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Cosmic Phantasy

by Todd Ciolek, Oct 30th 2013

Ultra Street Fighter IV has the usual marks of a fighting-game upgrade. It adds a Red Focus Attack that absorbs several oncoming moves at the cost of your character's super meter. It also lets you take both of a character's Ultra moves into a fight—albeit in weaker form. And it brings over Poison, Rolento, Elena, and Hugo from Street Fighter X Tekken. But what does everyone really care about? The mysterious fifth new character, who CAPCOM swears is “making a fighting-game debut” in Ultra Street Fighter IV.

This vague descriptor has many poring over Street Fighter canon in search of a character never before playable. Candidates range from Chun-Li's father to Akuma's master to some of Shadaloo's Doll assassins, but the most frequently mentioned candidate seems to be Go Hibiki, father of Street Fighter's recurring joke Dan Hibiki. Dan's backstory dictates that Go died in a fight with Sagat, who was none too pleased over losing an eye to Go. Still, CAPCOM brought back Gouken, Ken and Ryu's master, from apparent canonical death, so there's nothing keeping Go deceased.

But which version of Go would we see? Dan Hibiki started off as a mockery of Ryo and Robert from SNK's Art of Fighting series, and his father was similarly styled after Mr. Karate, the masked persona of Ryo's dad. This is evident in the above artwork from Versus Books' Street Fighter Alpha 2 strategy guide—which, by the way, is a great collectible for Street Fighter nerds. It has a bunch of amusing artwork that I haven't seen anywhere else.

Later CAPCOM depictions of Go favored the goofy, big-nosed look. In Pocket Fighter, he aids Dan's super moves, sporting a halo and firing lasers from his elaborate honker.

Udon's Street Fighter comics scale back Go's comical appearance to match the rest of the Street Fighter characters. He sports a somewhat Bergerac-ish nose, but he's portrayed in a far more serious light while sparring with Sagat and meeting an unpleasant fate. CAPCOM seems on the verge of announcing the fifth character for Ultra Street Fighter IV. If it's Go, expect him to resemble the Udon version.

Or maybe he'll spew lasers from his nostrils. Mesmerizing indeed.

NEWS

UMIHARA KAWASE COMING HERE AS YUMI'S ODD ODYSSEY, FOR REAL THIS TIME
We've been here before. The title Yumi's Odd Odyssey first appeared in 2009, when Natsume gave it to the PSP port of Umihara Kawase. At the time, this would have marked the North American debut for the series of swinging-puzzle games. It never came to pass, possibly because the PSP title was in dire need of a good cleanup. And so the good name of Yumi's Odd Odyssey went back on the shelf until this week, when Natsume announced it as the U.S. version of Sayonara, Umihara Kawase for the 3DS.

It makes a strange kind of sense for Yumi's Odd Odyssey to tease fans like this, since the Umihara Kawase games show off a pitch-perfect blend of frustration and accomplishment. They follow a simple plan: armed with a backpack and a fishing tether, a girl called Umihara Kawase grappling-hooks her way through side-scrolling levels full of conveyor belts, unfairly positioned enemies, and other obstacles designed to make things as difficult as possible. Our heroine, now renamed Yumi for North America, wields her fishing line like the cybernetic claw from Bionic Commando, but the elastic physics are far touchier. It's undeniably novel, and the Umihara Kawase series was a darling of importers from its original Super Famicom release to its sequel, Umihara Kawase: Shun for the PlayStation.

Yumi's Odd Odyssey builds itself from 3-D pieces, but it's altogether faithful to the cunning design and nonsensical appearances of prior games. It also expands its traditional character lineup a bit. Players can pick a 20-year-old regulation Yumi (whose special talent is gulping medicine without drinking water, according to her in-game profile), but there's a younger version of her that gets frequent checkpoints throughout stages. Her childhood friend Emiko has a similarly forgiving path through the game, while teenage time-traveling police officer Nokko uses slow-motion to make the game a little easier. The game's out next year as an eShop download. That may not please fans hoping for a boxed version, but if Phoenix Wright can't get a material release, what chance does Yumi have?

FINAL FANTASY IV: THE AFTER YEARS OUT YET AGAIN IN NOVEMBER
Final Fantasy IV: The After Years went through a few versions: a cell phone game, a WiiWare release, and a smoothed-out PSP collection. But for those who really, really liked the polygon-based DS remake of Final Fantasy IV, there's yet another version of The After Years done up in the same style. And Square Enix aims to have it out for iOS and Android devices on some unspecified November date.

