The X Button
Harsh Harvest

by Todd Ciolek,
This week we'll face some sad news about Sega, so I think it best to start with some good news about Sega. That good news comes from the Sega 3D Classics, a series of 3DS revisions of cherished (or at least well-known) Sega titles from years past. They're painstakingly ported by the good people at M2, so the emulation is precise and festooned with bonus features. It's the perfect way to appreciate old Sega titles.

For the first round of 3D Classics, Sega and M2 stuck with established games from the catalog, and most of their selections are good. Largely ageless arcade delights like Space Harrier and Out Run overshadow the likes of Altered Beast, and even Altered Beast has its place. And there are more to come. We'll get a remastered Gunstar Heroes within the year!

Last month's offering was Fantasy Zone II, but this May 14 brings around a 3D Classics version of Thunder Blade. It may outrank Altered Beast as the least essential piece of the series. The original Thunder blade was an arcade novelty back in 1987, when everyone was willing to throw some change into a helicopter shooter with a 3-D look and a cabinet that rumbled in time with the gameplay. Later years were not kind to Thunder Blade. The Genesis version, Super Thunder Blade (above), was probably the worst game in the system's 1989 launch lineup. Altered Beast and Last Battle were lame, but at least they went places. Super Thunder Blade looked surprisingly close to the arcade, but it proved a chore of memorization. Even a Thunder Blade tribute in Gunstar Super Heroes is clumsy, the sole failure of the game's many nods to Sega classics.

Has M2 turned Thunder Blade into more than a tepid arcade cockpit? Possibly. The 3D Classics outing has an extra mode with new enemies and enhanced gameplay, but there's a limit to how special Thunder Blade can be. If nothing else, it's a good example of M2's devotion to old Sega titles that were important once.

NEWS

SEGA SKIPS E3, DE-LISTS MOBILE GAMES, LOCKS SELF IN ROOM
Sega remains a staple of the game industry. Yes, they stopped making game consoles with the Dreamcast, and yes, they've shrunk to the point where Sonic, Alien, Total War, and soccer games drive them on the worldwide stage. Yet all but the youngest geeks among us remember a time when Sega stood proud on consoles, in arcades, and at conventions like E3. Well, Sega still can make console games and arcade titles, at least.

For the first time since E3's founding, Sega won't have a booth there. Amid restructuring and a move to Southern California offices, Sega doesn't have the time to show off games at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. It's the latest unfortunate sign from Sega, which went through layoffs, operating losses in the millions, and disappointing sales for its latest Alien and Sonic offerings. Sega also announced the imminent removal of some mobile games, specifically the ones that “no longer fit the mark we aim to reach,” as Sega reps put it. Sega didn't mention any specific titles, but the odds favor older ports of classic arcade and Genesis titles. I doubt those crude recreations will be missed even among those Sega fans who revere the original games and think that Sonic R is a misunderstood gem.

If this disappoints Sega fans…well, it should. But accepting the company's current lot is all part of being a Sega fan. Those treasured times in the 1990s when Sega landed some lucky punches on Nintendo and snatched away half the market? They're not coming back. As UK Resistance showed us many years ago, it's best to bear the many defeats of Sega fandom with mordant humor and self-mockery. Besides, we might see Sega at E3 in other places. Idea Factory International could show off that crossover between Neptunia and Sega Hard Girls, right?

KOJI IGARASHI FINALLY KICKSTARTS CASTLEVANIA COMPETITOR
Koji Igarashi is Castlevania's keeper. He didn't create the series any more than Keiji Inafune truly created Mega Man, but Igarashi stewarded the Castlevania games after Symphony of the Night. He cemented their evolution from straightforward side-scrollers to Metroid-like sprawls of exploration, so much so that his new Kickstarter defines “Igavania” for its visitors. And much like Inafune's Mighty No. 9 brought about a new Mega Man in everything but name, Igarashi's Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night has everything his Castlevania games did. Well, almost.

