The X Button - Uncovered Paths

by Todd Ciolek,

Nintendo's Amiibo toys could be the biggest game release of the holiday season, at least as far as buying frenzies go. That's because they're not actual games. They're little figures with built-in memory, and they interface with Wii U and newer 3DS games. They'll unlock extra outfits in Super Mario Kart 8, but Super Smash Bros. will be the first major Amiibo showcase. It lets the figures operate fighters that gain levels and learn from the players they face, thus making them better AI opponents.

The important thing is that Amiibo (yes, the plural is Amiibo) are sure to be just as collectible as Skylanders and Disney Infinity toys, two lines that drive parents and children to obsessed extremes. The first round of eighteen Amiibo toys will attract devoted Nintendo fans as well, so that's another contingent who'll be raiding the aisle at Toys 'R Us. Nintendo knows just what they're doing, too. President and CEO Satoru Iwata remarked that some Amiibo will have “limited-time” placement in stores. That will further stoke the fires of collecting and eBay auctions.

Others may find reasons to avoid the Amiibo craze. Photos of the actual retail-level figures appeared online last week, and many pointed out that the quality didn't quite match the original models shown at E3. Precariously posed characters like Fox McCloud and the Wii Fit Trainer have leg supports, and characters' clothing isn't as detailed on the actual Amiibo you'll see at the store. As far as I can tell, the biggest disparity involves Fire Emblem's Marth, whose factory-floor figure looks droopy and blotch-painted. But that's always the way it is with toys: they never look as good as they do on the box or in the catalog. We learned that as kids, and now it's time for another generation to learn it when they unwrap Amiibo during the holidays.

NEWS

NEW SEGA 3D CLASSICS COMING HERE, LOOKIN' SHARP
Sega may not please everyone with the way they handle their games. Just ask any Sonic fan. Yet they've done right by their 3D Classics line of enhanced arcade games and Genesis titles. Developer M2 overhauled standouts of Sega's old library, tuning them to work with Nintendo's stereoscopic 3DS feature. Some of the revamps even got save features and other perks, with 3D Space Harrier emerging as a particularly nice treatment.

Sega has more on the way next year. 3D After Burner II comes out early in 2015, followed by monthly debuts of the other four titles: 3D Fantasy Zone, 3D Outrun, 3D Fantasy Zone II, and 3D Thunder Blade. It's a promising lineup for any fan of old Sega titles, though it tends toward games that used 3-D perspectives in the first place. There's not much use for a 3-D upgrade of Pengo, even if I'd rather play that instead of a prettied-up Thunder Blade. That one wasn't much fun in the first place.

FANS SCRAPE TOGETHER SONIC X-TREME, HAMMER AWAY
In other news of Sega creations unearthed, two canceled projects made their way out the murky past. Sega diehards all know about Sonic X-Treme, a troubled and oft-revised attempt at a 3-D Sonic game. First a 32X project, it soon became Sega's big Sonic debut for the Sega Saturn. The project saw setbacks, and the development team had to rebuild the game after borrowing and losing the NiGHTS engine in a bout of internal company drama. Screenshots from the overhauled version's demo levels appeared in magazines, but Sonic X-Treme never arrived and the Saturn went without a true Sonic game.

Lead developer Chris Senn released a good amount of Sonic X-Treme material years back, but it was only recently that fans put together the most complete known version of Sonic X-Treme. Estimated to be about 70 percent finished, the build runs not on Saturn systems but on Windows 95 software with a specific NV1 video card, and it offers a look at just how the game might have turned out—and how the Saturn might've fared if it had an all-new Sonic game to compete with Mario and Crash Bandicoot.

Another intriguing piece of Sega history emerged with Hammer Away, a helicopter shooter from 1991. The game went unreleased in its day, but some devoted fans found it on a decaying arcade board in Portugal and managed to get the chips working again. Hammer Away is now dumped and compatible with MAME, and it should filter out online very soon.

I'm interested in seeing it. Some of that is due to retroactive nostalgia—had Hammer Away made it to arcades, kid me would've dropped a few quarters into it. Its quality is less certain. It looks like a decent shooter with a novel method of tilting your chopper for diagonal firing, but it was produced by Santos, and a Santos off-shoot (also called Santos) made the lousy PlayStation shooters AirGrave and Stahlfeder. Perhaps Sega polished up Hammer Away into a game worth resuscitating.

BAYONETTA AND BORDERLINES

Bayonetta 2 arrived last month. It brings a huge and magnificent action game, expertly tuned and completely unashamed in capturing the excesses of a gun-wearing witch at war with the netherworld. It also brings another reason for us to argue over just how sexist Bayonetta herself might be.

