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The X Button
Excellent Saga

by Todd Ciolek,

Namco made a seemingly minor announcement last week: Namco Tales Studio, the developer of most games in the rampantly popular Tales of Adjective/Noun RPG series, will be absorbed into Namco early next year. It's not a major takeover, as Namco already owns the Tales developer properly, but having the studio under even tighter rein may drive away some of the talent.

What's more, this brings an end to the long and checkered tale of Wolfteam. Once a proud ally of Telenet Japan, Wolfteam created all sorts of games for the Sega Genesis, the Super NES, the TurboGrafx-16, and Japanese PCs. In North America, they were best-known through Telenet's Renovation label, which gave Genesis and Sega CD owners Granada, Dino Land, Sol-Deace, Arcus Odyssey, Final Zone, Earnest Evans, El Viento, and ports of Time Gal, Cobra Command, and Road Avenger. For those willing to import games, Wolfteam also had Aisle Lord, Fhey Area, Annet Again, Devastator, Neugier, Hiouden, Zan, and a bunch of Arcus RPGs. Most of those games weren't particularly good, but they often had weirdly creative angles, and their anime-infused style was captivating in an era when American companies downplayed that sort of thing. Wolfteam sowed the seeds of its demise when three of its staff devised Tales of Phantasia for Namco—and then later quit to form tri-Ace. The remaining Wolfteam crew churned out one Tales game after another, and Namco took over the company in 2003, renaming it Namco Tales Studio.

Telenet itself collapsed in 2007 after some downright embarrassing attempts at turning the once-popular Valis series into porn games. Sunsoft acquired Telenet's catalog shortly thereafter, and most of Wolfteam's work with it. Yet a small part of Wolfteam (and reportedly a fair number of staffers) stayed alive at Namco Tales Studio. If all goes according to Namco's plan, though, that final scrap of Wolfteam's legacy will vanish with the new year. If there's ever been a time to crank up the Road Avenger theme and say goodbye to the game creative staff at Wolfteam, that time is now.


If Japan's game developers aren't dominating the market like they did back in 1989, it's at least easier than ever to find all sorts of small-run Japanese games, games that would've passed by English-speaking players in allegedly better times. Emulating the indie-localizing success story of Carpe Fulgur, newcomer Nyu Media has a lineup of six games scheduled for release on PCs this winter.

Four of the games are shooters. Astro-Port's side-scroller Satazius recalls Gradius with its level layouts and 13 different customizable weapons. Flat's eXceed 2nd - Vampire Rex is a bullet-hell vertical shooter with gothic-anime stylings, a half-vampire heroine named Lia Faye, and a polarity-switching system similar to that of Ikaruga: Lia absorbs identically colored bullets and damages enemies of the opposite shade. eXceed 3rd – Jade Penetrate (above) has the same daunting curtains of enemy fire, but its heroine, a power-hungry sorceress, is able to slow down and dodge oncoming barrages.

The fourth shooter in the group, Ether Vapor Remaster from Edelweiss embraces several perspectives: horizontal scrolling, vertical approaches, and even a “chase cam.” The main fighter uses lock-on lasers straight out of Taito's Layer Section/RayStorm series, and the game's 3-D visuals certainly summon memories of that particular franchise. It's a welcome tribute, since Taito stopped making Ray-brand games a long time ago.

Edelweiss also has Fighting Fairy, a mixture of side-scrolling brawler and action-platformer. The game's apparently wingless pixie heroine Freesia masters an expanding repertoire of special moves and combos, reaching the point where she's smacking around rows of enemies like they're dominoes. It's perhaps the most visually impressive of Nyu Media's first round; the backgrounds are sharp, and the gameplays moves quite swiftly.

The last of Nyu Media's offerings is a more modest adventure game: Atelier773's Cherry Tree High Comedy Club. That's “adventure” in the sense that it consists of player-directed conversations, and those conversations involve aspiring comedian Miley Verisse's attempts to start a club at her school. To that end, the players guides her in studying various subjects and talking her fellow students into joining—all while balancing her schedule and avoiding a nervous breakdown. While the game's driven by dialogue and menus, it still has some hints of a side-scroller when Miley roams the streets and school halls.

All of Nyu Media's games have tentative “winter” release windows, and no prices are available yet. Fighting Fairy's title isn't even concrete (though I hope it sticks). While most of the games are already out in Japan, it'll be nice to have a direct pipeline in North America—and a convenient way to give decent indie developers money.

