The X Button - Nouveau Nova

by Todd Ciolek,

We're now in December and the thick of the holiday season. It's time for another contest, and this time it's about toys. That's what drives the holidays on some primal materialist level, so I put together a bundle of trinkets for the prize pack.

As befits this column, all of the toys relate to video games in some way. We have a Master Grade 1/100 Mobile Suit Unicorn Gundam model kit for Dynasty Warriors Gundam Reborn, a Sonic the Hedgehog wall clock, A Final Fantasy XII potion (empty for sanitary reasons), a set of Nintendo Platinum Playing Cards, a Samurai Naruto Shinobi Relations Figurine, a Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage Visual Story Book signed by producer Hisashi Koinuma, and, best of all, a Fist of the North Star Character Voice Clock that has Kenshiro, Lin, and Raoh yelling alarm-themed variations on their catchphrases. Kenshiro screams “ATATATATATATATATA WA-TAH!” followed by “Omae wa mou…okiteru.” In my limited knowledge of Japanese, that means “You are already…awake.”

How can you win? Just write up a humorous memory of the holidays and video games. Did you get a Nintendo 64 for Hanukkah and have to drive all over town looking for an RF adapter? Did a well-meaning relative get you Ultra Vortek for the Atari Jaguar one Christmas? Did you get Phantasy Star II for Kwanzaa and spoil yourself by reading the strategy guide first? Did you sneak away from your family on Annual Gift Day to play at the arcade? The most amusing and creative entry wins!

Some rules apply, of course.

Entries should be about 250 words or less. The format is up to you, but let's avoid poems and rewritten Christmas carols.

Entries should be about video games and the holidays. It doesn't have to be about playing games, but it needs to involve them in some way.

The contest is open to everyone except industry folk and professional writers. If you won another contest in the last year or so, it's only fair to abstain this time. Also, one entry per person.

Entries are due to me (toddciolek at gmail.com) by midnight EST on Sunday, December 14. That'll give me time to get the package sent out before Christmas.

Good luck to everyone! And don't worry if you like only some of the prizes on display. In the spirit of the season, I hope that the winner will give away anything unwanted. You may not need a Sonic the Hedgehog wall clock, but you probably know someone who does. So make their holidays a little happier.

NEWS

SONY HOLDS A BIG PLAYSTATION POPULARITY CONTEST
The original PlayStation reaches its 20th birthday today, December 3. That was its launch date in Japan, so it may not evoke much nostalgia unless you actually lived there or imported a system with Crime Crackers and Nekketsu Oyako. More interesting is a survey Sony conducted of about 10,000 Japanese PlayStation consumers regarding their favorite titles of the past 20 years. You can see the original list here and find a nice translation at Gematsu. It's dominated by the usual suspects: Dragon Quests, Final Fantasies, Resident Evils, and some Puyo Puyos for good measure.

A few surprises appear, however. One of them is Arc the Lad, apparently denoting the original 1995 release. It was the PlayStation's first good RPG (or strategy-RPG), but it was a short game soon eclipsed by Arc the Lad II (above). No one talks about it much today, though I guess it took deeper root in Japan with its timely follow-ups and an anime series. In America, Arc the Lad didn't appear until Working Designs brought over the entire trilogy as one bulging box set in 2000, while ADV Films released the anime to little effect. Yet there it is on the “Most Moving Games Over Books and Movies” list, which proves that games are art once and for all.

The lists also bring up two series big only in Japan: Hudson Soft's Momotaro Densetsu RPGs and Momotaro Dentetsu board-game sims. Neither series came West, and we haven't seen them anywhere since Konami bought up Hudson Soft. Still, it's nice to find them mentioned. Unlike Sony and the PlayStation, Hudson Soft won't celebrate any more birthdays.

Of course, the real point of this list is to stir up arguments and objections. I'm not going to complain about Valkyrie Profile or Moon: RPG Remix Adventure not showing up; those were never huge hits. But I'm disappointed that Final Fantasy Tactics doesn't place anywhere. I could understand why its predecessor Tactics Ogre is absent; it's better known as a Super Famicom title. But no Final Fantasy Tactics? And don't get me started about the list snubbing Metal Jacket.