Fans of Bayonetta find her empowered. Efficient and commanding, she dances through intricate battles against throngs of demon-angel chimeras, and many of her attacks involve her striking supermodel poses as her hair-clothes whip away from her body and form huge destructive tendrils or giant high-heels. The game snakes its viewpoint all over her, lingering where such things normally do, and yet Bayonetta seems not to mind. She possesses her sexuality and wields it as a counterattack, summoning up medieval torture devices to take down vaguely male, vaguely religious oppressors—masked, multi-winged horrors that gleam like Vatican candlesticks. There's rarely a moment when she isn't in control of who she is and how the world sees her.

Detractors point out that Bayonetta remains a contrived sex object. Her playful confidence and unshakeable panache serve the same male gaze that spawned the likes of X-Blades and Rumble Roses. She's a cocktail of dominatrix airs and feminine verve, and that's not far from the all-too-common stereotype of a resolute superheroine who happens to choose to wear a costume the size of a slap bracelet. As a fictional character, she doesn't choose anything—her creators do. And sometimes they don't choose nice things. Both the original game and Bayonetta 2 include an optional boss fight against Rodin, and one of his nastier attacks is a Raging Demon cutaway that leaves Bayonetta naked…and Rodin suavely lighting up a cigar. It's a strange and disturbing joke to play on a heroine who's otherwise in complete control.

I'll say this for Bayonetta: if she's a shameless collage of fetishes and mock-feminist symbols, she at least has style. I don't see much difference between her personality and those of comic-book women with capable, flirtatious attitudes and names like Sexbot 9000, but it's harder to come by pulp superheroines who glide across fallen clock towers, unleash barrages from shoe-mounted pistols, and shapeshift into panthers and birds and sea-cobras all in one glorious battle. Perhaps a video game simply grants that hypersexual chaos more impact. Or more excuses.

Some games go deeper in their sexual attitudes. Believe it or not, Drakengard 3 is one of them. It hangs around Zero, a rebellious Intoner goddess out to kill her equally heaven-sent sisters and bend their male disciples to her impulses. Zero is abhorrent. She's a murderous, careless monster who mocks her foes' cries for mercy, abuses her naïve dragon sidekick, and prefers to accomplish a half-noble aim in the bloodiest, ugliest way she can. She sleeps with the disciples she frees from her sisters' servitude, and, of course, she wears a gauzy battle outfit that's just there to be stained red.

Yet Drakengard 3 isn't content with a suggestive surface. Innuendo flows through the mid-battle conversations between Zero and her four male sidekicks. Carnal desire drives every Intoner's relationship with her disciple—even the Intoner who does her best to stifle it. In all of its brutality and ill-fitting attempts at comedy, Drakengard 3 refuses to glamorize sex. It's not a reason for Zero to slink her way through carnage with a low-angle camera trained on her. It's just something to mull over by the campfire, something to joke about, something to boil unseen beneath the game's more messed-up relationships. And Zero's casual, dominant attitude toward it all is crudely refreshing. There are many reasons to dislike her, but Drakengard 3 never makes her sexuality one of them.

Most games don't think too much about their attempts at sex appeal. At best, they try to justify it with a wink or a shrug. Tales of Xillia introduces Milla Maxwell, a divine emissary who appears as a woman dressed in, well, straps and microskirts and not much else. But it's all right; chats with her friends make plain that she likes her outfit's unencumbered fit, and she chose her humanoid form so she might better draw the sympathies of mortal men. Even her ridiculous cowlick distracts enemies!

This fools no one: not the caddish mercenary Alvin, not the obnoxiously boob-obsessed puppet Teepo, and certainly not the player. Milla looks the way she does because Mutsumi Inomata drew her to suit the predilections of a coveted and reliable demographic that likes women in revealing garb. But hey, Tales of Xillia is trying. And it's giving a gifted artist like Inomata a paycheck in the process.

Video games are hardly alone in such dissemblance. Comics are fond of foisting ridiculous outfits upon women and inventing reasons to wear them, with “she wants to dress like that” being the most obvious rationale. And that summons an uncomfortable question: if the story's smart enough to notice, why isn't it smart enough to avoid it?

Most games don't even attempt absolution. They just stick a female character in skimpy attire without regard to it reflecting her personality, leaving her unaware of how she looks or how close the player's viewpoint might orbit. Some of us prefer that honest void, where games and movies and cartoons and funnybooks just sexualize female characters and implicitly admit that there's no other thought behind it. They'll pander to you, but they won't lie to you.

