The X Button - Legends Untold

by Todd Ciolek,

The end of summer approaches next week, and it already feels like the season is over in many parts of this hemisphere. That puts me in the mood for a summertime game, one full of sunny atmosphere and bright colors. It's good to have a favorite summertime game, particularly if you're facing a short fall, a long winter, or Seasonal Affective Disorder.

I can think of many fine choices for summertime games, and they don't necessarily have to have tropical settings like Super Mario Sunshine or The Adventures of Cookie & Cream. They might just be bright and carefree games like Hammerin' Hero or Shantae or Earthbound (it's mostly happy). Of course, you could play it easy and go for a summer-sports game. So I'll turn to an old favorite of mine: Super Spike V'Ball for the NES.

Nintendo heavily promoted multiplayer games for a brief time around 1990, and Super Spike V'Ball proved the most enduring. It's the work of Technos Japan, developers of brawlers like River City Ransom and Double Dragon as well as neat sports titles like Super Dodge Ball and Nintendo World Cup. Super Spike V'Ball finds them at their best. It's easy to pick up and has the same responsive controls as other Technos titles—Double Dragon's Bimmy and Jimmy even show up as a selectable team. And if you're willing to drag out the NES and a four-player adapter, you can enjoy the game at its competitive apex.

Here's another thing you can do, provided you have a Game Genie or a suitable emulator. Super Spike V'Ball has only four male teams at first, but lurking unused within the game are four women's teams. They're fully playable in all modes, and a Game Genie code unlocks them. These female players aren't completely finished; they have placeholder character-select screens, their sprites break up when diving for the ball, and they don't have names (though you could work in Double Dragon references by calling two of them Marian and Linda). It seems they weren't included in the final version of Super Spike V'Ball due to time constraints. Or perhaps it was the same sexism that still harms the game industry today. Let's debate that for a few dozen message-board pages.

Or we could debate something else. Check out that little orange gremlin under the score. I assume it's just for decoration, though it could be some recurring Technos Japan mascot along the lines of Compile's Randar. While Technos already had Kunio-Kun as a banner-bearer, they might've considered a more compact character with buck teeth and Guile's haircut. The mysteries never end.

NEWS

SUPER SMASH BROS. DEMO ARRIVES, PLAYS FAVORITES
Super Smash Bros. heads to the 3DS on October 3 and to the Wii U later in the year. That simply isn't soon enough for some fans, and for them Nintendo has a 3DS demo coming out this Friday. If you're a Platinum Member of Club Nintendo, you might get codes early—specifically, four codes that you're free to share among friends. The Club Nintendo demo has local multiplayer, no playcount limit, and features five characters: Mario, Link, Mega Man, Pikachu, and that Animal Crossing village. Of course, people are currently sharing these codes all over the place, and some even go as far as to sell them on eBay. Other 3DS owners are playing the game so intently that they've snapped off their systems' analog pads. Bizarre as this may sound, it's all consistent with the crazier extremes of Smash Bros. fans.

Nor is this the only kerfuffle surrounding Super Smash Bros. People bought a million copies of the Japanese version in just two days, and they've made some telling discoveries. One was unpleasant: Nintendo temporarily banned some players who used a cheat to bring Princess Peach's items into an online versus mode. Some upstanding Peach players found themselves barred as well, prompting an apology from Nintendo. More interesting were the long-playing streams from the game's early buyers, who revealed that most of the game's unconfirmed (but leaked) characters are present, including Dark Pit from Kid Icarus, Ness from Earthbound, and the Dog from Duck Hunt. The last of these seems to have players most excited. Perhaps it's the way the Dog is accompanied by a little duck sidekick, once his mortal enemy.

HARVEST MOON: THE LOST VALLEY FIRES SALVO OF HUSBANDS AND WIVES
We must not forget the Harvest Moon Wars, currently waged by Natsume's Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley and Marvelous and XSEED's Story of Seasons. Every Harvest Moon needs a selection of men and women with whom the player's chosen avatar may start a family, and The Lost Valley recently introduced more of the game's possible partners.

The game's lineup of available women features the upbeat restaurateur Emily, the meek florist April, and the rich, standoffish Catherine (above). They have the usual quirks: Emily hates bugs and likes cooking, April loves flowers and is rarely upset, and Catherine is rude and lonesome (I assume they still call this “tsundere”). Meanwhile, the single men of the valley include the kind-spirited bard Gilbert and the determined blacksmith Tony. Gilbert is a wanderer by nature, and Tony has issues living up to his dad's stringent demands. Natsume has one more bachelor to reveal before the game's late-2014 release. I expect an oil tycoon.

