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The X Button
by Todd Ciolek,
This edition of The X Button looks at a few new games. Some are promising, and one of them is probably the most shameful thing I've covered here since that virtual maid-tormenting title back in 2008. But that's all secondary to the real big news: the Tactics Ogre remake has a new character class.
And it's not just the item-stealing Rogue class that's new! The PSP version of Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together does away with the sexist divisions in the original game's job system, meaning that any character can take on any class. Is that great news or what?
All right, fine. We'll get to the interesting stuff, you ingrates.
ATLUS MAKES AN RPG THAT'S NOT PERSONA
Atlus RPGs tend to be overshadowed by Persona titles and other pieces of the Shin Megami Tensei series, but Atlus still releases games that don't involve hunting demons in modern-day high schools. For example, there's the latest Atlus-endorsed RPG for the DS. It's called Radiant Historia, and it's set in a familiar stock-fantasy world where humans quest alongside fantastic creatures and all that nonsense.
Radiant Historia casts its hero Stok as a young investigator in the nation of Alicetel's spy network. While sniffing around the rival country of Gran org, Stok is wounded and inexplicably sent to another world. He gains the ability to traverse time and space, and the player gains the ability to remake the game's history. It's an idea that hasn't been used to its fullest in RPGs since Chrono Trigger, and Radiant Historia seems much more open in the futures the player can create. Then again, the battle system is more mundane, as it uses basic grid-styled strategy and lets the party avoid enemies before combat.
As implied by the title, Radiant Historia involves some of the people behind tri-Ace's Radiata Stories. Character designer Hiroshi Konishi and scenario designer Satoshi Takayashiki are both Radiata veterans, while other staff members, including director Mitsuru Hirata, are fresh from the Shin Megami Tensei line. And there's a soundtrack by Yoko Shimomura, she of Kingdom Hearts, Legend of Mana, and Xenoblade fame. Radiant Historia's out in Japan this November, and I expect the American contingent of Atlus to land it before long.
KONAMI READIES OWN PHOENIX LAYTON GAME
What's Zack & Ombra: The Phantom Amusement Park? Well, in cynical terms, it's Konami's attempt at getting in on the trend of cutely bizarre puzzle-adventure games like Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton. This new DS game finds the isle of Delfino beset by legions of Ombra, mischievous creatures which resemble the slimes of Dragon Quest. Salvation arrives with Zack, a traveling magician who can see these supernatural troublemakers.
Accompanied by his self-appointed assistant Polly, Zach deals with his rival Raphelo and various Ombra infestations, which usually take the form of taxing little puzzles. Fans of Professor Layton will notice a certain similarity in the townsfolk of Delfino aisle, though the main characters exhibit more standardized anime looks. On that note, Studio 4°C provides the game's animated sequences, which I hope will give them money to put toward more Genius Party short. Whether it funds experimental anime or not, Zach & Ombra comes out in Japan this October.
CRIMINAL GIRLS IS…WELL…
You know what? In the interest of unbiased reporting, I'll try not to give my opinion on Criminal Girls, the new RPG from imageepoch and Nippon Ichi Software. I'll just describe its premise and see how far I can get without bursting into profanities. In this PSP title, you're cast as a guard of hell and told to rehabilitate the damned souls of seven girls, each representing one particular sin. The three unveiled so far are the gossiping Alice, the avaricious Kisaragi, and the lustful Tomoe.
All of the girls follow the player into battle, but they're not idealistic heroes and, as such, they're sometimes hard to keep in line. That's why the player massages them when they're wounded and spanks them when they're disobedient, with special cutscenes portraying their oh god what the fuck is wrong with the people who made this game.
OK, I can finish this. Let's move on to the gameplay. It's a top-view RPG when players explore dungeons, each of which has several different challenges, and the battle system shows four characters ganging up on enemies. The game's gaggle of hellscape explorers vaguely resembles the parties of Dragon Quest or Magic Knight Rayearth, only with constantly blushing and disturbingly young girls in old-timey striped prisoner outfits. Criminal Girls is out in Japan on November 18, and I will be very surprised and even more disappointed if it makes its way to North America.
