The X Button - Scare Supply

by Todd Ciolek,

I seldom use this column to celebrate holidays, but this Halloween is different. This week I'll address the vital issue of appropriate games for this time of year, and next week should have the results of our Halloween contest. There's still time to enter it, too!

The prize pack has Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles, Drakengard 3, that NES classic Fester's Quest, Yakuza: Dead Souls, and Tengai Makyo IV (which is worth owning just for the deliberately screwed-up map of anime-fantasy America). To enter, you need only describe the scariest experience you've had with a video game. The rules are as follows.

-Entries should be 300 words or less. You can use any format you like, though. Make it a news article! Make it an avant-garde poem!

-Your entry doesn't necessarily have to involve playing a video game. If you were locked inside an arcade after closing or had nightmares just from seeing the box art for the Amiga version of Crack Down, those are perfectly fair subjects!

-Anyone can enter except for anime-industry people and professional writers. And please don't enter someone else's work with a few things changed. If you send me The King in Yellow with “Yhtill” replaced by “Contra,” I'll have to disqualify it.

-One entry per person and all that.

All entries must reach me (toddciolek at gmail.com) by the stroke of midnight next Sunday, October 26, or else the duke will remain a werewolf forever. Good luck to you all!

NEWS

GUILTY GEAR XRD WRAPS ITSELF IN THE BACKYARD
Guilty Gear Xrd seemed a long shot for this year's calendar. It's out for the PlayStation 3 and 4 in Japan this December 4, which leaves precious little time for Aksys Games to squeeze in a U.S. release. We don't even have a domestic version of the demo that hit Japan's PlayStation Network last week. Yet Aksys came through with a December 16 date for the U.S. version of the game, complete with a special edition. Mad Catz even has a cross-compatible PS3 and PS4 joystick to go with it.

Guilty Gear remains a favorite fighting series of mine, an open-throttle collision of anime decor and heavy-metal bravado that makes the overkill of a typical fighting game seem snivelingly passé. Previous Guilty Gears had gorgeous high-resolution, hand-drawn art, but Xrd, the latest in a line of irritatingly hard-to-pronounce titles, recasts everything with 3-D graphics. It's similar to what Street Fighter IV did, but Guilty Gear Xrd aims to look even more fluid and cartoon-like than its traditionally animated predecessors. And all appearances suggest that it succeeds there.

The special edition of Guilty Gear Xrd has a soundtrack, an artbook, and a keychain modeled after main character Sol Badguy's belt buckle—which reads “FREE,” of course. It's all packed into a replica of the Backyard, the bizarre pocket dimension that Guilty Gear symbolizes as a book. Early buyers of either the regular or special edition get downloadable character Elphelt for free, with all of her guns and roses and wedding dresses. Other bonus fighters may lurk in the wings, and the most likely suspect seems to be Leo, a monarch swordsman and an acquaintance of Ky Kiske, Sol's friend, rival, and partner in subtext. That'd be all well and good, but I really want to know what happened to Jam Kuradoberi, the spirited Chinese chef who didn't make the cut for Xrd. How did she take it when Ky married that lousy monster-girl Dizzy?

KORRA GAME ARRIVES, MIGHT WELL BE AWFUL
There was much excitement when Platinum Games announced a game based on The Legend of Korra, and it echoed well beyond the Korra fans who stuck with the TV series after its dull first season. The likes of Bayonetta, Vanquish, The Wonderful 101, and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance made Platinum the industry heavyweight champions of pure action games, and The Legend of Korra's world of elemental magic and exquisite fight scenes is ideally suited to the genre. So Platinum and Korra should be perfect together, right?

Well, The Legend of Korra game shows up this week as a $15 download on PCs, PlayStations, and Xboxes. Early reviews savaged it left and right, and what I've seen so far suggests a solid Platinum fighting system with very little happening around it. But I wouldn't classify this as Platinum's downfall. Developers rarely bring their best material to a licensed title. Treasure, arguably the emperors of action games before Platinum took over by default, always made middling tie-in games alongside their classics; even standouts like Astro Boy: The Omega Factor don't match Gunstar Heroes and Bangai-O. To go back further, Capcom's cherished Disney NES games may be decent, but they aren't quite up to Mega Man standards. Well,DuckTales does, but it's the sole exception.

