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The X Button

by Todd Ciolek,

The practice of in-game advertising grew considerably in recent years. At first, there was some context to it: stadium promos in football games, posters in skateboarding sims, and rampant logos in racing games. We've moved well past that and reached the point where 7UP now sponsors a new costume in Dynasty Warriors 8. There's nothing like a Pepsi product on the battlefields of ancient China.

Granted, Dynasty Warriors is hardly known for its artful realism, but the sheer absurdity of this is notable. Has advertising bled too deeply into video games? We never had such blatant product placement in games when I was a kid.

Oh. I guess we did. Never mind.


A lot's happened since Skullgirls was released last year. Developer Reverge Labs actually laid off the game's staff in November, which prompted the team to re-form as Lab Zero Games. What's more, they've launched an Indiegogo fundraiser to supply new characters for the game. It's succeeded so far. At the $150,000 mark, the team had enough to finish up the first DLC fighter, an undead opera diva named Squigly. She'll have her own story mode and stage when she appears in the game.

Lab Zero Games now pitches Big Band, a saxophone-like cyborg who uses bursts of compressed air to attack. If the fundraiser hits $375,000, he'll become the first male character in the game's playable roster. A third character will be added if the money climbs to $600,000, and designer Alex Ahad dreamed up a few dozen candidates. They include all-new creations as well as faces from the original game, such as Parasoul's sister Umbrella, the tutorial mode's Mrs. Victoria, and a playable version of demon-maid boss Marie. I'd vote for the last of these, since controlling boss characters is a tradition stretching back to the lies we were told about the arcade Street Fighter II.

So how many of you bought Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds on Xbox Live last week? And how many of you played it so much that you hit the maximum level of 50? Probably not a lot of you. But if you did, you can grab the new update for the game next week, as it boosts the level cap to 99. Oh, and it adds Kurisu Makise from Steins;Gate to the game. Perhaps that's more important.

This makes perfect sense, as Kurisu was a bonus character in the original Phantom Breaker fighting game, which still shows no sign of shaking off its long delay in North America. In Battle Grounds, Kurisu pulls out all manner of futuristic attacks to reflect her Steins;Gate origins. The actual Steins;Gate visual novel hasn't been localized and probably never will be, but between the anime series and this Battle Grounds spot, English-speaking fans won't be deprived to terrible extremes.

XSEED Games regularly supplies to RPGs to consoles and handhelds, and it would seem that Ark of the Ages is the publisher's first title for Android and iOS mobile devices. It's a dungeon dive with action-game trappings, and it follows a knight during his investigation of a curious Tower of Magic.

Plot may not be a strong suit in Ark of the Ages, but the game involves much in the way of exploration and battles. The hero moves in third-person view when he's dodging arrows, whirling blades, and other familiar hazards, but everything shifts to first-person combat when enemies show up, prompting players to swipe away at the touch-screen. It's available right now on Android phones for $1.99, and the iOS edition should follow shortly.


Developer: Artdink
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Platform: PlayStation 3

Macross 30 serves one purpose above all others. It's here to celebrate the whole Macross franchise's three-decade anniversary, and it's not about to let things like plausibility get in the way. It opens about a year after the events of Macross Frontier, but the stage is the previously unseen planet of Uroboros. It's a world where some mysterious force pulls Macross characters across space and time, and that includes the leads of the original Macross, Macross Plus, Macross 7, Macross Zero, and Macross Frontier (don't ask about Macross II). This convenient all-stars phenomenon also pulls in hotshot pilot Leon (Rion?) Sakaki, who crashes on the planet and is rescued by red-haired, part-Zentraedi researcher Aisha Blanchett. The two of them investigate Uroboros ruins and awaken Mina, an amnesiac girl who's part of the whole dimensional crossover. She's also apparently an interloper in Leon and Aisha's relationship, because it just isn't a proper Macross story without a love triangle.

Developer Artdink knows this territory well. They've made Macross shooters for the past few years, including the not-bad Macross Triangle Frontier and Ultimate Frontier games on the PSP. Macross 30 might be their prettiest tribute yet to the series. The 3-D dogfights are quite sharp, and the controls allow for both automatic missile locks and manual targeting. There's also a steady stream of familiar Verite…er, transforming Valkyrie fighters revealed as missions are completed, and the player's own basic VF-0 jet is upgraded throughout the course of the game. Naturally, it's all in service to the Macross fans. This is a game for those who want to twirl the VF-19 or the Skull Squadron's VF-1 through an Itano Circus of missiles, who want to see the Fire Valkyrie from Macross 7 take on Macross Frontier's Grace O'Connor in her imposing end-boss form, and who want to see all of the Macross characters quibble with each other in an unlikely case of time travel. And in those departments, it won't disappoint.

