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Excused Absences

by Todd Ciolek,

So what's in the news? The long-awaited Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series, that's what. You may remember it from the uproar that ensued last year when founder Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter drive for the series, which critiques the various portrayals of women in games. This immediately drew much rancor from chauvinist malcontents who hurled their invective everywhere possible and even devised a crude game about attacking Sarkeesian. Many responded to this by backing the Kickstarter even more fervently, and the funding soared past $150,000. Last week, Feminist Frequency put up the first video, part one of the “Damsels in Distress” feature.

It's all rather well done. Sarkeesian gives a solid introduction to the concept of video-game women who are rewards, endpoints, and threatened-masculinity symbols instead of actual characters. The video emphasizes Nintendo's two biggest series, though some attention's also paid to that special time in arcade history when 95 percent of the new games were Double Dragon clones all about rescuing helpless girlfriends from street gangs. The video's very even-handed about the subject, and I agree with every point Sarkeesian makes along the way. Well, maybe not the part where she implies that the original version of Rare's Dinosaur Planet looked “pretty cool.” Empowered heroine or not, that game resembled a bland Nintendo 64 version of some direct-to-video The Land Before Time movie.

I find it particularly depressing that most of the video's argument is familiar. Sexism burdened the game industry from its earliest moments of narrative, and complaints about it arise in every generation. For an example, consider this succinct letter from the October 1995 issue of Nintendo Power. Aside from the Killer Instinct reference, it's just as valid today.

I wonder how much has really changed. Modern games show more variety in plot and design, but take a good look at your library: how many of those titles feature positive portrayals of women? We may discuss the game industry's views on women everywhere from message boards to Game Developers Conference panels, yet it usually draws the same tired and specious counterpoints: men are just as victimized, pointing out sexism is itself sexist, and hey, a lot of the guys in Tekken show more bare skin than the women do. Tropes vs. Women in Video Games already prompted plenty of those responses.

I can't say yet if this series will change anything, but I hope it dives into more of the reasons behind ingrained pop-cultural misogyny: the conflation of sexuality and violence, the backhanded methods of female empowerment through passive tolerance, and the way a patriarchy re-asserts protective tendencies in the wake of a national tragedy or societal upheaval. I also hope someone brings up Götzendiener.


Umihara Kawase built a cult following from simple ingredients. The original Super Famicom game was about a girl, her grappling fishhook, and not much else. From that came a clever side-scrolling puzzle game with some challenging and complex physics. This was enough to win Umihara Kawase ample praise, and the game later visited the PlayStation, DS, and PSP. Natsume even planned to release the PSP revamp over here under the title Yumi's Odd Odyssey. It never materialized on these shores, and those who played the Japanese version were quick to point out that the PSP game was buggy, confusing, and generally inferior to the other editions.

Agatsuma Entertainment, best known over here as the backers for Code of Princess, looks to give Umihara Kawase a shot on the 3DS. Sayonara, Umihara Kawase finds its heroine (should we call her Umihara or Yumi?)now 20 years old and still navigating side-views levels with the help of a rubber-banded grappling hook. There are familiar names on the staff, as Agatsuma reunited the original game's artist Toshinobu Kondo and designer Kiyoshi Sakai. In addition to the plethora of half-comical stages to traverse, the developers plan to add costumes, a time attack mode, and a playable version of the original younger Umihara. I assume the difference between the two will be in gameplay, since the current character looks a lot like she did in the first Umihara Kawase. Will it make its way here? Well, Code of Princess did.

Gungho and MonkeyPaw Games do a healthy trade in releasing untranslated Japanese PlayStation games on the PlayStation Network, and most of their selection is quite accessible. One doesn't need a working knowledge of the language to shoot things in Zanac X Zanac or surmise the coin puzzles of Money Idol Exchanger. Yet GungHo's latest round of six-dollar releases includes three that demand some Japanese aptitude.

