The X Button - Exclusive Exclusions

by Todd Ciolek,

I complain about game systems this week. It's mostly to do with a paucity of those exclusive titles that make consoles stand out, but there's an even more superficial matter at hand. I think the modern era's game systems are dull in appearance.

Game systems range in design from boxy VCR-shaped blandness to toylike blobs, but the most memorable evoke their eras. The Atari 2600 wouldn't have the same look without the wood-grain paneling that marks it as a late 1970s creature, while the Sega Master System (above) has a faux-techno faceplate rarely seen on anything outside of kids' skateboards and t-shirts from the mid-1980s. Even more mundane designs, like the original Sony PlayStation, can have an appealing mixture of circles and angles.

My personal favorite game console design, however, is the second version of the Sega Genesis. Compared to inelegant architecture like the TurboGrafx-16 and the Super NES, the Genesis 2 is a masterwork of sleek minimalism, shaped and hued like a sports car purring outside an L.A. nightclub. It made playing games feel just a little cooler. I'm sure you can find a similar appeal in your favorite system design.

I always liked the streamlined, no-frills look of the Genesis 2, and I assume that others did as well. That's part of the problem. Too many modern game consoles have the same appearance: flat black boxes. They light up and they swallow discs, and that's about it. Even the Wii U has a rather basic appearance. Really, I like my electronics to be dark-toned. That way it's less noticeable when someone spills cocoa or a bin 40 merlot on it. But game systems don't have to be so drearily uniform about it.

NEWS

PERSONA 5 SHOWS ITSELF GOOD AND PROPER
We saw hints and flashes and vague trailers before, but it's good that Atlus finally put together a decent look at Persona 5. Now fans can stop speculating madly over next to nothing and start speculating madly over two minutes and 48 seconds of game footage, plus whatever else Atlus drizzles out.

Persona 5 chooses a slick urban stage of skyscrapers and crowded rogue subway trains, and to accompany it there's a slightly more sophisticated take on the inevitable teenage heroes. Our protagonist is a transfer student (of course) who leads a team of thieves—not stodgy professional thieves, but the sort of gaudy, masked, eccentric thieves who we so often see in anime and video games. If you need further clues about the inspiration at play, look to the main character's basic summonable Persona entity. It's named Arsene, as in Leblanc's Arsene Lupin (and, by derivative extension, Lupin III). His classmates and partners in possible crime are the rambunctious blond Ryuji Sakamoto and the more practical, darker-blond Anne Takamaki. For the animal sidekick, we have Morgana, who shapeshifts from a conventional cat to cartoonish form.

Our hero also seems just a little more interesting than the protagonists for Persona 3 and 4. He's the new kid in town who lives above a coffee shop run by family friends, in typical fashion. He does, however, have a certain psychological issue that he'll have to address. It's likely connected to all of the conformist, mentally imprisoned imagery that director Katsuhiro Hashino favors in this fifth (or sixth) Persona. The lead character doesn't have an official name just yet, and he likely won't get one until the spin-offs and crossovers with other Persona titles. We may see those somewhere down the line. Persona 5's trailer has a background TV showing someone who looks like Rise, Persona 4's pop-idol, so character loans aren't out of the question.

The most interesting thing about Persona 5's hero is, of course, his new line of work. Persona 4 set up the protagonist and his friends as a pack of teenage detectives, but their journeys through psychological dimensional dungeons were standard RPG play. Persona 5's trailer shows the lead jumping across chandeliers, ducking through corridors, and vexing Inspector Zeniga…well, the protagonist goes places and maneuvers himself in ways his predecessors never could.

Atlus obviously has more characters to introduce, but Persona 5 already looks coalesced. I admit that I doubted the game's late 2015 release date for both Japan and North America, especially after it expanded into PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 editions. Yet it seems we could be stealing across Shibuya ceilings and exploring the bizarre hang-ups of teenage criminals by the end of the year.

SPELUNKER Z IS FREE, PROBABLY FRUSTRATING
I never played Spelunker when I was a child, and I remember it specifically because of that. A neighbor kid owned the NES version, and I asked if we could try it one afternoon. He replied that he wasn't allowed to play it because it gave him headaches. At the time I assumed the game's graphics somehow induced seizures, but now I think he just got frustrated with Spelunker killing off its caver hero if he so much as jumped from a ledge half his height. I'd make up excuses not to play that.

Spelunker holds a special place in the hearts of some, however, and so Square Enix and Tozai Games have Spelunker Z headed to the PlayStation 4. It's a simple, free-to-play side-scroller that invites up to six players to explore caverns together, and both animal companions and treasures aid them in their exploration. It's out in Japan on March 19, and I rather hope it comes to North America. No neighbor kid will keep me from trying this new Spelunker.