Import Barrier: Some language skills might be needed to upgrade fighters and discern mission objectives (and plot points), but it's not hard to grasp the controls.

Chances of a Domestic Release: Each new Macross game brings up the current state of the series in North America, where the rights are caught up in a mess of legalities and turf wars with Harmony Gold and Robotech. This makes it highly unlikely that Macross 30 will see a U.S. release, but hey, maybe Harmony Gold will buy it and turn it into a Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles game. Wouldn't all the fans love that?

Developer: Tamsoft
Publisher: Marvelous AQL
Platform: PlayStation Vita

You might despise the Senran Kagura series and its emphasis on busty heroines in fragile clothing, but one thing is certain: it's getting harder and harder for the game industry to ignore. The entire concept was born from producer Kenichiro Takaki thinking about 3-D breasts moments after hearing of Nintendo's 3DS system, and now that idea is a full-blown franchise with sequels, manga, lasciviously arranged ice cream dishes, and an anime series that's already licensed by FUNimation. The latest game, Senran Kagura: Shinovi Versus, is one of the more successful PlayStation Vita titles to date, moving about 120,000 copies in its first week.

Why all the fuss? Well, the major appeal of the series is its rich and complex tale of ninja heroines who can't get through a battle without shredding their clothes. All of the protagonists, from chipper lead Asuka to the disturbingly predacious Katsuragi, lose garments when they take damage, when they power-up in the midst of battle, and when the game stops pretending that it's about anything but cartoon boobs. It does that quite often.

In the few moments of thought devoted to actual gameplay, Shinovi Versus decided to expand the brawler mechanics of prior games into a Dynasty Warriors imitation. Characters now roam large battlefields littered with slow-witted enemies, occasionally running into a challenging rival or heated boss encounter. Of course, the biggest selling point of Shinovi Versus is a larger cast available for the player's control and/or exploitation. The game gathers the five original heroines and their rivals, then adds ten other characters: five from the Secret Standing Snake School, and five from the Death Cram School. They include such novelties as Ryona, who wields four handguns at once, and Yozakura, who wears piston-powered gloves larger than she is. But they're all in the game for the same reason. Shinovi Versus expands the costume-shredding opportunities of the earlier titles and adds such multiplayer modes as “Strip Fight” and the underwear-collecting “Panty Struggle.” And that may be the game's proudest achievement: it creates a world where a train passenger might pull out a Vita, lean over to another traveler, and say “Hey, want to play Panty Struggle?”

Import Barrier: Unlike the 3DS versions of Senran Kagura, Shinovi Versus is region-free. However, you'll miss out on the full story and…and…well, if you're importing this, you won't care.

Chances of a Domestic Release: Better than any sane human being would expect. While no U.S. publishers are stepping forward just yet, Takaki threatened to “wrap the world in happy boobs next year” in a Twitter post last December.

Developer: Media.Vision
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Sony PSP

Sega's Shining games have explored just about every flavor of RPG: dungeon-crawlers, action-RPGs, and the old strategy-RPGs that North American fans remember most fondly. The latest jumps back into the realm of traditional RPGs, with menu-driven battles and a storyline centered on a mysterious young girl. Her name is Panis, she has one black wing growing ominously from her back, and she turns up on the isle of Arcadia without much explanation. A lad called Freed befriends her, and the two of them join up with a distinctly Shining-style cast of characters: a blonde elf archer named Shannon, a wolf-man warrior named Zynga, an agricultural golem named Adam, a gun-wielding exorcist named (really) Kilmaria, a Viking-like dwarf named Bacchus, two buccaneers named Levin and Velvet, and a somewhat familiar sorceress named Viola. All of them join Freed in battle, though Panis follows slightly different commands. The player must talk with her and offer presents to change her mood, thus determining whether she'll attack enemies or heal allies in battle.

Beyond the emotional vagaries of its angel-winged heroine, Shining Ark presents a combat system with each character's turn denoted on a meter. Players can screw around with said meter by using certain attacks and spells to push back an enemy's turn. Party members can also walk and dash about the battlefield as freely as a gauge permits, and the game rewards those who stick with foes and flail at them repeatedly. Characters benefit further from standard-issue RPG combo attacks, in which as many as four allies join together to strike. Shining Ark also takes a cue from its genre's fascination with side attractions. Pastimes in Freed's town include baking bread, going fishing, growing a garden, and partaking in other domestic pursuits that would suit a Harvest Moon title. More active are the game's scenes of high-seas exploration, where the heroes' small vessel engages in ship-to-ship pirate battles and boss encounters with a giant sea monster called Nephilim. This all leads to a tale of personal growth and revelations about Panis' true identity. As expected.

