The X Button - Core Conceptions

by Todd Ciolek,
I mentioned Data East's arcade library a while ago. I tried to recall truly amazing Data East games, and I couldn't come up with any besides Boogie Wings. This past week I noticed one more great neglected Data East game. It's called Dragon Gun.

Dragon Gun is a light-gun shooter from 1992, which in itself is nothing special. Yet instead of sticking players into modern crime-ridden neighborhoods or the mecha-filled streets of the future, Dragon Gun is a fantasy-themed shooter. In some ways, it's a precursor to Alfa System's PlayStation title Elemental Gearbolt. Aside from the fantasy element, both games give the player an accurate, weaker shot as well as a wilder spread of fire. Yet Elemental Gearbolt has a richly envisioned world with restrained, elegiac overtones, and Dragon Gun sure as hell doesn't.

No, Dragon Gun is a reckless, quarter-sucking carnival ride that hits the player with wave upon wave of skeletons and ghouls and lizardmen and floating blobs and far less easily classified monsters. My favorites are the fat little rabbit creatures who drop power-ups and scurry off the screen when shot. Data East even cast the heroes in excessive '80s fashion. The rarely seen gunners are a woman in aerobics gear and a man seemingly plucked from that futuristic He-Man reboot Mattel tried in the late 1980s.

But the gameplay isn't the best part of Dragon Gun.

The above section of a Dragon Gun flyer shows us the game's real star. Your plastic arcade-shooter pistol is a literal dragon gun, with wings and a fanged maw and a tail guard. It's far more ornate than the toy revolvers and generic submachine guns that this sort of game typically wore, and one extra touch clinches it as the best plastic pistol ever mounted on an arcade game. It talks to you. According to the flyer, players can “listen carefully to the advice of the Dragon Gun” during the game. I have no idea what it sounds like, but I love the thought of a dragon-shaped semiautomatic belllowing commands like Smaug in a crowded arcade.

You can emulate Dragon Gun fairly well in MAME, but that doesn't duplicate the thrill that surely comes from grabbing a talking draconic handgun and mowing down unceasing hordes of gargoyles and wyrms and two-headed magmadrakes. Dragon Gun is hard to find in that pure arcade form. KLOV lists only one known collector who has the game's arcade board, and no one seems to own the actual cabinet. It's even hard to find accounts from people who played it. The Data East Arcade Classics collection for the Wii ignored Dragon Gun, of course. It couldn't do justice to such a creation without an authentic dragon-pistol housing for the Wii remote.

It may be that no Dragon Gun cabinets survive today. That would be a shame, because it joins Capcom's Alien vs. Predator on the very short list of arcade setups I'd buy in their big, bulky coin-op form and lug into my home. But that is not to be. So when next I kill some time before a movie by heading to the lobby arcade and shooting Terminators or terrorists, I'll come away disappointed. Because nothing there is Dragon Gun.


Nintendo has a surprise throwback for us. It's not a third Startropics game or the return of Nintendo Power, but it's every bit a sight from the most glorious period of the Nintendo Empire. It's the return of the Nintendo World Championships, albeit in a limited run. The original 1990 event took place over 29 cities, but this one opens at only ten Best Buy locations nationwide on May 30. The highest-scoring finalists meet during Nintendo's pre-E3 presentation on June 14.

Also surprising: Nintendo's choice of tournament games. Rather than current titles, they picked the Championship mode of Ultimate NES Remix for the 3DS. It challenges players to grab 50 coins in Super Mario Bros. (just like in the original NWC), pick up 25 coins in Super Mario Bros. 3, and then rack up as high a score as possible in Dr. Mario. As with the 1990 contest, the last game's score is the one that really counts. If nothing else, it's one way of boosting sales of Ultimate NES Remix. Players have to practice.

The paltry number of locations will disappoint those who remember the 1990 Nintendo World Championships, a veritable traveling Gomorrah of Nintendo adulation. Held at the height of the company's game-industry dominance, they saw kids (and adults) gather for a three-part test of their Nintendo abilities. It all resembled a slightly less gaudy version of The Wizard's finale, as legions of players gathered and tried to prove that playing video games would take them someplace. A skilled few were crowned champions, some got hats and pins and Nintendo gift certificates for their trouble, and most went home with the realization that they weren't as good at video games as they suspected.

The actual competition proved a little more mundane than The Wizard. Instead of playing Super Mario Bros. 3 or Ninja Gaiden II or some brand-new title never before shown to the world, the 1990 Nintendo World Championships used specialized cartridges that contained three game challenges: get 50 coins in Super Mario Bros., complete a lap in Rad Racer, and then score as high in Tetris as you possibly could. You had six minutes and 21 seconds to play, and this led to curious strategies. Players had to rush through Super Mario Bros. (dying twice on the first stage helped) and Rad Racer as fast as they could, because their Tetris scores counted more than anything done in the previous two games.