THE FIRST ABSURD AMIIBO AUCTION APPEARS
I expected Amiibos to inspire collecting crazes, and I was…half right? Amiibos in general aren't hard to find, though Marth, the Wii Fit Trainer, and the Animal Crossing Villager seem a bit more scarce than a plump little Kirby. Moreover, the first big splurge of the Amiibo line appeared: someone bid $2500 for a Samus Aran figure given two arm cannons by some factory screw-up.

I don't harp on exorbitant eBay auctions that often, but it amazes me that a Samus who can't even type ended up selling for over a hundred times its shelf price. Was it because it looks cool? Because it might be one-of-a-kind? Because every Metroid fan doodled a double-gunned Samus in class when they were kids, and this is the closest Nintendo will get to acknowledging that? Should the eBay auction prove legit, I'll give the buyer this much: it makes a little more sense than paying hundreds for a smashed Atari game dug out of the notorious E.T. landfill. Yes, that happened.

A TIDBIT ABOUT FESTER'S QUEST, OF ALL THINGS
Lastly, here's something that may interest fans of NES games—or at least notoriously hard NES games. Fester's Quest is one of those games, a tough overhead adventure that sends its hero back to the very start if he falls. It's also a strange use of the license: Sunsoft optioned The Addams Family for an NES title, but Uncle Fester is its only playable character. And he fights off an invading alien army.

Curious about the game's origins, I spoke with the producer and designer for Fester's Quest, and their stories are fascinating. It may fall outside of this column's usual focus, but the interview gives an intriguing look at just how games were made in the NES era. It also explains why Fester's Quest is so darned difficult.

IMPORT ROUNDUP: NOVEMBER

DENGEKI BUNKO FIGHTING CLIMAX
Developer: Ecole Software/French Bread
Publisher: Sega
Platform: PS Vita/PlayStation 3

What was Sega's last 2-D fighting game? Golden Axe: The Duel? The Genesis version of Virtua Fighter 2? It's been a while since Sega made one. Technically, Sega didn't make Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax either. It's the work of Ecole and French Bread, the crew behind the Melty Blood fighters and the recent Under Night In-Birth. What's more, Fighting Climax isn't exactly a Sega fighter. It's more a pop-fiction fighter, mixing together characters from the Dengeki Bunko imprint's biggest novels. And these are just light novels, not wider classics of literature. You won't see May Kasahara dragon-punch Hikaru Genji off the screen.

Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax hatches a crossover plot that sees the stars of various books drawn into a battle against some extradimensional entity, as these things often do. The playable cast features Asuna and Kirito from Sword Art Online, Shana from Shakugan no Shana, Tomoka from Ro-Kyu-Bu!, Shizuo from Durarara!!, Mikoto from A Certain Magical Index and/or Railgun, Kuroyukihime from Accel World, Yukina from Strike the Blood, Kirino from that creepy Oreimo thing, Miyuki from that supposedly super-racist The Irregular at Magic High School thing, Taiga from the surprisingly not-so-bad Toradora!, and Rentaro from Black Bullet. It's still a Sega game in some respects, though. Virtua Fighter's Akira Yuki and Valkyria Chronicles' Selvaria Bles join the playable fighters, with Pai Chan and Alicia Melchiott among the characters who can briefly jump out and help during a match. In fact, the assistant roster is more interesting than the playable lineup. Not only are the sidekicks more numerous, but they include Kino from Kino's Journey, the titular entity from the Boogiepop novels, and Mao from that The Devil Is a Part-Timer! series that I liked until it overloaded itself.

As a crossover, Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax has plenty of in-jokes and gag attacks: Shizuo throws vending machines and roadsigns, Taiga kicks people into telephone poles, and basketball nets and UFO catchers appear as characters require them. So it looks the part. Gameplay seems initially simple, with three attack buttons, a sidekick-summoning button, and the usual super-meter buildup and combo-escape options. Can it match Aquapazza, last year's unexpectedly accomplished 2-D fighter built on a similar crossover? That answer is best saved for a review, and we should have one along shortly.

Import Barrier: There are no regional locks on the game, and the basic fighting isn't hard to grasp. The story mode may be another matter…

Domestic Release: Unlikely, given the licenses involved and the fact that only Sword Art Online and the Sega games have any major cachet on these shores.

Best Reference: Boogiepop's momentary theme music is a nice touch. Someday that series will get the respect it deserves. Then it will get Dengeki sued by Prince over all the references it makes to his catalog.

