The X Button - Go Westone

by Todd Ciolek,

This week's column has a lot to do with those talented studios, designers, and characters who labor behind the scenes. For example, the upcoming Terra Battle may bring in Manabu Kusunoki, whose artwork you may have enjoyed in Panzer Dragoon and Sonic the Hedgehog. We also have a little news about Nintendo's Captain Toad game, which gives the spotlight to a character (or a derivative thereof) who hasn't had a starring role since Wario's Woods, if that one even counts. And then we have a tribute to the recently bankrupted Westone, which played a subtle part in the childhood pastimes of the NES generation.

Westone is best known for the intricately connected Wonder Boy and Monster World games, none of which ever came to the NES. Yet Westone was there in the background. Hudson Soft acquired the rights to Westone's first Wonder Boy game and used it to launch the Adventure Island series, which became a cornerstone of the Hudson catalog. Westone also worked uncredited on a less popular staple of the NES: Jaws. It's not quite as awful as some other movie cash-ins from publisher LJN, but it lacks variety, impact, and any scenes of a roaring shark being impaled while Michael Caine misses the Oscars and buys a house.

There are better reasons to remember Westone. I'll get to them, but I wanted to point out Jaws. It may have been the first Westone game that some of us ever played, and we had no way of knowing it. That was perhaps for the best. With Jaws looming in our memories, we might have shunned anything else its creators had to offer.

NEWS

VIB RIBBON AND STRIDER 2 BELATEDLY ARRIVE ON THE PSN
I enjoy it when old games arrive on the PlayStation Network. Sometimes it's an opportunity to appreciate a title without digging up the original and probably expensive disc, and at other times it sheds new light on rare games denied a fair shot in the PlayStation heyday. The former case accounts for Strider 2, the latter describes Vib Ribbon, and both of them appeared on the PSN this Tuesday.

Sony's E3 showing put Vib Ribbon briefly into the spotlight when Sony Computer Entertainment America president Shawn Layden mentioned it and then segued into a new Mortal Kombat. It cruelly hinted that Sony might release Vib Ribbon in North America at long last, but nothing emerged. The game, a marvelous wireframe platformer that generates levels from music CDs, saw release in Europe and Japan back in the day, but Sony appeared to deny it once again. Well, Layden made amends this week by announcing Vib Ribbon's launch on the domestic PSN. Nab it if you can. It's a delight from the same inventive ground that gave us Parappa the Rapper and Umjammer Lammy, and I didn't notice any of the input lag that sometimes affect old rhythm games on new TVs.

Strider 2's PlayStation Network arrival is overdue in a different sense. The game arrived here in 2000, but Capcom was slow to add it to the PSN in North America, even when it could've fed into the new Strider's debut this February. Strider 2 is a curious step in the series, anyway. It has gorgeous artwork, a thunderous score, nice sprite graphics against polygon backgrounds, and gameplay that almost, almost gets there. Something seems just a little off throughout the game. Is it the clipped pacing? The way the endless on-the-spot continues destroy any challenge? The lack of polyglot dialogue and robot dinosaurs? Whatever the answer, it turns out a flawed yet intriguing showpiece for Strider fans.

TERRA BATTLE'S DEBUT IMMINENT, FREE
Terra Battle is not the momentous rebirth of Mistwalker, the studio founded by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. It's a smartphone game instead of a bursting, melodramatic RPG like Lost Odyssey or The Last Story, and its battles are basic grids where character icons arrange themselves and bump around to simulate tense combat. Yet there's potential within that framework, with combo attacks and branching jobs available to the players. Perhaps it'll turn out like Final Fantasy VIII's Triple Triad.

Traces of RPG grandeur emerge in Terra Battle. Nobuo Uematsu's soundtrack seems just as spirited and pounding as his Final Fantasy themes, and much of the art comes from Kimihiko Fujisaka of The Last Story and the Drakengard series. Mistwalker also set up stretch goals for the game: if enough players nab the free basic version of Terra Battle on iOS and Android, we'll see a strategy guide, a soundtrack, an artbook, a scenario by Yasumi Matsuno, a boss based on Sakaguchi himself, and characters designed by Yoshitaka Amano, Hideo Minaba, Nakaba Suzuki, Manabu Kusunoki, Naoto Oshima, and others. For now, though, I'm just glad to see more Fujisaka art.