BARCODE KANOJO PUTS VIRTUAL GIRLFRIENDS EVERYWHERE
After writing about Criminal Girls, I don't feel quite so judgmental toward Barcode Kanojo. Back in 1991, Epoch released a handheld game called Barcode Battler, and it created characters by scanning everyday UPC codes. Nearly two decades later, Cybird uses the same idea for those who need virtual girlfriends. The iPhone app Barcode Kanojo (“Barcode Girlfriend”) uses a product code to generate a young woman in a Live 2-D graphics engine, and she'll react to the player's inputs and the movement of the iPhone itself. Any barcode will presumably work with Barcode Kanojo, from soup labels to the UPC symbols on other dating games. Cybird's promising the app in both Japanese and English, and the beta test for the game starts in September.
INTERVIEW: DEAD RISING 2
Keiji Inafune and Shinsaku Ohara seem like big fans of cheesy horror films. They've put that to good use with Dead Rising 2, sequel to 2006's zombie-filled shopping mall playground of destruction. Set five years after the original game, Dead Rising 2 replaces hardened journalist Frank West with Chuck Greene, a game show contestant fighting to keep his zombie-infected daughter alive. The undead problems go well beyond the studio, of course, and Chuck is soon taking axes, baseball bats, and other improvised weapons to zombies crawling the streets of the Vegas-ish Fortune City.
Dead Rising 2 isn't Inafune's only contribution to Capcom's B-movie zombie glories, as he directed the deliberately low-budget film Zombrex: Dead Rising Sun. A side-story in the Dead Rising universe, Zombrex follows a pocket of Japanese survivors in the wake of a zombie outbreak. It's pure camp, right down to the cringe-inducing English dubbing, and Inafune hopes it'll set the tone for Dead Rising's game show gone awry. The first segments of Zombrex debut on Xbox Live this week, and the entire film will be available by the end of the month, not long before Dead Rising 2's September launch.
We braved the zombie-like crowds of the San Diego Comic Con to ask Inafune and Ohara about Dead Rising 2 and Zombrex. Then we asked about Mega Man Legends yet again.
Why did you use a game show as the initial setting for Dead Rising 2's storyline?
Keiji Inafune: We started off by thinking realistically about what would happen in the real world if there were a zombie outbreak. And I think that if enough time went by it would become a normal part of life, and eventually…especially in America, no offense…people would use it as opportunity to make money. And the easiest way to make money would be to put these zombies on television, to use them as a prop. So if we could work that into a game and have characters that were in it for the money, so to speak, it would go in a direction that we hadn't seen before.
The original Dead Rising had references to other Capcom games, including Servbot heads and a Mega Man blaster. Will we see references to other Capcom characters in Dead Rising 2's power-ups?
Inafune: You can expect the return of Mega Man. Beyond that, I choose to take the fifth! You'll have to play and see.
Since Dead Rising 2 features a game show, what sort of TV shows and movies influenced you?
Inafune: From an American point of view, you'll probably see a lot of American Gladiators influences, but the Japanese don't really have that as a point of reference. I drew influence from Takeshi's Castle, which I used to watch as a kid, so that's what we based the idea on.
Will we see any crossover between Dead Rising and Resident Evil?
Inafune: Maybe we should just put Frank West in the next Resident Evil title!
How did you decide to work with Blue Castle on Dead Rising 2?
Shinsaku Ohara: I wasn't necessarily looking for a developer with a strong track record or a lot of experience in action games. What I was really looking for were really good staff members, people that knew what they were doing, people that were really passionate, very interested and very excited about making games. And we found that at Blue Castle. They really wanted to make a Dead Rising game, and they really wanted to make a Capcom Dead Rising game, which was really important. They respected and understood our vision behind it, and they didn't want to make something that wouldn't fit the Dead Rising moniker.
What inspired you in making Zombrex? What directors, American or Japanese, did you look to?
Inafune: The inspiration for Zombrex: Dead Rising Sun was less about my desire to direct and more about my love of low-budget '80s movies. Of course, we were only able to secure a small budget, so it worked out well, but even if that weren't the case, my goal was to make a movie with the look and feel of the low-budget movies we enjoyed back in the '80s.
What movies in particular?
Inafune: It might be earlier than the '80s, but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a good example. Another good example would be Evil Dead. These are movies that didn't have huge budgets, but they had impact and really grabbed the viewers and pulled them in.