ETRIAN ODYSSEY II UNTOLD: THE KNIGHT OF FAFNIR
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: Nintendo 3DS

Some find the Etrian Odyssey games lacking in propulsive storylines. That's sort of the point. They're dungeon hacks, and it's up to the player to create characters and invest their struggles with some dramatic fervor. Yet for those who want the Etrian Odyssey grind with a fantasy plotline, there's the Etrian Odyssey Untold sub-series. And a sub-series it is, now that Etrian Odyssey II Untold: The Knight of Fafnir is upon us.

Like the first Untold, the second is a remake of a corresponding Etrian Odyssey game, in this case Heroes of Lagaard. The player names the protagonist, but he's the same character no matter what he's called: a werebeastknight whose shape-shifting powers come in handy during battles. He encounters Ariana, Princess of Caledonia, on her way to a centennial ceremony, and she's pretty much every sweet-natured princess character seen in RPGs since the dawn of the genre. They soon recruit a layabout Protector, an emotionless War Magus, and the lead character's sniper-class friend Flavio. If this were an action movie, I'd tag Flavio as the most likely to die. But it's an Etrian Odyssey game.

Should you resent these narrative fixtures in your Etrian Odyssey, there's a classic mode with all of the mechanical improvements and little of the new characters. It has the hallmarks of an Etrian Odyssey: complex dungeons, player-created maps, desperate first-person fights against fierce creatures, and so forth. The Knight of Fafnir preserves innovations from the first Etrian Odyssey Untold, including the Picnic Mode, and the game even borrows Persona Q's slightly more helpful treasure-tracking map.

Import Barrier: Plenty of text and plenty of menus await. Oh, and so does that 3DS region-lock.

Domestic Release: Likely, but Atlus has said nothing yet. Between this, Persona Q, Etrian Odyssey V, and Etrian Odyssey X Mystery Dungeon, are we reaching a saturation point?

Best Reference: Etrian Odyssey likes its Norse allusions, so it's no mistake that the hero is connected to Fafnir. In myth, he…well, he had something to do with monsters.

PHANTASY STAR NOVA
Developer: tri-Ace
Publisher: Sega
Platform: PS Vita

New Phantasy Star games invariably drive me to cranky old-timer fits in which I proclaim that it's not a real Phantasy Star unless there are defined protagonists and androids named Wren and pointy-eared cats that grow wings when you feed them magical nuts. But that's just wrong of me. Sega has made modern Phantasy Stars ever since the Dreamcast period, and sulking about the original games will get us nowhere.

Phantasy Star Nova courts the Monster Hunter multiplayer RPG aesthetic even in its setup: the player's Ark ship crash-lands on the third planet from the brightest star up ahead Machia, a planet full of hostile creatures called Gigantes. The thousand-strong crew of the ships tries to fuel their journey home with a new energy source called Gran, and the player's expedition force paves the way by bringing down the creatures. The protagonist is customized to the player's liking, including preferences for races and classes, and there's a complement of supporting adventurers: a Force-user named Lutina, a Hunter named Sail, and the interim ship commander Fildia. The last of these cohorts makes her entrance by stabbing a massive unicorn-turtle-tank in the head and kicking around the rest of the team. She's kinda great.

Of course, Phantasy Star Nova sets itself up for cooperative ad-hoc play. It's possible to use the protagonist's friends, form a party, and take on monsters, but Sega really counts on players joining up four at a time to quest together, just like they would in Monster Hunter or Gods Eater Burst. Characters cooperate to bring down Gigantes creatures, most of which are mechanized in strange ways, and it's even possible to catch them and summon them later, as you might in a certain popular Nintendo franchise about pocket monsters. Classes span the usual specialties: Force users are effectively mages, Rangers hit from a distance, Hunter classes go for melees, and Busters are decent all-round choices.

It may not imitate old Phantasy Stars, but Nova has undeniable punch. The opening scenes are coated with space opera gloss, the monsters are impressive and mystifying, and it's hard not to like Fildia and her hardass style of ship management. Perhaps there's room for new Phantasy Stars in my old library.

Import Barrier: Character creation can be navigated through trial-and-error, and the battle system isn't very imposing. The Vita has no regional locks, though DLC purchases might not be compatible with other versions.