Yet there's something to be said for a work that grants a woman control over her sexuality. Even it's all to serve the creator's preferences or some cynical market expectation, it's better to show characters as independent, self-possessed beings rather than unexamined instruments of adolescent fantasy. Even if a game dresses a witch in her own hair or tries to explain away medieval-Vegas waitress outfits, it's at least saying something more than “yeah, this sells.”

It's all part of video games—and an entire swath of pop culture—trying to be comfortably indulgent fun while dodging the more blunt veins of sexism. It's a trap-laden temple that most can't escape unscathed, but it's good that some creators do more than stick an unsuspecting heroine in a combat bikini. In that light, Bayonetta may be a small, pistol-heeled step in the right direction.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

DIGIMON: ALL-STAR RUMBLE
Developer: Prope
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Platform: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360
Release Date: November 11
Robopon: Still MIA
MSRP: $39.99

There's no shame in being second to an industry powerhouse. Digimon forever will be the runner-up to Nintendo's voluminous Pokemon library, yet its contributions shouldn't be swept aside. It helped Mamoru Hosoda get his start as a director. It gave kids a Pokemon alternative where all of the monsters actually talked. It inspired DigimonOtis, who's probably the third-best account on Twitter. And it still has fans, of course. Those fans lobbied Bandai Namco for U.S. releases of Digimon World Re:Digitize, Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth and other Digi-titles exclusive to Japan. Well, the fans aren't getting those. But they're getting something that Japan doesn't have yet: a fighting game called Digimon All-Star Rumble.

All-Star Rumble plays to Digimon loyalists. The roster has only twelve characters to start, but they include such familiar creatures as the dinosaur-like Agumon, the robotic Shoutmon, and Gabumon, who looks like a fat unicorn werewolf gremlin. Besides, the initial dozen are only off-the-shelf monster models. Each character can evolve…sorry, Digivolve twice, and that expands the playable cast to over 30 characters. They mix it up in arena battles that invite up to four players, and the gameplay allows for 3-D combat as opposed to a 2-D plane. The scenery even contributes attacks at time. For those who really want to see one Digimon toss another in front of a subway train, All-Star Rumble will deliver.

True to its once-prominent media empire, Digimon All-Star Rumble involves card collecting. Players gather such cards throughout the game, and each Digimon can equip two of them for varied stats boosts and combination attacks. Yet there's no online multiplayer mode to arrange battles or trade cards, thus denying kids the risky endeavors of swapping Digimon merchandise with friends. Whatever will DigimonOtis think?

SENRAN KAGURA: BON APPETIT
Developer: Tamsoft
Publisher: XSEED GAMES
Platform: PS Vita (digital only)
Release Date: November 11
Shame: Nuh-uh
MSRP: $14.99 (twice)

What's this Senran Kagura: Bon Appetit thing? I vaguely recall hearing that Senran Kagura was a tad on the suggestive side, but Bon Appetit sounds more like a cooking game! And it is! Apparently two ninja girls from various ninja schools square off in a chef tournament, making all sorts of dishes and setting them before a judge who's also the grandfather of lead kunoichi Asuka. The player follows recipes by tapping buttons to match the rhythm and build up multiplier combos, all while a chosen competitor is slicing cabbage or mixing batter or salting a mound of stir-fry (with a strange lack of ninja flourishes). Each character specializes in a different sort of dish, and if they come out on top they get a magic bead that can be used to buy land from Native American tribes grants wishes. Sounds perfectly innocuous to me! It's like Cooking Mama with ninja!

Oh, and the loser of each round has her clothes ripped away, apparently by the sheer force of the judge's gourmand satisfaction. As a bar at the top tracks the back-and-forth battle of chefs, it's possible for both combatants to lose their garments as the match progresses while the player tilts the camera around their unclothed forms. Some of them cry at this exposure, while others don't mind so much. And at the end of the match, the losing cook is stripped, covered with whipped cream and other confections, and posed humiliatingly at the center of a giant dessert spread. And if this is too much work for the Senran Kagura fan, there's a dressing room where the player can watch a chosen shinobi try on everything from actual chef outfits to selectively positioned squid tentacles. Perhaps it's not as innocent as I thought.

Should you desire all of that, you can buy Bon Appetit in two parts: the initial $14.99 chunk includes Asuka and her rival Homura's respective schools of ninja, while the second half comes out November 25, costs the same as the first, and includes the Hebijo and Shijuku Gessen characters introduced in Shinovi Versus. Early reports have it that the game should work with the PlayStation TV, though some trophies require the Vita's internal gyroscope and microphone. And trophies are important, no? When you're playing a naked ninja-girl cooking game, everyone on the PlayStation Network should know it.