NINTENDO CONFIRMS CAPTAIN TOAD RELEASE DATE, PLUCKINESS
It's not particularly notable when Nintendo confirms release dates, but here we speak of Captain Toad's Treasure Tracker. It's an expansion of the Captain Toad mini-games from Super Mario 3D World, and it stars a Nintendo mainstay who doesn't get the spotlight very often. Captain Toad explores multi-sided levels stocked with secrets and recognizable Mario enemies, and he defends himself by tossing vegetables, wielding a pickaxe, moving things around, and shrieking in a voice that's somewhere between a sugared-up preschooler and a hungry magpie.

Captain Toad's Treasure Tracker will be out in North America on December 5, not so long after the Wii U version of Super Smash Bros. arrives on November 21. Super Smash Bros. is clearly Nintendo's heavy hitter for the holiday season, along with its line of interactive Amiibo figures. Yet Captain Toad may be the unexpected standout of Nintendo's lineup. It's just forty bucks, and it'll support those Amiibo things in its own way. So yes, Captain Toad. The hot seller of the holidays. The one that'll drive parents bonkers as they try to find even second-hand copies. Calling it now.

IN RETROSPECT: WESTONE

Westone Bit Entertainment's catalog may not look like much when dispassionately listed. As a developer, Westone made side-scrolling adventures with generic names like Wonder Boy in Monster Land at a time when everyone made that sort of thing. They made a brawler much like Final Fight not long after Final Fight became the arcade standard. They made arcade shooters, mecha action games, and cartoony animal-mascot platformers when those genres were in vogue, and they faded into the background around the turn of the century. Yet Westone had something that few developers could claim: a knack for bright, charming creations that stayed with players after many other games fell out of memory.

Westone started off in 1986 with a hit: an unpretentious and challenging arcade game called Wonder Boy. It's an amusing chunk of mid-1980s simplicity, a solid also-ran from an era when half the industry aped the run-and-jump mechanics of Super Mario Bros. Wonder Boy (left) still has its basic appeal today, and it was a success on two fronts. Sega brought the game to arcades and published it for the Sega Master System, while Hudson licensed Wonder Boy's gameplay and turned it into the Adventure Island series (right). In the process, the main character went from a blond kid in a leaf loincloth to the capped Takahashi Meijin, Hudson's real-life game expert. Hudson rolled out their remixed game in the West with Meijin renamed Master Higgins, and Adventure Island sequels rolled on through the NES, the Game Boy, the Super NES, and into more recent remakes and classic reissues.

As Hudson took Adventure Island to new places, Wonder Boy walked his own path. Having ditched their original name of Escape, Westone took on a portmanteau of its founders' family names. And with this change came a shift in design. Launched in arcades in 1987, Wonder Boy in Monster Land mixed some RPG pieces into a side-scrolling action game. This new Wonder Boy moved slower, but he carried a sword, upgraded his weapons and armor, and explored a more complex fantasy world of hidden treasures and unexpectedly high-tech dragon bosses.

Wonder Boy in Monster Land (above) went all over, appearing on the Sega Master System, the PC Engine, the Amiga, the Commodore 64, and other platforms. Some versions were weak, but at its best Monster Land showed Westone's first evidence of going beyond just solid gameplay. Wonder Boy's world is typical cartoon fantasy stuff, yet little touches spring up here and there: the shops are run by grumpy dragons and smoking pigs, and every foe has its own brief death animation before it blinks into nothing.

The Wonder Boy series now embraced both action games and more thoughtful RPG-themed design. Westone went complex with Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap (above) for the Sega Master System in 1989, opening with scenes of a powered-up Wonder Boy storming the Mecha Dragon's castle and thus recreating the previous game's final stage. The defeated dragon curses the hero with a scaly form, who then wanders branching levels and assumes different animal guises. It's an inventive take on the explorative Metroid formula, as new creature incarnations lead Wonder Boy to new areas, and it's sewn up with Westone's typically appealing beasties and animations.

The same year brought Wonder Boy back to arcades with Monster Lair, also known as Wonder Boy III. True to its native environment, the game keeps things simple: the heroes jump and shoot through forced-scrolling stages, and the game breaks into flying shooter levels for boss encounters. It's far shorter than the console Wonder Boy III's complex maze, though the two-player mode added some amusing sights (and characters could ride on each others' heads). Despite its focus on arcade novelty, Monster Lair came to home consoles; the Sega Genesis version skipped North America, but the TurboGrafx-16 port and its enhanced music became bright points for the system's struggling CD library.