This new version of The After Years covers the same extensive epilogue as previous iterations, introducing new faces, giving previous supporting characters bigger roles, and continuing the unresolved romantic tension between ninja-prince Edge and whip-smart summoner Rydia (plus other, less important threads like the possible end of the world). It feels a bit like a TV movie staged a decade after the original series wrapped up, but it isn't without some new ideas. The phases of the moon prominently influence the monsters encountered in battle, and the Band system lets characters team up for attacks. Apparently planning to release this new version of The After Years soon, Square Enix dropped the price of the original Final Fantasy IV to $7.99 on the iOS and Android platforms.

EARTH DEFENSE FORCE 2025 BOASTS BLOATED BLONDE BUG-BAITING BALLOONS
Earth Defense Force is known far as wide as the series where you destroy giant, city-wrecking bugs by wielding rocket launchers, machine guns, and laser-firing jetpack armor. With Earth Defense Force 2025 for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, it also becomes the series where you destroy giant, city-wrecking bugs by wielding this:

Earth Defense Force 2025 is set to arrive here in February, and D3 Publisher plans to include all of the Japanese version's downloadable extra weapons. Most of them are advanced lasers and cannons, but they also include giant decoy BALLOONS shaped like the hostesses from the dating sim Dream C Club. These inflatable effigies lure in the enemy insects and explode, thus providing both a valuable distraction and a lesson about hostess clubs.

Reserving Earth Defense Force 2025 at GameStop gets you a weapon pack with the BMO Vegalta Gold power suit and the Setsu decoy balloon, which throws its arms wide to joyously welcome the huge insectoid creatures. Other weapons will be available as standard paid extras, including the Ifrit rocket launcher, the Blood Storm cannon, the Reflectron Laser, the Gleipnir energy weapon, the Volatile Napalm, and the Mian decoy balloon, which just stands around looking disdainfully bored with all of these monstrous arthropod invaders. For those of you keeping track, I think this is the first North American release of anything to do with Dream C Club.

TYPING OF THE DEAD: OVERKILL AVAILABLE ON STEAM, ALL IS WELL
The Typing of the Dead was a bit troublesome at first. It was hard to find the arcade version outside of Japan, and it was hard to get into the Dreamcast version if you didn't have a keyboard attachment. But that wasn't so much of a problem once the game ended up on the PC, and it's even less of a problem now that The Typing of the Dead: Overkill is available on Steam.

Just as the original Typing of the Dead turned The House of the Dead 2 into a keyboard tutor, this latest installment adapts the deliberately trashy The House of the Dead: Overkill into a typing contest. Words must be properly entered to ward off zombies, and the whole thing mimics a gun game without the plastic pistols. It's also just ten bucks until the start of November.

INTERVIEW: COSMIC STAR HEROINE'S ROBERT BOYD AND BILL STIERNBERG

The age of 16-bit RPGs never ended completely. Its particular style of sprite-based design endures in many places: mobile-phone games, ports of classic titles, and in the creations of developers like Zeboyd Games. The studio evoked the RPGs of the NES era with Breath of Death VII, and moved on to a Super-NES look with their second game, Cthulhu Saves the World. Zeboyd recently crafted the third and fourth games in Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness series, but they're now laboring on a new original, Kickstarter-backed creation called Cosmic Star Heroine.

With a slightly more serious tone than Breath of Death VII or Cthulhu's RPG conquest, Cosmic Star Heroine follows Alyssa L'Salle, an intergalactic government operative betrayed by her employers and mobbed by her fans. She and a cadre of allies, including a ghost alien and a “gunmancer,” head across the Zevanii star system, and it all unfolds in the detailed style one might see in Chrono Trigger, Lunar: Eternal Blue, and other 16-bit RPGs from the genre's cresting moments in the mid-1990s.

As the KickStarter for Cosmic Star Heroine heads into its final stretch, we went to the two members of Zeboyd Games: designer/writer/programmer Robert Boyd and artist/animator Bill Stiernberg.

How did you get the idea for Cosmic Star Heroine?

Robert Boyd: Mostly we wanted to do something different. Far-future RPGs and spy RPGs are both relatively rare, so we figured: why not combine the two?

What games or eras of game-related visual design do you look to when you're creating Cosmic Star Heroine's look? The first shot you released of Alyssa made me think it was a Sega Master System game.

Bill Stiernberg: The game's style and presentation are influenced by several games in two key ways. The cutscene and character artwork is heavily influenced by the style you see in Sega CD titles and some of the later Sega Genesis games. These include games like Phantasy Star IV, Ys, Cosmic Fantasy, Lunar and Vay. The characters are drawn with more limited color palettes like you might see on these consoles, and will be using similar techniques for showing the characters and events in lower resolutions. The animated cutscenes will use a mix of stills, scrolling, panning, and zooming along with key animations to make them more lively in ways similar to the Sega CD games mentioned. It allows cutscenes to be more dynamic and interesting without requiring a full-fledged animation studio to produce.