Some wondered why Nintendo chose these three games. Tetris was obvious; it's not much fun to watch, but it was one of the most popular video games of the late 1980s, and Nintendo published their own version. By a similar measure, Super Mario Bros. was the most common NES game, so Nintendo gave every kid an equal chance at practicing. Rad Racer is the weirdo in the room. It was three years old by the time of the Nintendo World Championships, and it wasn't a staple of the library like Zelda or Mario. Perhaps Nintendo figured that racing games were popular in arcades, and their World Championships should reflect that.

The nearest Nintendo World Championships location is about an hour away from me. If I go, I probably won't take part. I'll just see just how it compares to the 1990 World Championships. And I'll complain that I spent decades honing my Rad Racer skills for nothing.

I wouldn't mind a little more of The Last Story. Mistwalker's big Wii RPG was a messy but satisfying meetup of cover-shooter sensibilities, traditional party battles, and good ol' fantasy cliches done well. So I jumped in when I heard that Mistwalker's mobile game Terra Battle offered a subquest based on The Last Story. It picks up a few years after the finale. Mercenary-turned-knight Zael and countess Calista are quibbling over their unofficial marriage when a familiar and dangerous power emerges and hijacks Calista.

That's as far as I got, because Terra Battle's epilogue to The Last Story is really hard. On the first turn of the first battle, a possessed Calista fires off energy that hits every character in your party and, if they're not around Level 40 or higher, kills them all. My Terra Battle cast is fairly new, as I lost my old save when switching phones. So I have some work ahead if I want to survive The Last Story's vignette before it disappears at the month's end.

Of course, I can tell myself that The Last Story doesn't need a sequel. The original game wrapped up everything important, as though Mistwalker wanted a clean ending. Zael and Calista even had a private little wedding and went stargazing together! There's no need to return to their story. It's over. They're happy.

I'll go back, of course. I'll do it for the same reason I played Final Fantasy X-2 and watched the new Evangelion movies and read too much of those awful Star Wars sequel novels. Terra Battle doesn't let you buy levels directly--you can purchase gold and energy with actual money, but you can't pay to win like you can with many other supposedly free smartphone diversions. For once, I wish a game had fewer scruples.

I feel it safe to say that This Starry Midnight We Make is like no game I've played before. Perhaps I did try out a story-driven puzzle game based on the traditional Japanese cosmological art of onmyodo, but I don't remember it. And that's one reason I'm intrigued by the game. It's also coming to Steam courtesy of localization studio Carpe Fulgur, who brought us English versions of Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale and other doujin-game standouts. This Starry Midnight We Make is the work of Cavyhouse (or CAVYHOUSE as they seem to prefer), a developer that wants to “produce a video game which integrates a mysterious story and a unique game system." I'd say they have the latter already in hand.

This Starry Midnight We Make begins in the 1910s, when young pastor Hamoru Tachibana wanders into a Kyoto shrine, meets a science student named Chuuya Shingoh, and learns about a “star-seeing basin.” There she can grow stars by mapping a night sky with pebbles. The story itself finds Hamoru making friends and changing their destinies with her star-making, and that provides a game in itself. Hamoru places star seeds in the basin, and they'll grow in accordance with the energy patterns and their innate elemental properties.

It seems complicated at first, but I rather like the idea of crafting a simulacrum of the night sky. I even spent the demo trying to make the well-known constellation of Pac-Man. I'll do better once the final game comes to Steam and Gamersgate on the first of June.


Status: Unfunded
Platforms: Windows
Ends: Thursday, June 18

The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human has my kind of premise: you're a lone space explorer in the year 2971, and you return to earth and find the entire planet flooded. Instead of descending into a crude, uneven, over-budget rip-off of the Road Warrior, the human race is apparently extinct but for the newly returned space traveler. Fortunately, your ship doubles as a submersible, and you're free to explore the drowned cities and deep caverns that lie below the waves. You may find remnants of the human race who survived underwater, but that title isn't hopeful.

It's yet another pixel-built game, but The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human shows a nice degree of detail. The undersea backgrounds range from multilayered, water-eaten skyscrapers to colorful crevasses bordered by seaweed and coral, and plenty of marine life greets you along the way. Your gray little submarine will find up to ten upgrades, chainsaws and harpoons among them, and the game's designers plan some grueling boss encounters. They also intend to tell the story largely by recovered “holo-tape” conversations and visual cues. It's an often-employed premise, but I'm wary of how that tossed-aside tape always holds an intriguing hint about the world…and never just some grainy episodes of The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., commercials included.

Status: Unfunded
Platforms: Windows, Mac
Ends: Sunday, June 14

Koji Igarashi's Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night may be this month's biggest Kickstarter, yet it's not the only one aiming to revive a neglected series in everything but name. As far as I can tell, Combat Core doesn't involve anyone who worked on the original Power Stone games. But it's widely obvious that Combat Core wants to be that third Power Stone that Capcom never will make. It has the wide arenas, the four-player melees, the gem power-ups, and the freedom to pick up and throw whatever you find. It also has the same clean, simple cartoon style in its characters, even if we've seen them before. Bruizer is a farmboy version of Falcon with Cloud Strife's haircut, and Jondo well could be the child of Ayame and Jack from Power Stone. I wouldn't have figured them for a couple.