The confusing nomenclature of Wonder Boy continued with Wonder Boy V: Monster World III—or Wonder Boy in Monster World, as it was mercifully dubbed in Western markets. An original creation for the Sega Genesis and other consoles, the game followed The Dragon's Trap closer than any other Westone work. It sends a hero named Shion through a typical quest of talking to villagers, retrieving trinkets, and defeating monsters many times his size. If it lacks the shapeshifting approach of its predecessor, Wonder Boy in Monster World brought Westone's expert craftsmanship and adorable details to new heights. A sphinx boss quizzes Shion about the game's previous events, a fairy sidekick whacks enemies to provide a momentary distraction, and the whole thing has an endearing tone far better than you would expect from a game with such a bland title.

Westone ventured into unrelated games after Wonder Boy in Monster Land, but 1994 saw them end the whole series on a spectacular note. Monster World IV, available only on the Sega Genesis, dispenses with several Wonder Boy themes. The lead is a green-haired girl named Asha, and the world around her resembles an Arabian fantasy more than the fairy-tale realms of previous Monster Worlds. Asha uncovers secrets and legends in her quest, but her finest discovery is a floating blue critter called a Pepelogoo. Half Totoro and half Haro, Pepe is the precious center of Monster World IV's gameplay.

Monster World IV has its predecessors' solid foundations for an action-RPG, yet it's the duo of Asha and Pepe that turns the game into Westone's triumph. Pepe proves a highly versatile creature, capable of shielding Asha from magma storms, pressing far-away switches, or fishing her out of a fierce undertow. Both he and Asha are animated with remarkable style, whether Pepe's shaking himself off after a dip or Asha's tugging open a treasure chest. Few would see this outside of Japan, though. Sega had released prior Monster World games in the West, but passed on bringing over the fourth and final one. And so North America missed one of the best action-RPGs around.

Westone was not confined to the Monster World series. They tried for another arcade breakthrough with Aurail, a 1991 mecha shooter. It guides a legged tank through overhead-view levels much of the time, but the game switches to impressive first-person tunnels that separate stages. Aurail lacks a strafe option and shows only a few scraps of that Monster World charm, yet it's a capable shooter that all but screams “port me to the Sega Genesis.” That would never happen, though, and Aurail would stay an arcade obscurity.

The most surprising discovery in Westone's catalog may be Dark Half. In contrast to the cheerful overtures of Wonder Boy and Monster World, Dark Half is an overpoweringly bleak RPG where the player controls both a fantasy hero and the merciless demon overlord he's out to slay. It rarely feels like a traditional Westone creation; within the first ten minutes, you're leading the dark ruler around and turning innocent villagers into soulless skeletal remains. Still, it's a creative treatment of the light-dark dynamic so often accepted by RPGs, and Enix's hand makes it a fine companion to the similarly Manichean themes of Quintet's Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma.

Westone also tried out brawlers, a staple of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their attempt is a TurboGrafx-16 CD and arcade outing called Riot Zone (a.k.a. Riot City and Crest of Wolf), a sturdy but routine chronicle of two rugged heroes liberating a city and rescuing a girl. Westone returned to the system for the import-only Blood Gear, which told a Gundam-esque tale in both side-scrolling levels and RPG-like mecha customization. And like any sensible developer, Westone had no qualms about making licensed games. The studio worked on adaptations of Evangelion, Mashin Eiyuden Wataru, Aoi Blink, and semi-popular simulations like Princess Maker and Graduation. In one of Westone's less proud moments, they helped Atlus with Jaws for the NES.

Westone's last attempt at a major hit came with Willy Wombat. Published by Hudson Soft, the game featured 3-D stages, rendered graphics, and an animal-superhero star. It arrived on the Sega Saturn in 1997, just when every publisher foisted a Crash Bandicoot imitation or Sonic rip-off on the market. Willy Wombat wanted a slice of that pie. The game's text may be in Japanese, but the English voice acting and cartoony Susumu Matsushita artwork make it ripe for toys, lunchboxes, and Saturday morning timeslots across North America. It wasn't to be. Both Hudson and the Saturn itself had limited reach in Western markets, and Willy stayed exclusive to Japan.