The in-game assets, such as sprites and maps are influenced in style by games such as Chrono Trigger and to a lesser extent Final Fantasy VI. The way the maps and sprites are proportioned and animated will use similar sizes and framecounts. We will also be able to take advantage of some cool things that we have been able to use in our past games, as well as new stuff we'll be able to use from Unity. In Rain-Slick 4, the maps used a very custom layer for lighting, which allowed for the light and shadows in the game to be really detailed and interesting. We'll be using that technique again, along with particle systems and other special effects we can get out of Unity. So from a technical standpoint, we are using certain older 16-bit games as a base and putting these effects on top of them.

Besides budgetary reasons, what are the advantages of sprite-based art in the style of 16-bit RPGs? Do think it allows for more abstraction, letting the player fill in the blanks?

Boyd: I agree that 16-bit sprite art gives the player more room for imagination, thus letting the player build up events in their mind far beyond what the screen actually displays. Beyond that, the 16-bit art style allows for much faster asset creation, meaning more areas, more enemies, more spells, etc. And makes it easier to keep load times to a minimum. Plus, we happen to like the look of 16-bit pixel art as an art style.

Your KickStarter page mentions that Cosmic Star Heroine was inspired by Phantasy Star, Chrono Trigger, and Suikoden. We can see Phantasy Star in the concept, Chrono Trigger in the battles, and Suikoden in the built-up spy headquarters. Are there any other games that inspired you? Perhaps futuristic 16-bit games like Snatcher, Illusion City, Shadowrun, Front Mission, or Live A Live's later chapters?

Boyd: We try to learn something from every game we play, good or bad. As far as specific setting influences go, we are going to aim for more of a cyberpunk element to the game than what we saw in the Phantasy Star series, so games like Shadowrun and Soul Hackers are definite influences. I still need to play Snatcher one of these days...

How difficult is it to emulate the cutscenes of Sega CD and TurboDuo games compared to the video cutscenes of later-era RPGs?

Boyd: Trying to do modern-era RPG cutscenes like what you see in Final Fantasy or the Tales games would be way outside the budget of a small indie group like ourselves. The 16-bit CD-style of cutscenes, on the other hand, are very similar to scenes of an old-school anime TV series and much more viable. Animation tends to be minimal and the resolution is much lower than any modern game. We use a native resolution of 480 by 270 since that's similar to 16-bit resolutions but widescreen plus it scales nicely to 1080p. So it's doable by a single artist. The key is making sure that the still images for each scene are attractive and then improving them with key animation, special effects, and camera manipulation.

How would you describe Alyssa in terms of the typical video-game heroine? Did recent controversies about sexism in video game influence her creation?

Boyd: Alyssa is clever, talented, confident, and fiercely loyal to her friends and teammates. She's also a bit egotistical and has trouble resisting the urge to show off when the opportunity presents itself, even if doing so could put her or her team in trouble. In most RPGs, the main character starts out inexperienced and untested and then grows from there. With Cosmic Star Heroine, I thought it would be fun to avoid this trope so instead our heroine is already an accomplished agent at the start of the game and things escalate from there.

We didn't create Alyssa specifically as a reaction to the controversies of sexism in video games. Rather, we've been wanting to have a female lead for a while but couldn't with our past few games. Penny Arcade already had two main characters and Cthulhu Saves the World obviously needed to star Cthulhu. But we do agree that female lead characters that aren't just meant for sex appeal are a rarity in video games today and we hope that with Cosmic Star Heroine, we can help to provide one example of how female characters can be just as multi-dimensional as male characters.

Has the recent controversy around Penny Arcade affected Zeboyd's reputation? Were you worried about it overshadowing Cosmic Star Heroine's Kickstarter?

Boyd: Honestly, we haven't really seen it brought up much in regards to the Cosmic Star Heroine Kickstarter. It was fun to work with Penny Arcade and to be able to finish off their RPG series and I think we learned a lot from the experience. They were nothing but generous with all their dealing with us. With that said, after working on somebody else's series for a couple years, it feels great to be making our own thing once again.

How would you say Cosmic Star Heroine's storyline and themes differ from your previous games? It seems to have a slightly more serious tone than Breath of Death VII or Cthulhu Saves the World.

Boyd: Cosmic Star Heroine started out as a parody just like our previous games. In fact, we even briefly considered making the lead character a magical girl complete with her own in-game TV show! However, at one point, a friend suggested that we should push ourselves and try making a game that wasn't meant as parody. We agreed that we would probably grow more as developers by trying to do a more serious game and so Cosmic Star Heroine is our first non-parody game. That isn't to say that it won't have humor, hopefully it will be very funny at certain points, but rather that we're aiming for an interesting plot that isn't just an excuse to tell as many gags as possible. Basically, we're aiming for the feel of something like the Lunar series or the Prydain novels—serious plot filled with fun & colorful character.

