The X Button Blasting Away
by Todd Ciolek,
Discussion of scary games reminds me of the very first time a video game really frightened me. It wasn't Castlevania or Monster Party or that part of Mega Man 2 where you might think Dr. Wily is an alien. No, I was genuinely scared by Super C for at least a few seconds.
Children of the NES days remember the original Contra most fondly among commando-versus-aliens shooters, but I always liked its successor, Super C, a little more. Its gameplay is tighter, and it does a better job of slowly taking the player from a seemingly ordinary macho shooter into the heart of Giger-inspired terror. And that reaches an apex with its sixth level.
By the sixth stage, Super C leaves behind the jungles and military outposts and plunges straight into an alien lair, complete with fanged décor, crawling octopi, and giant maws that spurt right out of the ground. Then you reach the level's end and find a creepy wall of demonic faces spraying bullets your way. Pelt it with enough shots (preferably with the ol' Spread Gun), and the stage is over, right?
Nope. The boss evaporates and a giant, horrifically grinning Giger head lurches out of the empty ribcage. It shocked me to the point where I didn't react for several moments, which of course cost me a valuable life. Once I recovered, I found that this hellish visage went down easily: you can stand in the middle of the screen and fire, avoiding the snake entirely and destroying the boss's shots as they come out of his mouth. Oh well, it had already taken its toll.
Super C goes deeper into Giger imagery with its later bosses, at last pitting you against a crustaceous horror with a woman's face poking out of the sinew and spider legs. But it wasn't as freakish a surprise as that level-six boss.
TRAILS IN THE SKY CONTINUES AT LAST
It wasn't easy for Nihon Falcom's The Legend of Heroes in North America. The first game in the line, itself a spin-off of the even older Dragon Slayer, endured an obscure TurboDuo release filled with corny Irish accents. It wasn't until ten years later that the Gagharv trilogy showed itself in three blandly translated PSP ports. And all the while, Falcom seemingly put out a new installment in the series each year, which left North American publishers woefully behind if they even cared to localize these games. Yet things changed with The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. XSEED released it in 2011, and it caught on where previous Legend games hadn't. It charmed players looking for an old-fashioned RPG that was greatly broadened—not with extensive CG cutscenes, but with an elaborate world, countless little details, and a massive load of text. The last of these attributes led some to claim that the second chapter of the Trails in the Sky trilogy was unfeasibly large for a localization project, but XSEED and Carpe Fulgur took it on anyway.
After entirely understandable delays, Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter is here today. XSEED slipped out the game's release date on the PlayStation Network and Steam for October 29, so i expect you can download and play it right after you're done reading this column. There's no physical edition or elaborate collector's set with an Estelle Bright bobblehead, but that's not practical for a PSP game these days.
As for the game, it loses little time rejoining the first Trails in the Sky's story. Estelle, an adventurous Bracer in training, is scouring the world for her now-missing stepbrother Joshua and a mysterious society called Ouroboros. The unfolding quest leads to all sorts of side attractions and garrulous citizens. And you can look forward to more of that in the third chapter, due out in…well, let's not make hasty promises.
THE LATEST GRAVITY RUSH 2 NEWS
The mere fact that Gravity Rush 2 exists is enough to leave me overjoyed, but Sony's Paris Games Week revealed helpful details. The game of course returns to the city of Hekseville and its resident gravity-warping heroine Kat, and she now has two new methods of battle.
Kat's original Gravity Rush moves still apply, but she can switch to a Lunar style, which makes her lighter and faster, or a Jupiter mode that gives her extra weight and damage. The new trailer shows her swapping between these abilities in the midst of battle. She then teams up with her haughty rival Raven, who'll appear as a computer-controlled ally in the game.
Sony's press materials don't say that you'll be able to play as Raven in Gravity Rush 2, but she shows up so prominently in the game's artwork and screenshots that it would be a horrible tease if she wasn't at least a bonus (or even a DLC extra). Also spotted in the new shots is Kat's police-officer pal Syd, who's now in casual wear. Either he's off-duty or undergoing a career change, and that's one of many Gravity Rush issues over which I will ruminate until Gravity Rush 2 hits the PlayStation 4. Maybe that'll happen in 2016. Maybe not.