Meanwhile, Story of Seasons has all of its cards on the table. Developed by the same Marvelous-backed team responsible for prior Harvest Moons, the game wears a new title for North America. Yet it has all of the old Harvest Moon features, including local men and woman for the player to romance. The men are taciturn florist Kamil, credulous rancher Fritz, well-mannered shopkeeper Mistel, stable perfume-maker Klaus (above), studious chef Reager, and tough-edged gardener Nadi. The women are solitary novelist Iris, stony-faced nurse Angela, withdrawn botanist Licorice, spoiled rancher Elise, energetic adventurer Agate, and cheerful singer Lillie.

Story of Seasons has an advantage so far, featuring twice as many would-be love interests for the game's hero or heroine. They also look a little better. Story of Seasons gives its characters detailed portraits much like those in Rune Factory or previous Harvest Moon titles, while The Lost Valley just uses its big-headed character models for conversations. Will this put Story of Seasons ahead when fans choose a side in the Harvest Moon Wars?

What's that? You'll buy both games later this year? Well, that takes all the fun out of speculation.

XENOSAGA HD COLLECTION AIN'T HAPPENING YET
The Xenosaga series seems forgotten in some parts. Monolith Soft and director Tetsuya Takahashi moved on to making the Xenoblade titles under Nintendo's eye, and the only companies that remember the older games are the ones making figures of Xenosaga's sexbot-in-chief, KOS-MOS. Yet fans still nurse hopes for a Xenosaga HD Collection along the lines of the Devil May Cry HD Collection and the Silent Hill…well, not so much the Silent Hill HD Collection. Perhaps such an anthology would have a cutscene viewer for those who want to skip the gameplay parts, though I actually liked the play mechanics for most of the series.

Well, a Xenosaga reissue might have a better chance than we suspected. Tekken producer Katsuhiro Harada addressed the idea on Twitter, stating that he had looked into a Xenosaga HD Collection shortly after Project X Zone appeared localized on the 3DS. A collection looked unfeasible at the time, and Harada maintains that he needs “voices from many fans,” and not a smaller cadre of fans each vowing to buy a hundred copies, if Xenosaga is to return. Even if “several tens of thousands” of fans sign up, it's still up to Namco to decide. While this makes Xenosaga HD Collection a healthier pitch than, say, a Shadow Hearts HD Collection, Harada's remarks show that remastering the series demands a major commitment. For now, Xenosaga fans have to make do with yet another KOS-MOS action figure.

BOOK REVIEW: THE UNTOLD HISTORY OF JAPANESE GAME DEVELOPERS, VOLUME 1

Great stretches of Japan's game industry remain unexplored on the international stage. The rest of the world plays and enjoys Japanese games all the time, but we know so little about the subcultures that spawned them: Japan's computer market of the 1980s, the profusion of obscure titles never released overseas, and the many interconnected developers and publishers that rose (and often fell) without making much of a name outside of Japan. John Szczepaniak's Kickstarter-backed The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers may mark the first major attempt at filling the gap. It's not pretty, but it's a fine read for anyone who ever puzzled over the credits to a favorite Japanese game.

The first volume of Szczepaniak's Untold History is dense stuff, packing dozens of interviews into its 500 pages. The subjects range from fairly established names to some obscure figures. Most game nerds know of Mega Man stepfather Keiji Infanue and Ys composer Yuzo Koshiro, but what about Vanguard's Tomonori Sugiyama, whose work ranges from debugging the original Dragon Quest to design duties on Lunar 2: Eternal Blue and Grandia? Or Masaaki Kukino, who helped create Silent Scope, the recent King of Fighters titles, and a never-finished Konami fighting game that featured gorgons, centaurs, and Buddhist deities?

Rather than keep a theme running, the interviews delve into their subjects' backgrounds. We learn just how they came into the game industry, what they saw, and just what it was like working at a small developer or a major company. An extensive chat with programmer and author Toru Hidaka digs through Enix's history, the evolution of programming, and PC-8801 games from the controversial Eldorado Denki to the groundbreaking action-RPG Gandhara. Mitchell Corporation owner Roy Ozaki rants about Nintendo of America, lawsuits, and the company's much-copied Puzz Loop. Suikoden creator Yoshitaka Murayama discusses the inspiration for the series, while a composite interview with translators Jeremy Blaustein, Casey Loe, and Nick Des Barres explains the arduous localization of the second Suikoden. Katsuyoshi Eguichi of From Yellow to Orange recalls the maverick career of the recently deceased Kenji Eno. Koji Yokota's interview winds through his early days working on Valis and Exile and Gaiares at Telenet Japan, touching up Ys III at Falcom, creating the final boss in Lunar 2 at Game Arts, and then helping crafting the look of Quintet's memorable and downbeat action-RPGs (and the cuter Robotrek). He also discusses the roots of his own company, Shade, his experiences pitching his Granstream Saga RPG to both Sega and Sony, and his take on Quintet's mysterious downfall.

