The X Button
All Day Long

by Todd Ciolek,

October means Halloween, and I think Halloween means contests. So here's your chance to win a pile of appropriately scary, bizarre, and otherwise unsettling games!

This Halloween prize pack includes the classic PSP compilation of Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles, the gruesome Drakengard 3 and the gory Yakuza: Dead Souls for the PlayStation 3, and the generally foreboding Tengai Makyo IV for the Japanese Sega Saturn (it starts with kids exploring a haunted house in fantasy-anime New Orleans and only gets weirder from there). The centerpiece of this Halloween collection? It's one the scariest games ever made: Fester's Quest for the NES!

How do you win? Just describe your most frightening video-game experience and send it to me. That's all there is to it! Well, that and a few extra rules.

-Entries should be 300 words or less. The format is up to you: essay, short story, poem, song lyrics, etc.

-Your entry doesn't necessarily have to involve playing a video game. Maybe you were almost crushed by an avalanche of unsold Arcus Odyssey cartridges as a child. However, it should feature games in some way.

-Anyone can enter except for anime-industry people and professional writers. However, I'd suggest that winners of this year's other X Button contests abstain from jumping into another one so soon.

-One entry per person and all that.

Entries are due to me (toddciolek at gmail.com) by the stroke of midnight on Sunday, October 26. That should give you ample time to dredge up embarrassing memories!

NEWS

PLAYSTATION TV ARRIVES, LOOKS SMALL
The PlayStation TV is an intriguing little system. For one thing, it's probably the tiniest game console that isn't some obscure bootleg. Just look at that thing. It's smaller than the controller!

Of course, the important thing is that the PlayStation TV is an affordable, pocket-sized, pill-shaped vehicle for the PlayStation Network. It uses regular PlayStation controllers, it can stream PlayStation 4 games through Remote Play, and it runs a lot of titles from the Vita, PSP, and PlayStation One Classics line. It acquires them through PlayStation Network downloads, and there's a slot on the side for Vita cartridges.

Problems arise, though. The PlayStation TV's $99.99 base price doesn't include a controller or memory card, so you'll have to use your PS3 and PS4 pads (or buy a bundle). I wonder how well it'll do among those who already own a PlayStation 3 or 4. It's a cheaper way to access the Vita library, true, but it doesn't support games that use the Vita's touch screen for essential input. That means no Gravity Rush. That means I'm sad.

GAMERGATE IS STILL TERRIBLE
Yes, Gamergate is still around. It began as an alleged scandal about developer Zoe Quinn's liaisons with Kotaku editors, and it grew into a mass of self-identified “gamers” claiming to demand stricter ethical standards among game creators, journalists, and publishers. Yet their accomplishments so far reflect little that's positive. Beneath the unintentionally hilarious label, the amorphous Gamergate cabal has badgered Intel into gutlessly pulling ads from Gamasutra over a column that dared insult the noble gamer. The Breitbart right-wing sewage station tried to whip up a fervor over game journalists discussing Gamergate's ills on a private forum, which housed only mild opinions and vague disdain for Gamergate harassers. And another woman in the game industry got death threats.

Brianna Wu, co-founder of indie studio Giant SpaceKat, left her home Saturday after receiving a barrage of threatening messages, the least profane of which is “If you have any kids, they're going to die too.” Gamergate supporters claim no involvement, but an 8chan user posted Wu's personal information in the thick of Gamergate discussion not long before the death threats arrived. The response among Gamergate adherents so far is a muddled blob of mockery, halfhearted condemnation, and agreement that Wu was asking for it. A similar response came when someone threatened a school shooting over Anita Sarkeesian speaking at Utah State University.

The same goes for news of Warner Bros. and Plaid Social Labs offering YouTube reviewers early access to Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor so long as they agreed to “promote positive sentiments about the game.” Gamergate's reaction was divided between those critical of the practice and those who saw no ethical contradictions in YouTube celebrities doing what Gamergate accuses the video-game press of practicing. Even those outraged showed noticeably less ire toward PR firms bribing critics than they did toward the heinous crime of Zoe Quinn dating Kotaku editors who never wrote about the game she made.

