The X Button - Long Shots

by Todd Ciolek,

A ping sounded on the Darkstalkers radar last week, and I naturally ran to see what it was. It wasn't a new Darkstalkers comic or soundtrack or breakfast cereal, and I knew it certainly couldn't be a new Darkstalkers game. As things turned out, it was just a new Darkstalkers figure of Morrigan, and a troublesome one at that.

You can see the full and not entirely work-safe images of this Morrigan figure at 4Gamer, but here I've focused on what bothers me the most. No one expects a tasteful rendition of Morrigan from these sculptures, but at the very least they could capture Morrigan's expression as she's seen in the games: playful, vain, predatory, or some combination of the three. This Morrigan looks like she's waking up. Or getting high. Or falling over as her exaggerated physique and ill-supported pose finally succumb to gravity. It's all the more irksome when you consider that this is based on an illustration by Kinu Nishimura, who's one of the best artists to ever draw Capcom characters.

It's polite for the Darkstalkers fan to look at these toys and say “Well, at least Capcom remembers the series!” Yet if this is the way Darkstalkers will last, those devoted fans should feel free, obligated even, to complain about every minor piece of merchandise that comes out, even when they'd never buy salacious renditions of Morrigan in the first place. Griping is sometimes as fun as a new game.

NEWS

LOST DIMENSION IS A BIG AND PROBABLY DEPRESSING RPG
Lancarse has an interesting resume, playing parts in making Etrian Odyssey, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, and even the Legend of Kage sequel that no one noticed a few years ago. Lost Dimension is Lancarse's biggest undertaking yet: an original Vita and PlayStation 3 RPG game with a mix of Persona vibes and strategic gameplay.

An enormous tower sits in the ruins of New York, and it's the home of a white-haired, all-powerful terrorist called The End. A special-ops team, dubbed S.E.A.L.E.D., heads out to dethrone the lunatic, and the group is headed by the prescient Sho Kasugai and telepathic Yoko Tachibana. They and their comrades get state-of-the-art weapons and a range of psychic abilities, much like a Shin Megami Tensei crew, but two problems await them. They're told that one among them is a traitor…and another of their number must be sacrificed to the tower. Might the electricity-wielding rich-kid Touya Olbert give up his own life? Will the withdrawn, pyrokinetic Himeno Akatsuki betray her friends? Or is this one of those stories where the main character is the turncoat?

The gameplay in Lost Dimension resembles the free-roaming combat of Valkyria Chronicles or the upcoming Natural Doctrine, as characters and enemies run about the battlegrounds and use both long-ranged firearms and melee attacks. The stark premise, teenage soldiers, and Makoto Tsuchibayashi designs resemble a militarized Persona party, and that alone should give it some clout in the Western market. No domestic release is in line just yet, but localizers might take a closer look as Lost Dimension nears its August release date in Japan. After all, there are people who actually bought Vitas for Persona 4 Golden, and that wasn't even a new game.

PERSONA Q IS CANON, AND KIND OF ADORABLE
Speaking of Persona, Atlus squeaked out a minor yet somewhat surprising tidbit regarding Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, the dungeon hack that brings together the Persona 3 and 4 characters in a haunted high school. It's part of the broader Persona canonical storyline.

That's surprising to me, because Persona Q has the traits of a spin-off game that's irrelevant to the overall series. It even has two all-original characters: the blonde, comfort-eating Rei and the reticent Zen, who favors capes and spiked collars. One might expect them to matter as much as the latest Lupin Girl or the original heroines of those movies based on Bleach or Fullmetal Alchemist, but Atlus implies that Rei and Zen will be around for the long haul. Assuming they survive the game, we might see them in the next Persona 4 Arena fighter.

On that note, Atlus has a fiendish preorder scheme worked out for both Persona Q and Persona 4 Arena: Ultimax. Reserving Ultimax before its September 30 launch gets you the first half of a tarot card set, and reserving Persona Q prior to November 25 gets you the second half. You can also buy the $80 Persona Q set that includes a soundtrack, an artbook, the aforementioned tarot half-deck, and a 3DS XL carrying case. It's a generous pile of trinkets for Persona fans, though I wonder if any of them will use the tarot cards. I never got around to laying out the tarot set that I got with Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together.

RISE OF MANA CONTINUES WHATEVER IT IS SQUARE ENIX IS DOING
Square Enix is wise enough to keep expectations low for Mana games. Nothing has quite lived up to the standards set by the original Seiken Densetsu (known here as Final Fantasy Adventure) and its 16-bit successor Secret of Mana, and fans were steadily disappointed in Mana games from the PlayStation era onward. That's why Rise of Mana plays things safe. It's a smartphone game, and the standards for action-RPGs are a little lower in that realm.

