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The X Button
Toukiden Talk

by Todd Ciolek,
I don't think I've talked about The Power Team here, even though it's the sort of odd video-game cultural relic I always enjoy discussing. Well, I'll fix that! I'm talking about The Power Team, a cartoon by-product of the rampant Nintendo obsession that so many kids shared back around 1990.

The Power Team was part of a larger TV series called Video Power. Most remember Video Power as a game show where kids played the latest titles while a host named Johnny Arcade mugged with a fervor excessive even for the neon-lit, zebra-striped, dude-with-a-tude epoch that was early 1990s kids TV. The winners of the game-related competitions got to run through a maze and Velcro all sorts of games to themselves. Few kids of the day would neglect the chance to turn themselves into a veritable golem of video games (even if those games were American Gladiators and Total Recall), and so the game-show version of Video Power looms large in nostalgia.

Before Video Power was a game show, however, it merely featured its excitable host discussing games in between the animated adventures of an all-star outfit called The Power Team. Nintendo had assembled a not-unsuccessful cartoon by plucking characters from various games and calling the whole thing Captain N: The Game Master. Video Power tried the same angle, but their cast choices were limited to Acclaim titles. This would be the same Acclaim that put out countless mediocre NES games and very few good ones. The result was something that you'd never see again.

As the vending-machine equivalent of Captain N's lineup, The Power Team consists of police officer Max Force from NARC, basketball player Tyrone from Arch Rivals, barbarian hero Kuros from Wizards and Warriors, the punk-tomato Kwirk, and the monster truck Bigfoot. Oh, and a cartoon version of Johnny Arcade, because every cartoon of this period needed a mundane human. Personally, I'd have gone with a series based on Vic Tokai characters instead. Billy “Big Bang” Blitz, Madison, Crystal, Kid Kool, Francesca, Tom Guycot and a kid-safe Golgo 13 are perfect syndicated cartoon stars.

The Power Team should be a bizarre cavalcade, considering the concept, but it's largely drab. The writers immediately resort to the most simple clichés, so you'll get a cartoon where a talking Bigfoot truck helps stop a flood, where a shades-sporting tomato recovers a visiting Arabian prince's treasure map, or a Very Special Episode where the whole team tracks down a deaf girl who ran away from home. It may be even more boring than Captain N, though at least the Power Team characters resemble their video-game incarnations more closely than Captain N's lumpy green munchkin Mega Man.

The most notable thing about The Power Team may be the show's obscurity. Countless old cartoons, no matter how awful, became YouTube discoveries and bootleg DVD sets in time, but The Power Team was a strange no-show for many years. Even now, with pretty much the entire run of Video Power online, rumors persist of Power Team episodes that were never aired due to the show switching formats. And still no one cares much. As animated shows with fan followings rate, The Power Team is down there with Piggsburg Pigs! and Wildfire.

But back then? It didn't matter. We watched this stuff as raptly as the audience at a Vatican midnight mass. Our video-game culture was still a toylike side attraction rarely mentioned in the mainstream media beyond news stories about this “Super Nintendo,” so kids instinctively swarmed any TV show dedicated to our favorite pastime. We didn't care how hideous Captain N looked, how cheesy Video Power's competitions felt, or how bland the Power Team might be. For half an hour, they made us feel that a TV show truly understood.

NEWS

TRI-ACE MARCHES OFF INTO MOBILE-GAME MINES
The downfall of a Japanese game studio is hard to predict. Some descend from expensive console titles to more modest handheld fare. Some mysteriously sequester themselves and lurk behind the scenes. Some evaporate overnight. In that light, it's not so tragic that tri-Ace is now owned by Nepro Japan, a mobile-device company that'll have the once-proud developer crafting games for smartphones and tablets. Nepro announced the sale last Friday, buying a controlling interest in tri-Ace. Sources even say that the current tri-Ace leaders were paid handsomely for their shares. It's good news! Really!

Yet it's an unfortunate fate for a studio that pushed RPGs in novel directions. It was nearly 20 years ago that three Telenet Japan designers took off after developing Tales of Phantasia for Namco. They founded their own studio (hence the “three ace” thing) and put together a string of innovative RPGs. I never warmed to their Star Ocean series, finding it akin to a 40-hour Star Trek episode where space explorers are stuck on a fantasy-anime backwater planet. Yet I love tri-Ace's Valkyrie Profile and its sequels for their brilliant mixtures of bowdlerized Norse myth, beautiful spritework, and gameplay both kinetic and thoughtful. There aren't many games that I'd venture to say changed me as a person, but…hey, I'll say that about Valkyrie Profile.