Bloodstained doesn't mention Dracula or vampire hunters, but it's very much in line with Castlevania's gothic style. As consistent with rumors about the game, orphaned heroine Miriam is covered with tattoo-like sigils. It's apparently an effect of alchemic magi-crystals fused into her, and it makes her look a lot like Shanoa, heroine of Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (Igarashi's best solo-directed Castlevania, in my opinion). The one responsible for Miriam's state is Gebel, a magi-crystal host who's fallen in with demons and summoned an entire hellish castle. With her alchemist partnet Johannes in tow, Miriam heads into the depths of Gebel's stygian fortress, one that was originally her home. Igarashi plans a branching, side-view action game with RPG-ish equipment and stats, plus customizable weapons, all in the spirit of his better-liked Castlevanias. He's recruited familiar names: developer Inti Creates helped make Mighty No. 9 as well as side-scrollers like Azure Striker Gunvolt, and Michiru Yamane is Castlevania's most popular composer.

The asking price is a little high compared to Mighty No. 9's twenty-dollar entry point. Bloodstained runs $28, and it's more if you want a physical copy of the game when it hits the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. I'm a little miffed that a Vita version isn't in the cards, but there's time for one to emerge as a funded bonus. That's because the money's already rolling into the Kickstarter—it asked $500,000 at first, and at this writing it's nearing two million.

THE HARVEST MOON WARS

The time has come. For the better part of a year, Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley and Story of Seasons circled each other in prelude to battle. Natsume backed the former, XSEED and Marvelous the latter. And now their savage, horrific clash shall decide which is the cutest, friendliest, most enjoyable game about brushing cows and planting turnips.

Some background is required. The Bokujo Monogatari series of farming-simulator games began in 1996, and Natsume brought most of them to North America under the name Harvest Moon. Something changed in 2014. Marvelous, makers of the Bokujo Monogatari games, decided to let XSEED, their American branch, localize the next game in the series (and presumably all that will follow). Natsume still has the name Harvest Moon, however, and Natsume isn't about to forsake it. So Natsume made an original game called Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley, and XSEED Games localized the latest Bokujo Monogatari title as Story of Seasons. And now they meet to decide which is the true successor.

The Lost Valley and Story of Seasons cover much the same ground. You're a farmer, male or female, and you must rejuvenate your land, raise livestock, befriend locals, and perhaps even start a family. They go about it in different fashion, though. The Lost Valley finds you wandering in a blizzard and drafted into reviving a snowswept wasteland into a vital farmland, all with the help of harvest sprites and a harvest goddess. Story of Seasons operates by less dramatic introductions: you answer a want ad for farmers in a remote town, and your new job involves tending crops and building barns and wooing fellow ranchers. So they're not the same thing.

FARMING
Farming remains the core of any Harvest Moon, and the games often struggle to ward off repetition. To that end, The Lost Valley grants you control over every little square of farmland. Your snowy stretch of property is a grid resembling a Minecraft playfield, and you initially can dig, stack, till, and seed each patch of it. And so you'll build steps, form terraces, and pile up your own hills and valleys. It's a neat idea well-matched to the Harvest Moon aesthetic, which always invites you to arrange your farm exactly how you like.

Yet The Lost Valley doesn't do enough with its customizable terrain. Interacting with the squares of soil can be awkward when it comes to selecting the correct spot, and stacking up high mounds can be tedious. The game also takes far too long to introduce fenches, bridges, and other landscape accessories, and it never makes good on its obvious Minecraft influences.

Story of Seasons heads in the opposite direction. Tending crops is a simpler process: instead of hoeing out each little square, you'll mark out sections of land and plant them with a chosen type of seed, be it turnip or spinach or grass (actual grass, that is). It reduces the amount of time you'll take to sow and harvest, but it offers less variety in your farm layout. There was something nice about deciding what to seed on each square of the garden in past Harvest Moons (and Rune Factories). Story of Seasons lacks the satisfaction of seeing crops come up just as you planned, even you just wanted to spell dirty words with pink cat flowers.

Story of Seasons makes up for this elsewhere, though. Both The Lost Valley and Story of Seasons let you raise the usual round of cows, chickens, rabbits, and horses, but Story takes it further with an actual safari area for various exotic animals as well as your own livestock. It takes a while to open up the better parts of the game, but that's been a problem with Harvest Moon for a while.

Advantage: Story of Seasons

DATING
Harvest Moon may be about farming on its surface, but even in its early stages it allowed the player's farmer avatar to court someone, start a family, and have a kid. Even today, it's unique. Many games let players date and some let them sire children, but Harvest Moon bundles it all up in bucolic charms and cute, simple affections. Other games end their romances in Hollywood fashion, but Harvest Moon puts you in it for the long run.

