The X Button - Blazing Trialsby Todd Ciolek,
I mentioned Hi-sCoool! SeHa Girls a few weeks ago, as it does its best to broadside game nerds, and Sega nerds in particular, with their favorite things. It follows the school days of three giant-headed girls, and each is based on a Sega system: Dreamcast is ditzy and earnest, Saturn is sensible and picky, and Mega Drive is shy and bookish (which doesn't make sense until you consider that the Mega Drive wasn't too popular in Japan). The three of them earn course credits by taking on Sega games like Virtua Fighter, Space Channel 5, Puyo Puyo, Sakura Wars, and the least embarrassing incarnation of Sonic the Hedgehog. So the in-jokes and running gags and unbearably sugar-coated dance routines flow freely.
At first I didn't care much for SeHa Girls, but I wound up developing a strange respect for the show. The Sega jokes will miss by country miles if you never played a Dreamcast or spent good time at Space Harrier, but there's some humor beyond that. Director Sota Sugahara plays up the same slightly askew comedy seen in his gdgd Fairies show, and it captures Sega's unique place as the game industry's most endearing underdog. It's even a little heartwarming toward the end, when the three students head off into the world and become actual Sega hardware, vowing to bring joy to fans everywhere.
SeHa Girls is calculated to leech at both nostalgia and anime-fan sensibilities, and I have no doubt that you'll see Saturn and Dreamcast and Mega Drive merchandise before long. Yet I don't mind. It's a cute reminder that even if video games are silly, they'll make a lot of people a little happier.
There's another reason I can't be too hard on SeHa Girls, and I'll get to it later in the column.
NINTENDO DIRECT SHOWS NEW 3DS, NEW FIRE EMBLEM, XENOBLADE EMPTINESS
The highlight of last week's Nintendo Direct was, in my opinion, the first footage of a new Fire Emblem game. However, I saw far more people talking about the new 3DS handheld's North American release. The revised little gadget has a second analog nub, a new eye-tracking system for its 3-D feature, a faster processor, and the ability to interact with those hot-commodity Amiibo figures.
The big XL version of the system is out on February 13 alongside a bundle that includes The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, and the regular-size one is…not coming to North America. Also, the system doesn't include an AC adaptor. Such was Nintendo's practice for the older 3DS XL in Japan and Europe, and now the idea's spread to North American units. The original 3DS charger will work on the new system, but I nevertheless predict a lot of irked parents when the New 3DS XL arrives here.
Now, about that new Fire Emblem. Nintendo showed a trailer for “the latest in the Fire Emblem series,” leaving it without a title for now. It appears to be reasonably far along, however, as the trailer followed its impressive opening number (some of the characters practically look like Claymation) with the usual Fire Emblem staples of strategic battles, team-up attacks, dramatic oaths, and pegasus knights. It also addresses one of my big complaints about the Fire Emblem series: that generic veneer atop everything. Past Fire Emblems felt much the same to me in terms of storylines, settings, artwork, and characters. Despite their subtle differences, they usually found simple anime-fantasy heroes and heroines questing in a largely medieval world of castles and dragons and world-threatening monstrosities. Fire Emblem: Awakening beat this back with a more dynamic look and an excellent localization, and the latest game stakes out even more new ground for the series.
The trailer ventures a little outside the usual European fantasy, including armored warriors and wooden homes seemingly extracted from Sengoku-era Japan, and characters have names like Kamui and Honoka alongside more typical Fire Emblem titles like Felicia and Ganz. Even the sight of a regally seated old man frowning as a blue-haired woman twirls around a theater seems a little more Italian Renaissance than Fire Emblem's typical eras of inspiration. Many of the trailer's other characters still match the fantasy baseline, though all of them have feet this time around.
There are maids, though, and I think I hate them already.
Nintendo also had a new trailer for Xenoblade Chronicles X, spiritual follow-up to the wide-open RPG that amazed a lot of people on the Wii. The latest look was all about exploration, so we got eyefuls of jungle vistas, mist-shrouded cliffs, shimmering peaks, gorgeous beaches, and spaceship wreckage. That'd be the protagonists' ship in this case, as Xenoblade Chronicles follows Earth explorers after their vessel, besieged by alien attackers, crash-lands on a hostile world.
