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Dragon Forces

by Todd Ciolek,
I talked about Final Fantasy XII last week, and since we just don't talk enough about Final Fantasy games, I'll talk about Final Fantasy VI. It's one of my favorite games, but it sure is glitchy. The game spent about a year in development, so it's a wonder that it doesn't have even more loose screws beneath the surface. I learned this firsthand—not with Relm's Sketch command, as many players did, but with a scene at the imperial fort near the sealed gate. During one playthrough, Terra's sprite bounced around the screen, mid-dialogue, and froze the game.

Not every glitch is unhelpful, of course. For years, speedrunners have used Final Fantasy VI's loose code to play as otherwise unplayable characters, skip to various points in the story, and pretty much screw with the game every which way. This goes double for tool-assisted speedrunners, who use emulation to mess around even further.

So I completely believe that someone found a way to finish Final Fantasy VI in about 33 minutes, and that this is possible due to a glitch that unfolds when the player's party is wiped out 52 times. The resulting hiccup takes you to the title screen and then the ending. It even fills out the player's party with Moogles, as the game often does when you're skipping ahead.

Does a half-hour playtime seem long compared to those videos of someone dusting Super Mario Bros. in five minutes? I guess so, but Final Fantasy VI takes about thirty hours to finish if you follow the rules. Back in 1994, that meant we could look forward to a good two months of afternoon and weekend playtime if we bought Final Fantasy VI (then Final Fantasy III). Imagine if we'd accidentally cleared it in less time than we'd need to watch an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation or M.A.N.T.I.S.

NEWS

SNK PLAYMORE BOUGHT, SOLD, POSSIBLY IMPROVED
Ask any longtime SNK fan about the company, and the response will come only after a long and disgusted sigh. Once a powerhouse of fighting games and hand-drawn artwork, SNK is now reduced to pushing out smartphone versions of their older titles and pachislot machines festooned with characters from The King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown, and other games that SNK made in better times. It's the sign of a company about to go under or sell itself off, and the latter apparently happened. Chinese company Leyou Technologies acquired an 81.25 percent stake in SNK Playmore shares, all through a new subsidiary called Ledo Millennium and parent companies Oriental Securities and Shunrong Sanqi. The company plans to bring SNK's games into other sectors, and Dongfang Xinghui CEO Zehng Jianhui even compared their plans to the Marvel Comics universe of movies, TV shows, and comics.

This happened before, in a sense. In 2000, the entertainment company Aruze bought a financially ailing SNK and proceeded to rip away most of the company's game-related projects, preferring to use SNK characters for pachinko titles instead of Neo Geo games. SNK filed for bankruptcy in 2001, and company founder Eikichi Kawasaki bought the rights to their old titles through his new company, SNK Playmore. Last week, Kawasaki and his wife Natsuyo effectively gave Leyou control of SNK Playmore for about $63.5 million.

Yet this isn't a case of history repeating. The SNK of 2000 was a productive and appealing place, backing an underrated handheld called the Neo Geo Pocket Color as well as excellent games like Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves, Metal Slug 3, and The Last Blade 2. The SNK of 2015 is a limping, ramshackle creature of mobile-phone ports, ugly pachislot renderings (above), and halfhearted press releases. Their last major title was 2010's The King of Fighters XIII, and since then we've seen little of the new King of Fighters supposedly in development. SNK Playmore put out ads for programmers but showed no screenshots or character rosters. This is why most modern nerds associate SNK more with Attack on Titan than fighting games and Metal Slug titles.

So I can't count SNK Playmore's new ownership as a negative. The King of Fighters and other SNK spent the past five years wasting away, and Leyou's multimedia projects mean new attention for the series…and possibly new games. And if all we get is another laughable live-action King of Fighters movie? Well, that's more fun than an iPhone port of an old Neo Geo game never meant for touch screens.

VESTARIA SAGA HAS FIRE EMBLEM ALL OVER
Long before Keiji Inafune and Koji Igarashi devised spiritual successors to Mega Man and Castlevania, Shouzou Kaga was putting Fire Emblem in new bottles. Kaga created the Fire Emblem series during his time at Intelligent Systems, but he departed the company in the mid-1990s and created Tear Ring Saga for the PlayStation and Berwick Saga for the PlayStation 2. They looked and played an awful lot like Fire Emblem games (Tear Ring moreso than Berwick), and no one could really accuse Kaga of ripping off his own creation. Well, Kaga returned with another Fire Emblem imitator this July, and this month he's put out the first trailer for Vestaria Saga: The Seven Sacred Rings.