GAME CONSOLES: THE ONE YEAR WHINE

One PlayStation 4 game interested me above all others last year. It was Guilty Gear Xrd. Yes, the same Guilty Gear Xrd that's available on the PlayStation 3 in nearly identical form. The PlayStation 4 version just looks better.

That isn't to say that the PlayStation 4 lacks good games. It just lacks good games that you can't get anywhere else. The same goes for the Xbox One. We can excuse this to a small degree. The two systems both emerged a little over a year ago, and it takes a while for a console to gather its vital exclusives. Taking stock of them now isn't really fair. Yet even at this early point, they're a strange contrast to prior generations.

Games define a console, and the best consoles had loyal subjects from the start. Systems of the Atari era saw much overlap in the arcade games they hosted, including Donkey Kong and Pac-Man, but the Atari 2600 and ColecoVision still had exclusives. The gap grew wider after the Atari crash. The Nintendo Entertainment System dominated the Sega Master System, but rarely did the same game release on both consoles. As the 1990s came around, the biggest games straddled different systems, with Mortal Kombat marking one of the era's major multi-format releases, and yet few would complain that the Super NES and Sega Genesis libraries mirrored each other too much. And so it continued with the PlayStation and Sega Saturn, the Nintendo 64 and the Dreamcast, and the royal rumble of the PlayStation 2, GameCube, and original Xbox.

The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 stuck closer together. With the prevalence of Steam and the rising budgets of major releases, companies had no reason to stick with a sole console. Exclusives would always pop up, but there arose a new baseline of high-profile games to be had everywhere. For the players who simply wanted the latest major Call of Duty, Street Fighter, or Assassin's Creed, it didn't matter which consoles they had. Unless it was the Pippin or the Playdia.

We now find the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One sharing many new releases with the past console generation. Grab the latest Resident Evil sequel or Dragon Ball fighter or long-awaited Guilty Gear return for your PlayStation 4 if you like, but it's not so different from what you'll get on the PlayStation 3. It's far less fun than the first-year releases of prior generations, when new systems usually had titles of their own to show off. Some of them were Halo and some were Battle Arena Toshinden, but even the brief, superficial diversions felt like something new. That's harder to find in this era, when many PS4 and Xbox One exclusives seem glossed-up familiar offerings.

Yet this won't last for too long. Next week brings around Sony's The Order: 1886, a PlayStation 4 action-horror about monstrous doings in alt-history Victorian London. Opinion remains divided over whether it's a classy break from modern shooter trappings or a grab-bag of zombie-steampunk trends, but it's certainly one of the sharpest-looking exclusives for the system.

Sony's made efforts to lock down promising titles as their own. Bloodborne, From Software's successor to the Dark Souls series of acerbic action games, is headed only to the PlayStation 4 next month. The next Disgaea, the beautifully subdued Rime, the forth (or fifth?) Uncharted, and the horror-game Until Dawn, remain unique to the PlayStation 4, and even an unexpected Shadow of the Beast revival will land there and apparently stay there. Also interesting is Sony's snaring of Street Fighter V, though that's apparently just to keep it away from the Xbox One. A PC version with cross-play options will arrive, which takes a bit of the competitive edge off the game's PlayStation 4 seating. It's nothing to rival the Super NES coup of Street Fighter II back in 1992.

Notable Xbox One exclusives so far lean toward digital releases like D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die, the widely disliked Crimson Dragon, or even the Killer Instinct revival. Larger games await, though. Platinum Games has its dragon-themed action title Scalebound in line for the Xbox, and Microsoft proper plans a Crackdown revamp, a fifth Halo, a Phantom Dust return, the all-new Quantum Break (below), and a largely unspecified Gears of War in mind. More curious projects lurk in the margins. Moss has a new Raiden in the works, and Mages. and 5pb. plan a Psycho-Pass game despite the dismal reception of their Xbox One exclusive Chaos;Child.

Nintendo's Wii U, of course, has never wanted for exclusives. Mario, Zelda, Kirby, and other Nintendo staples rarely travel off the company's systems, and those first-party mainstays keep Nintendo consoles afloat. The Wii U's problem lies within those reliable exclusives. Most of them are the same properties we've seen before, and even relatively new offerings like Bayonetta 2 and Xenoblade Chronicles X are sequels. Splatoon stands out as a novel creation while Shigeru Miyamoto promises new titles further down the road, but the Wii U lacks the more intriguing Nintendo-backed creations from the Wii. There's little to compare to The Last Story, Pandora's Tower, Captain Rainbow, and even mainstream dabbling like Disaster: Day of Crisis. But hey, the Wii U has Tomonobu Itagaki's The Devil's Third, which started off as a PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 title. Nintendo struck a blow for exclusivity!