Domestic Release: There's no sign of one just yet, though Sega at least plans an Asian version in March.

Best Reference: Phantasy Star Nova is a tri-Ace creation, so it borrows from the developer's older work. Leanne from Resonance of Fate appears as a supporting character, and players can nab costumes from Star Ocean: The Last Hope and Valkyrie Profile. Putting a Hunter in Lenneth's gear is the closest tri-Ace is likely to come to making a new Valkyrie Profile, and I'll take what I can get.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
If you prefer a more prurient approach to RPGs, Nippon Ichi Software has The Great Edo Blacksmith for the Vita. It finds players switching between dungeon crawls, weapon-crafting, and touch-screen romances with three different women. A U.S. release seems a toss-up right now, but NIS America has localized stranger things.

For something only mildly suggestive, there's Touch Detective Funghi Rhythm, a musical 3DS game starring Funghi, the mushroom sidekick of Touch Detective's heroine, MacKenzie. Or perhaps she's Funghi's sidekick now, considering how popular he is.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

PHOENIX WRIGHT: ACE ATTORNEY TRILOGY
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: Nintendo 3DS (eShop)
Release Date: December 9
Yelling: Actually helps here
MSRP: $29.99

Some may grouse about the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy being a download-only release. It's not just that they'd like a physical copy for the shelf; it's that the digital exclusivity is a sign of how little faith Capcom has in the series. Last year's all-new Dual Destinies was similarly limited to an eShop debut, and the recent Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright crossover only saw a retail version because Nintendo published it. Yet that's somehow fitting. As a defense attorney, Phoenix Wright himself is constantly belittled and outclassed. He's a perpetual underdog who only turns the tables when the prosecution's at its smuggest and the court's just about to condemn an innocent. Perhaps we're approaching that key moment.

As we wait for the inevitable turnaround of Phoenix Wright in the West, the Ace Attorney Trilogy is a useful way to see just where the series began. Phoenix is a fresh young attorney in the prosecution-favoring legal system of modern Japan alternate-reality Los Angeles, and he's thrown into court with a variety of conniving witnesses, condescending prosecutors, and an unstoppable tide of sudden, shocking revelations. Things progress with linear flow: Phoenix questions witnesses, uncovers evidence, and objects to anything spurious. And it's all wonderful. The characters are charming, the storylines shoot off in unexpected trajectories, and the localization is peppered with names like Winston Payne and Maggey Byrde.

Some hold the original three games to be the best. It's no secret that creator Shu Takumi is a little tired of the usual Phoenix Wright shenanigans; he recently played with medieval witch trials in Layton vs. Wright, and his new legal-action title is set in Meiji-era Japan. The initial trilogy was as far as he first intended to take the series, and it forms a fairly cohesive tale. The games all look a little better with HD enhancements and optional 3-D, and this is among the rare releases that can be played in Japanese or English. That's not the same as having a Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy box and a cell-phone charm on your shelf, but it counts.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend hits Steam on December 11. This isn't the brand-new BlazBlue. That'd be Chrono Phantasma. Extend is just an enhanced version of an older BlazBlue with extra storylines, a survival-style Unlimited Mars Mode, the handheld ports' Abyss Mode, and a few other perks. It's also on Steam, which makes a big difference to some fighting-game folk.

The day after that, Steam gets The King of Fighters '98 Ultimate Match Final Edition. It's the latest and allegedly last version of what many consider the best competitive King of Fighters game, with a 64-character roster and a feature that lets players combine the game's Extra and Advanced Modes. And it has online play, of course. With no King of Fighters XIV in sight, Ultimate Match and the upcoming Steam launch of King of Fighters 2002 Unlimited Match seem the best way to get in touch with the series.

EXTRA LIVES: LAST BATTLE

If you were among the few who bought a Sega Genesis at its late 1989 launch, years before Sonic the Hedgehog came along, you had limited choices. You'd soon finish the short and silly Altered Beast that came with the console, and Sega provided only five other launch games: Space Harrier II, Super Thunder Blade, Tommy Lasorda Baseball, Thunder Force II, and a martial-arts action game called Last Battle.