Rise of Mana still references its heritage as much as it can. The characters have the typical over-wavy hairstyles, the common Rabbite shows up a good deal, and you can see the lapine merchant Niccolo in the background of the above screenshot. Its breezy action-RPG approach is a success in Japan, gathering over one million users since March, and it's available for the Android this week. There's no sign of a localized version yet, but Square Enix filed a trademark for it. So there's one more small expectation.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF SHOOTERS

This is a good month for shooters. Astebreed takes a well-armed robot on a dizzying ride through intergalactic war, all touched up with flashy modern sights. Then there's Crimzon Clover: World Ignition, an enhanced version of a 2011 shooter that's chock full of neon bullets and lasers and sheets upon sheets of oncoming enemy fire. And you can find both games at reasonable prices on Steam!

What, a lineup of two titles doesn't make for a good month? It does when we're talking about old-fashioned shooting games. They live in a little nook these days, so marginalized that we often label them “2-D shooters” or “shmups” (which sounds like a cat owner's baby talk or an old Al Capp comic) just so people don't confuse them with first-person shooters like Call of Duty or Rise of the Triad. It's the domain of hardcore fans and niche titles, and it's all a mere echo of what 2-D shooters meant in decades past.

Simple shooters were a cornerstone of early arcade culture, and for a time they evolved ably. The single-screen approaches of Space Invaders and Galaga gave way to the scrolling of Xevious and Exed Exes, and from there sprang a horde of shooters, both vertical and horizontal, to crowd the late 1980s and early 1990s. A visit to any arcade beyond a pizza place's lobby would reveal a good dozen shooters. You could find the likes of R-Type or 1943 just about anywhere, but you also might come across such quickly obscured games as Asuka & Asuka, Strato Fighter, and that side-view shooter you played just once at an arcade when you were visiting your grandparents. It had weird glowing alien levels and helicopter enemies, and you've never been able to remember the title or find it again.

This arcade plenty spilled over to consoles and computers, and no new game system could go without 2-D shooters. The Sega Genesis had the best variety of them, with the likes of the Thunder Force series, the weapon-snatching Gaiares, the comical Trouble Shooter, the still-amazing M.U.S.H.A., and several dozen lesser shooters that nonetheless could fill a weekend rental quite handily. The Super NES enjoyed the likes of Axelay, Space MegaForce, and R-Type III, while the third-placing TurboGrafx-16 mounted its own offense with Blazing Lazers, Cyber Core, and a presentable port of the original R-Type. Shooters were a staple of the era, bought and played and advertised in all corners. Renovation's Gaiares campaign is the most fondly remembered, of course.

And then shooters slipped away. Perhaps their highest tidemark of influence came with the launch of the TurboDuo, the TurboGrafx-16's successor. NEC and Hudson Soft wanted an impressive show-off game for the system, and rumor had it that the companies hired away designers from TechnoSoft, makers of the Thunder Force series, to create the stylistically similar Gate of Thunder. It was the launch title for the TurboDuo in North America, headlining a bunch of older pack-ins, and NEC and Hudson shilled Gate of Thunder and its successor, Lords of Thunder, as hard as they could. The TurboDuo wouldn't succeed in the U.S., but it would signify the last time a 2-D shooter really mattered in a game-industry war.

Shooters lost ground to many rivals in the mid-1990s. Developers were far more eager to join the fighting-game craze, to assemble a Sonic the Hedgehog imitation, or even to attempt some dreadful quasi-game made entirely of video clips. By their nature, shooters were shallow affairs well suited to arcade distraction: a quarter bought you a brief, reflex-driven bout of dodging and firing. Too many shooters looked like Gate of Thunder (above), all space battleships and laser turrets with steely male pilots or anime heroines filling the cutscenes. Even the more original shooters developed for home consoles shared axioms: memorize patterns, grab power-ups, and blast things before they blast you. That got old after a while.

Another hurdle arose with the industry-wide move toward 3-D graphics and accompanying gameplay. Most of the old guard were able to co-exist peacefully with their successors: 2-D fighters lived well alongside 3-D ones, and the advent of the Game Boy Advance and DS provided a safe refuge for flat-plane, sprite-based RPGs as well as side-scrolling games of the Mario and Sonic mold. Shooters couldn't find a home on the more cramped handheld screens, but they had one haven: the arcade.

It was in the arcade that shooter developers found their audience again. Companies like Cave, Psikyo, and the Eighting/Raizing nexus emerged from older developers like Compile and Toaplan, and their experience showed. Arcades slowly died in North America during the late 1990s and the following decade, but in Japan they were the best place for a steady stream of shooters. Many of them came to home consoles as well, though a few held out—to this day, I consider Cave's ESP Ra.de (above) one of the best arcade games never ported.

There came a price with the shooter's arcade resurgence. Designed to be played one credit at a time, these games were built to suck money and reward scoring mechanics, and their home versions often didn't change that. Upon paying forty bucks for a copy of Giga Wing or even more for an imported ESPgaluda, the buyer was faced with a vertical arcade shooter that lasted under an hour and allowed endless continues from the precise point of one's demise.