Is the lack of exclusive games even bad? It spares us having to buy multiple systems just for one game—or any systems at all, if we're content with Steam titles. Yet I still see something unique eroded. A game system doesn't feel right without its signature games, those keystone experiences that made you hang onto your behemoth original Xbox just so you could fire up Panzer Dragoon Orta. Without those, game consoles won't set themselves apart.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

DEAD OR ALIVE 5: LAST ROUND
Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Tecmo KOEI
Platform: PlayStation 3/PlayStation 4/Xbox 360/Xbox One/Windows
Release Date: February 20
Still Missing: Irene Lew
MSRP: $39.99

As upgrades go, Last Round is minimal, a few options and extras that the dealership might throw in with their special insurance package. It's much the same as last year's Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate, but you get two new characters, two new stages, and about thirty new costumes. Those costumes are apparently very important to Dead or Alive, which follows the same rule as Halloween getups for women. Among them are sexy soldiers, sexy angels, sexy motorcylists, sexy cowgirls, and sexy Santa's Helpers. Technically, the last one is more of a Christmas theme, but Dead or Alive neglects few occasions in its sexy purview.

More important are the new characters, one of whom technically isn't new. He's Raidou, the boss of the original Dead or Alive. Series heroine Kasumi supposedly offed him in the first game, but Raidou returns through that most ludicrous of all resurrection methods: the zombie cyborg. He likely won't be as popular as the other new character, who's yet another buxom young woman with martial-arts prowess (and, of course, a penchant for sexy costumes). She's Honoka, an 18-year-old prodigy who built her own style of martial arts. Last Round is also the first Dead or Alive on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and those versions look nicer. They're also available in "Core Fighters" free-to-play releases that offer only four characters to start, with the rest available as DLC.

Of course, half the fun of Last Round comes from seeing just how Tomunobu Itagaki will react to it. As creator of the series, the ever-outspoken Itagaki made numerous jabs at Tecmo since he left the company in 2008, and he remarked “my daughter was totally ruined, spoiled” when asked what he thought of Dead or Alive 5. Maybe the developers of Last Round will fire back with some in-jokes.

KIRBY AND THE RAINBOW CURSE
Developer: HAL Laboratory
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Wii U
Release Date: February 20
Alternate Use: Window Caulk
MSRP: $39.99

Video games use claymation far less often than they should. Aside from the Neverhood titles and the long-forgotten Clayfighter series, most games avoid it. Technically, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse isn't made with clay; it's just computer animation convincing enough to resemble Aardman cartoons, Will Vinton shorts, or a pastel-colored Gumby. And it's good that it does. Claymation is an underappreciated medium with a long history of entertaining viewers while inducting them into a world where even the harmless and cute seem abstract and uneasy. Still, you can assume that Kirby and the Rainbow Curse won't go to a netherspace where Mark Twain's darkest creation makes and horrifically murders a tiny kingdom of living mud figures.

Kirby and the Rainbow Curse picks up the gameplay of Kirby: Canvas Curse on the DS. After his homeland is drained of all color, Kirby meets a rainbow fairy named Rainbow Brite Eleene and heads out to restore a natural hue. For his quest Kirby assumes a slightly more spherical shape, and the player maneuvers him by drawing a rainbow trail with the Wii U's gamepad. Sometimes Kirby simply rolls along the multicolored track, looping and falling as the player directs. At some points he'll be carried along by other forces, and the rainbow acts as a barrier against various hazards. It's arranged much like a side-scroller, and the level design and boss battle show off the same gimmicks as regular Kirby titles. It's all made more unique by the rolling track…and the clay look of things.

Up to four players can join the game, with the three non-Kirby roles filled by Waddle Dee. As with a good many Nintendo Wii U titles, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse supports appropriate Amiibo figures: Kirby, Meta Knight, and King Dedede. That'll move a few of those Kirby figures hogging the shelves at TOYS R US.

Also Available:
Sony ships out the year's first big PlayStation 4 exclusive with The Order: 1886. It's staged in an alternate take on history, and a long-term take at that: a chunk of humanity mutated into Resident Evil creatures back in the middle ages, and the non-mutants formed their own cadres of hunters to fight back the atavistic forces. It's now 1886, and the player controls one of the Knights, an organization that traces its monster-hunting all the way back to King Arthur. Of course, there's a bunch of steampunk technology to assist hunters as they roam upper and lower London and gun down pseudo-zombies. On the one hand, it's visually impressive. On the other hand, it's a steampunk turn on a common cliche.


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


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