I also appreciated tri-Ace's steadfast dedication to making big-budget RPGs. The PlayStation 2 saw Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile titles, plus a charming if structurally stifled outing called Radiata Stories. Many RPG makers backed away from expensive projects in the next generation, but not tri-Ace. They put together Star Ocean: The Last Hope and Resonance of Fate for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, while the Xbox 360 had the dubious privilege of hosting Infinite Undiscovery as an exclusive. Resonance of Fate proved the best of the three, but even its creative gunplay battle system didn't bring in enough fans. So tri-Ace scaled back, making Frontier Gate on the PSP and Beyond the Labyrinth on the 3DS. Then they gave up original titles entirely and went to work on Square Enix's second and third Final Fantasy XIII sequels, plus Sega's Phantasy Star Nova. Then tri-Ace turned to easier markets, making the free-to-play Judas Code for the Vita and Chronos Ring for mobile devices. It seems that the mobile scene is where they'll land.

Many lament that tri-Ace's new owners won't assemble a new Star Ocean or another Valkyrie Profile. Then again, those licenses lie with Square Enix, and Square Enix paid them little heed even before tri-Ace jumped to Nepro Japan. And there's no telling what Nepro has in mind. Square Enix actually worked with Nepro's MGS division on the mobile RPG Lord of Vermilion III, so a Valkyrie Profile 3: Hrist isn't so absurd. It's blind optimism, but this much remains true: tri-Ace could be in far worse hands.

NISA ANNOUNCES DISGAEA, DANGANRONPA, AND POSSIBLY THREE RODEAS
NIS America's latest additions to their 2015 calendar are a good cross-section of the company's overall catalog, I think. Their fall schedule consists of one inevitable release, one likely release, and one slightly surprising release that I'm glad to see.

The inevitable game? That'd be Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance. The Disgaea series is pretty much the reason Nippon Ichi Software even has an American branch, so the fifth game's U.S. release was never in question. Alliance of Vengeance is all about a Netherworld war, as a young demon named Killia tries to rally the realm's warlords against a despot named Void Dark. Joining him are the runaway princess Seraphina, the displaced Rabbit Rabbit World ruler Usalia, and a whole mess of grunt warriors and demon-penguin Prinnies. The game's theme carries over into the grid-based battles, as characters gain new powers when their allies fall. Curiously, it's exclusive to the PlayStation 4 despite looking like something the PlayStation 3 (or even the Vita) could handle. Perhaps Sony pushed that angle. There are indeed people who'd buy a PlayStation 4 for the next Disgaea.

Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls wasn't guaranteed a U.S. release, even though the odds favored it. The first two Danganronpa titles were captivating hits for NISA, but rumors persisted that the spin-off was a little too graphic for localization. It follows Komaru Naegi, sister of the first Danganronpa's protagonist, as she makes her way through a city overrun by an army of robots that resemble two-tone bear mascot Monokuna. Komaru meets up with the original game's Toko Fukawa (and Toko's submerged personality), and the two of them survive by solving puzzles and strategically sniping robot bears with a megaphone. The game's murderous child villains push the content into disturbing places, but NISA has made no mention of censoring it.

The surprise of the group would be Rodea the Sky Soldier. It's not a huge shocker, to be fair. Kadokawa Games showed interest in an overseas release back when creator Yuji Naka and his Prope studio announced the game in 2010. Yet Rodea's journey was troubled. Originally slated for the Wii and 3DS, Rodea spent years in mysterious silence, with Naka and Kadokawa occasionally confirming that the game still existed. Rodea finally arrives in Japan this April. It's shifted to 3DS and Wii U versions, but Kadokawa Games will throw in the Wii original as a first-print bonus with its Wii U descendant.

Rocky development or not, Rodea looks enjoyable. It's staged in a world of floating islands and ornate technology, and its hero dashes through the air, snipes at multiple targets, and goes airborne with the Wii U and 3DS touch controls. The snippets of storyline look like a slightly less inane Skies of Arcadia, as Rodea himself is a living weapon resuming a 1000-year-old battle against an evil empire. That's not important. What's important is Rodea's promising gameplay, which may well combine the free aerial maneuvers of NiGHTS and Burning Rangers with the rapid satisfaction of a good Sonic game (most of which involved Naka). NISA may follow Kadokawa's lead in offering the Wii version here as well as the Wii U and 3DS incarnations, but that little detail isn't finalized.