Combat Core keeps true to a lot of its inspirations. The characters seem varied in their strengths and attacks (though “Skatie” may be the worst name for a skater character this side of Fighting Vipers), and the alpha demo suggests that there's a lot for them to do in battle. Weapons pop up on the playfield, shields can block attacks, energy orbs renew your blocking meter, and giant revolving laser beams appear if the battle timer reaches zero. In other ways, however, it doesn't look so much like a modern Power Stone. The character models remain simple, and the virtual octagon-plated arenas overdo the flashing effects and lack the old-world appeal of Power Stone's anything-goes stages. Yet I can't fault Combat Core for stepping away from Power Stone's aesthetics in some ways. A game has to stand on its own.

Status: Funded!
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Wii U
Ends: Sunday, June 14

In another spiritual revival, Playtonic Games hopes to fashion a new take on Banjo-Kazooie, Rare's dual-character platformer from the Nintendo 64 era. It comes largely from the source, as Playtonic includes a bunch of Rare expats from the Donkey Kong Country and Banjo-Kazooie days. Instead of a bird and a bear, however, they've given Yooka-Laylee (don't say it out loud, or you might get the joke) a leading duo of a gecko and a bat. Yooka's the gecko, which lets him grapple objects with his tongue and roll around. Laylee is the bat, so she can blast enemies with sonar, flap through the air, and presumably transmit rabies. That's merely the start of their many gameplay combinations, if past Rare platformers are any indication.

Like fellow Kickstartered platformer A Hat in Time, Yooka-Laylee takes directly after 3-D platformers of the Nintendo 64 (which include two Chameleon Twist games, but no one's counting). It has a colorful style all about, and it lets players buy expanded worlds with in-game collectibles. Yooka-Laylee also sports a Rare-like sense of style, and that's only problem that I can see. While the Kickstarter is cute, I remember how Banjo-Kazooie reflected that bland, twee school of design that dominated European action-platformers throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. It's a sensibility that brought us James Pond, Titus the Fox, Mr. Tuff, and other cartoonish would-be mascots who seemingly jumped from a dollar store's DVD bin. I hope Yooka and Laylee avoid that route.

Arduboy bills itself as a game system the size of a credit card, and it's succeeded. The designer's ambitions go beyond packing a Game Boy into a tiny rectangle, however: he hopes it'll help teach programming, encourage game-sharing, and function as a remote. The only downside is the black-and-white display. It doesn't look bad…for black and white. It just brings up memories of cheap, tiny gray-market Game Boy knockoffs that offered 99 variations of Pong and Breakout, all built with a dozen pixels.


Developer: Nintendo EAD Group No. 2
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Wii U
Release Date: May 29
The First Casualty of War: Squinnonce
MSRP: $59.99

How shameful, Splatoon. You encourage kids to play paintball without protective gear, ambush each other, and...well, morph into squids. This is even worse than Dr. Mario telling children to play with pills!

In truth, Splatoon is a novel take on the arena-based team shooter. Its characters are all Inklings, teenage squids that can transform from humans to their beaky, tentacled forms at will. Their world is a colorful modern playground resembling Sunset Overdrive and Jet Set Radio, but all of the action involves ink that splatters and spreads like rivers of paint. The Inklings form teams and hunt each other in stages ranging from skate parks, warehouses, and, yes, oil rigs. The battle is decided by ink—whoever spreads more of their color across the map wins. Painting is accomplished by rapid-fire Super Soaker guns, long-range rifles, and massive paint rollers, all wielded while in human form. Between the paintball-like splashes of weaponfire, it's easy to coat a playfield in ink, and it's also easy for rivals to repaint it in their colors. That also determines just how easily you'll get around. You can shapeshift into a squid, who's weaponless but able to swim rapidly through the ink that you should be spraying everywhere. It's not just for distracting predators.

It's an odd idea, but Nintendo is committed to it. The swathes of colored ink lead to interesting strategies, and Splatoon adds numerous special weapons to the basic gunplay. Sub-weapons include homing shots, sticky bombs, mines, grenades, and a sensor that alerts all of your teammates to a foe's location. Players also tote special weapons that shield them, spot enemies, and turn their cephalopod incarnations into larger, invincible kraken. Beyond the battles, a mall manned by weird animal-folk sells the squid brats new clothes, weapons, and abilities. Online multiplayer spans various arenas, while the local mode lets two players compete in a balloon-popping game. The single-player story mode features a variety of enemies called Octarians, which apparently stole fish from the Inklings' home metropolis. That'll make for a challenge. On the average, an octopus is smarter than a squid.

Well, not Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX. Sega delayed it to September so the game can get a special edition and, I assume, rescue the company. However, you'll find Ultra Street Fighter IV for the PlayStation 4 next week. It's digital-only, so don't look for any special packages at GameStop.

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

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