Persona 4: The Ultimate in Mayonaka Arena may now have a misleading title. It technically began as a 2-D fighter wherein the Persona 4 cast was reimagined by Arc System Works, but the game's roster now includes several characters from Persona 3. The lineup includes Persona 4's Yosuke, Kanji, Chie, Yukiko, Naoto, Teddie, and the main character, under the name “Yu Narukami.” From Persona 3, there's the android Aigis and the two newly announced additions: Akihiko Sanada and Mitsuru Kirijo.

As with the other fighters in The Ultimate in Mayonaka Arena, the newcomers look a little different than their RPG incarnations. Akihiko's a bare-chested brawler, and Mitsuru carries a rapier (and wears what we hope is a faux fur coat). They're also accompanied by their summoned persona spirits: Caesar for Akihiko and Artemisia for Mitsuru.

The Ultimate in Mayonaka Arena looks as flashy as Arc Systems Works' BlazBlue and Guilty Gear, though the roster seems a little small at this point. Early shots of the character-select screen featured only ten slots, and they've all been filled, with the prominent Persona 4 cast member Rise appearing only as an announcer. Will The Ultimate in Mayonaka Arena add more characters before it hits Japanese arcades early next year? Or will Atlus and Arc save additional fighters for the console version? And what about Atlus mascot Jack Frost? Or Jack Lantern and Jack Skelton from Jack Bros., that Virtual Boy classic? They're the real stars.

G.REV ANNOUNCES A NEW SHOOTER, GIVES IT TANKS Some shooter fans have doubtless appreciated G.Rev's work without even knowing it. The developer contributed to Treasure's Ikaruga and Gradius V, and their recent vertical shooter Straina hit Xbox Live earlier this year. Wartech: Senko no Ronde, another G.Rev production, came out in the West and failed miserably despite its unique spin on mecha battles. Though they've focused largely on arcades in the past, G.Rev announced their first 3DS title with Kokuga, a tank shooter that offers four-player battles. I hope it's something like Wolfteam's Granada.


Otomedius Excellent stands in two worlds. It's a game of modern anime sensibilities, with big-eyed heroines blushing and gushing and not wearing too much. Yet it's also a Gradius title in everything but name, retaining the power-ups and pacing that have marked Konami's shooter series since 1985. The original Otomedius was successful enough to spawn a sequel in Otomedius Excellent, and Konami was bold enough to release the game in North America this fall. Curious about just what went into Otomedius, we turned to the game's producers and the artist behind the pilots—Sgt. Frog creator Mine Yoshizaki.

How did the idea for Otomedius originate?

Takashi Hamano, Producer for the arcade Otomedius: Otomedius was created from the idea of combining shooting games, which Konami has been good at making, with new character designs and network functionality. It's been a while since we last made shooting games, so we had a difficult time to regaining all the know-hows of development.

Regarding who would handle the character design, we had considered many candidates. Mr. Mine Yoshizaki, creator of Sgt. Frog, was our first choice, even though we didn't think that he would take us up on the offer. Fortunately, we hit it off with him and were able to create many Otomedius characters. And as a result, by featuring networked gameplay and touch panel I/Os, I believe we created a shooting game that had never been seen before.

Was there any one game from the Gradius series that influenced Otomedius more than any other?

Koji Igarashi, Producer of Otomedius Excellent: In Otomedius, we referred a lot to Gradius II, in particular the way enemies aim and attack you. The speed of the attacks, the timing…these were all influenced by that game.

Otomedius seems designed to appeal to both shooter fans and fans of "moe" anime characters who might not play many shooters. How did you balance the game to accommodate both groups?

Igarashi: Originally, Otomedius was a game that was created for users who have never played shooters before. However, the majority of Otomedius Gorgeous, the original Otomedius, users are core-shooters. So, we balanced the modes so that both beginners and hard core gamers can enjoy it. Easy mode is easy enough for the beginners to be introduced to and begin to enjoy shooting games, and hard mode is a very challenging mode for the core gamers.

The first Otomedius was originally an arcade game, but Otomedius Excellent is an Xbox 360 exclusive. Was an arcade version of Excellent ever planned? Do you think shooters are becoming more profitable on consoles than in arcades?

Tadasu Kitae, Otomedius arcade version director: No arcade version was planned for Otomedius Excellent. That is because we did not plan to have a sequel to the original arcade version. But if there was such a plan, maybe we could have linked with the console version and done some interesting campaigns.