You probably wouldn't know much about Fist of the North Star by this point. Viz Comics had just released a few issues of the manga in North America, and Taxan published a game for the NES. Yet the anime series proved too gruesome to suit 1980s American airwaves, barring some premium cable outfit airing it (which wasn't so farfetched, since TMS pitched Space Adventure Cobra to the Playboy Channel). In a few years, Streamline would dub and release the gloriously distasteful movie, but in 1989 few people outside of an anime club would recognize Last Battle as a remodeled Fist of the North Star game.

Sega had done this before. In 1986, the company turned a Fist of the North Star brawler into Black Belt for the Sega Master System, replacing post-apocalyptic wastelands with more conventional pagodas and modern cities. Sega took a lighter touch with Last Battle. The war-ravaged ruins of civilization remain, and the hero is still a beefy martial-arts genius who destroys marauding gangs and insidious warlords by punching and/or kicking them into oblivion. Much of the dialogue remains intact and inane, trimming down the storyline of the second Fist of the North Star TV series into a few conversations and vague plot threads.

Sega renamed the characters, though. Fist of the North Star's indomitable Hokuto Shinken master Kenshiro is now a Jet-Kwon-Do expert called Aarzak, rebel leader Lin is Alyssa, her childhood pal Bat is Max, Mamiya is Luisa, Ein is Gere, and the Hokuto Ryuken trio of Kaioh, Han, and Hyou becomes Garokk, Gromm, and Gross. Sega even recolored many of the characters, turning Hulk Hogan lookalike Bask into a glowing green giant and giving first-round boss Solia blue hair and darker skin.

Yet Last Battle remains much the same in gameplay. Like Kenshiro, Aarzak walks through side-scrolling levels, and enemies rush him from both sides—first with clubs and spears, and later with flamethrowers and motorcycles. Arrows and boulders and other mundane hazards trouble Aarzak here and there, and bosses get their own life meters and imposing attacks.

There's one major difference, however. When Aarzak defeats an enemy in Last Battle, that enemy will fly back and disappear off the screen.

When Kenshiro destroys a foe in the original Fist of the North Star game…well, said foe suffers the same gruesome fate that awaits any thug stupid enough to mess with Kenshiro. Sega removed the exploding-head feature when revamping the game into Last Battle, though defeated bosses still show signs of their original fates. They'll bubble up like Hokuto Shinken victims would, and then they'll disappear in a burst of green. Why didn't Sega do the same for the regular enemies and deem them mutants exploding with radioactive goo? Would that still be too extreme?

At the very least, monster-green bloodsprays would give players something to look at during the thorough slog of Last Battle. Aarzak wanders one tedious stage after another, and the occasional maze levels are even less interesting. Bosses present little variety, and beating them is usually a matter of raising your levels and locking them into a pattern. Aarzak gets few enhancements, but if you beat enough enemies, he'll shed his shirt and gain more useful kicks and punches.

There isn't much to see in Last Battle. Early Genesis titles made an impression by replicating contemporary arcade games, and even Altered Beast showed off some striking effects and neat monsters rather close to the coin-op version. Last Battle has few high points. The characters are larger than what you'd see on an NES or Master System offerings, but the backgrounds are drab and the music is uninspired. It's all a step back from Altered Beast, which at least had goofy voiceovers for you and your friends to imitate.

What did Last Battle offer eager new Genesis owners? Longevity. In contrast to the linear approaches of many other action games, Last Battle's stages are maps, and the game can be bitterly hard for players who don't pick the right paths and raise their skill levels before taking on a boss. There's a lot of territory to cover, even if most of it consists of drab plains and demolished cities full of slow-witted punks. For the Genesis kids who valued games solely on long they lasted, Last Battle was a five-pound bag of candy corn. You might not like it, but it kept you busy.

Overhauls like Last Battle grew more and more rare as the years went by and anime gained traction on these shores. It's an antique from a time where video games had no interest in Japan-exclusive cartoons and no tolerance for gruesome exploding heads. That gives it a minor novelty in this day and age, and Fist of the North Star fans may enjoy seeing familiar characters recast with neon colors and names like Cynara and Zee-Bee. Yet there's no more value in Last Battle.

Last Battle is pretty easy to find among old Genesis games, and it shouldn't run more than ten or fifteen bucks for a complete copy. That might be because most Sega Genesis titles don't inspire the same collector frenzy as old Nintendo titles from the era…or maybe it's just that no one wants Last Battlevery much.


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


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