Of course, most of The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers plays to the truly devoted geek. It's for the people who've imported old RPGs, the people who've picked out their favorite game composers, the people who've wondered why Legacy of the Wizard says “Quintet” on the title screen even though Quintet didn't exist yet as a developer (answer: it's just a reference to the five playable characters). Those people will find a remarkable trove of details in the book. Szczepaniak asks all sorts of obscure questions along with his broader inquiries, whether the subject is early MSX platformers or the current shooter market, and he decorates the interviews with sketches, screenshots, and even the occasional company office map. He also remains constantly on the lookout for unreleased games and canceled projects, and he uncovers details about Strider creator Koichi Yotsui's unused game pitches, Taito's Bujingai 2, and other never-made titles. He even gets some new information about Bounty Arms, a lost PlayStation game near and dear to me.

Even those who aren't thickly mired in Japan's game lore will find a few nuggets of interest. If you don't care too much about the game catalog of Data West, you might enjoy the talk with Keiji Inafune or the feature on visual novel authors Ryukishi07 and Kotaro Uchikoshi. Some fans might grab the book just for Szczepaniak's long interview with Zun, the reclusive creator of the rampantly popular Touhou Project shooters.

The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers is basic in its layouts, with double-column pages and black-and-white photos that make the whole thing feel like a low-budget textbook. Yet we're not paying for a pretty surface (though the higher-tier Kickstarter books have nice covers from Hitoshi Yoneda, Jonathan “Persona” Kim, and Army of Trolls). We're paying for a look at corners of the Japanese game industry that Westerners rarely bother to inspect.

In that light, Szczepaniak almost includes too much information. I appreciate his one-page tributes to departed game-industry figures, but the interviews often run into cute but negligible interjections and other snippets that magazines and websites likely would edit out. Still, that makes the book even more striking in its depth of information. Many publications would interview Yoshiro Kimura about Chulip, Rule of Rose, and the games of Love-de-Lic, but how many of them would show his homemade board game about heroic potatoes? Not many, I'd say.

It's a shame that an ugly cloud hangs around The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers. Well before the book's release, an online tiff erupted between Szczepaniak and two of the project's translators, Hanako Abe and her sister Agness Kaku. Their feud swiftly took on drastic proportions: Kaku and her family started a blog detailing their side of story, Szczepaniak regularly airs complaints about them on his Kickstarter page, and both parties are headed to court in November. Szczepaniak mentioned little of this in the actual book (aside from a vague reference to “sabotage”), yet it may affect future volumes of this Untold History.

Yes, this is just the first intended piece of The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers. Szczepaniak promises a second book regularly in the first one, teasing interviews with Steambot Chronicles creator Kazuma Kujo, Final Fantasy director Takashi Tokita, and an employee from the notorious Zain Soft. I hope we see it. Legal squabbles may overshadow the book, but any properly entrenched game geek will find its stories too important to ignore.

The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers is available on Amazon, and there's an accompanying DVD set with additional interviews.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

ARCANA HEART 3 LOVE MAX!!!!!
Developer: Examu
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platform: PlayStation 3, PS Vita
Release Date: September 23
Worst Arcana: That boring Super NES dungeon-crawler
MSRP: $39.99

Arcana Heart 3 LOVE MAX!!!!! demands five exclamation points. It needs them to remind us that this is an expanded version of Arcana Heart 3, and this touched-up fighting game has extra stages, new moves, broader plotlines, and other slight improvements. So scream the title as loud as punctuation demands.

In all its forms, Arcana Heart lands directly in the beating core of the “moe” cute-girl motif that sustains a modest chunk of Japan's game market. The backstory concerns dimensional breaches and international power struggles that literally threaten to sink Japan into the ocean, but it invariably comes down to teenage girls in martial combat. So the roster goes from plucky student Heart Aino to refined Swedish plutocrat Petra Lagerkvist, from bat-winged rollerblader Lilica Felchenerow to caped and dog-eared ninja Akane Inuwaka, from the downright creepy blob-riding girl genius Kira Daidohji to the conventionally top-heavy Chinese android Mei Fang. European fans of Arcana Heart and general game-industry excess may remember Mei Fang as the subject of the Arcana Heart 3 Special Edition's “Super 3-D Boobie Mousemat.” That sums up Arcana Heart well.