So don't worry too much over this Korra game. If nothing else, it'll ensure that MadWorld isn't Platinum's lowest point.

ALL HALLOW'S GAMES

Video games don't take advantage of Halloween so much. Compared to the movie industry's panoply of horror flicks and their seasonally calculated marketing, games just hang around and turn in their monster-themed term papers or survival-horror homework whenever they feel like it. That makes it easy to overlook video games when mixing up a cocktail of Halloween entertainment, but many of them blend nicely into the Jack-o-Lanterns, the Friday the 13th sequels and the bowls of unwanted licorice packs.

It's a minor challenge to find games that actually deal with Halloween itself. The earliest you'll see is, aptly enough, Halloween for the Atari 2600. It's based on the original film, and it puts you in control of a pixel facsimile of Jamie Lee Curtis as she flees a pixel Michael Myers, with an easily murdered kid caught between them. Within the primitive looks of the game, there's an attempt at genuine horror: lights flicker on and off, Michael's theme music accompanies him, and he decapitates the player's avatar as gorily as Atari graphics might allow. Compared to the sanitized Nintendo-era adaptations of Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween is refreshingly direct.

The most thorough video-game exploration of Halloween may well be Double Fine's Costume Quest. The creation of Tasha Harris (now at Pixar), it's an RPG that follows twins Reynold and Wren on a night of trick-or-treating and unexpected terrors. As one sibling tries to rescue the other, local kids join the cause and use costumes to transform into robots, wizards, and other childhood empowerment figures. It's an adorable creation carried by Double Fine's typical charm, even through the somewhat mundane menu-driven battles.

Double Fine sprang Costume Quest 2 on just about every computer and console this month, returning its heroes to another Halloween story. This time around, the holiday itself is mysteriously outlawed, and a loyal cadre of children must fix this by traveling through time. Battles offer much more variety in the new game, and the storyline retains the original game's wit and pacing. Unlike a lot of RPGs, Costume Quest and its sequel rarely bloat up.

Halloween also laid the stage for a lesser-known game on a lesser-known system. Jack Bros. is one of the few reasons to mourn the Virtual Boy, a troubled 3-D game system that Nintendo strangled in the crib back in 1996. The Virtual Boy used a red-and-black color palette and an eye-straining perspective, but neither of those weighs heavily on Jack Bros., a lightweight Megami Tensei action game that relies more on enjoyable stage design. It begins on Halloween night, the sole time of year that creatures from Megami Tensei's demon world can enter the human realm. These little monsters typically cavort with children and then head home, but here one of them is left behind and begins a rough journey through demon country. The player chooses who the stranded soul is: pumpkin-headed Jack Lantern, skull-faced Jack Skelton, or Atlus' adorable little Megami Tensei mascot, Jack Frost.

These days Atlus releases just about every Megami Tensei title in North America, whether it's a Persona dance-off or the official Shin Megami Tensei IV. Yet Jack Bros. became the first game from the series translated into English, perhaps because it stars a bunch of cute monsters instead of high-schoolers who forge pacts with devils and battle the Almighty as a final boss. Yet Nintendo mandated some mollification: demons became “fairies” in the game's prologue, and Jack Skelton's original name was Jack Ripper. If anything, that makes the game more precious in its Halloween tale.

The Virtual Boy remains an embarrassment in Nintendo's catalog, but the system's best games would be well worth reviving on the 3DS. Should Nintendo do that, I'd nominate Jack Bros. as the first reissue, and not just because the U.S. version is super-hard to find.

Of course, you don't need a game that specifically addresses Halloween. Just about anything labeled “survival horror” fits the occasion. The psychosexual nightmares of Silent Hill stand at the head of the pack, though fans openly argue over whether anyone should bother with the series past Silent Hill 3. Other titles could fill the gap just as well: the suspenseful Alan Wake, the creatively camera-centric Fatal Frame, the clumsier yet unique creations Siren and Rule of Rose, and the playfully cruel Eternal Darkness, the last of which no one seems in any mood to reissue.