Yet it's the Monster World series that defined Westone, even as they gracefully ended it in 1994 and spent the next 20 years drifting into licensed games and commercial software. The Sega Ages line revived many classic games on the PlayStation 2, and Westone's Monster World and Wonder Boy titles enjoyed a compilation in 2007. It didn't come to North America, but another package awaited. In 2012, Sega and M2 bundled Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Wonder Boy in Monster World, and an English version of Monster World IV in exquisitely remastered form. The collection hit Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network, with the localized Monster World IV reaching the Wii's Virtual Console. It's the best way to experience Westone's panache.

It's true that Westone, now known as Westone Bit Entertainment, made few notable games in the past decade. Yet they seemed on the verge of revival: the Sega Vintage Collection of Monster World brought about new interest in the series and a new Facebook page for Westone. It also led company co-founder Ryuichi Nishizawa to a momentous discovery.

In 1993 Westone location-tested an arcade game called Aquario of the Clockwork—a bright, happy thing where three players threw enemies and each other while jumping across side-scrolling levels. It has Westone's gift for colorful graphics and large bosses. More importantly, it has a chubby robot named Gash who balloons up like a blowfish when chucked across the screen. It came right in the middle of the fighting-game boom, and feedback was so slight that Westone canceled the game. However, a 2012 interview with Hardcore Gaming 101 inspired Nishizawa to look through old company files, and he came up with Aquario's source code.

It's a shame that Aquario may be lost once again. According to Hardcore Gaming 101's founder, Nishizawa couldn't extract a playable game from the code, and the only recourse is to find a rare arcade board from Aquario's location test. That won't be cheap or easy with Westone's current stage. The company declared bankruptcy on the first of October, and their website is already a dead end.

Will Westone bounce back? There's always a chance. Monster World IV's last scene brings up Asha's genie sidekick to announce the end of the Monster World line, though he adds a coy “Or is it?” It's as firm a farewell as a video-game series ever got, and it's a good way to remember the talented people at Westone. They knew how to create happy, memorable games in an industry that's all too often just twee or bland or deliberately joyless.

And they knew how to say goodbye.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

THE EVIL WITHIN
Developer: Tango Gameworks
Publisher: Bethesda
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release Date: October 14
Scariest Inhumanoid: Tendril
MSRP: $59.99

Shinji Mikami is not content with today's survival-horror games. He finds them too close to action movies and their slick power fantasies, and he's said so during interviews about his new game, The Evil Within. He has a point. Mikami's original Resident Evil, the one that gave survival horror its name, had a well-tempered desperation to it despite the legendary hokum of the voice acting. The limited weapons and awkward controls left the player outmatched—even when toting a grenade launcher, you were still one near miss or nasty surprise away from the YOU ARE DEAD screen. Present-day horror games seek that powerful powerlessness far less often. Outside of the Silent Hill series, the genre favors gore and gunfights over shocks. Even the excellent Resident Evil 4 prefers it that way.

The Evil Within walks a more fragile edge. In the midst of investigating a killing spree at an asylum, detective Sebastian Castellanos lands in a horrific world of barbed-wire zombies, soiled steel dungeons, misshapen lunatics, and hallucinations rampant enough to suggest that he's the crazy one. The Evil Within doesn't go for subtlety; Castellanos' first escape has him snatching a knife from a meathooked corpse and limping through a room of whirling thresher blades while a bellowing maniac with a chainsaw lurks behind him. Yet it doesn't overload the player in response. Available weapons range from knives to shotguns to low-grade explosives, but Mikami promises there'll be no rocket launchers or heavy machine guns. At most, Castellanos gets a crossbow with customized bolts.

It's all part of The Evil Within's search for base horror. It wants that panicked moment where you let an undead monstrosity shamble toward you, waiting for the right distance so the three rounds left in your unremarkable handgun can't miss, and just before the last shot the thing jumps at you, and it's there snapping gouts from your neck as you mash desperately at the controller. Will the game find that? Well, at least Mikami knows what he's after.

SENRAN KAGURA: SHINOVI VERSUS
Developer: Marvelous AQL
Publisher: XSEED Games
Platform: PS Vita
Release Date: October 14
Shinovi: A Shinobi on the Vita! Duh!
MSRP: $49.99 (Special Edition)

Senran Kagura has exactly the reputation it wants. It's a series that announced the European release of Senran Kagura Burst as though it were a porn mag, to be hidden from parents and discreetly requested in stores. But why should anyone be ashamed of Senran Kagura? It's just a line of action games about ninja girls who fill the screen with their enormous wobbling breasts and cries of embarrassment! Such prudes the Europeans are!