Vestaria Saga has the marks of a Fire Emblem: battlefields of tiny troop icons, cutaway clashes between individual units, and an opening where a young prince flees before an invading force. It's made with SRPG Studio software, so the game hardly looks better than a Super Nintendo outing. Still, it's the gameplay and character interaction that makes a Fire Emblem, and Kaga surely understands that.

The true hurdle here is in just how much anyone will care about a Fire Emblem clone when the real Fire Emblem series steamrolls forward each year. Fire Emblem: Fates is due out in North America in two different versions (possibly three), while the Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei crossover, filled with ridiculous pop idols and neon Tokyo streets, has seats at Nintendo's tables worldwide. Inafune and Igarashi succeeded partly because Mega Man and Castlevania sat in disrepair, but that certainly isn't true for Fire Emblem. Maybe Kaga should add some nutty dating-sim elements.

FANS TRANSLATE THE BEST AND ONLY PC-FX SHOOTER
It's hard to predict what fan-translation outfits will unveil next in their quest to localize games, old and new, that North American publishers overlooked. It might be a lesser-known Super Famicom strategy RPG like GalaxyRobo (by the creators of Paladin's Quest!) or tri-Ace's never-localized 3DS game Beyond the Labyrinth. Or they might really surprise us and pull out a PC-FX shooter.

The PC-FX is an obscure but nonetheless unfortunate failure. Hudson Soft and NEC saw modest success in Japan with the PC Engine, even if its American counterpart didn't catch on as the TurboGrafx-16. They devised a Japan-only successor in the PC-FX, a tower-shaped console that arrived in late 1994 and specialized in games with lots of video footage. Hudson and NEC were convinced that this was the way of the future, and they weren't entirely wrong. The PlayStation and Saturn indeed ushered in a wealth of cutscene-heavy games. Yet that heavy competition also ensured that the PC-FX would die of malnourishment. The system's few interesting experiments, including Team Innocent and the all-video fighter Battle Heat, gave way to little more than dating sims and mediocre RPGs. While the system technically hung around until 1998, it was effectively dead weight after less than a year on the market.

One of the more notable PC-FX releases is the 1997 shooter Super God Soldier Zeroigar. It's a half-decent game that resembles a Compile offering…or perhaps a rip-off of a Compile offering, like the Super NES title Imperium. Like most PC-FX games, Zeroigar has copious animated cutscenes, and it plays out much like a 1990s anime tribute to classic series, right down to the large-eyed robot, the nationalistic undertones (Zeroigar's head is a Zero fighter, after all), and the invading alien empire that consists of oddly dressed humans. Thanks to some fan translators, you can play Zeroigar with the cutscenes, mid-stage chatter, and ship-customizing system in English. An actual retail copy of Zeroigar is ridiculously expensive, but I nonetheless assume that everyone playing has paid fairly for the game. Think the best of people, I always say.

INTERVIEW: DRAGON QUEST HEROES' TOMOHIKO SHO AND RYOTA AOMI

There are few places that Dragon Quest can't go when it comes to video games. It's the biggest RPG series in Japan, after all. Its spin-offs usually stick to dungeon hacks or board games or Pokemon-esque monster hunts, but if Dragon Quest wanted to turn itself into horse-racing simulators or kart racers or arcade games with big plastic machine guns, people would buy them. It's hardly absurd that the latest Dragon Quest off-shoot is a battlefield brawler that puts familiar heroes from past games in the thick of combat with scores of slimes,drackies, and other Dragon Quest foes.

Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below is due out here in October, and to pass the time Heidi Kemps went to director Tomohiko Sho (of Koei Tecmo) and producer Ryota Aomi (of Square Enix) for a look into the game's development.

Heidi Kemps: Dragon Quest is one of the most traditional JRPGs on the market. What made you decide to take this very menu-driven series into an action game?

Ryota Aomi: We'd actually been in talks with [Dragon Quest creator] Yuji Horii for a while to make a Dragon Quest action game. About ten years ago, here at E3, Horii met up with a staffer from Koei-Tecmo (then Koei), Kou Shibusawa. They continued having contact over that period of time. Shibusawa eventually approached Horii with a proposal for a DQ action game, and that's where this project began.

There were a lot of discussions between myself, Horii, and Sho here. We eventually settled on a design that we thought would work to translate DQ into an action game.

Up until Dragon Quest VIII, you never even saw animations for your characters attacking. How did you create the motions for characters that we've never even seen “in action” before? Tomohiko Sho: Comparatively, it wasn't as difficult to get the visuals for the 3D action down as you might think. Dragon Quest VIII and X already had movements in 3D, so we could refer to those titles to get an idea of how Dragon Quest characters in general moved in 3D. And since we all have our personal experiences with Dragon Quest, we all have ideas in our minds about how these things would look from years spent playing these games.