More importantly, Rodea the Sky Soldier offers something I didn't expect this year: an endearing mid-level title. It clearly doesn't have the money of an Assassin's Creed or Halo, but it's full of colorful sights, detailed fantasy creations, and soaring techniques that have few relatives in the game industry. Even if it plows through kid-level clichés in its story, I'll be satisfied if Rodea the Sky Solider feels even a bit like Pandora's Tower, Fragile Dreams, or other engaging new creations from the Wii catalog.

And I like the cover art.

CHARLIE IS IN STREET FIGHTER V, BUT WE KNEW THAT
Oh no, CAPCOM. No, no, no. I'm not going to treat every new Street Fighter V character as a big revelation, especially not when the character in question is Charlie. That's because he showed up in previous games and oh wow what happened to his face.

Some explanation is needed. Charlie started off as a piece of Street Fighter II backstory. He was the missing partner of rogue military man Guile, who was out to avenge his comrade's apparent death at the hands of Shadaloo crime boss M. Bison. Charlie went through various revisions: his original name in Japan was Nash, the Street Fighter live-action movie even turned him into Blanka, and he became a fully playable character with a ridiculous hairstyle in Street Fighter Alpha. Despite Street Fighter's fragmented continuity, CAPCOM always hinted that something unpleasant happened to Charlie, and a shadowy, Shadaloo-brainwashed version of him appeared in Marvel vs. CAPCOM.

Street Fighter V's latest trailer returns to that idea. Charlie appears with patchwork skin straight out of Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack, and he seems a touch meaner than his earlier incarnations. He also has a new teleporting move in addition to his flipkicks and Sonic Booms. I suppose that's more original than just making him a cyborg...which he might be anyway.

So I'll let it slide this time, CAPCOM. But don't expect me to get all worked up when M. Bison appears in Street Fighter V—which is implied by the trailer's last few seconds.

INTERVIEW: TOUKIDEN KIWAMI'S TAKASHI MORINAKA

Toukiden: The Age of Demons seems a quiet success on the PlayStation Vita. As KOEI Tecmo and Omega Force's answer to CAPCOM's Monster Hunter series, it offers a spacious world loosely patterned on medieval Japan, and there's little shortage of enormous creatures to take down with the aid of other players. Even if it's not as ubiquitous as that certain other series where you hunt monsters, Toukiden earned what many games are after: a sequel. As KOEI Tecmo prepares Toukiden Kiwami for a North American release next month, our own Heidi Kemps talked with producer Takashi Morinaka.

What's your history with KOEI Tecmo? What projects have you worked on previously?

Morinaka: I joined the company about 21 years ago, when KOEI was still a separate company. My main projects previously were the Dynasty Warriors series, up until Dynasty Warriors 6. My most current projects have been the previous Toukiden title, where I also worked as a director. My current focus is producer of this new installment, Toukiden Kiwami

This particular action-RPG subgenre, the "getting a bunch of your pals together to kill really big stuff" style of game, seems to be what's currently in vogue in Japan. What do you feel Toukiden brings to the table for this particular niche?

Toukiden, I feel, expresses the distinctly Japanese concept of "wa” [the Japanese cultural ideal of harmony and group unity]. We approached development of this game specifically with "wa" in mind. You can see this reflected in the environments and enemies, which have a traditional Japanese flair to them. KOEI Tecmo makes a lot of titles with a historically themed setting, so we wanted this game to have a bit of that sort of approach as well. Another key feature that's distinctly different from other titles on the market are the "mitamas." Mitamas are the souls of the creatures in the game which grow and imbue player characters with unique abilities.

The enemies in the game are called "oni," but they seem to have a lot more variety than the traditional portrayal of oni in Japanese media.

I think when most people hear "oni" they tend to have a specific image in mind—a club-wielding brutish demon in a loincloth, most likely. Our concept of "oni" in-game is quite different. We've expanded the idea to encompass a variety of different creature concepts.

How does this compare to the previous Toukiden, in terms of scope?

Comparing Toukiden to Toukiden Kiwami in a gaming context, I'd say that the volume of content has doubled. The game's story in particular has been expanded significantly. We received feedback from players that they felt the game didn't have enough content, and we wanted to address that. I definitely feel like Kiwami has been improved there.

The game allows for cross-play and save transferring across Vita and PS4. Is there a reason why a PS3 version isn't in the cards?