Yet I find that Halloween doesn't call for serious scares quite so much. Silent Hill and its relatives are often grim journeys into the dark recesses of human nature, with Silent Hill 2 in particular seizing complex and disturbing territory. They're the game equivalents of Eraserhead or Jacob's Ladder, not the cheerfully gruesome slasher flicks and monster movies you'd devour with handfuls of fun-size Snickers.

Perhaps Halloween isn't about blistering psychological terror. It's about cheap, quick-fading scares and splattery nonsense a bit too ridiculous to disturb you all that much. And you'll find plenty of games like that. Resident Evil is the obvious choice, though I'd point to the original game (and its remake) as the best horror-film tribute. The series began in a mansion full of doors that creaked open, dogs that crashed through windows, and zombies that burst out of closets. Resident Evil 2, while a superior game, set the whole thing on the road to blockbuster action and James Cameron setpieces, and Resident Evil hasn't looked back.

Other games in the survival-horror milieu know how to stay goofy. Late-stage Dreamcast release Illbleed sets its heroine Eriko loose in a theme park of deadly traps and bizarre B-movie sendups, including a children's playplace ruled by the somewhat familiar Zodick the Hellhog. It's not a smooth thing by any means, but it's worth a look for anyone who delights in horror-game schlock. Nor could any discussion of nonsense be complete without mentioning cult favorite Deadly Premonition. Swery65's tribute to Twin Peaks is a jagged masterpiece of weirdness, and it's pretty easy to come by on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Steam.

Castlevania remains a good stopping point for Halloween. Some prefer the older games for their simplicity, nostalgia, and use of a traditional Universal monster grab-bag. Others prefer the ornate, exquisitely scored later Castlevanias, with Symphony of the Night standing atop many lists. I lean toward Order of Ecclesia (above), a DS outing that marked the last maze-based “Metroidvania” in the series. It has the branching design of newer Castlevanias with a challenge worthy of the older ones, and its animation is downright stunning for a handheld creation.

The other old-school Halloween staple? Capcom's Ghosts 'n Goblins series. Both the original game and its Ghouls 'n Ghosts sequel drive away some players by killing off protagonist Arthur quite rapidly (two hits and he's done), but the games show a grand variety of monsters. They hail from an era of arcade attractions that had to show the player something new every minute or so, and there's a lot to discover if you're hardy enough.

If you're up for something longer and meatier, Ghosts 'n Goblins saw a spin-off series of lesser renown. Gargoyle's Quest for the Game Boy, Gargoyle's Quest 2 for the NES, and Demon's Crest for the Super NES all feature Firebrand, who resembles one of the nastier foes from Ghosts 'n Goblins. His solo adventures are action-RPGs of a sort, with item shops and upgradeable powers serving him in between side-scrolling stages. They're enjoyable titles that went largely unnoticed in their time—though Demon's Crest earned boycotts due to its name and impressively creepy atmosphere, if news reports are to be believed. Yet Capcom hasn't forgotten them entirely. Gargoyle's Quest 2 is out for the 3DS and Wii U eShop next week, and Demon's Crest will be available on the Wii U in the same way. Some games pay attention to Halloween after all.

Now for my personal favorite Halloween decoration: the Darkstalkers series. Capcom's follow-up to Street Fighter II never caught on as firmly as its predecessor, but it's a marvelous series of fighting games. Instead of adapting Universal's classic monsters, Capcom's artists made their own, added plenty of other creatures, and animated them with a detailed, squashy-stretchy exaggeration that still impresses today. After the series slunk around the margins for years, Capcom remastered two games for the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live, calling the whole thing Darkstalkers Resurrection. It didn't sell enough to justify a brand-new Darkstalkers, but at least the best of the series is out there for everyone.

Many other fitting Halloween games await: the brutality of Splatterhouse, the manic zombie massacres of Dead Rising, the veiled movie mockeries of the uncensored Monster Party, or the '80s teenage horror tributes of Maniac Mansion. If you have any fondness for video games, I'm sure you have a favorite to break out when Halloween rolls around. Go ahead and share it!

