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The X Button
Historia Lessons

by Todd Ciolek,

I've followed video games off and on since the late 1980s, so it's only natural that I get nostalgic about some aspects of this constantly evolving, frequently regressing industry. Truth be told, there are only a few things from the old days that I miss. But one of them is the allure of a pack-in game.

Sure, modern consoles are sometimes bundled with best-selling titles or compilations like Wii Sports, but there's rarely a system-defining standout forced on any new console's buyer. Nearly all NES owners knew Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt to the cores. Everyone who picked up a first-year Sega Genesis endured Altered Beast. And kids given the Turbo Grafx-16 learned the folly of showing off Keith Courage in Alpha Zones to their friends. Today, there's no such camaraderie, no matter how many Xbox owners bought Halo.

Which brings me, somewhat vaguely, to Nintendo's new Japan-only system bundle for the Wii, which includes Mistwalker's ambitious RPG The Last Story. There'll be no such deal in North America, where we're not sure just how or when we'll get The Last Story. When we get it, though, it certainly won't be something every Wii owner will remember a decade down the road.


Square Enix's Lord of Arcana has gotten substantially less press attention than the new Parasite Eve, Front Mission Evolved, or any given Final Fantasy. Perhaps that's because it's not so much a stunning new experiment as it is Square's retort to Monster Hunter. A PSP action-RPG with a healthy cooperative bent, Lord of Arcana has four interconnected players roaming a land of monsters, ancient secrets, and the usual Square window-dressings. It's also noticeably more violent than Monster Hunter and Phantasy Star Portable.

It may look like a Monster Hunter clone dabbed with a bloody Final Fantasy brush, but Lord of Arcana has some notable names behind it. Its director, Hidetaka Suehiro, previously brought us Deadly Premonition, the best bad game of the year, and the monsters of Lord of Arcana were designed by some prominent artists, including Square favorites Yoshitaka Amano and Tetsuya Nomura.

Square also invited comic-toy mogul Todd McFarlane to draw the dragon Nidhogg for Lord of Arcana, possibly hoping to bolster the game's North American release this January. It should prove just as important as McFarlane's original Soul Calibur II character, Necrid. Remember him? I doubt it.

The When They Cry anime/game/manga franchise doesn't cry out to become a fighting game. But Umineko no Naku Koro ni is part of this fairly popular series, which also includes the Higurashi no Naku Koro ni titles released over here. Now developer 07th Expansion hopes to do for Umineko what the Melty Blood games did for Type-Moon's Tsukihime series: namely, turn it into a well-received and colorfully animated 2-D fighting game. And that fighting game is Ougon Musou Kyoku.

In its original “visual novel” incarnation, Umineko no Naku Koro ni is a mystery focused on the power struggles within a wealthy Japanese family. In 1986, the clan's dying patriarch gathers his children, his servants, and some other interested parties at his island home, where they're soon stranded by a typhoon. Murders and witchery ensue, and Ougon Musou Kyoku translates all of this deadly squabbling into a fighting game where maids hurl energy bolts and rabbit-eared women launch nuclear-powered arrows. It looks quite crisp for what amounts to an indie fighter, and it debuts for PCs at the Winter Comiket next month. I can't say I care about the series, but I'm amused at seeing Beatrice and Virgilia going through martial arts routines in full-length gowns.

The old NES version of Spelunker is vehemently hated by some, since it's a cavern-exploring game where short-distance falls, gusts of air, and the slightest negative stimulus results in the player's instant demise. Yet the game has a following, to the point where it inspired Spelunky and, most recently, Irem's Spelunker HD.

Available on the PlayStation Network this week, Spelunker HD cares nothing for modern notions of coddling players. As it was decades ago, the game kills its hero in one hit with potholes, ledges, stubby stalagmites, and the occasional ghost. It does, however, benefit from entirely new graphics, a four-player local mode, and a six-player online mode. And there are 100 levels to explore. Or loathe, if you're in the anti-Spelunker camp.

If the zombie craze is indeed over, no one's told Japanese game developers. Apparently deciding that Harvest Moon needed an undead infestation, Chunsoft created the real-time strategy game Lovable Zombie for the DS. Players command a horde of simple farmfolk turned into zombies by some strange gas, and they'll mob and overtake the living, giving off little cartoon hearts the whole time. They'll also learn new skills as well, becoming an experienced army. These hints of sentience do little to move the authorities, who'll unleash SWAT teams and nukes if players can't pull off a zombie revolution in time.

When not tackling the challenges of Lovable Zombie's overall quest, players have two mini-games at their disposal: the soccer-like Deadsal and the multiplayer Party Hunt. The Japanese version comes out in January, and it seems intended for international appeal. A lot of the game's in English, and the art resembles Westernized cartoons more than a little.

It's somewhat impressive that Square's releasing the PSP version of Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together in North America three months after the Japanese launch. As a considerably enhanced adaptation of the Super-Famicom original, Tactics Ogre is crammed with dialogue and expository documents. And they've all apparently been translated just in time for February 15th. Square's also mimicking the Japanese version's pre-order bonus: reserve the game, and you'll get a Tactics Ogre Tarot Deck illustrated by Akihiko Yoshida. I suddenly want it, even though I never did anything with that deck of Psychonauts cards.