SONIC BOOM: RISE OF LYRIC AND SONIC BOOM: SHATTERED CRYSTAL
Developer: Big Red Button Entertainment (Lyric)/Sanzaru Games (Crystal)
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Wii U (Rise)/Nintendo 3DS (Crystal)
Release Date: November 11
Knuckles: Doesn't chuckle
MSRP: $49.99 (Lyric)/ $39.99 (Crystal)

I like to think that grown-up Sonic the Hedgehog fans have made their peace with the series. Perhaps they've realized that Sonic is and always was a creation for the younger crowd, and that the best he'll offer is a fun, speedy action-platform game and not a miraculous time-warp back to the halcyon nexus of 1992. I imagine that most people know that, even when they make fun of Sonic Boom's new designs. Sonic now wears a bandana, Knuckles the echidna is a towering hulk, and all of the characters have odd-looking mummy-like wrappings on their hands and feet. It's all part of the new Sonic Boom cartoon series and comic! You can complain about those, too!

But what about the games? Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric is a Wii U action title that dumps Sonic, Knuckles, Tails, and Amy on a tropical isle where they uncover a serpentine villain from a long-lost era (his race is literally called the Ancients, after all) and run afoul of his mechanized troops. The game has standard levels where Sonic and his friends speed down checkerboard pavement, grab rings, and launch themselves all over. Aside from their specific abilities known to fans (Tails can fly! Amy has a mallet!), the characters each get an Enerbeam weapon that functions like a grappling lightsaber. It's useful in disarming foes, moving objects, snagging ziplines, slashing things into submission, or pretending that a Sonic and Star Wars crossover is underway.

Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal goes for Sonic's roots with a side-scrolling game for the 3DS. It's 3-D in appearances, but the gameplay sticks to a 2-D plane for most of the stages. It finds Sonic, Knuckles, and Tails searching for a kidnapped Amy, whose playable role is filled by a new character: Sticks the Badger. She wields a boomerang and concocts conspiracy theories, but she fits right into a series that has characters like Mighty the Armadillo and Blaze the Cat. I'm sure kids will like her just fine. I'm not so sure the same will hold for the Sonic Boom games; some early versions drew complaints from the press, and…well, Sonic's had more than his share of misfired reboots.

TALES OF HEARTS R
Developer: Namco
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Platform: PS Vita/PlayStation TV
Release Date: November 11
My Random Tales Name: Topaz Diderot
MSRP: $39.99

I know that I mock the names of Tales characters a little more than they probably merit, but I think I'm allowed free reign with Tales of Hearts R's protagonist, Kor Meteor. That's his localized handle, though. The Japanese version called him Shing Meteor. And he adventures alongside Kohaku Hearts, Beryl Benito, and other characters seemingly named after stones and jewels. That makes Tales of Hearts R more cohesive in nomenclature than most other Tales titles, but still…he's Kor Meteor.

Names aside, Tales of Hearts R passes the Tales RPG standardized plot test. Kor is the usual heroic kid thrust toward A Destiny He Does Not Understand, and that Destiny takes the form of a young woman named Kohaku. She's connected to an ancient legend involving moons and slumbering spirits, and a jolt of villainous magic transforms her from the typical half-spunky RPG heroine to the typical blank-slate RPG heroine. Kor heads out on a quest to recover Kohaku's dispersed personality, one emotion at a time. He gathers together a party that includes a flirty, super-strong peddler, an ancient android, a naïve young mage, and Kohaku's pushy brother. I'm sure they'll find a way to save the world on the side.

The original Tales of Hearts is a DS title, but the Vita remake goes well beyond a touch-up. It's a largely new game in appearances, with 3-D environments and character models that resemble recent Tales games more than a sprite-based game from 2008. The battle system maintains the Tales ideal of roaming around the playfield, freely attacking enemies with an action-game rhythm. The Aerial Chase Link Linear Motion Battle System lets characters easily string together mid-air combos around stunned enemies, and it's important to figure out how and when to finish the assault. As usual, it's also possible to switch characters, strategize behind the scenes, and pause the game just in case you can't keep up with the pace.

Tales of Hearts R is a GameStop exclusive as far as the physical version goes, though you can always nab it off the PlayStation Network. It's subtitled-only, with the original Japanese voices intact. If that seems cheap, just remember that Namco's released more domestic Tales games this year than in the last five years combined.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
Hello Kitty & Sanrio Friends 3-D Racing does the Mario Kart thing with Sanrio characters, including Keroppi and that little bastard penguin Badtz-Maru. It may turn out like the seldom-lauded Hello Kitty Cruisers for the Wii U, but there aren't many other options for the player who wants a Hello Kitty racer on the 3DS.


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


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