It's enough to make me wonder why any level-headed individual would associate with Gamergate. The movement, if a movement it was, is replete with misogyny, harassment, conservative toadies, and a directionless rancor that spills over into real-world threats of violence. To support Gamergate is to support the culture that abets all of that.

It's perfectly fine if you want to criticize the video-game industry and its attendant media. I certainly would, considering that game news sites have been slow to condemn Wu's harassment while mainstream venues like Vice, Deadspin, and The Guardian picked up on it. The video-game press seems either paralyzed by fear or shackled to the belief that there are two equal sides to the debate, even when one side helps drive people from their homes.

There's nothing wrong with pointing out problems with video games, complaining about a review, or calling for better coverage of what you think is important. But you don't need Gamergate to do that. You don't need Gamergate at all.

HARVEST MOON HAS A NEW WITCH, AND IT'S NOT BAYONETTA
In an attempt to steer the column toward innocent horizons, I will turn to Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley and its expanding lineup of characters. The Harvest Moon Wars find XSeed's Story of Seasons, a Harvest Moon game in everything but title, outdoing Natsume's internally made Harvest Moon in terms of characters who the player's avatar might marry. However, Natsume appears more active in promoting its potential spouses. The available women in The Lost Valley are the energetic Emily, the gentle April, and the spoiled Catherine. The men are the rebellious blacksmith Tony, the rhyme-talking bard Gilbert, and the just-announced farmer named…well, Hunter.

Hunter is a folksy steward of the land, and he seems to have a one-track mind when it comes to caring for animals. He also seems to be the most stable choice among the bachelors; Tony has problems with his family expectations and Gilbert's a bit evasive, but Hunter is the clean-living, no-nonsense type.

The Lost Valley also introduced its resident witch, a role which many previous Harvest Moon games required. Tabitha is a self-important little spellcaster who vacillates between helping the player and plying them with bizarre demands. She also nurses a one-dimensional rivalry with a wizard named Gareth. Will Tabitha and Gareth be marriage prospects as well? Natsume might reveal that before the game's November 4 release, but I'd prefer it to be a surprise.

I also find myself warming to the big-headed character models used for the dialogue scenes in The Lost Valley. They're ugly when compared to the illustrations seen in Story of Seasons, but there's a certain charm to the idea of bobblehead characters that change their expressions throughout conversations.

DOWNLOAD REVIEWS: A SHORT SACRED STRIKE

AZURE STRIKER GUNVOLT
Developer: Inti Creates
Publisher: Inti Creates
Platform: Nintendo 3DS (eshop)
MSRP: $14.99

It's all right if Azure Striker Gunvolt reminds you of Mega Man. That's the whole idea. Like the Kickstarter-fueled Mighty No. 9, Gunvolt calls upon the dormant spirit of Capcom's action series and grafts on some new anime accoutrements. The Gunvolt of the title is a hired rebel agent who takes on the corrupt Sumeragi Corporation by protecting a psychic named Joule and her virtual-singer persona, but his one-man rebellion can't escape the inevitable comparisons to Mega Man. To be exact, it eyes the same turf as Mega Man Zero, the compact and futuristic late-stage evolution of the series.

Yet Azure Striker Gunvolt stands on its own. Its hero has abilities on par with Mega Man: he fires low-damage shots from his Conductor Gun, he can't duck, and he leaps and shoots through stages full of mechanized forces. To this Gunvolt adds the Flashfield, a sphere of crackling energy that surrounds him and targets enemies within range. Tagging foes with Conductor fire delivers more Flashfield damage, and the electric shield also repels certain projectiles and gives Gunvolt just a little glide to his jumps. The game plays off the shield's limited meter, and each enemy encountered or puzzle navigated is a test of just how efficiently you can use the Flashfield and the momentary pause needed to recharge it.

Azure Striker Gunvolt's novel electricity makes up for numerous little flaws. While the game presents half a dozen selectable stages in Mega Man fashion, the levels use too many of the same enemies and patterns, whether the stage is an undersea base or one long train ride. The game challenges only with its major encounters, and it pulls the old recycled boss-rush maneuver in its last stages. Gunvolt also lacks Mega Man's expanding arsenal; the new upgrades he finds are mostly minor special moves, and the game's stingy with new items. The storyline makes little impact. Gunvolt, Joule, and their lineup of allies and enemies aren't that different from what you'll see in the latest anime series based on the latest kids' toy line. Still, the translation is pretty sharp, and Gunvolt is the rare game to employ the neutral pronouns of “Xe” and “Xem” for a bi-gender character.