Technically, we could have done a PS3 version. But looking at the current market conditions, we figured a PS4 version was the way to go, since a lot of the PS3 audience for the title had already made the upgrade.

This sub-genre has been especially popular in Japan, but it's had a serious problem gaining traction in the west. Where do you think the issues lie, and how is Toukiden Kiwami addressing them?

Part of the reason the genre has been so popular in Japan is because it's on portable consoles, and with Japan's heavily concentrated populations, it's easy for people to group together in play. But in the west, people largely prefer to play at home and online. That's the major reason why we opted to make a PS4 version as well.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

MARIO VS. DONKEY KONG: TIPPING STARS
Developer: Nintendo Software Technology
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo 3DS / Wii U (digital)
Release Date: March 5
Pauline: Underrated
MSRP: $19.99

The title says Mario vs. Donkey Kong, but the truth is that this Nintendo spin-offs doesn't star the same flesh-and-blood Mario and Donkey Kong that you'll see in Mario Kart or Smash Bros. These are Minis, windup toy versions of familiar Mario characters. They march dutifully through the game's side-scrolling levels, sometimes meeting destruction if the player isn't quick enough. This raises odd questions. Do the Minis comprehend their own existence? Do they possess any measure of free will as their gears and pistons send them trudging forth at random? And as automaton versions of video-game characters who aren't real in the first place, do they dream of electric mushrooms?

Well, never mind that. The Minis are, of course, the explorers of the horizontal puzzle stages that make up Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Tipping Stars. As toy versions of Mario, Peach, Luigi, Toad, and other characters trudge through a stage and toward a goal point, the player draws ramps and bridges with the 3DS or Wii U touch-screen. Those new structures might be as simple as spans over pits, or they might be complicated webs of girders and scaffolding that redirect enemies or drop Minis directly on top of the endpoint.

Like previous Mario vs. Donkey Kong outings, Tipping Stars has a level editor atop its 80 or so built-in stages. It also lets players share their stages online, and other users can rate them. High ratings give a level's designer points to spend on new creation tools, creating a nice little vicious cycle. Tipping Stars is a cross-buy title as well, so picking up the 3DS version gets you a code for the Wii U release, and vice versa. We won't get a physical release here as Japan did, but I suspect only the ardent Mario collectors will mind that.

ORESHIKA: TAINTED BLOODLINES
Developer: Alfa System
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PS Vita / PlayStation TV(digital)
Release Date: March 3
Storks: Uncredited
MSRP: $19.99

If I'm still noting unexpected releases, Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines fits the bill. It's the sequel to a 1999 PlayStation RPG that few noticed outside of Japan, and it really looks like the sort of game regularly confined to those shores. Yet it's up for digital download in North America next week, so I can't say that Sony is ignoring under-the-radar titles from Japan. Well, I suppose I can keep saying that all the same. This column would be much shorter without whining.

Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines is an RPG vision of mythological feudal-era Japan. Players take on monsters in random battles where archers and warriors and priests unleash destructive, over-the-top attacks. Yet here's it's all animated with a striking watercolor style reminiscent of Okami, including the same sort of chimerical assemblages of legendary creatures. More intriguing is the game's underlying story. A family is cursed doubly: one imprecation dooms every member of the clan to age and die in a few years, the other prevents them from siring children in the traditional, facts-of-life way. However, all is not lost. The gods can join a character and his or her chosen partner in a spiritual union, creating a rapidly growing new descendant that players recruit into the party. And that's how babies are made, kids. Don't listen to those sinful sex-ed teachers.

Sony hasn't turned Oreshika's North American arrival into a major event. It's just twenty bucks, and it wisely keeps the Japanese voice-overs. That makes it a nice curiosity for RPGs in search of new ideas, though buyers in Japan accused one character, Nueko, of being an irritating goody-goody crammed into every plot point—what we'd call a Mary Sue, in other words. Sony patched the game to fix some of these complaints, but don't be surprised if there's a long scene where the other characters discuss how Nueko is the youngest ever Starfleet officer to pilot a Gundam and date Harry Potter.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
Resident Evil Revelations 2 continues next week on the PlayStations, the Xboxes, and the PC, and this second chapter should be about two hours long if the first leg is any indication. You can wait for all four segments at once on March 18, but there's something to be said for digesting a game as you would a TV series.

If Resident Evil lacks that desired survival-horror panache, there's White Night for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. It's a black-and-white noir creation from some of the folks behind Alone in the Dark 5 and Remember Me, and it may be worth a look no matter how inadvisable the title may be.


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


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