Which characters would you say were most difficult to adapt into action game characters?

Sho: Flora from Dragon Quest V.

Dragon Quest's iconic Akira Toriyama-penned enemy designs show up here in bigger numbers than ever before. Can you tell us a bit about how you designed things like enemy behavior in a context where you're fighting huge swarms of these foes?

Sho: The thing about these monsters is that they convey such a strong personality just through their design, thanks to Toriyama's expertise. Even if they appear in a massive horde, that personality still really shines through. We did have to think about how to convert these sprite characters into action game characters—for example, monsters with shields, some of the bigger monsters. But once we finished with that, because these are such strong designs, the personality comes through even if there are lots of them onscreen at once.

How about things like magic and spell effects? They're being used in a totally new context here. I'd imagine some spells are difficult to utilize in an action game.

Sho: You're very right. We had an interesting time with some of the spells—for example, the Zoom spell typically warps you to places you've previously visited in the RPGs. We think we came up with a good adaptation. In Dragon Quest Heroes, it lets you soar high above the battlefield and come down to attack at any point.

We've seen the style of game Omega Force does carry across many franchises. What is it about Dragon Quest Heroes that separates it from these other titles like Hyrule Warriors and Pirate Warriors?

Sho: The first thing to remember is that we didn't create this as another “Warriors” game. What we tried to do with Zelda, One Piece, Gundam, etc. is to adapt an existing formula to a new IP. For Dragon Quest Heroes, our goal first and foremost was to make a Dragon Quest game. They look very similar visually, but the game underneath is quite different.

In a game like this, you tend to throw in a lot of fanservice elements. Can you tell us about something that's in the game that you really like and that Dragon Quest fans will truly appreciate?

Aomi: There's so many little things, but if I had to pick one, it's when the character Kiril from Dragon Quest IV tries to use the “Whack” spell and keeps on failing, over and over again. It's a little thing we hope players remember and enjoy.

Sho: For me, it's the sound effects and character dialogue. Just hearing that should bring back a lot of memories. I'm really happy that we got those little audio touches in there.

The game has voice acting for many characters for the first time ever.

Aomi: Yeah, full voice acting. The protagonists in previous DQ games…well, they weren't very talkative. They only really ever said “yes” or “no.” But for this one, when characters speak, they're fully voiced for the first time.

Since these characters never had voices before, did you go into their casting with specific actors in mind? Aomi: Obviously, a lot of folks have strong personal ideas of how these characters should sound in their heads. We had a lot of discussions about who we were going to cast in the Japanese version and drew up a massive list of potential candidates for each character. We then went through with Mr. Horii about who he thought would work best. For the English version, we did a very similar process, and also had an audition where we had the actors speak the lines. For the Western release, we've included both audio tracks, so if you're a fan of Japanese voice actors you can switch to that track and get a kick out of seeing who we cast.

You bring up Yuji Horii a lot. How involved is he in the creation process of a title like this?

Aomi: He was quite involved, even from the original planning stages – he went through the whole design document to make sure it was okay. When we developed the script – a big, hefty document, like a film script – he went through every single line and checked to see if the nuances of their speech and behavior were just right. And the gameplay balance, he had to make sure that was perfect, too… so yes, he was very heavily involved.

The elephant in the room is that, obviously, it's been a long time since the last Western release of Dragon Quest anything. Are you hoping that Dragon Quest Heroes might help start jumpstart a Western presence for the titles again?

Aomi: Certainly, we do want to increase the popularity of Dragon Quest outside of Japan. I think this is a good opportunity, since Dragon Quest Heroes is a PS4 game and the hardware is very popular right now. It's also an action game, so we think that even people who don't really know Dragon Quest can get into it.

What do you want people going into Dragon Quest Heroes who are unfamiliar with Dragon Quest to take away from the game?

Sho: From my point of view, what I'd want them to take away is the experience of the Dragon Quest worldview. It's very representative of the Japanese RPG in a lot of ways. I want people to see it, enjoy it, have fun being in it.

To wrap things up...Dragon Quest is more than a game, but an important pop-cultural institution in Japan. I'm wondering what some of your fondest personal memories with Dragon Quest are.

Aomi: I've been playing Dragon Quest since the first, when I was still in elementary school. I've seen the series evolve in real time… when Dragon Quest IV came out, I queued up in line from midnight for it, just to get it on the first day of release. Since I literally grew up with this series, the memories of it resonate strongly with me. We have a lot of Dragon Quest history within Dragon Quest Heroes, and it represents what I – as a series fan – want to see in a game like this.