Will you make movies about any other Capcom games? Like a live-action Mega Man?
Inafune: Mega Man would make a good movie, but I'm really into horror movies. So if I had the chance, I'd make another zombie flick.
You've been making games since the 1980s. Is there anything you miss about game development in that era?
Inafune: Looking back at the '80s and '90s, I was really busting my butt making games. But now, it also seems like I had a lot of free time back then.
You've mentioned before that you're not fond of the way Mega Man 3 was developed, that you were rushed through the process to release the game on time. Would you ever want to go back and remake that or any other Mega Man title, similar to the way Capcom remade Bionic Commando with Rearmed?
Inafune: Would I like to remake just Mega Man 3? Probably not so much. Would I like to remake the entire series with a modern look and feel? That's something I'd be very interested in doing.
Something like Mega Man Universe? How did the idea for that project come around?
Inafune: Universe is a unique project. As the title suggests, it's big. It's a whole universe. Some aspects from older Mega Man titles that I wanted to revisit might find their way in there, but it's going to expand far, far beyond that and be all about what fans want to see.
People must ask you this next question a lot, so I apologize. Do you have any plans to make another Mega Man Legends game?
Inafune: I do hear that question a lot, and it's still very much on my radar. My big fear is that if we did start doing it, investing all that time and money into it, the fans would just say “we don't need that.” If I do end up doing it, please support me and don't change your minds halfway through!
Who's your favorite Mega Man boss character?
Inafune: Well, he's not necessarily my favorite character, but the first character I designed for the games would be Elec Man, so I have a soft spot for that character. I was reading American comics at the time, so I got that sort of imagery with the mask and everything.
NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES
Publisher: XSEED Games
MSRP: $29.99/$49.99 (limited edition)
The seventh Ys game arrived here quickly, a mere four months after XSEED first licensed it. Perhaps the publisher wants to slip it into an otherwise slow week for Japanese RPGs. And the Ys series might need the help. It's never really hit it big in North America, even though it's consistently successful in Japan, and Ys Seven doesn't depart too far from the Ys formula that Americans have consistently ignored. Most of them probably won't care that Ys Seven finds series hero Adol and his friend Dogi running afoul of a kingdom's rulers and getting swept up in some quest involving ancient dragon-like beings. What they should care about is the gameplay: recent Ys games were solid action-RPGs, and the seventh one features nine playable characters, counting newcomer Aisha. The player controls one while two others follow AI routines in an arrangement not unlike Secret of Mana. It's likely to sate any hunger for a decent, old-fashioned RPG, though I wouldn't get too attached to Aisha. The Ys franchise's heroines are the Bond girls of the game industry.
EXTRA LIVES: STRIDER
Released: July 1989
Children of the 1980s Nintendo era knew a few things about manga without even realizing it. Sure, the Golgo 13 games were so up-front about their origins that the first game was packed with a Takao Saito comic, but it was years before kids found out that Fist of the North Star wasn't just a lousy action game or that Dragon Power was a heavily remodeled version of their now-beloved Dragon Ball Z. Capcom's Strider was tied to a manga in ways even more obscure.
Capcom created Strider in the late 1980s with three projects in mind, all of them starring an international ninja-spy named Hiryu. The arcade Strider stands on its own, but the NES game shares much with the Strider Hiryu manga by artist Tatsumi Wada and the Moto Kikaku collective. Their plot structures are the same: elite Strider operative Hiryu is called out of retirement by Vice Director Matic after the Soviets capture Hiryu's friend Kain (this being one of those futures where the Cold War never abated). Matic wants Kain killed and silenced, but Hiryu decides to rescue his old comrade. Hiryu, Kain, and Hiryu's totally-not-girlfriend Sheena are quickly wrapped up in an global conspiracy involving a mind-control project called Zain, and no one gets out of it easily.