The elaborate sights and bizarre creatures (one even looks like the unused worm boss from Shadow of the Colossus) are impressive, but I still find the game a little empty. Perhaps it's the lack of character. If the original Xenoblade had a typical RPG plotline, it at least wrapped things in novelty. The elaborate world was the surface of two dead giant creatures, and that lent an undeniable mystique to the sights and discoveries. The sequel, by contrast, seems to have the same setup as the recent Phantasy Star Nova, and it features such routine roles as a sensible squad-leader sidekick, a teenage mechanic, and a rascally Nopon alien called Tatsu. There isn't even a main character beyond the avatar the player customizes. The constant voice clips in Xenoblade got old quick, but I wonder if its successor's apparent blandness will have me longing for shouts of Reyn Time.
We'll see Xenoblade Chronicles X before long, as producer Shingo Kawabata confirmed that a localization's on track for this year. He didn't mention who would handle the translation, and I hope against logic that Nintendo of Europe nabs it. They did a good job with Xenoblade Chronicles, and the follow-up won't be the same without little Nopons squeaking “Yes now?” and “Greetings!” Talking to Nopons probably added a good ten hours to my Xenoblade play clock.
In other Nintendo Direct news, the proper Amiibo figures can unlock Fire Emblem characters in the upcoming Codename S.T.E.A.M. strategy-RPG, and the game's out on February 13. Wii titles are now on the Wii U's Virtual Console, with Super Mario Galaxy 2 out now, Punch-Out! coming this week, and the collectible Metroid Prime Trilogy available on January 29. Etrian Mystery Dungeon, the crossover between Etrian Odyssey and the Mystery Dungeon series, arrives April 7. Mario Party 10 will have its own Amiibo line as well as compatibility with the right previously released figures, and the Toad Amiibo will work with Captain Toad's Treasure Tracker.
CLUB NINTENDO CLOSING
Club Nintendo was a pleasant bonus for anyone who bought the company's titles: fill out a survey, get points, and spend those points on merchandise and free game downloads. The trinkets ranged from game cases to Luigi-themed stationery, and those who amassed enough points each year got special rewards. Come June 30, however, the rewards will cease and Club Nintendo will shut down. A new program will be along in time to reward faithful feeders at the Nintendo trough, but the old Club's points won't carry over.
Longtime patrons of Club Nintendo likely noticed a shift over the years. First the annual gold and platinum awards went from handsome Mario statues to smaller fare like calendars and playing cards, and then more and more downloadable games displaced Yoshi pencil cases and Pikmin tote bags among the shop's regular rewards. Nintendo clearly saw little value in keeping the Club running as it was. The store won't disintegrate until this summer, but many now scramble to buy what they want before it's out of stock—NES Remix T-Shirts and 3DS game cases already disappeared from the shop. At this writing the store still has Mario cards and Super Smash Bros. posters (above), so now's the time to nab those and show your devotion to Rosalina or the Animal Crossing villager.
At least one more reward is coming: Nintendo plans to give Flipnote Studio 3D to all Club members in February. If there are any more additions to the store, I expect they'll be digital titles instead of physical items. Still, I'll hoard my points just in case a nice set of The Last Story teacups pops up in the dying days of Club Nintendo.
CROWDFUNDING FILES: THE LAST MOON SHADOW
IGNEOS: THE LAST PHOENIX
Ends: Thursday, February 19
How many games allow you to play as a phoenix? It's a good question. Summoning them or sprinkling their down on fallen comrades in Final Fantasy certainly doesn't count. Momentarily transforming in Terra Cresta or The Krion Conquest isn't fair, either. Even the 1980 arcade game Phoenix was about spaceships and aliens more than mythic birds of flame. I'm sure that Phoenix-centric games came before, but Igneos: The Last Phoenix is playing in unique territory. It follows a fire-coated bird named Pharos through the ruins of a mysteriously dilapidated world, and the avian hero contends with enemies and puzzles along the way.