One of the best things about the Wii's Virtual Console is its tendency to make once-expensive games into affordable and legal downloads. An Ogre Battle cartridge for the Super NES will run around $50 on eBay, but it's yours for eight bucks on the Virtual Console. Anyone about to spend considerable sums on the Lufia games should take note: Siliconera's trademark sleuthing revealed that Taito re-registered both Lufia titles in the U.S., along with boring ol' Darius Twin. Darius is already out for the Virtual Console in Japan, and the Lufias are likely headed to the same place.


Developer: Imageepoch
Publisher: NIS
Platform: Sony PSP
Players: 1

Criminal Girls is yet another showpiece for the Japanese game industry's ongoing exhibit called “So It's Come to This.” In the nation's increasingly desperate software market, developers are scrambling to court the proclivities of deprived anime nerds, thus ensuring that at least someone will buy the latest games. What it's come to this month is an RPG in which the player leads seven condemned girls, each representing one of the Deadly Sins, through the depth of hell itself. Because they're damned souls, the girls often prove uncooperative when it comes to the game's exploration and combat. And that's where the player has to span the blushing, disturbingly young girls while they shriek and pant and squeal in anger. If this sounds like a parody of Japan's game subculture, we assure you that it's very real, marketed and sold alongside other games of less horrifying intent. That said, Criminal Girls is still an RPG. Once made tractable, the seven sinful explorers (plus at least one extra character) hack through a variety of monster-infested dungeons. Battles find four members of the troupe surrounding enemies, and they not only engage in combination attacks; they suggest new ones as well.
Import Barrier: The dialogue's all in Japanese, though anyone who imports this is clearly willing to figure out the details of its misogyny.
Chances of a Domestic Release: Better than they should be. Criminal Girls seems beyond what NIS America would release, but then the publisher recently ran a contest about designing a Disgaea character's underwear.

Developer: Toei
Publisher: Toei
Platform: Nintendo DS
Players: 1

This may be just another simple DS tie-in for a popular girls' anime series, in this case the seventh Pretty Cure magical-girl show, but it uses an oft-ignored piece of the DS hardware: the microphone. In Koe de Asobo Heart Catch Precure (“Play with Voices Heart Catch Precure”), fans of the Pretty Cure merchandising parade can select from over 50 clips from the show and record their own voices for the scene in question. This is notable for two reasons. One, any kid with the slightest bit of imagination will immediately record obscenities to be recited by Cure Blossom and Cure Moonlight, thus preparing them for a life of making annoying YouTube videos. And two, a significant chunk of Pretty Cure fans are, in fact, men in their 20s and 30s, and the thought of a magical anime heroine speaking with the voice of an awkward adult shut-in is both hilarious and terrifying.
Import Barrier: In theory, the game's designed for grade-school girls who like Pretty Cure, so it shouldn't be too hard for foreigners to figure out.
Chances of a Domestic Release: Plans to turn Pretty Cure into America's next Sailor Moon died a quick death, so don't look for anything from Pret…sorry, Precure over here.

Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: Nintendo DS
Players: 1

Radiant Historia starts off on the right foot. As in esteemed epics like Valkyrie Profile and Panzer Dragoon Saga, this new Atlus RPG quickly finds its main character dying. The oddly named Stock is a soldier carrying out an undercover mission in a rival empire, and he's plagued by visions of carnage that soon become reality. Yet he's pulled back from the brink of death by mysterious children who grant him an equally mysterious power over the flow of time. Stock can view the game's storyline as a map of major events, and he can jump to any of these past catalysts to influence the storyline, not unlike good ol' Chrono Trigger. The combat is carried out in turn-based showdowns with enemies, and Stock and his allies can knock foes around the stage of battle, lining them up for particularly destructive combination strikes. It's all put together by staff from Atlus' Shin Megami Tensei games and tri-Ace's Radiata Stories, topped with a soundtrack by Yoko Shimomura. Doubts emerge upon noticing that Hiroshi Konishi's art is typical RPG material, and the battles are decidedly primitive. Still, there's a haunting tone to the whole thing—and a premise that's not your usual anime-fantasy plodding.
Import Barrier: You might puzzle out the battle system and the time-jumping dynamic, but you won't make it through the story without some Japanese skills.
Chances of a Domestic Release: Good. So good, in fact, that Atlus already plans to release it in North America this February. It'll likely get buried by the Tactics Ogre PSP remake, just like it did in Japan.


Developer: Camelot
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo DS
Players: 1
MSRP: $34.99

The Golden Sun games made a name for themselves simply by being intensely traditional RPGs at a time when people wanted exactly that for the Game Boy Advance. And Dark Dawn, Golden Sun's DS sequel, follows the same rules and only twists them slightly. Instead of setting itself a thousand or so years after its predecessors, it's staged a few decades later, with some of Dark Dawn's characters being the children of the original heroes. The world itself is also different, but not jarringly so. There are new lands to explore, all wrapped in the blanketing warmth of generic RPGs. This new Golden Sun also returns to the ideas of gathering Djinn creatures and summoning them in turn-based battles, while the dungeon-crawling throws numerous puzzles at the characters. It's looking good for a DS game, with detailed environments and battle effects that greatly improve the squat characters. Dark Dawn will change nothing in the grand scheme of RPGs, but many fans have proven to be quite fond of sticking to the rules.

Also Shipping: Epic Mickey (Nintendo Wii) and Hello Kitty Seasons (Wii).

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