The Lost Valley's dating pool is noticeably smaller than prior Harvest Moons. Farmer heroes can woo the perky waitress Emily, the shy florist April, or the bossy rich-girl Catherine. Heroines pick from sturdy farmer Hunter, traveling bard Gilbert, or conflicted blacksmith Tony. That's it. Courtship is also far less complex. Other Harvest Moons have the player racing around the town and plying their would-be sweethearts with gifts and compliments, but that's not the way things are done here.

The Lost Valley has no town that you'll see. Bachelors, bachelorettes, and other helpful locals just show up at your farm now and then. Instead of picking out gifts for them, you'll simply fulfil their requests for specific items and, presumably, win them over that way. It lends the game an isolated feel, as though you're an oddball hermit trying to rope a stranger into a relationship.

Story of Seasons follows its Harvest Moon predecessors in supplying six romantic choices for each side. Male protagonists have familiar options in snooty rich-girl Elise, prim nurse Angela, and distant botanist Licorice, but less routine stereotypes lie with safari leader Agate, weather forecaster Lillie, and Iris, who's unrealistically nice and stress-free for a novelist. Female protagonists select from fellow aw-shucks rancher Fritz, prickly gardener Nadi, and taciturn florist Kamil for the usual archetypes, while straitlaced perfume merchant Klaus, refined antique dealer Mistel, and studious chef Raeger divert from the norm a touch more.

As Story of Seasons also offers a traditional Harvest Moon village, you'll build up your relationships with paramours and townspeople as you roam around. Once you've proposed to someone (or he or she to you), wedding plans present themselves. It doesn't evolve the usual Harvest Moon options too much, and one certainly shouldn't expect the same breadth of dialogue you'd see in a full-blown dating simulator. Yet it's that simple style that catches you up and makes a relationship built on gifts of blueberry jam and alpaca wool just as important as some impending worldwide apocalypse.

Advantage: Story of Seasons

APPEAL
And which game is more charming? That's almost as important as the farming accoutrements and the dating pool. The Lost Valley took some early criticism for its conversation scenes. The game uses big-headed polygon models of the characters in all things, and it contrasts with the typical Harvest Moon presentation of illustrated portraits voicing the dialogue.

And yet The Lost Valley isn't as cheap-looking as screenshots might suggests. The character wear all sorts of expressions in cutscenes and chatter, and the player's perspective switches in more dynamic fashion than other Harvest Moons. The characters, from the local merchant to the imprisoned harvest sprites, are cute despite their primitive builds. It's only the environments that seem sparse and inhospitable.

Story of Seasons sticks to a more distant overhead perspective much of the time, reserving close-ups for important events. The portraits give the characters some life, but they only blink and shift to different expressions on occasion. Still, Story of Seasons offers more volume. With an actual town to explore and more people to meet, its world feels that much more alive.

Advantage: Story of Seasons, but by a narrower margin than I expected.

BONUS STUFFED ANIMALS
The Harvest Moon series is home to a beloved tradition of plush creatures. Reserving a new game gets you a stuffed cow or sheep or alpaca fashioned after the actual game's livestock. Both The Lost Valley and Story of Seasons keep that alive.

Here Natsume has the more experienced hand. A base set of The Lost Valley comes with a little stuffed dog, and a deluxe edition (still available from Natsume's website) includes a large plush rabbit. Story of Seasons has its own pre-order goodie: an angora rabbit "pocket plush." It's a cute bonus, but its Natsume rivals dwarf it in size and numbers.

Advantage: The Lost Valley, for thinking beyond the pocket.

THE VICTOR: STORY OF SEASONS
Natsume had their work cut out for them in building a new Harvest Moon, and The Lost Valley feels very much like a rough draft. Its good ideas add a lot to the farming concept but rarely coalesce to satisfying effect, and it can't overcome the fact that Story of Seasons is a Harvest Moon from its true keepers.