This abrogated challenge did not bother devoted shooter fans; they were out to master the game, to get the highest score, and maybe to finish the whole thing without continuing. Yet it rarely sat right with less faithful players who wanted a game that actually tested them without the artifice of self-imposed difficulty. It was also the opposite of the inbuilt restrictions of older shooters built for home consoles. M.U.S.H.A., Lords of Thunder, and other 16-bit games had tough-but-fair continue systems that players couldn't abuse, and the same went for the console-bred shooters of the PlayStation era, such as Square Enix's Einhander.

Some shooter developers realized this and fixed up their home ports—Treasure put time-release continues into Ikaruga, while Psikyo's Gunbird 2 wouldn't let players credit-feed on the final stage. Other companies were content to play to their niche—and to other niches beyond the shooter faithful. Cave in particular began a long output of shooters that heavily promoted scantily clad women and dewy-eyed girls in starring roles, hoping that modern anime fans would play their shooters and that established shooter fans wouldn't care what the games featured as long as the bullet storms and scoring multipliers were there. Cave was right on the latter point, at least.

Not that shooter developers remained insular. Cave brought a number of its titles to iOS and Android devices, making ESPgaluda II and Bug Princess and various flavors of Dodonpachi available to anyone with an iPhone. Cave even expanded Bug Princess (a.k.a Mushihimesama) with Bug Panic, an overhead semi-shooter made especially for mobile devices. It didn't really take, and Cave now seems to have abandoned any attempts at cracking the North American market, having shut down their English-language blog and Twitter. It's a reminder of the unique and unfortunate spot shooters occupy. They're a little too complex for small-screen, Flappy Bird diversions, but they're too simple and short for big-budget releases.

The future of traditional 2-D shooters doesn't lie in the depleted arcade or the heavily monetized, quick-fix appeal of smartphone games. It's in the rise of digital distribution. Steam, Xbox Live, the PlayStation network, and other venues make it easy to release a shooter, whether it's an older compilation like The Tale of Alltynex, some remastered arcade creation, the work of an indie cult favorite, or a new Raiden title. And there's an audience for shooters when they're dressed up pretty and not locked behind import fees and region codes. Last year, many saw Resogun as the best launch game on the PlayStation 4.

The fall of 2-D shooters was inevitable. They were too common, too much alike, and too comfortable on a plateau where high scores held sway. They'll never reign again as they did in 1991. But they'll survive just fine in this modern world of download-only games and Steam sales. As long as there's a desire for the instantly gratifying destruction and lengthier score-chasing of a decent shooter, there'll be an easy way to get it.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

DYNASTY WARRIORS GUNDAM REBORN
Developer: Omega Force
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Platform: PlayStation 3 (PSN)
Release Date: July 1
G Gundam selection: Still puny
MSRP: $39.99

It's mystifying to see Dynasty Warriors Gundam Reborn relegated to a digital-only release here while Japan and Europe get retail copies. The possibly proud name of Gundam hasn't carried much weight among North American kids since 2002, but surely there are collectors who'd shell out for an expensive box set with a Gundam model and soundtrack and a pendant shaped like the Celestial Being logo. If fringe games like Neptunia and Danganronpa get deluxe packaging, why not Gundam? Well, perhaps it's not just kids who ignore Gundam these days.

Whatever the state of Gundam's international appeal, Reborn is a massive toy chest for the fans who remain. It follows the Dynasty Warriors mold to a point, with throngs of Zaku and other low-level mobile suits filling up battlefields. A chosen mecha dashes around and unleashes close-range blows and long-distance fire, all building up to extra-powerful moves and team-up attacks culled straight from your favorite Gundam series…or your favorite popular and marketable Gundam series, at least. Reborn dispenses with a few features from its predecessor, Dynasty Warriors Gundam 3. The machines have a sharper, clankier tone compared to the cel-shaded style of the previous game, and characters no longer pick Operators to navigate them through the stage (since most of those operators are pilots now). Reborn also adds more battles in space, and some mecha work only in these zero-gravity firefights.

Reborn's playable roster reaches past 120 robots, including massive Mobile Armor types that are normally reserved for boss battles. Most of the additions are regular-size robots from SEED and SEED Destiny, which get about 20 new mobile suits between them. The recently concluded Gundam Unicorn expands as well, with the Delta Plus, the Banshee, and two versions of the thanklessly employed Geara Zulu. Plenty of pilots are also on hand, and once again the new faces come largely from SEED, SEED Destiny, and Unicorn. G Gundam remains underrepresented for a show with the nuttiest array of robot designs, and Reborn has only one machine from Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket, despite it being the best Gundam in my view. But I guess Gundam Alex and its ol' forearm miniguns just don't stack up to the Justice Gundam and the Providence Gundam and the American Exceptionalism Gundam.


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


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