No matter the minor annoyances, Gunvolt succeeds at refashioning familiar concepts into slick enjoyment. It's too repetitive for masterwork status, but its ideas deserve a tougher and more refined look—after all, Mega Man wasn't brilliant until his second game.

To further ingratiate Azure Striker Gunvolt among the nostalgic, Inti Creates throws in a bonus for anyone who buys the game before November 29. Mighty Gunvolt is a side-scroller styled just like an NES game, and it offers Gunvolt, Mighty No. 9's Beck, and Gal*Gun's Ekoro as playable characters. It's a short game, but by no means is it a lazy by-product. It's particularly neat when Ekoro's Cupid-like shots win enemies over to her side, and that's an idea I'd like to see explored just as much as the full-sized Azure Striker Gunvolt.

THE SACRED TEARS TRUE
Developer: Alpha Nutes
Publisher: Nyu Media
Platform: PC (Steam)
MSRP: $9.99

The Sacred Tears TRUE doesn't look like much. It has the same simple, sprite-built appearance you'll find in old-fashioned RPGs, be they actual 16-bit games, retro-themed smartphone offerings, or fan-made things with titles like Phinal Phantasy Star V: The Legend of Jason Finkmeyer. It follows the inept thief Seil and the more sensible mage Senna on rollicking little adventures. Seil is a slacker, Senna is exasperated with his bumbling, and they've been friends since childhood. There's a city to explore, a treasure to find, a thieves' guild to placate, and a wealth of RPG clichés to see along the way.

Well, there's something under that surface. For one thing, The Sacred Tears TRUE gets its battles right. Enemies are visible ahead of time, and players attack, dodge, defend and heal by selecting from a hand of cards. Those cards have different numerical values, and using them in a certain order may induce critical hits or counter attacks. It's a fast and intriguing system much better than the staid menu commands of similar new-as-old RPGs. I only wish the portraits didn't give so many characters the same face. It look me a moment to realize that half of them weren't the other half's long-lost siblings.

The Sacred Tears TRUE also packages its melodrama as episodes, presenting missions and vignettes with an appeal warmer than the usual save-the-world bravado. Players have some freedom in figuring out which chapters to uncover, and plot-free cases are available to those who just want to roam and grind levels. The overall storyline is adequately translated and nothing remarkable, but developer Alpha Nutes clearly loves the little details: the debris you can find all over town, the annoyed glance Senna gives Seil after battle, or the way a chapter's villain might be a crooked financial firm instead of some wicked sorcerer. Plus there's a character named Lufia. That counts for something.

If you hold no affinity for the Final Fantasies and Lunars and Dragon Quests of decades past, The Sacred Tears True will offer you no breakthroughs. Yet it's a refreshing, subtly clever standout among spritework RPGs, and it shames many of its allegedly grander rivals.

SHORT PEACE: RANKO TSUKIGIME'S LONGEST DAY
Developer: Crispy's
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Platform: PlayStation 3 (PSN)
MSRP: $39.99

The Short Peace omnibus is all about Japan, yet the animated portions avoid the modern day: Katsuhiro Otomo's Combustible, Hiroaki Ando's Gambo, and Shuhei Morita's Oscar-nominated Possessions all take place in centuries past, while Hajime Katoki's A Farewell to Weapons shows a parched, war-ravaged future Japan. So it falls to Ranko Tsukigime's Longest Day to encompass current-era Japan in all its stereotyped excess.