Yet I think there's room enough for both versions of Harvest Moon. If The Lost Valley's successor broadens the customizable land and adds more places to see, it'll stand apart from the endearing but relatively staid blueprint that Marvelous followed with Story of Seasons. So this largely author-imagined war isn't over. Story of Seasons wins this round, but I expect a much closer fight next time.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

HYPERDIMENSION NEPTUNIA U: ACTION UNLEASHED
Developer: Tamsoft / Compile Heart
Publisher: Idea Factory International
Platform: PS Vita
Release Date: May 19
Old Compile: Long Gone
MSRP: $39.99

The Neptunia series has plenty to its name: an anime series, a strategy-RPG, a popstar-simulator spin-off, and slightly less boring remakes of its original RPGs. So modern trends demand that Neptunia get its own battlefield brawler offshoot in the fashion of Dynasty Warriors. When one needs a Warriors game, one generally goes to Omega Force. But Omega Force was busy making Warriors titles based on The Legend of Zelda and One Piece and other series with appeal beyond people who buy hundred-dollar model kits of half-naked anime women (not that One Piece is immune to that). So Compile Heart took the Neptunia series and its twee heroines to Tamsoft, makers of the equally exploitive Onechanbara games. You might remember that series by the two games that were released here as Bikini Samurai Slayers and Bikini Samurai Squad.

Hyperdimenstion Neptunia U: Action Unleased makes a fair amount of sense, really. The Neptunia RPGs follow the patron goddesses of Gamindustri, and these heroines change from daintily garbed girls to buxom techno-warriors that correspond to particular game systems. So that fits right into a melee-focused action game. The wide-eyed combatants whack around bear-faced slimes and mecha-dragons and facsimiles of Pac-Man ghosts, and then they transform into their sleeker forms and unleash even more devastation. It's all part of some plan to relieve the boredom of Gamindustri's residents, and it's also an excuse for the characters to gather together and bicker. The roster includes Neptune (the unproduced Sega hybrid system) along with goddesses Noire, Blanc, and Vert (a.k.a the PlayStation 3, Wii, and Xbox 360), plus their little sisters (read: portable systems), and they're joined by characters based on the magazines Dengeki and Famitsu. The Famitsu girl even looks a little like mascot Necky the Fox. A little.

Players can pound their way through the game's largely passive enemy mobs, but they're also free to stand still and take damage. Why would anyone do that? Well, the characters lose their clothes when struck, complete with close-ups and yelps of embarrassment. You won't see that in The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Warriors, and it tells you just about everything you need to know about Neptunia U.

PUZZLE & DRAGONS Z + PUZZLE & DRAGONS: SUPER MARIO BROS. EDITION
Developer: GungHo Online Enterainment
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: May 22
Porcupo: Possibly in there
MSRP: $29.99

Perhaps Nintendo doesn't have to make smartphone games. Nintendo need only sit back and let the smartphone hitmakers come to them. That's happening now with Monster Strike, and it already happened with Puzzle & Dragons. It's a blazing comet in the mobile scene, with over 40 million downloads, and it's seen crossovers with popular anime properties from Hello Kitty to Fist of the North Star. So GungHo Online eventually put Puzzle & Dragons on the 3DS, and no one at Nintendo could decline the inevitable crossover with Mario.

Puzzle & Dragons Z, the 3DS version of the mobile marvel, introduced a Pokemon-ish storyline and overworld to its central concept: players march through dungeons and fight turn-based battles in a blend of RPG encounters and color-matching puzzles. Linking symbols below determines just how well your chosen party members will attack, and damage follows the old paper-rock-scissors flowchart. It links monster-collecting with simple puzzles, so it's easily to understand why the combination addicted millions.

The Super Mario Bros. edition of Puzzle & Dragons Z recasts everything in the Mario mold. The puzzle symbols are mushrooms and stars and other power-ups. The world map is a Mario-style progression of levels. Mario pipes and question blocks appear. The core of it remains unchanged, but the Mario accoutrements are all faithfully whimsical. Paying actual money for something that began as a free download may seem a rip-off, even if it's two games in one. Let's remember this, however: the most devoted Puzzle & Dragons users likely dropped far more than thirty bucks into the allegedly free smartphone version.

ALSO AVAILABLE
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt arrives on Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. It's the concluding chunk in the saga of "witcher" Geralt, who makes his way through a massive fantasy realm full of monsters, nasty moral choices, and an invading army called, of course, the Wild Hunt. Players are free to explore it all, of course, and make Geralt into as much of a jerk as custom demands.


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


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