What more can you tell us about the battle system and characters' level progression? Will each character have unique attacks and powers, or are they interchangeable?

Boyd: The battles are turn-based, with a four-character active party, multi-character unite abilities, and no separate battle screen. Battles take place directly on maps. MP doesn't carry over from battle to battle; instead it regenerates each turn with characters getting more or less MP based on various stats. There's also a danger stat that gradually goes up with each turn that can make some enemies more powerful so the player is encouraged to defeat enemies quickly and efficiently.

Each character gets points when they level-up which they can use to upgrade different masteries, thus improving their stats & unlocking new abilities and bonuses. Every character has three unique masteries so each character will have their own set of abilities that only they can use and can be customized further with equipment and other things.

How long will Cosmic Star Heroine last? Will the characters visit different planets?

Boyd: It's hard to get a good idea of how long a game will last until we're almost done, however based on the length of our previous games, about 10 to 15 hours, and our plans to make this one around 50 percent bigger, we're estimating it will be in the 15 to 25 hour range. And yes, you'll visit multiple planets. Araenu is a futuristic metropolis, Rhomu is an underground city with ruins on the surface, and Nuluup is a strange, alien world.

So is Alyssa's name a reference to Alis from Phantasy Star, Alys from Phantasy Star IV, or the Alisa III from Phantasy Star III?

Boyd: Yes. [laughs]

As fans of the genre, what old RPGs do you think are the most underrated?

Boyd: I'm a big fan of Paladin's Quest [Lennus in Japan], which is an old SNES RPG that was released by Enix that doesn't get mentioned much these days. It has a lot of interesting gameplay ideas. Spells cost HP, MP doesn't exist, reusable items with charges for healing, using spells increasing the character's skill in 8 different fields of magic, two permanent characters in the party plus two slots for recruitable mercenary characters, a unique direction-based menu system. The visuals and music were both very unusual, perhaps too unusual, with pastel colors everywhere! Unfortunately, the game never got the fanbase or recognition that other great SNES RPGs like Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, Lufia 2, and Earthbound did.

I also really like Final Fantasy Adventure [Seiken Densetsu]. It had a great mix of NES-style Zelda combined with more traditional action/RPG elements that hasn't really been seen since then. One of the best chiptune soundtracks around as well.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

THE GUIDED FATE PARADOX
Developer: NIS
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PlayStation 3
Release Date: November 5
Angels as Maids: Theologically Troubling
MSRP: $49.99

Nippon Ichi Software made it big with the comical hellscapes and demonic squabbles of the Disgaea series, so it's not surprising that the developer would turn to its eschatological opposite. The Guided Fate Paradox (renamed from the slightly more Calvinist The God and Fate Paradox) finds a luckless teenager named Renya drawn into a lottery by a maidishly garbed girl in a shopping mall. He wins without even checking the prize: a literal godhood. He's raised up to the heavens and greeted by an angelic host, ranging from the flirty Cheriel Ayanokoji to the shut-in Neliel Tojo, and most of them are dressed like anime maids, courtesy of character designer Noizi Ito. Renya's guide, however, is the dutiful Lilliel Saotome, who shackled him to the lottery in the first place. As a deity, Renya grants prayers by venturing through the Fate Revolution Circuit, where the hopes and dreams of the faithful manifest into grid-laid dungeons.

Here The Guided Fate Paradox turns into a dungeon hack, not far removed from Nippon Ichi's Z.H.P.: Unlosing Ranger VS Darkdeath Evilman. Levels unfold one room at a time, traps abound, and enemies move at the same pace as the player; their fields of vision are clearly bordered, and they'll call for help upon defeat. Characters navigate these levels as they would a Disgaea stage, tossing both items and allies around, and the usual flat-level monotony is broken up by cubed stages, moving platforms, and towering bosses. Renya's team of allies includes everything from angels to recruited monsters, and he can unleash a particularly obliterating “God Mode” attack upon maxing out his special meter. The tone of it all recalls a slightly less cynical Disgaea, as the cast could've leaped from just about any anime series about an average boy swamped by beautiful, otherworldly women. Yet there's less precedent for the game's fusion of Disgaea-style combat and dungeon-crawler exploration. The Guided Fate Paradox's sales in Japan weren't impressive, so perhaps Nippon Ichi hopes the idea will catch on here and establish it as their next big series.

Also Available:
The Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Collection for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 hopes to remind us about Konami and MercurySteam's new take on Castlevania, spanning the original Lords of Shadow and the 3DS spin-off Mirror of Fate. Both are included here, with Mirror of Fate being the recent Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 adaptation of the previously portable game. It's all preamble to next year's Lords of Shadow 2, of course.


Todd Ciolek occasionally updates his website, and you can follow him on Twitter if you want.


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