Some bad news emerged about Gravity Rush Remastered, the prettied-up PlayStation 4 port of the original game. When it arrives in North American next February, it'll be digital-only and thirty bucks. Europe and Japan get a physical version of the game. The special-edition Japanese and Chinese versions even come with a Kat Figma toy, complete with an angry face and a happy face (or, if you will, a “tripping balls” face, seen above). Dedicated fans can import, as dedicated fans often do. Sony's European branch probably won't spring for a special edition, but the Chinese box set apparently includes the Figma as well as English subtitles.
SONIC'S POLICE AND POPCORN PANOPLY PRESERVED
This year isn't outstanding when it comes to video games in general, but it's fantastic for the rare enthusiast who loves old, obscure pieces of Sonic the Hedgehog history. Last month saw enterprising MAME developers prepping the emulator to run Waku Waku Sonic Patrol Car, a game designed for a children's ride 1991. Young (or old) players would sit in a big plastic patrol car and watch Sonic race around in a police cruiser on the screen.
The second Sonic artifact, emulated just this week, is SegaSonic Popcorn Shop. Even more basic than Waku Waku, Popcorn Shop sees series villain and noted feminist Dr. Eggman (formerly Robotnik) chasing Sonic on a conveyor belt while the player is entreated to “HELP SONIC." Don't worry, kids. You'll get popcorn no matter what.
Neither game is an amazing discovery, but they're both examples of the sort of arcade attraction that might fall through the cracks. They were never ported to consoles or embraced widely by older fans, and both were built to be forgotten just as soon as supermarkets and movie theaters swapped them out for UFO prize catchers or a few Street Fighter II machines. Thanks to MAME and the people behind it, however, Sonic's stints as a cop and a popcorn pusher will survive.
THE GUN GAME
Earlier this month, New York University's Game Center hosted Masayuki Uemura, one of the lead designers of the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Uemura discussed the system and how it reflected Nintendo's attempts to court the American market—including the console's intentional resemblance to a VCR. Regarding the Zapper light-gun that came with the NES in its initial release, Uemura's slide bluntly stated “Americans in general are interested in guns.”
That's largely true. The game industry at large has a long-running fondness for light-gun games, even if it isn't always apparent.
Nintendo wasn't the first to exploit the novelty of a plastic gun that fired at a video-game screen. Light-sensing guns were carnival attractions as far back as the 1930s, and Ralph Baer's early video game prototypes from the 1960s included a Brown Box Lightgun that resembled a lever-action rifle. The idea spread along with the game industry itself. Light guns were common sights arcades in the 1960s and 1970s, appearing in early Sega successes like Periscope and that Killer Shark game glimpsed briefly in the movie Jaws. Yet the entire arcade scene was rapidly growing, and gun games were just another part of it.
A gun game was key in Nintendo's takeover of the home-console industry in the mid-1980s. A market crash had crippled Atari and other competitors, and Nintendo cautiously pitched their new machine as alternative to the stigmatized failures of the game industry. The Nintendo Entertainment System presented itself as something between a toy and a home theater component. The initial package paired boxy, VCR-like game console with a robotic companion called R.O.B. and a gray plastic pistol called The Zapper. Two games were included: Gyromite for R.O.B., and Duck Hunt for the Zapper.
R.O.B. didn't last long as a Nintendo promoter and disappeared from later NES bundles, but the Zapper endured. The system's most popular package was an Action Set that included Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt, and both became fixtures of the resulting Nintendo Generation. Kids soon became acquainted with the game's snickering dog…and with how close they could get to the TV in order to cheat effectively. The NES saw other Zapper games, but none of them could match Duck Hunt's head start, whether they were Hogan's Alley and Wild Gunman or lesser-knowns like Mechanized Attack and Barker Bill's Trick Shooting (which had a remarkably quiet release for an NES game published by Nintendo itself). Duck Hunt was the biggest light-gun game of its era, and it would be the last time the genre helped make a game system.