The controls of shooting games are easy to understand, and the gameplay is exhilarating. The style of play is very compatible with arcade coin op games, since these shooters are easy and fun. Though certain users long for the arcade version, shooting is not as mainstream a genre in arcades as it used to be. On the other hand, in general, the focus for packaged games is on long play time and complex controls, so these types of characteristics for shooting games can be something new to the consumers.

Why was Emon Five, the only male pilot in Otomedius, not included in Otomedius Excellent?

Mine Yoshizaki: This was a technical issue. In this game we tried to make the objects more proportionate to each other. Previously the objects were deformed. Since Emon had a large body and rode a big machine, he should appear to be a full size larger the others. That would make it seem as if he were taking a lot of attacks on his big body, but the game would not judge it as a miss. That situation would look horrible as shooting games should have accurate collision detection.

I liked this character very much, but I had to give up using him.

What was your primary inspiration in drawing the characters of Otomedius and turning ships from Konami shooters into anime characters?

Yoshizaki: We wanted to create new characters and ships and not just make references to the past. Actually, we only referred to the names of the ships. The characters wanted to borrow the names of past heroes/heroines from the G Organization's battle data, for good luck.

You've drawn similar things in the past, such as game consoles re-imagined as anime girls. What do you think of the modern trend of turning various things like game systems, airplanes, or military vehicles into anime girls?

Yoshizaki: I'm surprised that you know! It just came to me, when I considered how I could express my views of the game industry's situation at that time, beyond just playing around with the design of the characters. We made a decision to reimagine these things as girls because it looks more cheerful and happy. I don't know much about the recent trend, but this was an effective approach as motivation for my creations.

Your history with Konami goes back to an official Twinbee comic from 1994. What sort of experiences did you have making the comic?

Yoshizaki: Again, I'm surprised that you know! Around that time, it wasn't common to make a comic based on a game, and even less for the comic to share much similarity with the game it was based on. Mostly, the comics were totally different from the game; they just used the license for the IP. For someone like me, who became a comic artist in the early game generation, my comic was not that great, but it was a true game comic, where it was actually related to the game.

Before you created mainstream manga, you made doujinshi based on games, right?

Yoshizaki: At that time, I was just starting to draw and wanted to practice my skills. This was really helpful and it motivated me. So, I appreciate and respect games and the game industry that motivated me, even though I don't play games as much anymore.

You've designed characters for Otomedius, Hot Gimmick, and Soul Calibur. What other game series would you want to design characters for?

Yoshizaki: If there are any Western game opportunities, I would like to do anything!

What are your personal favorite games? How about your favorite Konami shooter?

Yoshizaki: I like all of Konami's shooting games. That's why I undertook this job. There are lots of games I like. These are little bit old, but I like Lode Runner and SimCity. Well, I just noticed, these two are Western games.


Developer: Team GrisGris
Publisher: XSEED Games
Platform: Sony PSP (PlayStation Network)
Players: 1
MSRP: $19.99

Corpse Party is not very scary in screenshots. It began as an independent game crafted with RPG-maker software, so it resembles a 16-bit creation: large-headed characters wander pixel-work environments in familiar, two-dimensional fashion, and often breaks out detailed, anime-like illustrations to get a dramatic point across. But Corpse Party is all about atmosphere, and it uses dialogue and suspense to build its unpleasant tale. The game finds a crew of teenagers transported to Heavenly Host Elementary, which was supposedly torn down years ago after a few pesky murders and mysterious disappearances.

The students try to survive a trip through this ghostly ruin of a grade school, and the spirits of the vengeful dead aren't the only things that can do them in. Their fortunes are decided by the player's choices in conversations and routes through the building, and it's fairly easy to lose characters one way or another. There's also the occasional hazard to physically navigate, but the game's mostly about finding a way through the story and its frequent untimely demises. So you'll find plenty of gruesome horror lurking beyond those super-deformed characters after all.


Developer: Behavior Interactive
Publisher: THQ
Platform: PlayStation Network/Xbox Live
Players: 1-5
MSRP: $9.99

The new Voltron Force cartoon seems to be well-liked by some, despite its painfully generic characters. So perhaps we shouldn't judge THQ's Voltron: Defender of the Universe game by appearance either. It's simple in looks, but it covers just about everything kids liked in Voltron those many years ago. For one thing, the game features one-on-one battles between Lion Force Voltron (a.k.a. the Voltron one everybody remembers) using his laser eyes and blazing sword to destroy various Robeasts.

