: $34.99

Part of the appeal of Wario Ware's rapid-fire rush of mini-games came from their simplicity. Half of them looked like crude homemade diversions mocked up in website Flash. That fact wasn't lost on the developers, as the latest Wario Ware hinges on mini-games created by players. Upon assembling little challenges with the DS stylus, players can also add music by singing into the system's microphone (you can also use a less embarrassing method). Mini-games can be sent to other players or exported to the downloadable Wii version of the game, Wario Ware D.I.Y. Showcase. Of course, both games also contain large collections of original mini-games, though I suspect that most players will jump right into creating their own. Make one that references Wario Land for the Virtual Boy.
Get Excited If: You've already made Wario Ware-like mini-games through methods not supplied nor endorsed by Nintendo.

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