Import Barrier: It's a standard RPG in combat and the PSP remains region-free, but Japanese is required to appreciate the game's little details and character-driven battle cues.

Chances of a Domestic Release: Sega appears to have forgotten the Shining series as far as the international market goes. Shining Blade, Shining Force Feather, and Shining Hearts all went unreleased outside of Japan, and Sega's declined to localize PSP titles like Valkyria Chronicles 3 and 7th Dragon 2020. So don't count on them changing their minds just for Shining Ark.

The 3DS version of Dragon Quest VII: Warriors of Eden proved the biggest success this February, moving close to a million copies in its debut week. It's no mere port, either, as developer ArtePiazza remade it with colorful polygon graphics, a speedier prologue, and a greater emphasis on solving puzzles. No one's announced a North American release, but it's very likely that Square Enix or Nintendo will snatch it up.

For the shooter aficionado, the Japanese Xbox 360 gets two region-free outings. The first is Ginga Force, a multi-viewpoint shooter with customizable weapons. The second is the budget-priced version of Cave's Muchi Muchi Pork and Pink Sweets combo pack. The latter package deal combines Cave's bullet-hell scoring systems with suggestive anime heroines, as is the developer's wont in these dark times.


Developer: Capcom/Iron Galaxy Studios
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: PlayStation Network/Xbox Live
Release date: March 12 (PSN), March 13 (Live)
MSRP: $14.99/1200 Points

Darkstalkers did a lot with only three games. The series technically ended with Darkstalkers 3 in 1997, but Capcom periodically revived it with compilations or by cramming a few characters (usually Morrigan, Felicia, and Hsien-Ko) into titles like Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Pocket Fighter. And that's all the franchise needed to command a modest and loyal fan base. These Darkstalkers adherents clamored for a new game throughout the past decade, even before Street Fighter's big comeback. After much hemming and hawing and hinting from Street Fighter producer Yoshinori Ono, Capcom decided to test the waters with Darkstalkers Resurrection, a set of Night Warriors and Darkstalkers 3. As with Capcom's recent Marvel vs. Capcom and Marvel Super Heroes collection, the company promises arcade-exact versions of the second and third Darkstalkers games (you don't really need the first when Night Warriors is around) with GGPO multiplayer, art galleries, and a number of different viewing options. There's the usual HD mode, several other filters, and an angle that mimics the look of an arcade monitor and screen dressing. Not that many of us in North America got to see Night Warriors in actual arcades. I played Quiz & Dragons and Tech Romancer there, but not Night Warriors.

But what makes the Darkstalkers games remarkable? Well, they're built with the same solid, six-button approach that made Street Fighter II so enduring, though Darkstalkers is a bit looser in balance and technique. Yet it's also more vibrant and exaggerated, a playable cartoon that pays tribute to all sorts of mythological creatures and pop-culture beasts (the game supposedly started as a licensed Universal monsters fighter). All of the characters and backgrounds are animated with great little details that spill over into the gameplay: a catgirl battles a zombie rocker on the side of a building, a sasquatch barfs out a giant ice laser before his cavorting tribe, a gun-nut Little Red Riding Hood summons a giant infantry barrage out of nowhere, and a mummified pharaoh turns his opponents into tiny, comically cursed incarnations. The series also experimented a little with genre standards, and that's partly why Capcom included both Night Warriors and Darkstalkers 3. The former sticks to typical fighting-game rounds, but Darkstalkers 3 adopts a one-round approach where characters use two life meters in succession (as in Killer Instinct) and summon temporary “Dark Force” powers. Darkstalkers Resurrection doesn't have everything that Darkstalkers 3 did. For one thing, it's missing the console-version additions of Huitzil, Donovan, and Pyron (even though they're in Night Warriors). But that won't matter so much if Capcom can deliver ideal arcade versions of two excellent fighters.

Not Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory. Originally scheduled for March 12, the game now ships a week later. This puts it at an every-so-slightly less competitive vantage with Atelier Ayesha.

Todd Ciolek occasionally updates his website, and you can follow him on Twitter, should you want to read facetious and unfunny jokes about obscure arcade games.

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