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

FREEDOM WARS
Developer: SCE Japan Studio/Shift/Dimps
Publisher: SCEA
Platform: PS Vita
Release Date: October 28
War is Freedom: And Onion is Strength or whatever
MSRP: $29.99

Has Freedom Wars chosen a controversial title? Will it evoke images of self-styled patriots and insecure militiamen rallying against an imagined tide of World Government shock troops? Will it invite conspiracy theorists to seize on the game as a glimpse of the U.N.'s plan for the future, with that Illuminati eye in the logo being a dead giveaway? Probably not. It's just a video game.

Yet Freedom Wars is indeed about harsh futures and cruel governments. It stretches millennia ahead, finding the surface of the earth inhospitable and humanity subsisting in underground cities called Pantopticons. With overpopulation crippling society, civilization's rulers look for excuses to send people above ground: such as giving them million-year prison sentences and forcing them to pay their societal debt by joining dangerous topside rescue missions. Your customized male or female avatar is part of that. You're outfitted with firearms, blades, a grappling hook, and an android sidekick called an Accessory. Then you're sent up to the ruined surface cities to save innocent folks from giant biomechanical terrors called Abductors. And then those folks are sent back underground to the vicious prison state. I expect that's all part of the conspiracy.

Freedom Wars adopts the pattern of Monster Hunter, Gods Eater Burst, Soul Sacrifice, Ragnarok Odyssey Ace, and just about any other action game where players cooperate to bring down massive creatures. Characters can race around firing and slashing to dispatch smaller foes, and it's possible to grapple-hook onto buildings and giant Abductors. Single-player modes fill the teams with AI companions, and online gatherings invite up to sixteen characters: eight human players and their android Accessories. The Accessories are just as customizable as the player avatars, and they can recite robotic lines as compliant or disobedient (or openly profane) as you please. When not exploring above ground, players use their accumulated good-behavior credits to buy little bursts of freedom, such as a walk outside of the prison cells. It's all meant to prepare the youth of today for the time when the Globalists round up everyone and [TEXT REDACTED UNDER AGENDA 21 ORDINANCE SECTION 381:5B]

SUNSET OVERDRIVE
Developer: Insomniac Games
Publisher: Microsoft
Platform: Xbox One
Release Date: October 28
Outlaw Slurm: Never
MSRP: $59.99

Sunset Overdrive shows the dangers of early adoption. It sees a new energy drink, OverCharge Delirium XT, transforming all who consume it into mindless pustule-creatures. Yes, Futurama and the old Toei film Flying Phantom Ship tried to warn us about beverages too delicious to be true, but apparently no one listened. That's why the player ends up guiding a hapless FizzCo employee through the citywide chaos that the company unleashed perhaps not so much by accident.

Sunset City is a glowing, bright, wide-scale metropolis of the year 2027, so there's plenty to go wrong. The player's customized FizzCo wage slave can leap between buildings, stage traps for fizzing OD zombies, and ride on the rails and cords and roller coasters that decorate neighborhoods. It's the wire-riding that gives Sunset Overdrive its best transportation, as it's possible to zip everywhere like a Jet Grind Radio star or a Tony Hawk imitator, blasting all that's below. The weapons includes propane launchers, fiery shotguns, exploding teddy bears, automatic rifles, and a wealth of other explosive devices.

Much of Sunset Overdrive's single-player mode finds you roaming the day-glo urban hellscape, rescuing fellow survivors, and messing with the various factions and murderous FizzCo mecha-troops that arose in the energy drink apocalypse. Online multiplayer brings in eight people at a time, and it's fairly easy to hop in and out of the solo campaign. It's one of the Xbox One's biggest exclusives yet, and many of the console's early adopters will watch it very closely. And if it's not a masterpiece? Well, at least they won't turn into city-wrecking, abscess-covered zombies.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
If Platinum's The Legend of Korra action game fails you, there's always the 3DS version from Webfoot Technologies. The Legend of Korra: A New Era Begins is a strategy game instead of a punch-and-kick affair, and it seems to have flown under just about everyone's radar.


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


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