There's something almost admirable about the undiluted honesty of Senran Kagura and its producer, Kenichiro Takaki, whose ethos of game design crystalized in his Twitter post “Tits are life, ass is hometown.” Senran Kagura's feuding shinobi women bash through waves of enemy ninja, summon up ridiculous attacks, and invariably lose their clothes in the thick of battle. When that happens, the player gets close-ups of their delicate areas as they shriek and mewl and gasp in surprise. Senran Kagura hides its true nature no more than those fragile outfits hide the characters' ridiculous proportions.

Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus isn't just a game about degrading borderline-naked ninja women (that'd be the cooking spin-off, due out later this year). It's still a brawler, so the characters run about playfields littered with dimwit enemies and thrash them with extensive combos. There's a sense of innocuous absurdity paired with the misogynistic overtures; the shinobi may lose their clothes and shove scrolls into their cleavage, but they'll also unleash giant squids and throw lion statues and sprout magical crow wings. This is a game where a ninja sniper dons a mechanical backpack that launches an enormous composite missile…and gropes her.

Shinovi Versus builds on the original Burst and its shortcomings. The gameplay benefits from larger fields and a character-tracking perspective, looking much more dynamic than the limited view of the 3DS game. And it adds another ten ninja from two new academies, ranging from the Grim Reaper cosplayer Shiki to the shy, mask-wearing Murakumo and the tellingly named Ryona (who wields four handguns at once and likes being humiliated). They join the two warring factions of the original, led by series heroine Asuka and her katana-festooned rival Homura. They're sorta friends on the side, like a busty ninja chick version of those Sam and Ralph cartoons.

Senran Kagura fans can take heart that their filth grows more popular on these shores. While Burst slunk out in North America as a digital release, Shinovi Versus will arrive with a soundtrack and artbook packed into a special edition that you can request at your local game shop. Why let Europe's fans hoard the shame?

TEARS TO TIARA II: HEIR OF THE OVERLORD
Developer: Leaf/Aquaplus
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: PlayStation 3
Release Date: October 14
Tears: As in crying, not rending
MSRP: $39.99

Tears to Tiara is one of those anime-styled RPGs with deep and somewhat prurient roots. The original game was an adults-only strategy title, released on Japanese PCs back in 2005. As these things often do, it found its way into a sanitized version for wider audiences, and both the PlayStation 3 and PSP got Tears to Tiara ports. The first game never came West, but its offspring did: the anime series arrived here with a distant thud a few years ago, and the fighting game Aquapazza: Aquaplus Dream Match pulled in several characters from Tears to Tiara. So you might've played Tears to Tiara without actually realizing it.

The sequel lands in the same world as the first Tears to Tiara, but the cast is mostly new. It begins in the subjugated land of Hispania, a holding of the Divine Empire. There, a young laborer named Hamil meets all of the heroic requirements of a Missing Heir, as described in Diana Wynne Jones' The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: he's the lost heir of a dethroned royal family, and only the intercession of a girl named Tarte and her claims of goddess-hood drive him toward his destiny. Soon he's gathering allies and fomenting rebellion all across the land of…of...hey, that's a map of Europe! And Tears to Tiara II didn't even flip it upside down like Drakengard did!

As Hamil and his companion explore this strange new land, they wage battles on strategic grids. Aside from the usual positioning and combination attacks, characters play off something called the Element Cycle to determine just who has the advantage in combat. Players can also rewind their actions to escape errors, and their armies include an elephant chariot for that Carthaginian touch. When not in battle, characters craft items and have lively and lengthy conversations that strengthen their bonds, sometimes to the point of romance. Well, T-rated romance at any rate.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
Last year's Pac-Man and Ghostly Adventures was a simple 3-D platformer based on the new Pac-Man series, and Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures 2 has much the same idea as it finds Pac-Man tube-racing, sky-surfing, turning into a giant version of himself, and saying such marketable phrases as “Time to power-up!” It's out for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC, and 3DS.

This being October, you can pick up The Walking Dead: Season 2, the new collection of the Telltale-made episodic adventure game that some (or perhaps just me) like better than the TV series. It's available on just about everything except the Wii U and 3DS. Meanwhile, a cute indie platformer called The Legend of Dark Witch arrives on the 3DS eShop. Not that we'd rush the Halloween season or anything.


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


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