Consider its heroine. Ranko Tsukigime is an eyepatch-sporting schoolgirl who lives in a mechanized parking garage and works as a part-time assassin, sniping targets with a rifled violin and all the stylized, referential grandeur of a Quentin Tarantino setpiece. Much of the game has her dashing though side-view stages and slashing at enemies that set off chain reactions until the screen bursts with day-glo shrapnel and sound effects. Play it like a regular platformer and Ranko will be swallowed up by a wall of grabby noh masks or a giant Pomeranian. She has to keep moving as she leaps obstacles, slides under metal doors, or fires backwards to fend off the ever-encroaching tide of monstrosity. It's very much like the run-and-slash games found all over smartphones, though Ranko's odyssey offers occasional pips of creativity as it dabbles in flying shooters and boss battles. It's all familiar ground, and only the splattery bubblegum-colored chain combos set it apart. It may be the only game in Short Peace, but Ranko Tsukigime's Longest Day hits hardest with its cutscenes. The script is the work of Suda51, the half-brilliant, half-irritating jester of Japan's game industry, and it goes just about everywhere in its mockery of pop-anime staples: super-powered schoolgirls, sentai heroes, city-wrecking monsters, and incomprehensible mythological gibberish. Each interlude switches styles, ranging from conventional 3-D animation to manga panels to a surreal, watery look that recalls Masaki Yuasa. Ranko Tsukigime's adventure may not be particularly enticing to play, but it's something to be seen.

Unfortunately, Ranko Tsukigime's Longest Day is available only with the rest of Short Peace in a forty-dollar bundle, and at this writing Bandai Namco has no plans to release it separately. I suppose that preserves the cohesion of an omnibus film, but what about the folks who bought the Ranko-free retail version of Short Peace?

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

BAYONETTA 2
Developer: Platinum Games
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Wii U
Release Date: October 24
See Also: Millia Rage
MSRP: $59.99

The original Bayonetta held nothing back. Its heroine wore guns on her shoes, garbed herself in an outfit of her own hair, and summoned everything from guillotines to enormous feet when thrashing her equally gaudy angelic opponents. All of that paid off beautifully. It's still the tightest action game you can play, and it's hard to believe that a sequel took years to emerge.

Bayonetta's angels are monsters: armored, winged, multi-faced creatures closer to the fearsome conquerors of Enoch than any Sistine Chapel savior. They swarm all over the world in Bayonetta 2, leaving our heroine wounded and locked in a quest to rescue her fellow witch Jeanne from the depths of the underworld. She heads from ravaged cities to a secluded mountain nether-gate, and she fights just about everywhere. The demo alone has her demolishing angels atop a jet fighter as it hurls through skyscraper alleyways. Then she hops a train and races a monstrous komodo demon to the top of the tallest building they can find.

To handle all of this, Bayonetta retains the first game's immense arsenal. Basic attacks use her four handguns/footguns, whips, scythes, clubs, and Rakshasa swords in an impressive variety of combos, but these are meager in the face of her torture-device attacks and a glowing Umbran Climax mode that lets her hurl summoned demons and magical hair spells with abandon. Bayonetta rewards style as much as it does battle competence, grading players for taunting enemies before defeating them and constantly pushing things towards bigger and bigger sights. The sequel also offers a cooperative online two-player mode called Tag Climax, and head-to-head matches let players wager their own halo currency. There's even an upscaled version of the original game.

Bayonetta 2 won't be tasteful, of course. Bayonetta herself is still the same lanky pin-up brimming with provocative poses, a '90s comic book's sense of sexuality, and excuses to shed her skintight hair-clothes and transform them into a dragon's maw. Yet even in its vulgar extremes, Bayonetta 2 stands out.

FANTASY LIFE
Developer: Level-5
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: October 24
My Fantasy Life: Gamer Grub Farmer
MSRP: $39.99

It's easy to see Fantasy Life as a meaner version of Animal Crossing. You'll rarely harm anything among the colorful villages and friendly creatures of Animal Crossing, and that may leave some players longing for a game that pairs a similarly wide range with a more traditional vein of brutality. That's where Fantasy Life finds its niche.

Fantasy Life unfurls a happy medieval-fantasy world, somewhere between a Dragon Quest game and the Professor Layton version of Europe. The player's customized avatar can do just about anything the simulacrum offers: working as a blacksmith, laboring in a mine, building crafts, piloting airships, forging alchemic recipes, sewing outfits, captaining sea vessels, or just languishing around as royalty. Of course, a big part of the game casts you as an adventurer who wanders about slaying monsters, gathering treasures, and taking on missions that usually lead to more monster-slaying and treasure-gathering. Fantasy Life doesn't lock players into their professions, either. You're free to switch from one of the twelve Life classes to another whenever you like, and your chosen paths change the overall storyline.