Most surprising is Sentimental Graffiti, the first of a line of dating simulators from the 1990s. Like Konami's Tokimeki Memorial, the series proved a success in Japan while staying entirely unknown in Western markets. Domestic publishers just weren't terrible interested in a conversation-heavy tale of one young man managing his funds, portioning out his free time, and deciding which of 12 girls is his enigmatic true love. Dialogue and menus drive the game, and nearly all of them are without English translations. Rather bold of GungHo to release it as such, but at six bucks I imagine some dating-sim fans will be glad for the opportunity.

Favorite Dear: Enkan no Monogatari poses much the same challenge. The RPG portion of the game follows the usual conventions, as a resolute hero and an angel-winged envoy named Tia strive to purify a kingdom of monsters. Less approachable is the game's other half, in which the player chats with various allies and romances several heroines. It's much like a dating sim, with all of the conversations such things normally entail.

Mahjong Uranai Fortuna is playable so long as you're familiar with mahjong, but the game also takes a few cues from dating sims. All of the player's opponents are female fortune-tellers of varying ages and dispositions, and they'll predict the player's future during conversations.

Of particular note is Oz no Mahoutsukai~Another World~Rung Rung. It's not the first game to take advantage of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz being in the public domain, and it certainly isn't the most insane adaptation. It's just a cheerful adventure game where Dorothy and a rather bloblike Toto wander the lands of Oz. Its designs don't make any grand changes to the characters, but I'm always intrigued by the ways classic stories are warped by video games.

Other titles in GungHo's new roundup prove more accessible. First Queen IV is an extensive strategy-RPG that sticks to traditional genre rules, leaving only the intricacies of the plot lost on English speakers. Trump Shiyouyo! Fukkoku-ban is also easy to understand, as it's a collection of card games wherein animal icons play poker, blackjack, sevens, and other familiar pastimes.

Sega's vacillated on releasing a Hatsune Miku game in North America. The company went as far as to park a demo of the Vita's Hatsune Miku Project Diva F on the floor of E3 2012, only to say that it was just there to measure interest. Well, here's a more direct method of telling Sega: a Facebook page that asks fans just how much they want a U.S. version of Project Diva F for the PlayStation 3. It's strange that it ignores the Vita (and its much less crowded library), but apparently it's the PS3 Miku or nothing for Sega.

Of course, this is just another step for Hatsune Miku, soulless virtual pop idol that she is, to conquer the minds and Domino's Pizza boxes of the Western world. I've seen Macross Plus and Megazone 23 Part 2. I know how this works. One day she's chirping out calculated chart-toppers, the next she's hypnotizing an entire city or outright destroying it. But I “liked” the page anyway.


It's once again time to look for the stragglers, the no-shows, the games that dropped out of sight and haven't yet emerged with solid release dates. Such a path has led many games to be canceled and lost forever (or at least until some enterprising soul drags them out and shows them to the world). Yet these three still show life in one form or another. It's just not clear when we'll see them.

Platform: Xbox 360
Release Date: Unknown

No one would've noticed if 5pb's Phantom Breaker had remained in Japan. It's a 2-D fighter of little pedigree, featuring a roundup of anime-girl stereotypes and two guest stars. Yet it found a home at 7sixty, a new publisher backed by Southpeak Interactive. Phantom Breaker wasn't shunted off to a digital-only release on Xbox Live, either. It was outfitted with a special-edition calendar and marked to arrive here in the spring of 2012.

The Delay:
Phantom Breaker missed a few release dates, which is to be expected with new and small-scale publishers. It's less common for games to vanish entirely, and that's what happened to 5pb's obscure little fighter. Getting vaguer and vaguer release dates with each delay, Phantom Breaker eventually dropped out of sight entirely; GameStop even removed the game from its schedule. This is all made more confusing by 7sixty bringing an apparently near-final version to Anime Matsuri in April 2012 and shipping review copies to some sites. The few reviews it saw were less than enthusiastic.