The Robeast battles are merely boss encounters, though. The more interesting parts of the game are the shooting stages, which include both terrestrial and spacefaring challenges for up to five players in online mode (or two in local play). The color-coded Voltron pilots can even leave their lions, much like in the old NES standard Blaster Master. The voice cast of the original is also reportedly on hand for the game, and it all seems faithful to Voltron. Well, the Voltron that we all knew in America, anyway. The Japanese version had dismembered gladiators and blood thunderstorms, none of which sounds good on an Xbox Live product sheet.


Developer: Tomy
Publisher: Tomy
Platform: PlayStation
Players: 1-2
Released: March 1997

Apocalypse Zero isn't the sort of anime you watch. It's the sort of anime you make other people watch. It's fascinating to observe someone sitting through the OVA's early scenes, where a massive, hideous dominatrix monster plucks a schoolgirl off the street and squeezes her so hard that her organs fountain up out of her mouth. This shower of entrails pelts the poor girl's boyfriend, who is then raped, disfigured, and eaten alive by the towering creature .

Sounds like great material for a fighting game, doesn't it?

Well, Tomy thought so, and not without good reason. Takayuki Yamaguchi's original Apocalypse Zero manga and the two-part OVA it inspired are all about big, reckless fights, no matter how grotesque they may be. The series follows one Kakugo Hagakure in his struggle against his evil brother (turned evil sister) Harara, and their feud involves two suits of experimental armor powered by the souls of tormented prisoners. It's all a celebration of horrific excess, as Kakugo fights typical dark-superhero rivals as well as a freakish giant who shrieks crippling karaoke numbers through his phallic microphone.

Tomy, the same company whose cuddly little logo appears on toys worldwide, sponsored all of this in the OVA's 1996 debut. Less than a year later, Tomy launched a 3-D fighter for the PlayStation. By all logic, this game should be a nightmare of graphic violence surpassing any gory fighter of the 1990s. Not Mortal Kombat, not Thrill Kill, and not even BloodStorm could compare to the horrific bloodshed of a faithful Apocalypse Zero slugfest. This should be one for whatever record books track the distasteful depths of video games.

It isn't. Problems are apparent right there in the game's introductory video, which shows anime clips of Kakugo, Harara, and their cursed battle armor. It's all grim and dark, but there's surprisingly little violence to be seen. Then players are faced with a mere lineup of seven fighters and their alternate costumes. The available characters are Kakugo, Harara, their father Oboro, the leonine Tomohisa, the butler-like Chidokuro, the vaguely demonic Bolt, and Kakugo's girlfriend Tsumiko. There are no cannibal dominatrices, no elderly pink gremlins with mutant dragons for genitalia, no regenerating nurses who launch breast-based attacks. There is only the slightest flash of blood at times.

In fact, there's absolutely nothing notable about this Apocalypse Zero fighter. The characters are all crude polygons with limited movesets and stiff animation. The gameplay is quite primitive, and there's no attempt at including super-move meters and combo systems, both of which were standard in decent fighting games by 1997. It does, however, make a cursory attempt at gloomy atmosphere with its bleak backgrounds and an oppressive, clanking soundtrack. It's undone by the fact that Tsumiko, with her Tezuka eyes and Mickey Mouse gloves, is the first opponent faced in the story mode. Because everyone watches Apocalypse Zero for the schoolgirls.

It seems strange that Tomy made such a gruesome thing as Apocalypse Zero into a perfectly bland fighter, but the Japanese game industry is often subject to stricter self-censorship than anime or manga. Furthermore, Apocalypse Zero was published in Akita Shoten's Weekly Shonen Champion, which is technically a manga anthology for boys (albeit one that also ran Baki the Grappler, Akumetsu, and Eiken). Tomy was evidently under the impression that this game was for younger players, and its fits right in with the low-effort, uncomplicated creations normally attached to anime licenses.

Whether you watch Apocalypse Zero for its ugly extremes or simply to subject others to it, neither pleasure can be found in this PlayStation fighter. You're better off playing Jin Saotome (whose look was inspired by Kakugo and Harara's outfits) in Marvel vs. Capcom or Cyberbots. Apocalypse Zero may have no appeal beyond sadism and masochism, but Tomy's fighting game destroys even those.

It's not easy to find Apocalypse Zero for the PlayStation, so it's grossly overpriced whenever it's up for sale. If you're desperate enough to own every piece of Apocalypse Zero, remember to look for the game under its Japanese title, Kakugo no Susume.

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