Igneos nails a lot of my predilections. A restraint similar to Shadow of the Colossus overrides much of the design, from the strange vestiges of an entire civilization to the plague-doctor look of the game's basic crow enemies. It's the sort of subdued, simplified tone I never tire of seeing in video games. Not that Igneos shuns every familiar conceit. The phoenix gathers fiery plumage to refill a health meter, and attack range from close-range scratching to wide bursts of flame. The prototype's aerial combat shows promise, and the phoenix's light casts an interesting hue across the ruinscape of the world. The game seems largely sewn up; the Kickstarter is primarily for upgrading the engine, smoothing it out, and perhaps adding a final boss. If this is the first game to star a phoenix in a long time, it may well be the best.
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux
Ends: Thursday, February 12
An awful lot of the games on Kickstarter use deliberately simple pixel-made artwork. The easy accusation is that they're panning for nostalgia, but I think a lot of them need that simpler style, that abstract look. For example, I doubt that a modern triple-A game's budget and character models and voice acting would suit a tale about a featureless green man descending from the moon and rejuvenating a forest at the request of a mollusk sorcerer. That's the story behind Moonman, an adventure game where a green hero digs up lunar fragments in a bizarre little world.
Moonman procedurally generates villages and mine-able areas for its hero to explore, though the regions follow certain clichés. There's a forest, a volcano chain, a mountainous kingdom, and a torchlit dungeon. The Moonman himself unearths a variety of artifacts and raw materials, including suits of armor that grant special powers…and make him look like a skeleton, an owl, or a pig. The last of these might mean something, considering his inherent vague resemblance to Kermit the Frog.
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Oculus Rift
Ends: Thursday, February 19
I'll give Strafe credit for one of the most memorable pitch videos on Kickstarter. It's straight out of fretful PTA meetings and concerned senate hearings of the mid-1990s, a celebration of violent first-person shooters that plays out like a Jack Chick comic. The rest of the Kickstarter keeps up the act and makes plain that Strafe is the fast-paced, completely unbridled murderfest that every Doom-adoring teenager wanted to make back in 1995, but here it's crafted in pixelly gore instead of study-hall notebook doodles.
Strafe finds players warping onto a mysteriously lost deep-space freighter now dominated by horrific creatures and hostile machines, and the carnage ensues on levels generated at random. That's one thing first-person shooters of the 1990s rarely enjoyed, but the rest of Strafe doesn't look that different from a particularly ambitious Quake modification. The environments seen so far resemble the gray halls of numerous 1990s shooters, and the enemies seem unique only in the amount of blood they produce. Still, there's potential in Strafe. Weapons have secondary attacks, armor can be customized or sold for power-ups, and both ideas might work nicely in chaotic, random stages. I do think there's a place for a vicious, unpretentious game that's pretty much the first-person shooter equivalent of BloodStorm, and Strafe has little competition there.
Shadowrun Returns was among the first big Kickstarter successes, a reimagining of a classic tabletop RPG series that consumed me far too often as a middle-schooler. It saw a follow-up in Dragonfall, and it now returns to Kickstarter with Shadowrun: Hong Kong. It drops a player-created character into the Free Enterprise Zone's mix of warring criminals and arcane magic, and it follows Dragonfall's design in offering a mix of allies with names like Gobbet and Racter. The only downside? So far, Shadowrun's version of Hong Kong doesn't look that different from Shadowrun's version of Seattle or Berlin. Given my choice of destination, I would've preferred the Shadowrun tour of the Central American nation of Atzlan or the realm of Tir Tairngire…which is actually Oregon, but run by cyberpunk elves.
Lastly, I'd like to direct you to the Patreon for Shmuplations, a site that specializes in translating old interviews from Japanese sources. Despite the shoot-'em-up moniker, the curator handles many different genres. There's a massive list of interviews that might be translated, and the subjects range from company overviews and classic titles to unreleased games like Vasum and Arena. It's perfect for anyone interested in Japan's game industry and frustrated by how much of it remains obscure. You'll even see an interview about Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis! No one ever talks about Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis, even though they should!
NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES
GRIM FANDANGO REMASTERED
Developer: Double Fine/LucasArts
Publisher: Double Fine
Platform: Windows / Mac / Linux / PlayStation 4 / PlayStation Vita
Release Date: January 27
Non-Playable Cameo: Robert Frost
Grim Fandango remains the best graphic adventure game in history. That's a more contested claim than you might think. Graphic adventures aren't as common now as they were in decades past, but those eras brought around The Secret of Monkey Island, Loom, Gabriel Knight, The Last Express, Sam and Max Hit the Road, Leisure Suit Larry, King's Quest, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, Inherit the Earth: Quest for the Orb, Dark Seed, Dreamweb, and many other games that hinged on dialogue and puzzles more than anything. Yet I'll put Grim Fandango ahead of them all. My apologies, Leisure Suit Larry 4.
Part of Grim Fandango's charm comes from its vision of the afterlife: an art-deco noir land peopled by Day of the Dead decorative skeletons. Manny Calavera is a travel agent offering packages to ferry the newly deceased to the next world as quickly as possible. He's not very good at this, as his clients are only virtuous enough to quality for walking sticks and complimentary mugs. Change arrives with Mercedes Colomar, a departed soul whose noble life should get her a spot on an express train. Manny's quite taken with her and quite curious to find out why she doesn't merit a nice travel package, and his curiosity lands him squarely in the middle of criminal syndicates, revolutionary movements, a literal speed-demon joyride, a year-long casino stint, and a journey across the underworld. Yet it's the writing that seals everything. Carried by first-rate voice acting, Grim Fandango is a wealth of funny lines, charming characters, memorable scenes, and touching moments without a hint of bathos.
The Remastered version of Grim Fandango upgrades appearances, with better lighting, higher-res backgrounds and characters, and a re-recorded orchestral soundtrack. Most importantly, though, the new version grafts a point-and-click interface onto the game, making it closer to the LucasArts classics of old. The original graphics and controls are still available, just in case you prefer shuffling Manny around like a Resident Evil operative. Either way you approach it, though, Grim Fandango's on the short list of games I think everyone should play.
HYPERDIMENSION NEPTUNIA RE;BIRTH2: SISTERS GENERATION
Developer: Compile Heart
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Release Date: January 27
Still Unrepresented: The FM Towns Marty
As I said above, Hi-sCool! SeHa Girls wasn't such a bad show. It cheerfully pandered with its Sega in-jokes and anime-girl avatars of game consoles, yet I couldn't be so harsh on it. That's because its premise reminded me of Neptunia. The Neptunia series shares the same axial gimmick of characters who embody game systems, yet it delivers a lineup of revealingly dressed, hi-tech superheroines who quibble less over software controversies than they do cup sizes. SeHa Girls seems like a Ghibli film by comparison.
When not abusing punctuation, Hyperdimension Neptunia Re:Birth2: Sisters Generation reimagines the second Neptunia game. The storyline remains largely unchanged: the once-cheerful land of Gamindustri (yes) is blighted by the counterfeiting powers of Arfoire. The first Neptunia game's patron goddesses of the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii, and Sega Neptune (yes) are all captured, leaving former heroine Neptunia's younger sister Nepgear to mount a rescue with her fellow junior deities, including PSP avatar Uni and the Nintendo DS twins of Ram and Rom. All of them can morph into techno-fetish forms, just as in the first game, but there's one difference. Instead of controlling a squad of voluptuous, scantily clad anime heroines, the player controls a squad of noticeably younger, scantily clad anime heroines. Creepy.
Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth2 endeavors to improve the gameplay of earlier Neptunia titles, which even fans of the series tend to criticize. This remake uses the same battle system as Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory, and character actually jump as they roam around. The playable party also expands to the Gamindustri oracles, and the storyline adds Red from other Neptunia games. She's the anime embodiment of developer Red Company, and she's in love with the game's abstraction of publisher Idea Factory. That might sound like some subtle joke about game-industry relationships (since Red almost never works alone), but Neptunia invariably serves it up with titillation.
I can't say what made the good people of Natsume decide on S.C.A.T. as the North American title for their NES space shooter back in 1991. Perhaps they didn't know about the acronym's naughty connotations. Perhaps they did. But S.C.A.T. it was called, and S.C.A.T. will be available on the Wii U and 3DS Virtual Console this week. It came out for the Wii's Virtual Console years ago, but it's worth revisiting if you'd like a good action game in the Forgotten Worlds/Trouble Shooter vein. Or if you just want to make crude jokes about downloading it.
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