For that Animal Crossing touch, Fantasy Life lets players decorate their own rooms with many different accessories and battle spoils. Players can join up over local wireless and online modes, and it's possible to give out items over StreetPass connections. Many Level-5 creations waver between charming and bland, and Fantasy Life very well might end up that way. But at least it'll have plenty of choices.

SAMURAI WARRIORS 4
Developer: Omega Force
Publisher: Tecmo Koei
Platform: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PS Vita
Release Date: October 21
Not Appearing: Gun-Do Musashi
MSRP: $59.99, $74.99 (special edition)

It may seem unfair that Samurai Warriors barely gets to four numbered games while its Dynasty Warriors cousin gets twice as many titles as well as bunch of Xtreme Legends expansions, but even the ravening locust swarm of Dynasty Warriors and its kin has limitations. Besides, this is the sixth Samurai Warriors offering if you count the Katana and Chronicles spin-offs. That should be enough for anyone.

Samurai Warriors 4 marks the first game in the series for the PlayStation 4, though it remains firmly in love with the idea of rampant, reckless, largely bloodless glory-hogging on the battlefields of feudal Japan. Players pick two characters and switch between them in the middle of combat, and a new Hyper Attack makes it easier to push back crowds of enemy soldiers or strike judiciously at a commander. Those hordes of low-level foes still provide most of the opposition in Samurai Warriors 4, and the game merely refines the whole idea with new story arcs, new weapons, and, of course, new characters. Nine more warriors swell the cast past 50 playable characters, and the additions range from the flail-wielding Yoshitsugu Otani to Lady Hayakawa and her assortment of lacrosse sticks. I'm beginning to suspect that Samurai Warriors 4 may not be historically accurate.

For those interested in the Samurai Warriors: Legends of the Sanada anime, the PlayStation 4 game's special set includes a Blu-Ray, plus a soundtrack, a costume pack for four characters, and a box to hold everything. Anime based on video games often has little appeal beyond its established fans, so perhaps Tecmo Koei is just saving the Samurai Warriors faithful the trouble of buying extra discs.

SHANTAE AND THE PIRATE'S CURSE
Developer: Wayforward/Inti Creates
Publisher: Wayforward
Platform: Nintendo 3DS (eShop)
Release Date: October 23
Crossover: Mighty Shantae
MSRP: $19.99

I will freely disclose my unshakeable fondness for the Shantae games. You could call them a bit too loose in control and a bit too insistent on making every female character a cartoon bombshell, but they're priceless adventures that keep alive the spirit of the Monster World series and other unpretentious charmers from decades ago. So it's a pleasure to see a Shantae sequel emerge with the same appeal as its predecessors and one major alteration to the gameplay.

Shantae and the Pirate's Curse finds both its half-genie protagonist and her greatest rival at ill fortunes. Shantae lost her genie abilities at the end of the previous game, and the dispersed magic fuels a rebellion among the underlings of pirate queen Risky Boots. So Shantae joins up with the ousted Risky and becomes a pirate. Atop her usual hair-whipping attacks, Shantae decks herself in pirate gear: a flintlock lets her shoot faraway objects, a hat becomes a parachute, boots make Shantae faster, and a saber…slashes things, like a saber should. Shantae's cute transformations from previous games apparently departed along with her magic, though I hope there's still a way to turn her into a capering little monkey.

Shantae and the Pirate's Curse spreads out in various directions, and discovering a new ability or trinket lets Shantae access previously impassable regions. The interconnected overworld feels more like Castlevania II or Wonder Boy III than a Metroid maze, and it's all furnished with WayForward's excellent artwork. The sprites breathe with wonderful little details, from the Ohmu-like carapace in a dungeon to the chugging tank that menaces Shantae in the game's first big battle. It's all the last chapter in the original Shantae series, but fans needn't worry—the Shantae: Half-Genie Hero reboot is already in the works.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
Pokemon Art Academy arrives for the 3DS, providing yet another way for Pokemon-loving children to extoll their favorite insidiously cute multimedia franchise. Like the previous Art Academy games, this Pokemon incarnation offers various techniques and Photoshop-like effects, plus a feature that turns photographs into illustrations. It also includes numerous lessons for players to ignore as they try to draw the filthiest things imaginable. They always do.


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


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