Whether they own the Mei Fang mousepad or not, Arcana Heart fans will point out that the series has complex mechanics below its surface. The characters all have extensive reserves of special moves, combo attacks, air recoveries, back-dashes, wall bounces, and other things that make for a competitive fighter. Players also use a specific button for homing in on an opponent, though there's always some risk (and special-meter use) involved when fighters rapidly close the gap or chain their regular moves into homing attacks. Characters select one of over twenty different Arcana abilities, and the ensuing combinations grant different special moves and defensive techniques. There's a lot for series fans and unabashed newcomers to digest, and those devoted followers may be relieved to find that, unlike the vanilla Arcana Heart 3, LOVE MAXX!!!!! will get a retail release here. So it'll fit right next to that mousepad.

AR NOSURGE: ODE TO AN UNBORN STAR
Developer: Gust
Publisher: Tecmo Koei/NIS America
Platform: PlayStation 3
Release Date: September 23
Cas' Real Name: Casty (get it?)
MSRP: $49.99 (regular edition), $64.99 (already-sold-out special edition)

Gust's Ar Tonelico series never really went away. Like a politician hitting term limits, the RPG series found a way to slink back into the machine. After completing Ar Tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel, developer Gust quietly moved on to the episodic Vita game Ciel nosurge. It had players following an amnesiac girl named Ion in a soon-to-be-destroyed world, and it relied on conversations and imagery instead of RPG flow. North America won't see Ciel nosurge, but it will see the suggestive, full-fledged RPG sequel, Ar nosurge: Ode to an Unborn Star.

Having apparently learned a lesson from the limited interactions of Ciel nosurge, Ar nosurge unfolds much like the most recent Ar Tonelico in tone and gameplay. Characters explore futuristic architecture and mundane forests, and battles see a male warrior hewing at enemies while a female spellcaster chants her magic. The melee fighter is effectively invulnerable, but the songstress isn't—so battles revolve around defending her while building up a Harmo attack meter and calling in allies for temporary help. The story has two leading couples: swordsman Delta and mage Cas are out to recover a song capable of driving machines mad, while the inventor Ion and her robot bodyguard Earthes seek to escape the mysterious doomed realm which players saw in Ciel nosurge. Ion isn't the only guest from that game, and various other characters and background details tie into the Ar Tonelico expanse that Gust and creator Akira Tsuchiya are building.

Ciel nosurge also upholds the Ar Tonelico tradition of bonding with female characters—sometimes in relevant ways, and sometimes not. Players can dive into the psychic landscapes, or Geometrics, of major characters, and there the game brings up a simplified map and the chatty progression of a visual novel. Characters also undergo Purification rites at hot springs, stripping down to swimwear and installing energy crystals on various parts of their bodies. In this regard, Ar nosurge may make the most famous scene of the original Ar Tonelico seem mild and innocent.

HYRULE WARRIORS
Developer: Omega Force/Team Ninja/Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Wii U
Release Date: September 26
Most Wanted Character: The Bucket Mouse
MSRP: $59.99

In one sense, Hyrule Warriors is a seat-filler. It's there to sit in the audience of Wii U releases until a real The Legend of Zelda game comes along with dungeons and puzzles and intrusive tutorials. Hyrule Warriors is just a brawler, a battleground action game in the style of Dynasty Warriors—and made by the developer of Dynasty Warriors, at that.

In another sense, Hyrule Warriors is the perfectly pandering Zelda creation that some series fans always wanted. It takes care of one recurring annoyance in proper Zelda games: with rare exceptions, you're stuck playing as Link. The Hyrule Warriors roster has Link, true, but he's joined by sleeker versions of the recurring Impa, Princess Zelda, and Ganondorf, plus Midna, Zant, and Agitha from Twilight Princess; Sheik, Darunia, and Ruto from Ocarina of Time; and Fi and Ghirahim from Skyward Sword. And for the obligatory all-new character, we have a blue-haired sorceress named Lana. All of them are locked in a struggle with an evil mage named Cia, and she commands an army brimming with familiar Zelda creatures.

Hyrule Warriors busies itself with the usual Dynasty Warriors tasks. As they roam battlefields, the characters track down enemy commanders, protect valuable points, and take out larger creatures. In between this, they'll hack through immense clusters of foes, and the game threads along new attacks, upgrades, and traditional Zelda tools. It hides few of its Dynasty Warriors inspirations in its co-op play (with the Wii U touch-screen) and mechanical mid-battle dialogue, but Hyrule Warriors clearly has its heritage in mind, stretching from the Death Mountain and Skyloft stages to the jingle that accompanies each treasure chest. Will it be enough for the Zelda followers?

ALSO AVAILABLE:
How strange that Microsoft consigned the new Killer Instinct to a weird pseudo-digital release last year, considering that it was the biggest surprise of the Xbox One's early lineup. Well, that's no longer a problem. The retail Killer Instinct Combo Breaker Pack has all eight Season One characters and a download code for Season Two's TJ Combo. And you can stick it on your shelf to prove that, like it or not, Killer Instinct is back. Now we need only wait for BloodStorm's grand return.


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


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