The last news on Phantom Breaker popped up in August of last year, when its Facebook page updated and made reference to getting “the business end squared away for launch.” In a rare happenstance, the deliberately retro-styled spin-off Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds arrived recently on Xbox Live. When it comes to the original, though, that Facebook page is silent but for the carping of would-be fans.

Platform: Xbox 360 (possibly), PlayStation 3
Release Date: Late 2013/Early 2014

Some Final Fantasy fans see Versus XIII as a savior, a modern-toned action game that will rescue the series from its present-day doldrums and refashion it for this new era. Others see it as yet another gaudy, melodramatic spectacle that won't turn out nearly as smooth as its pretty CG-rendered cutscenes promise. Yet the game is a mystery to just about everyone. Square Enix first showed Versus XIII in 2005, when it was part of the Fabula Nova Crystalis trilogy that included Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy Type-0 (then called Agito XIII). That idea didn't really pan out, but both Final Fantasy XIII and Type-0 arrived. Versus XIII still hasn't.

Resembling a present-day world more than any other Final Fantasy, the game follows the enforcer-prince Noctis, his retinue, and a high-society woman named Stella. The battles are apparently more reminiscent of a Kingdom Hearts-style action-RPG than the usual Final Fantasy encounters, and the tale's Real Time Events allow players to actually do things during those big, flashy scenes that Final Fantasy games so love.

The Delay:
Versus XIII was repeatedly pushed to the side as other Final Fantasy games took the spotlight, and Square stingily portioned out details on the title. Despite seven years in development, the game wasn't playable at E3 or the Tokyo Game Show last year, and many expected Square to promote the whole thing to a PlayStation 4 project. Yet Sony's announcement of the new system carried no sign of Final Fantasy Versus XIII. The latest wild rumors have it that the game is headed for Japan and North America late this year, albeit with its action-RPG gameplay changed to a more traditional menu-driven system. But there's a reason we call those rumors wild.

Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows, iOS, PSP
Release Date: Not specified, probably never

No, it's not the original Steins;Gate that went missing. Nitroplus and 5pb's visual novel arrived on the Xbox 360 in 2009, and it's since earned ports for the PlayStation 3, the PSP, iOS devices, and Windows. It tells of Akihabara-based science geeks who craft a text-message time machine while tricking out a microwave, and the player navigates various timelines and plot branches through the game's “phone trigger” system. The story isn't unavailable to Western fans, either. They can check out FUNimation's release of the Steins;Gate anime series, and heroine Kurisu Makise is a guest character in Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds (and the original Phantom Breaker, if it ever comes out). But they can't play an official English translation of Steins;Gate.

The Delay:
Word of a North American release for Steins;Gate broke in January of last year, when Siliconera quoted JAST USA's Peter Payne on the subject. Payne remarked that the publisher, which traffics primarily in adult-oriented visual novels and dating sims, approached Nitroplus about a localized Steins;Gate, but several obstacles arose. Publisher 5pb needed in on the deal, and a mainstream-oriented title like Steins;Gate called out for a wide release on Steam, in Payne's opinion. Fourteen months later, and there's no word from JAST USA about bringing over Steins;Gate. A fan translation exists at least, and industry veteran Nick Des Barres (Valkyrie Profile, Anarchy Reigns) offered to localize the game for free several times.

The first Missing in Action covered three different games, and one of them made it out. Anarachy Reigns hit the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 this January. It's a shame that reviews were guarded in their praise, because it's a darned good multiplayer brawler.

Yuji Naka's Rodea the Sky Soldier remains absent, even though it was completed in 2011. At this point the game's Wii version is unlikely to see a release, and it might not even make it to the 3DS. Kadokawa Games stated that the game was still on track last year, but they had no response for me this time around. Things are better for Dragon's Crown, a Vanillaware-made brawler with some of the most…er, exaggerated character designs around. Atlus still has it scheduled for these shores, though there's still no specific release date.


Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release date: March 19
MSRP: $39.99

This technically isn't a new Monster Hunter game. No, Ultimate is an enhanced version of Monster Hunter Tri, released on the domestic Wii back in 2010. Or perhaps it's more like a fusion of Tri and Monster Hunter Portable 3rd, the latter of which wasn't localized. Ultimate has the basic frame of Tri, but it also has Portable 3rd's dozen weapon classes, a new online city to explore, and a new targeting system that focuses on the giant monsters at hand. There are, of course, new creatures as well. Several returning creatures get new subspecies, and the flagship prey is the Brachydios, a towering wyvern that curses hunters with a green slime when they're struck. If the hunter doesn't follow proper hazardous-material rules and roll on the ground, the slime grows into a powerful explosive. And there's the Guran-Mirasou, a fire-spewing creature that thrives on land and in the water. Fortunately, it evolved glowing weak spots.

Those new to Monster Hunter will the whole idea approachable: customize a character, grab a weapon, and head out to kill wildlife that may or may not deserve it. Ultimate offers nicer starting equipment than previous games, including one of each of the game's weapon types. Those arms range from bowguns to hammers to gunlances to shape-changing switch axes, all styled in the apparently medieval technology of the Monster Hunter world. It's also fairly easy to grasp the game's multiplayer pursuits in Ultimate, as the 3DS and Wii U versions allow for cross-platform play with the game's four-member parties. While they're largely identical in content, the two versions differ in their teamwork capabilities; the Wii U game has standard online support, but the 3DS one offers multiplayer only through local options. Will that ensure that Monster Hunter once again ends up less popular in the West than it does in its native country? Probably, but I think Capcom's accepted that.

Developer: Compile Heart
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PlayStation 3
Release date: March 21
MSRP: $49.99

The Neptunia games carry an interesting idea: their RPG world is one big allegory for the game industry, and it's none too heavily veiled. Sure, some might not immediately note that heroine Neptune draws her name from a canceled Sega system, but it's hard to miss what the nations of Laststation, Lowee, and Leanbox represent. The games don't keep their references broad, either, as the one-note townsfolk include tributes to everything from Famitsu magazine to the Saturn's Segata Sanshiro commercials. And Neptunia V gets the chance to do it all in the year of 1989. Neptune, being the indolent goddess that she is, travels back several decades and finds herself trapped in another console war. The storyline toys with history a bit, as goddesses Noire, Vert, and Blanc now represent the Playstation, Xbox, and Famicom, respectively. Neptune also meets up with Plutia, a bipolar representation of the Sega Genesis, while the poor doomed PC Engine is represented by a blonde goddess named Peashy. I assume that's pronounced “PC,” not “Pee Shy.”

There's another side to the Neptunia series, of course, and it involves an unvarnished appeal to the anime market's fixation on cute. Many of the major characters are colorfully clad girls with childish dispositions, whether they represent dead Sega systems or Compile Heart and NIS America proper. When the need arises, however, Neptune and her fellow goddesses age a few years and don suggestive futuristic armor. Combat allows the characters to unleash several forms of attack during grunt-level-combat, but it's mostly buildup to the spectacle of their special moves. These include the usual flashing close-ups as well as spells that summons the visage of former Mega Man producer Keiji Inafune. The battles promise to run smoother than prior Neptunia games, but let's be honest: these games are sold by the characters rather than the gameplay, and I expect fans are far more interested in the retro-game gags and the blushing anime woman in revealing MMA gear. She represents the Tekken franchise, of course.

The Vita gets Dead or Alive 5 Plus, essentially last year's fighter with a first-person “Tough Mode” and several other enhancements. Gears of War Judgment arrives on the Xbox 360 with an interesting conceit: its story unfolds through a military tribunal, and the player's performance changes the testimony.

Todd Ciolek occasionally updates his website, and you can follow him on Twitter, even though he doesn't post much.

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