In concept, the NES version of Strider is an excellent game. Hiryu leaps from an orbital base to locations around the world, including Egypt, Japan, Los Angeles, and Australia. These levels are large, branching things full of varied enemies, with a distinctly cybernetic flair in their designs. Hiryu snatches items, follows clues, interrogates easily frightened scientists and soldiers, and steadily expands his arsenal. He begins with a simple laser-like cipher blade, but each level brings something new, including magnetic boots, a chargeable energy bolt, and ground-hugging spark bullets. Many of these items open up new sections of previous stages, and Hiryu's free to revisit them. The soundtrack beeps with the catchy strains of a Mega Man title, and everything looks great, with detailed sprites building everything from Hiryu to the towering monstrosities of the Zain trees.
Yet Strider has problems. For one thing, the controls just wander off on their own every now and then. It's manageable most of the time, but Hiryu's jumps often miss or just bounce him against walls. Stranger yet, he usually starts running the opposite direction upon destroying a mid-level boss. One can adjust to leaping and attacking enemies, but the game slaps players in the face with the dreaded triangle jump early on. This maneuver has Hiryu slamming into a wall and then pushing the opposite direction and the jump button at once. This would be hard enough in a game with typically solid Capcom control, but in Strider it's a frustrating ordeal. And one section of the Egypt stage makes you wall-jump three times in a row.
Strider's other major failing lies in appearances. Remember how nice and detailed the graphics are? Well, they're almost too detailed for the game to handle. Everything flickers badly with three or more moving characters on screen, and the scrolling is choppy when Hiryu tries jumping vertically or going up a slope. It's hard to say if Strider is simply too ambitious for the NES hardware, or if it's just a game rushed through Capcom's normally better quality testing.
Even with its awkward approach, Strider is a compelling creation, perhaps more like an energetic action manga than any other game in the NES library. Its non-linear stages feature many interesting enemies, and the globe-spanning intrigue reveals some novel touches for an NES game, including a next-to-last boss battle that stumped just about everyone back in the day. Strider's story was only impressive in an age where Contra typified game plotlines, yet it has its twists, as supporting characters die on the way to a rather bleak ending. None of these melodramatic turns is helped by the translation, which is now amusing in its odd phrases: “Yggdrasil” becomes “Yugdesiral," and someone tells Hiryu that “A Kain is up there.”
The truly strange part of Strider's story lies in the Famicom version. Capcom promoted it alongside the manga in Japan, and Strider came out for the North American NES in the summer of 1989. And then, for reasons never revealed, Capcom canceled the Famicom game, leaving any Japanese fans of the manga high and dry. The Famicom version looked a lot like the NES one, as preview videos reveal only minor cosmetic differences, but it may have benefited from cleaned-up programming. In fact, one theory has it that the NES game is, in fact, a beta version of Strider, one that was to be fixed for its Japanese release.
As for Wada's manga, it wrapped up roughly the same storyline as the NES game in about 200 pages. The comic looks slick, even with out-of-place yowling cartoon faces, and it also explores a few things only briefly mentioned in the game, such as the fate of Hiryu's Zain-brainwashed older sister, Strider Mariya. Yet it's actually less bleak than the game's story (Kain survives in the manga, but not in the game) and somehow less satisfying. Formidable villains are essential to the action-flick epic that Wada attempts, but Hiryu lacks any intimidating enemies. Even Matic seems afraid of him in the manga. In fact, the plot is forced to pull out a crocodile-like rival and a mutant Kali-monster just to give its hero a fair fight.
The Strider manga was released in a single volume in Japan, minus a separate one-off chapter that covered Mariya's mental collapse. Very few in America knew of the comic, and most NES owners just saw Strider as yet another action game from Capcom. It wasn't until well after the NES age ended that fans dug up this third and most obscure piece of the Strider project.
Even if kids weren't aware of Strider's roots, the game still showed them plenty of manga influences in its sleek designs, bizarre robotic enemies, and willingness to kill off almost the entire cast. It also showed them the costs of unrefined programming, and it proved that not every Capcom title could be as tightly made as Bionic Commando or Mega Man 2. Most of all, Strider revealed that a game can be both a fascinating trip and a bit of a mess. And that's a lesson that endures even today.
Strider is dirt cheap among old NES stock, so don't pay more than five bucks for it. The Strider manga, on the other hand, is hard to come by without raiding some second-hand Japanese bookstores. Fortunately, a few enterprising fans put it online somewhere (albeit without the prequel chapter). Decorum forbids me from saying exactly where.
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