Light-gun games appeared in arcades by the score in the early 1990s, exploring everything from routine terrorist shooting galleries to the fantasy-monster carnage of Dragon Gun. Home systems had their own forays into the field. The Super NES offered the Super Scope 6, the Sega Genesis had the Menacer, and both had Konami's Justifer. Yet both remained peripherals with limited support beyond their introductory years, and the same went for the light-gun included with the 3DO and CD-i. Even as gun games like Terminator 2 and Area 51 took hold of arcade-goers, the home versions couldn't find the same followings.
The mid-1990s brought a console clash between the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation, and for a short time light-gun games were important. Sega pumped the Saturn full of arcade ports, and these included the company's adeptly made Virtua Cop titles and House of the Dead, both compatible with the Sega Stunner (a futuristic revolver seemingly inspired by the handgun seen in Wicked City). Sony, marketing their first game console, imitated Sega for a time, so PlayStation owners had Alfa System's Horned Owl to serve as feeble competition for Sega. Yet it didn't matter. The PlayStation soon found its footing and outpaced the Saturn in other categories. By the time the Nintendo 64 joined the fray, the company that had put Duck Hunt into millions of American homes didn't even bother with a light-gun attachment.
The new generation demanded longer, more complicated games, and light-gun titles never provided those. From Namco's Time Crisis to Midway's Revolution X, they were all about the quick, guilty thrills of seizing a plastic pistol grip and blasting through waves of terrorists, fascists, monsters, and whatever else might stand between you and a mob boss or a president's kidnapped daughter. Stripped of quarter-sucking mechanics, the typical arcade light-gun shooter of the 1990s lasted under an hour and seldom offered alternate routes or replay incentives. Even gun games designed for the home didn't escape this. When reviewing Horned Owl in 1996, Gamefan's Nick Des Barres remarked “This is why gun shooters should never be released in the home—they're play-once arcade fodder.”
Light-gun games endured, of course. Time Crisis and House of the Dead continued on into the following decade, enjoying console ports of their arcade incarnations. Similar games made exclusively for the home were rarer—but they were often interesting. Ecole's Death Crimson remains a notorious disaster among Saturn games, so much so that artist Takamasa Sumi used a running copy in a bizarre sculpture.
The most interesting light-gun shooter of the era (and my personal favorite) is Elemental Gearbolt for the PlayStation. After the missteps of Horned Owl, Alfa System crafted a typical light-gun game set in a detailed fantasy realm, complete with animated cutscenes briefly detailing a world of class struggles, suicidal bio-computers, and inescapable tragedy. It's among the most interesting experiments the genre has to offer.
The PlayStation 2 and Xbox continued the trend of marginalized gun games, but the remarkable oddity of Nintendo's Wii held new promise for them. The Wii remote's motion sensor were ideal for the point-and-shoot mechanics of a light gun game, and many titles imitated that. Yet most of them were arcade ports, hunting simulations, and other routine fare. Sega's House of the Dead: Overkill adapted the series into a grindhouse cavalcade, and Nintendo introduced the Wii Zapper with Link's Crossbow Training, but no light-gun renaissance arose.
Light-gun games may be limited in their appeal, and they're among the few genres difficult to preserve on modern technology, as most recent TVs don't work right with old Zappers or Sega Stunners. Even so, the light gun is one of the few arcade standards that hasn't lost out to console equivalents. The arcade died off largely because home systems could easily outdo them in terms of action games, fighters, and other genres. But there's something unique about a light-gun game. It relies on big plastic firearms and rapid-fire enjoyment, and both are best experienced in arcades.
Rewarding experiments may elude the light-gun game. It's one of the few types of game that hasn't been crossbred and expanded to any great extent, and that's likely how things will stay. But there's a place for light-gun shooters in just about every arcade, movie theater, and any other place that needs a short, profitable toylike distraction for patrons. Being simple sometimes pays off.
NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES
NORN9: VAR COMMONS
Developer: Otomate / Idea Factory
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platform: PS Vita (and TV)
Release Date: November 3
Nanami Shiranui: No relation
Yes, Aksys Games is releasing two “otome” visual novels within two weeks of each other. Such games pop up on the PC frequently in North America, but it's heartening to see the Vita host two of them in such quick succession. And while Norn9: Var Commons doesn't have the crazed historical and literary borrowings of Code: Realize, it may have more to offer.
For one thing, Norn9 gives the player plenty of options when it comes to main characters. The ostensible protagonist is Sorata Suzuhara, a middle-school kid who stumbles from the modern era into what seems like the Japan of several centuries ago. Then he's warped into a strange spherical spaceship crewed by mysterious teenagers. This resembles the plot of one of those anime films funded by a weirdo cult, but it's an “otome” title engineered to deliver handsome male characters of all kinds. And if the player finds Sorata a dull lead, one of three heroines can step up: Koharu is a bashful and bookish pyrokinetic, Mikoto Kuga is a domineering rich girl who generates force fields, and Nanami Shiranui is a withdrawn ninja who can wipe other's memories.
Nine male crewmates join them on the ship, and the player's choice of headliner changes the storyline. Pick Koharu, and you'll start off close to the awkward Senri, the book-smart Masamune, and the somewhat manipulative Kakeru. Mikoto and Nanami get their own starting circles of attractive friends, much like a Pokemon game's initial selection. The story proceeds through the visual-novel standards of dialogue, descriptions, and still images, but Norn9 adds a feature that shows a character's rising affection levels. Those determine just who ends up with who at the end of things…and the extent to which that strange spaceship's mysteries are explained.
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: November 6
Behold the next Pokemon. At least that's what Nintendo hopes. Yo-Kai Watch is a runaway hit in Japan, and it follows the usual route with a cute game where players collect and raise little monsters, plus a cartoon and a toy line to back it. Nintendo even had an entire room at the New York Comic Con, where kids could dance with wobbling mascot Jibanyan. The cartoon even kicks off with its protagonist
Once the first creature is unleashed, the player learns that Yo-Kai lurk all around Sakura New Town—some harmless, and some not. The less desirable Yo-Kai sow conflict and malfeasance in humans, and they're viewable only with a special watch. By talking to the little beasts or pacifying them in battle, the player (controlling either Nate or Katie) builds an army of Yo-Kai to summon. Combat lets the player rotate six Yo-Kai in and out of three front-line positions. The Yo-Kai charge up their attacks and launch them when the player draws the right symbol on the lower DS screen. When not in battle, the player roams the local neighborhoods…and occasionally a nightmarish realm triggered by Terror Time, which sees the player chased by hostile Yo-Kai.
Of course, Yo-Kai Watch draws from legends of yokai, supernatural creatures from Japan's extensive folklore. Nintendo's localization is selective about just what it preserves: kappa are still kappa in the U.S. version and Jinbanyan retains his name, but the Orochi is renamed “Venoct.” Still, Nintendo hasn't sanitized the series as much as they did Pokemon, judging by the cartoon. The first episode revolves around a cat killed by cars, and the second hinges on the main character's embarrassingly pungent bathroom experience. That's how Pokemon hit it big, right?
Cave's new Steam rollout starts with Mushihime-sama, or Bug Princess. It's a decent shooter in the bullet-hell vein, which means waves and waves of pastel bullets for the player to dodge while finding ways to reach new point totals. It's not as neat as Cave's ESP series (or as goofy as the spin-off Bug Panic), but it's a darn good start, I say.
The Umihara Kawase series always played it low-key in letting a girl traverse puzzle-stages through the use of a fishing line, but it's growing more accessible over here. Sayonara Umihara Kawase+ is available on the Vita and Steam, and now Steam gets the original Super Famicom game on November 2, and the word is that we'll get Umihara Kawase Shun, its PlayStation sequel, by the end of the year.
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