Sho: Even after I became a working adult, I'd still find myself staying up until three in the morning playing Dragon Quest games. So yes, you can say I'm pretty involved, too. *laughs* So I'm really happy to be involved in this project. I've always had thoughts like, “what would Dragon Quest be like if it were an action game?” It's great to be able to finally realize it.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

DUNGEON TRAVELERS 2: THE ROYAL LIBRARY AND THE MONSTER SEAL
Developer: Sting/Aquaplus
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: PS Vita
Release Date: August 18
Monster Seal: Better Than A Monster Walrus
MSRP: $39.99

To Heart is one of those series that pops up in North America like a bashful prairie dog. The actual To Heart games, both of them dating sims, came along over ten years ago, and they've never appeared here (and probably didn't deserve to, since even the title is irritating). Instead, we saw a To Heart anime series brought over during the twilight of the anime bubble, followed by some To Heart characters showing up in the Aquaplus crossover fighter Aquapazza. And now we have Dungeon Travelers 2, a To Heart spin-off so distantly spun-off that it doesn't include To Heart in its title or many of the To Heart characters in its central cast.

In place of the flirtatious schoolgirls that fill To Heart games, Dungeon Travelers 2 settles into a fantasy realm where humans sealed away demons and a foul overlord several centuries ago. These things rarely stick for long, however, and now a new surge of monsters threatens all civilized lands. The protagonist here is Fried Einhard, a young man who's part of the elite monster-sealing Libra echelon. Just about every other character is a wide-eyed girl: easygoing magician Melvy De Florencia, ditzy knight Alisha Heart, scatterbrained royal spy Monica Macy, and a wealth of other party members with names like Souffle Twinny and Eltricia Vitoire De Ritzhevin. Really.

The extensively named party members venture through angular mazes and get into basic-looking, menu-driven battles. Each character starts off in a generalized class, be it thief or knight or precocious yet vulnerable mage, and they can progress into specialized sub-classes while acquiring sealbooks for more enhancements. Conversations build stronger bonds between Fried and his party members, and those allow more efficient battles when the party heads out to seal monsters. That brings us to the big problem with Dungeon Travelers 2. Most of the game's creatures are more accurately described as monster-girls, who resemble hybrids of mythical beasts and equally non-existent anime women. Sealing a monster brings up a suggestive image of her, and some of these shots were a little too graphic for Atlus to handle. So they altered four such images. While that may render Dungeon Travelers 2 less creepy, it doesn't change the unsettling fact that the game rewards players with images of alarmingly young monster-girls at times—or that this is a selling point for some people.

LBX: LITTLE BATTLERS EXPERIENCE
Developer: Level-5
Publisher: Nintendo of America
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: August 21
Best Robot: Blodia (not found here)
MSRP: $39.99

In contrast to that To Heart thing, Little Battlers is one of those popular Japanese series that rolls out in North America with a suitable flourish. You can watch the Little Battlers eXperience on NickToons, and now you can play the related video game on the 3DS. This is, of course, nowhere near the saturation that Little Battlers enjoys with all of the games and toys and varied animated series available in Japan. But it's a start.

LBX: Little Battlers eXperience hinges around the youthful desire to build robots and then destroy robots built by others. It unfolds in a future where a durable new cardboard results in equally sturdy mini-robots called LBX…which are then strictly regulated by the government. That's of small concern for the player, who can build and customize a little battle-mecha from some 130 different parts. These creations clash in arenas that range from city streets to erupting volcanoes, and the robots race around and attack with swords, laser shots, sniper rifles, shields, and other weapons. Local multiplayer fights expand as far as three-on-three matches, though the only online modes are for distributing new features and mini-machines—not for robot duels.

There's a story mode that covers roughly the same ground as the LBX: Little Battlers eXperience TV series, in which a kid named Van Yamano learns that a line of marketable little robots are the key to saving the human race and working through his abandonment issues stemming from his father's apparent demise. But you can ignore all of that and just beat things up with robots.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
Final Fantasy Type-0 HD arrives on Steam, bringing its tale of elite students taking on a magic-powered empire. It has a fluid battle system and the biggest lineup of party members since Final Fantasy VI, though just about everyone seems to find the plot too convoluted by neologisms (and for a modern Final Fantasy, that's saying something). It's only thirty bucks, which means that it'll be about one-fifth as much in a future Steam sale.

Next week also brings Armikrog, the new point-and-click adventure game from Doug TenNapel and Pencil Test Studios. It's a spiritual return to The Neverhood, complete with a weirdly cute Claymation style, and it finds explorer Tommynaut and his sightless dog Beak-Beak roaming a mysterious alien fortress. It even has Michael J. Nelson and Rob Paulsen doing voices! That said, TenNapel's noxious political views kept me from backing Armikrog's Kickstarter, and they'll keep me from buying the final game.


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


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